Friday, August 10, 2018

Forgotten Books: THE SEARCH FOR MY GREAT-UNCLE'S HEAD by Peter Coffin (Jonathan Latimer) (1937)

After sitting on this book for more than thirty years, thinking it was kind of cool to have an unread Jonathan Latimer on hand, I finally decided the time was right. And I have to admit, it wasn't worth the wait.

It's a mystery, of course. You can tell that by the Crime Club logo on the cover. But the real mystery is - why did Latimer write this thing?

As a mystery novel written by a nonentity like "Peter Coffin," it's okay. Far from "The Season's Most Startling and Diverting Mystery Story," as claimed on the cover and title page, but okay. But as a book written by Jonathan Latimer - a fact they took no great pains to disguise - it's a snoozer.

How do we know it's Latimer? Well, you can read the big fat clue on the inside flap of the dust jacket, which I've provided here. But the clincher is that halfway into the book, the protagonist gets a phone call from Colonel Black, the head of a large detective agency, announcing that Black will be joining the cast of the story. This same Colonel Black, as anyone who's read the Bill Crane series knows, is the head of the agency Crane works (between drinks) for.

I can't recall if the Colonel ever appears on stage in the Crane novels, or if he's just a presence in the background and a voice on the phone. But we meet him here, and he's the most insteresting thing about the book. More about him later.

"Peter Coffin," we learn on page 2, is the narrator and lead character of the novel. His uncle Tobias Coffin has just summoned him, and the rest of the clan, to his secluded manor house somewhere in the wilds of Michigan. After a creepy and atmospheric trudge through the forest, he arrives at the estate, where he finds a bunch of relatives he's never met pointing guns at him. It's all pretty much downhill from there.

Some of these relatives are mildly quirky, and others mildly unpleasant, but nothing rising to previous Latimer standards. Nothing much interesting happens except that his uncle's gets chopped off, and, as you know from the title, goes missing.

Peter Coffin is not a detective, and makes no effort to act like one. He's a California college professor specializing in the Restoration period of English history. He spends most of his time being bewildered and worrying about the others thinking him a coward. As the story progresses, that wondering focusses on a certain nice looking Miss Leslie, to whom he is apparently not related by blood. Yes, there's a sniff of romance in the air.

So what we have here is your basic Classic English-style Manor House mystery, with a bunch of not-especially-interesting people shut up with a murderer, wondering whodunnit and waiting for the next inevitable killing. The main thing that sets this one apart is the fact that the killer lops off heads with a meat cleaver rather than employing a rare poison. The minor thing that sets it apart is that there's no compelling reason all these people to stick around, except to offer their necks to the killer. 

So what possessed Latimer to write such a thing? The dust jacket calls it "utterly foreign to his usual work," and that's an understatement. There is no humor. No banter. No carousing. No drunkeness. No fun. I'm guessing he did it on a bet or a dare. Someone told him he couldn't write a Manor House mystery, and he proved them wrong. But so what? He merely proved that he could be ordinary.

Lopping off heads just wasn't enough. He should have gone the whole hog and done a proper send-up of the sub-genre, with his usual recipe of humor, banter, carousing, drunkeness and fun. He had a chance to hit a home run, and bunted instead.

As for Colonel Black, it was nice to see him fleshed out, but he was still only mildly engaging. As a Classic detective, he's an expert in every subject that comes up, including Elizabethan dramatists, fine brandy, flowers, bees and cows. The silliest thing he says is "I try to catch you in a lie, because one of the primary principles of detection is that no one ever lies but the criminal." Jeez, what fictional world is he living in? It can't be the same one inhabited by Bill Crane and Doc Williams.

Meanwhile, I'm curious to know what you think of this little Crime Club booger. After ignoring him for years, and thinking he just looked awkward and uncomfortable, I took a closer look and realized he spells CRIME. Awkwardly and uncomfortably. I know - big whoop. Did somebody think this was pretty cool beans back in the '30s? Maybe it was the editor who proclaimed The Search for My Great-Uncle's Head to be "The Season's Most Startling and Diverting Mystery Story."


Art Scott said...

I dug this out about a year ago, like you having set it aside, & decades after reading the Crane books, & Solomon's Vineyard (which I consider to be Latimer's masterpiece-see my review in 1001 Midnights). My reaction was about the same as yours; not top drawer, mildly interesting as a try at something different.

I never tumbled to the Crime Club logo gimmick, but I knew about it, and you would too, if you have a copy of Ellen Nehr's Doubleday Crime Club Compendium. The front board, and title page, show a "deconstruction" of the logo prepared by the publisher as part of their publicity (scan sent via email). The logo was designed by Joseph Sinel, an industrial designer.

Evan Lewis said...

Thanks Art. Interesting stuff. I've been meaning to re-read my limited edition copy of Solomon's Vineyard, and maybe compare it to The Fifth Grave. If I had a copy of 1001 Midnights, I would surely read your review too.

J F Norris said...

I think Latimer meant it to be a lampoon of traditional detective novel. I agree that Colonel Black is the most colorful character and his bizarre eccentricities like sitting on the floor of his bedroom in lotus position apparently meditating cuer do make me think nothing was supposed to be taken seriously. Later he is seen crawling on all fours at the scene of the crime and looking up at impossible angles. Poor man's humor, I know. I didn't think much of the book either, but I wrote a less scathing review of it on my blog back in 2011.

Evan Lewis said...

I saw your review, JF, and it was a good one. Wish this book had been that good.

Cap'n Bob said...

Sounds like a book Tough Jim needs to read.

Evan Lewis said...

It would be bland enough for him.