"Jonathan Latimer is the best kept secret in noir fiction. One of the great unrecognized masters."
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Jonathan Latimer was educated in Arizona and Illinois. He worked as a reporter at the Chicago Herald Examiner for a few years before he started writing fiction. His first book, 1935's Headed For a Hearse, was one of the first hardboiled screwball comedies, following closely on the heels of the previous year's The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett. Like Hammett's Nick and Nora, Latimer's Bill Crane was a booze-soaked, seemingly-inept detective who somehow always managed, despite always being either drunk or hung over, to crack the case, despite the ponderous and copious intake of a variety of intoxicating substances.
Crane appeared in five novels in all. Latimer published at least one more classic, 1941's Solomon's Vineyard, a true hardboiled classic, and pretty hot stuff, evidently, at least in the eyes of the protectors of American decency. Gone are the goofy, good-natured gin-swilling dicks of the Bill Crane series. Instead we have private eye Karl Craven in a tale of "murder, violence, perverse sexuality and twisted religion in a corrupt Midwestern town (that) echoes Hammett...and anticipates the work of both Ross Macdonald and Mickey Spillane," according to William DeAndrea, in his introduction to the first uncensored American edition of the book (in 1988! More than forty years after it had been published in Britain!)
But controvery had always dogged Latimer, and he was often accused of racism, misanthropy and the like. The reason is simple -- he may have come out of the same hard-boiled screwball scene that also included such writers as Norbert Davis, Geoffrey Homes, Cleve Adams, Robert Reeves, Dwight Babcock, Frank Gruber and Robert Leslie Bellem, but Latimer wrote books -- he didn't have to deal with the restrictions placed on periodicals by the United States Postal Service. Thus, he could go further farther than most. And yet it rarely felt gratuitous, but rough and honest. His readers were supposed to be shocked -- and amused. As David L. Vineyard pointed out in an eccellent comment on The Mystery File, "... once upon a time there were writers who dared to dare us -- to shock, titillate, and even challenge us -- and Latimer was one of the best, and did within the framework of some first class detective work too... (like) Chandler, (Latimer) would use a rough rather black and grim humor to color his stories and novels. Both writers wanted the reader to notice "the tarantula on the angel food cake." It's a very American tradition that goes back to Washington Irving and Poe and is notable in Mark Twain. In some ways it is the American literary voice."
By the late thirties, Latimer had begun working as a screenwriter, a profession he continued for several decades. He worked on a lot of B-films, like the Charlie Chan and Lone Wolf series, as well as such classics such as The Glass Key and The Big Clock, and at least one lost treasure, 1953's Plunder of the Sun, based on the P.I. novel of the same name by David Dodge. In the sixties he moved on to television, and became a major contributor to the Perry Mason series.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
| Home | Detectives A-L M-Z | Film | Radio | Television | Web Comics | Comics | FAQs |
Drop a dime. Your comments, suggestions, corrections and contributions are always welcome.