Friday, March 25, 2011

Forgotten Books: Sinners and Shrouds by Jonathan Latimer

After writing five madcap Bill Crane novels in the late 30s, along with The Search for My Great Uncle’s Head (1937), Dark Memory (1940) and Solomon’s Vineyard/The Fifth Grave (1941), Jonathan Latimer devoted himself to screenwriting. Among others, he scripted such films as Topper Returns, The Glass Key, The Big Clock, Night Has a Thousand Eyes and Plunder of the Sun.

But sometime around 1955, he got the bug to write another mystery novel, and this is it. The humor in Sinners and Shrouds reminds me a lot of that in the Crane books, except that the protagonist, reporter Sam Clay, drinks a bit less.

The set-up is this: After going on a bender, Clay wakes up with a beautiful blonde corpse. He doesn’t recognize her, and recalls almost nothing of the previous night’s activities. When the blonde’s maid comes in and discovers the body, Clay brains her with a bottle. Various moments of this opening scene are depicted on the three covers shown here.

For much of this novel, I had a hard time deciding if Latimer was writing a mystery or a parody of a mystery. Sam Clay gets into trouble so deep, and is so likely to caught at any moment, that Latimer pulls rabbit after rabbit out his hat to keep Clay free and striving to clear himself.

Latimer himself tells us how unlikely it is that Clay escapes arrest:

A good part of it was completely inexplicable. The doorman, undoubtedly, had really failed to recognize him. Probably because the entrance to the Little Club was dimly lit. But what about Mrs. Bruce? No explanation. What about the hat? No explanation. Absolutely no way of accounting for either, short of divine intervention.

Two miracles and a bushel of blind luck. Luck with the fingerprints, the doorman, the elevator boy, and Jacques, the picnic-happy barman who’d sold the brandy bottle. And earlier, luck with the bracelet and the blood-stained scissors. Luck with Gwen and the hat-check girl. Ten straight passes at craps. Zero five times running at roulette. Seven races in a row at Washington Park. Once-in-a-blue-moon luck.

In the end, Clay does manage to unmask the real killer, and some of the inexplicable events are explained. But others are not, and we’re left with several instances of that once-in-a-blue-moon luck.

Mystery or parody? I’m still not sure. But it was a barrel of fun. Sadly, Latimer’s plan to “write at least one book a year in the foreseeable future” did not pan out. Though he lived until 1983, he wrote only one more novel, Black is the Fashion for Dying (aka The Mink-Lined Coffin), published in 1959.

I’m intrigued by the line on both the British and American dust jackets that says "he went on to write novels, short stories and films.” Short stories? I’d love to see some, but I’m not aware of a single one. Are you?

This week's round-up of Forgotten Books awaits you at Sweet Freedom.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I remember reading Solomon's Graveyard once upon a time. Not sure about this one though.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Vineyard, not Graveyard.

George said...

Jonathan Latimer is a terrific writer. I think Art Scott wrote the definitive essay on him.

Evan Lewis said...

Art has a way of doing such things.

Dan_Luft said...

I only ever read Solomon's Vineyard with it's famously naughty first line.

I used to own Black is the Fashion for Dying but things disappear when you move,

The IPL reprints made great use of clip art.

Anonymous said...

Nope, and this one looks a little too inexplicable and madcap for me, thanks, but I appreciate the review.