Friday, September 21, 2012

Forgotten Books: The Lady in the Morgue by Jonathan Latimer

Jeez, it's been a long time since I read this one, and it made me wish I'd done it sooner. Latimer's Bill Crane mysteries are the sort of books that should be reread - and savored - every few years.

Part of what makes The Lady in the Morgue (1936) so great is the three-way repartee between Crane as his two detective pals, Williams and O'Malley. Doc Williams appeared only briefly in the first book, Murder in the Madhouse, and had a larger role in number 2, Headed for a Hearse. I think O'Malley makes his first appearance here. Together, they're sort of a cross between the Three Musketeers and the Three Stooges, and if there's another trio like them anywhere in crime fiction, I'd like to know about it.

The story starts, as you might expect, with a lady in the morgue. When her body is stolen, everyone either blames Crane or insists that he find her - and, in the process, find out who she was. Caught between two rival mobsters, a society family, and their demanding boss Colonel Black, Crane and friends drink up half the liquor in Chicago and engage in plenty of good-natured lechery on their quest to solve the mystery.

I'm impressed with every line of Latimer's prose, but I was particularly fond of this single long paragraph in the middle of a party scene:

     Somebody had turned up the radio until the music sounded as though it were being played by the United States Marine Band. A girl was dancing on the terrace in an orange-colored chemise. Somebody was smashing crockery in the kitchen. Two men were being dissuaded with difficulty from fighting. A baby-faced blonde borrowed a dollar from Crane for cab fare home. A couple were necking on one of the davenports. Three men were bitterly arguing politics on the other. A man in shirt sleeves asked O'Malley if he was having a good time. O'Malley asked him what the hell business it was of his. The man said he was sorry. He said he wouldn't have asked except that he was giving the party and wanted everybody to have a good time. O'Malley accepted his apology. A baby-faced blonde borrowed a dollar for cab fare home from Williams. Somebody fell over a chair on the terrace. Two girls were wading in the fountain. A gold watch flipped from the pocket of a man trying to Charleston on the terrace, shattered itself on the polished tile. Williams asked the girl in the nightgown which wasn't a nightgown for her telephone number and she tossed him a handkerchief, and what do you think? The number, Superior 7500, in green thread in one corner, so all you had to do was to keep the handkerchief. A baby-faced blonde borrowed a dollar for cab fare home from O'Malley. The redhead, Dolly, passed out and had to be put to bed. 

Now that's a party!

Preston Foster starred in a movie version in 1938 - a movie I still hope to see someday. Don't know how good it is, but the ad copy sounds pretty close to the mark:


More Forgotten Books at pattinase!




10 comments:

Rittster said...

Here's a two-minute clip from YouTube:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=PlHdv_79hdI

How bizarre and out-of-place it seems for Universal to have used bits of Franz Waxman's "Bride of Frankenstein" soundtrack as background for the opening credits!

Foster was also good playing a wise-cracking detective in the movie, "Muss 'Em Up", another fast-paced 30s mystery definitely worth seeing.

Walker Martin said...

I've read the 5 Bill Crane novels 3 or 4 times over the years and highly recommend them. Great hardboiled humorous novels with crazy bizarre plots and characters.

George said...

Jonathan Latimer is one of the great writers who seem to be nearly completely forgotten. Hopefully, some enterprising small press will reprint his wonderful books. Or ebooks will save Latimer from obscurity!

Richard R. said...

I'm with George on someone reprinting these. I'd snap them up in a moment. Great review, Evan.

Lexman said...

Thanks for drawing your attention to this author, i had heard of him already but haven't rea anytging at all. Just ordered some via the net...

Lexman said...

I just found this one
http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=1854
http://www.mysteryfile.com/Latimer/Latimer.html
and i did find a copy of the 1938 film...

Evan Lewis said...

Looks like used paperbacks of all five Crane books (the others are The Dead Don't Care and Red Gardenias)are affordable via ABE, but it would be nice to see new uniform editions. As for you, Mr. R, you know where you can borrow them.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Really enjoyed your review Evan as I love Latimer and the Bill Crane books (but isn't MADHOUSE the first of the series?) - this may be the best of the bunch probably. I wish all three films would come out in official edition too!

Evan Lewis said...

Oops. You're right, Sergio. Murder in the Madhouse and Headed for a Hearse were both published in 1935, but I checked my first of Hearse, and it mentions Madhouse as an earlier book. I'll correct the post!

Doug Levin said...

This is my favorite of the Bill Crane novels. Is this the one with the blithely casual torture of a man with a metal bar citrus press?