Bill Crane

Created by Jonathan Latimer
(1906-1983)

Jonathan Latimer‘s first book, 1935’s Headed For a Hearse, was one of the first hard-boiled screwball comedies, following closely on the heels of the previous year’s The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett. But where Hammett only toyed with the idea, contenting himself with cocktails and banter, Latimer went whole hog.

Like Hammett’s Nick and Nora, Latimer’s BILL CRANE was a decidedly hedonistic kinda guy, but whereas the Charleses always seemed to (mostly) keep their deductive wits about them, Crane was a booze-soaked and possibly inept detective who somehow managed, despite the ponderous and copious intake of a variety of intoxicating substances, to somehow crack the case; an approach that gazes forward to the work of such successors as Craig Rice, Fredric Brown, Norbert DavisRichard Prather and Carl Hiaasen, among others.

In Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett’s po-faced Continental Op takes a break from breaking the backs of two rival gangs by swilling a concoction of gin and laudanum, no doubt intended to demonstrate the resolution of the hard-bitten, tough-minded Op’s nature, but Crane drank for a much simpler reason: he enjoyed it.

Hoo-boy, did he enjoy it!

In the course of five highly recommended novels in the early thirties, Crane and his fellow ops from Colonel Black’s New York-based detective agency (handsome Tom O’Malley, and dapper, distinguished Doc Williams) gulp down just about anything they can get their hands on – including (accidentally) at one point embalming fluid – and spend most of their time either high as a kite or suffering from hangovers.

With The Thin Man, Hammett may have dipped his toe into the screwball pool, but Latimer jumped right in and splashed around to his heart’s content. The plots zig and zag merrily along, and there are enough screws loose in the various characters — and the plots — to stock a hardware store. Dead bodies disappear and reappear regularly, people have sex in the wrong place and the wrong time, glib wisecracks abound, and cars zip back and forth at ferocious speeds.

Latimer himself said, in a 1981 interview: “The Crane books were light-hearted, not to be taken too seriously. Booze, babes and bullets.”

But however dismissive the author may have been about his own work, it wasn’t all kiss kiss bang bang on a banana peel. Latimer could also pop out little oddball gems like this one from Headed for a Hearse: “It was not so windy outside, and a quiet fall of very dry snow had begun, as though someone was cutting up an ostrich boa with a pair of nail scissors.” And he gets big thumbs up for his earthy, frank tone — his characters were not only were enjoying life but living it.

In the thirties, Universal produced three film adaptations, all starring Preston Foster as Crane, as part of their “Crime Club” series. There were reportedly pretty good, for B films, but not good enough to really set the world on fire. Still, I wish they were available.

Latimer was also responsible for the dark, hard-boiled classic Solomon’s Vineyard, featuring private eye Karl Craven, and later turned to screenwriting (including The Big Clock and The Glass Key). In the sixties, he wrote for the Perry Mason TV show.

UNDER OATH

  • “… wacky, booze soaked romps with a tough hide and a core of solid detection.”
    — William L. DeAndrea
  • “(Latimer’s) writing is notable for its corrosive humour, off-the-wall perspective, bizarre settings and protagonists who solve classical crime puzzles through a woozy but instinctive grasp of the deductive process”
    — Woody Haut (Heartbreak and Vine)
  • “The distinctive mark of Jonathan Latimer is an irresponsible gaiety that marks out his work from the ordinary competent hard-boiled novel.”
    — Julian Symons
  • “… hedonistic bullshit!… one of the worst hardboiled (impossible crime) novels populated with shallow, immature characters, a paper-thin plot and sparse detective work by holidaying detectives. The Dead Don’t Care and neither should you.”
    — TomCat (August 2019, Beneath the Stains of Time) (he didn’t like it, but he may have missed the point)

NOVELS

FILMS

  • THE WESTLAND CASE
    (1937, Universal)
    Based on Headed for a Hearse by Jonathan Latimer
    Starring Preston Foster as BILL CRANE
  • THE LADY IN THE MORGUE
    (1938, Universal)
    Based on the novel by Jonathan Latimer
    Screenplay by Eric Taylor and Robertson White
    Directed by Otis Garrett
    Starring Preston Foster as BILL CRANE
    Also starring Bill Elliott, Patricia Ellis, Frank Jenks, Barbara Pepper
    “… this nifty little mystery is often cited as a model of 30s B-movie adeptness. It was directed by the unjustly forgotten Otis Garrett, a former editor who uses flash-pan edits and other visual tricks to maintain a breakneck pace — so fast that it’s pretty difficult to follow the complex plot. Although a bit too reliant on dialog scenes, there are enough effective wisecracks, bizarre demi-monde characters (shifty undertakers, dour taxi drivers, carefree taxi dancers) and risqué asides (apparently, the production code enforcers often neglected these low budgeters) to raise the quality well above the norm. One side benefit is an appearance by a young Barbara Pepper, sassy and sardonic as ever, but surprisingly lithe and seductive. Soon-to-be-famous Stanley Cortez provided the cinematography”
    goblinhairedguy (Montreal) (IMDB)
  • THE LAST WARNING
    (1938, Universal)
    Based on the The Dead Don’t Care by Jonathan Latimer
    Starring Preston Foster as BILL CRANE

RADIO

  • MYSTERY PLAYHOUSE
    (1944-46, AFN)
    Radio anthology series of classic and original dramas, hosted by Peter Lorre. Great plots with superb acting.

    • “Lady In The Morgue” (September 14, 1946)
      Based on the novel by Jonathan Latimer

ALSO OF INTEREST

  • Stewards of the House: The Detective Fiction of Jonathan Latimer | Buy this book
    By Bill Brubaker
    Popular Press, 1993
  • The Dead Don’t Care
    Review by TomCat (August 2019, Beneath the Stains of Time)
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Iris Wiederkehr, Latimer’s German publisher, for the heads up.

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