Friday, January 28, 2011

Forgotten Books: Dark Memory by Jonathan Latimer

I’ve had three copies of this book for at least 25 years, but was never quite in the mood to read it. Until now. Much as I like Jonathan Latimer, it was hard to get up enthusiasm to read a novel about an African safari. Especially a book about an African safari that did not have Tarzan in it.

Dark Memory is a slow starter. Unlike Latimer's mysteries, where our hero might wake up to find a strange - and dead - lady in his bed, this opens with two guys putzing through the jungle in a truck, trying to see where they’re going through the dense leaves and fog. It took some concentration to stay with it long enough for a story to emerge.

When that story finally comes out of hiding, it is largely about courage. Some have it and some don’t, and they may never know one way or the other until they’re out in the wilds where it really matters. My guess is that this was Latimer indulging himself, taking a break from his mysteries to play Hemingway.

The cast includes a grumpy Clark Gable-type bullying the expedition along, a kindly but sickly professor in search of gorillas for scientific research, a stalwart British hunter-guide and a rich, young and beautiful American woman in search of the lost husband she never loved.

It’s a good tale, full of conflict and barely-contained emotion. Latimer’s lush descriptions of the dark continent make me suspect he may have seen it himself. I don’t know. But I got the feeling he put a lot more of himself into this book than into any of his mysteries.

Hero Jay (read “J” for Jonathan) Nichols is  - like Latimer - a reporter from Chicago, and has had brushes with the mob. Halfway through, we learn he has also written a book, and there are a couple of nice passages where Latimer, as Jay, makes fun of the writing game.

When the group visits civilization to resupply, they stop at a hotel and meet a hunting party comprised of spoiled British folk. One of them recognizes Jay’s name. These snippets of conversation were mixed in with non-related topics:

     “You’re not the writer?” Edna asked.
     “I wrote a book once,” Jay admitted.
     “Not Hello Satan!?”
     “I don’t believe it! That was a good book. So funny. Daphne, did you read it?”
     “Is that the one about the war in the States?”
     “No. That’s Gone With the Wind, dear.”
     “Then I didn’t read it.” Daphne turned to Jay, bright-eyed and intense. “I didn’t read the Wind one, either.”

     “Daphne doesn’t read American writers,” Edna said. “She likes Evelyn Waugh.”
     “I like her too,” Jay said.
     “He isn’t a her.”
     “Well, I like him, then.”
     “I don’t believe the chap’s a writer at all,” Daphne said.

     “Say something witty, Jay,” Edna commanded. “Show ‘em.”
     “Noel Coward,” Jay said.
     “There,” Edna cried proudly.
     “What do you think of James Hilton,” Daphne asked.
     “I never heard of him.”
     “Never heard of James Hilton?”
     “Edna, this chap’s never heard of James Hilton.”
     “Well, my God!” Edna said.

     Daphne asked, “What do you think of Shaw?”
     “One of America’s greatest racing drivers.”
     “Well, my God!” Edna said again.
     “The chap can’t be a writer,” Daphne cried.
     “Wait a minute,” Edna said. “Wait a minute. What about Gone With the Wind, Jay?”
     “It’s a splendid book.”
     “There,” Edna said triumphantly.
     “It weighed three pounds,” Jay said. “I guess it weighed more than any first novel ever did. Three pounds.”
     “The chap isn’t a writer.”
     “Sure I am,” Jay said. “Ask me something else.”
     “Well, who is your favorite writer?”
     “That’s easy. I am.”
     “He’s a writer,” Edna said.

Later, lost in the jungle with a fever, Jay wonders if he’s dying. In books, he reflects, the dying person always knew.

     People always died in the right place in books. That was another funny thing. They died so the book could end, or so it could begin, or so the heroine could marry the man she really loved. They knew they were dying and they lived just long enough to make the right speeches and then they died in just the right place. Death was a good way to give a book importance, he thought. Death gives a book importance and sleeping gives it romance and having children gives it reality. And if someone in it believes everyone ought to have enough food and says so and is electrocuted, then that gives it social importance. He would write a book with death and sleeping and children in it sometime, but he would give it social importance by having everyone catch syphilis from toilet seats. He would if he didn’t die.

Still, later, when Jay is even worse off, he’s thinking of things that made him happy as a boy. One of those things was Tom Swift books. Cool. I like the idea of Latimer reading Tom Swift books as a boy, just like me.

So. Bottom line, Dark Memory turned out to be a very good read. It’s a far cry from the drunken escapades of private detective Bill Crane, but it packs more weight, and shows that Latimer was an even better writer than I thought. Even without Tarzan.

The list of this week's Forgotten Books links can be found over at Kerrie Smith's blog, Mysteries in Paradise.


Doug Levin said...

I think I have this one somewhere but haven't read it. It didn't look like it was going to be as nutty as the Bill Crane books.

Richard R. said...

yes, rumor has it the FFB links can be found there... be that rumor would be wrong. This one sounds like a book you don't need 3 copies of, and probably no one else does either, or even one copy, in spite of your upbeat ending to that review. I am not convinced. Maybe if there had been a lost race, a fabulous treasure, even a German U-Boat and an English-speaking alien or two...

Evan Lewis said...

No lie, we Latimer collectors do need multiple editions of all his books. In this case I have the first from Doubleday, the cheap hardcover from Sun Dial and the Perma Books paperback. It shocks me that back when I could afford such stuff, I did not also insist on acquiring the British first from Menthuen and the Century Digest version (even though it was probably abridged).

J F Norris said...

No Tarzan, but what about the gorillas? I thought it was about gorilla hunting. Huh.

I had three copies of this book over the years and remember selling all of them to some Latimer fans who were completist collectors like you. Did you buy one from me, maybe?

Never read it, but I like the banter about British writers that seems like it comes out of a Crane mystery.

Evan Lewis said...

Could be I have one of yours, John.

I liked that banter too. It was one of the few bits of humor in the book.

Kerrie said...

Hello Dave. This week's Friday's Forgotten Books is now up on MYSTERIES in PARADISE. Thanks for participating.

George said...

Art Scott is my "go-to guy" on all things related to Jonathan Latimer. I've liked everything I've read of Latimer. I need to read more.

Ed Gorman said...

GREAT post, Evan. Thank you very much.

Angela M. Sanders said...

Thanks to you, I'm already deep into Latimer's "Black is the Fashion for Dying," featuring a hero who's writing a screenplay about an African safari! I wonder how closely the play-within-a-book parallels "Dark Memory"?

Great review.