The case for Jonathan Latimer


IF, like me, you prefer your detective stories laced with a hefty shot of humour, may I recommend the works of Jonathan Latimer?

Born in Chicago in 1906, Latimer was a crime reporter, meeting gangsters including Bugs Moran and Al Capone, before moving on to crime fiction. Between 1935 and 1939 he wrote five novels featuring the private detective Bill Crane – Murder in the Madhouse, Headed for a Hearse, The Lady in the Morgue, The Dead Don’t Care and Red Gardenias. These all feature sparkling dialogue, great jokes and a huge amount of alcohol. Crane and his sidekicks lurch through their screwball adventures, always with an eye on where their next drink is coming from.

After serving with the US Navy during the war, Latimer went on to write for the movies and later television, working on scripts for the Perry Mason series. He found time, however, to write five further novels, Solomon’s Vineyard, Sinners and Shrouds, Black is the Fashion for Dying, The Search for My Great Uncle’s Head and Dark Memory. All are well worth looking out for in the charity shop, although Solomon’s Vineyard is not for the squeamish. Such is the violence portrayed that it was not until 1988, 47 years after publication, that an uncensored version was allowed in the US.  

According to the author Max Allan Collins, whom I can also recommend and whose historical crime novels feature real people such as Eliot Ness, ‘Jonathan Latimer is the best-kept secret in noir fiction. One of the great unrecognised masters.’

I will leave you with a scene from one of the Bill Crane novels – forgive me that I can’t specify which without going through them all. Crane and another chap take refuge from torrential rain and howling winds in the man’s car. Crane asks him if he has anything to drink and the man says apologetically that all he has is a bottle of cheap port. ‘Oh well,’ says Crane, taking a hefty swig. ‘Any port in a storm.’

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