Friday, January 23, 2015

Forgotten Books: HEADED FOR A HEARSE by Jonathan Latimer (1935)

My only excuse for calling this mystery classic "forgotten" is that I forgot it myself.

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.

Not surprisingly, I found this to be an outstanding mystery novel. In terms of plot, and pacing, and suspense, and good old fashioned crimesolving, I'd rate it superior to the two books that followed. The difference is that taking the Bill Crane series as a whole (including the final two novels, The Dead Don't Care and Red Gardenias), Headed for a Hearse is sort of an odd duck.

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.


Anonymous said...

Nice feature on one of my favorites. As a sidebar or footnote to your survey of the Crane series, you should read The Search for My Great-Uncle's Head. Colonel Black, Crane's agency boss, turns up as the sleuth in this 1937 one-shot by Latimer, writing as "Peter Coffin". This one's belongs to the murder-in-an-isolated-country-house genre.
Art Scott

Evan Lewis said...

I have that book and can't remember if I've read it. Guess it's time, eh?

P.S. Left Coast Crime wants YOU.

Richard said...

The only one of his I've read is THE MAN IN MY GRAVE which I liked and reviewed a year or two back. This sounds pretty oddball.

George said...

I've liked all of Jonathan Latimer's books. Something is always off-kilter in a Latimer novel.

Evan Lewis said...

The Man in my Grave?
Don't know that one.

Here are the Latimer titles in the Lewis library:
Headed for a Hearse (aka The Westland Case)
The Lady in the Morgue
Murder in the Madhouse
The Dead Don't Care
Red Gardenias (aka Some Dames are Deadly)
The Search for my Great-Uncle's Head
Dark Memory
The Fifth Grave (aka Solomon's Vineyard)
Sinners and Shrouds (aka The Mink-Lined Coffin)
Black is the Fashion for Dying

Anonymous said...

Richard's having a senior moment. The Man In My Grave is by Wilson Tucker, who was thus credited in the Broken Bullhorn review.

Anonymous said...

Hey Evan, I hope you have the unexpurgated Solomon's Vineyard instead of the clipped version called The Fifth Grave.
It's like the difference between Jack & Coke, and Coke.

John Hocking

Richard said...

Oops, A.S is right. The one I read is LADY IN THE MORGUE. Man, I need a nap.

Evan Lewis said...

You're right, John. Yeah, I got that purple-bound limited hardcover of S.V. when it came out back in '82. It even has Latimer's autograph in it.