When I decided to re-read and review the Bill Crane series a couple of years ago, I started with The Lady in the Morgue (HERE) and moved on to Murder in the Madhouse (HERE), somehow oblivious to the fact that the first in the series was Headed for a Hearse. That was pretty dumb. So why'd it happen? On re-reading this one recently I was looking for a reason, and I found one. Sort of.
While the four novels to follow are clearly centered around Crane and his hard-drinking detective pals, this one begins as a locked room mystery in which the protagonist initially appears to be convicted murdered Robert Westland. Crane makes his first appearance on page 42, amid a roomful of other colorful characters, and it takes awhile for him to assume the leading role. And even after he does, point of view continues to shift back to Westland and his last-minute attempt to escape electrocution.
I have no way of knowing what was in Latimer's mind as he wrote this, but it almost seems that Crane stepped out of the shadows and became a series character by accident. While the rest of the cast (excluding Crane's fellow-detective Doc Williams) are the sort of serious-minded folk inhabiting other mysteries of the time, Crane emerges as the cockeyed outsider who cares as much about having fun (i.e. getting drunk and chasing women) as he does about solving the case.
The plot itself is a ticking clock. Westland has only six days to live when he decides to challenge the verdict, and finding evidence to clear him becomes a group effort. Crane does his share of the detecting, but so do others. It's just that he has a lot more fun doing it.
The novel seems made-to-order as a film story, so it's no surprise it was filmed two years later as The Westland Case. We'll talk a little about that next Tuesday in Overlooked Films.