Friday, January 02, 2009

Forgotten Books: Solomon's Vineyard - Jonathan Latimer

I’ve read several of the Bill Crane novels by Jonathan Latimer, a short but very well-written series from the Thirties about a wise-cracking, hard-drinking private eye. Good stuff. I thoroughly enjoyed them. But over the years, SOLOMON’S VINEYARD has become probably his best-known novel, because of the controversy surrounding it. Written in 1940 and published in England in 1941, it was available in the U.S. only in a censored version retitled THE FIFTH GRAVE (which Latimer himself has said is the better title). The original version was finally published in the United States in the Eighties, in at least two different editions, both of which are long out of print. You can find the text on-line and in a POD version from several years ago. Both have a considerable amount of OCR errors, but luckily that sort of thing doesn’t bother me much, as long as I can tell what the text is supposed to say.

Anyway, SOLOMON’S VINEYARD is a private eye novel, too, but instead of Bill Crane, the protagonist/narrator is a PI who calls himself Karl Craven, although he makes it pretty clear that’s not his real name. The reader never learns what that is. He arrives in Paulton, a small, Midwestern city, looking for his partner, who is there on a case involving a young woman who’s gotten mixed up in a bizarre religious cult. Her uncle has paid the two private detectives to get her away from the cult. But when “Craven” gets to Paulton, he finds that his partner has been murdered. He sets out to finish the case, rescue the girl, and find his partner’s killer. Of course, it gets pretty complicated along the way, what with a corrupt police chief, a suspicious lawyer, a couple of beautiful women, a vicious gangster, and a fortune in jewels and cash all being involved in a complex plot.

“Craven” is a pretty hardboiled character, setting his enemies against each other in ways that wreak bloody havoc, sometimes on innocents. A lot of this book seems influenced by Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories and novels, most notably RED HARVEST and THE DAIN CURSE. We never find out the Op’s real name, either, and like the Op, “Craven” describes himself as fat on several occasions. But there are also echoes of Robert Leslie Bellem’s Dan Turner in the narrator’s snapper patter and colorful language, and the plot eventually goes far enough over the top to be reminiscent of some of Turner’s wackier capers. Understand, to me this is a very good thing, as I love Bellem’s work, and this blend of Bellem and Hammett works spectacularly well for me. (I have no idea whether Latimer was actually influenced by those two authors, of course. But that’s the way SOLOMON’S VINEYARD reads to me.)

As for the controversy surrounding the book, well, the plot gets a little kinky for 1940. So does the abundance of fairly graphic sex talk, which begins with the book’s opening line. It’s not shocking by today’s standards, but I can see why it would have been back then.

All in all, I’d say that SOLOMON’S VINEYARD is worthy of its reputation. It’s one of the best books I read in 2008, and if you’re a fan of hardboiled private eye novels, it’s well worth your time and effort to seek it out.

7 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, James. Looks great based on the cover alone.

David Cranmer said...

I was totally unaware of this novel. Thanks.

Frank Loose said...

It's funny, just yesterday i was discussing (via email) Solomon's Vineyard. It is one of my faves and in my personal Top Ten Crime books. Quite a hard-boiled story. The "heat" between Craven and the Princess is worth the price of admission, with fine dialogue and action a bonus. If someone reading Mr. Reasoner's post decides to seek out a copy of this book, don't settle for the edited version. The Blackmask.com version is revised. Resurrectionary Press has published the original text. But, as Mr Reasoner stated, it is chock full of printing errors. For more on Jonathan Latimer, check out the fine article by John Fraser: www.mysteryfile.com/Latimer/Latimer.html
--- Frank Loose

James Reasoner said...

David,

Anything by Latimer is worth picking up and reading. He also wrote many scripts for the Perry Mason TV shows.

Bruce said...

I actually championed this book about a year or two ago when The Rap Sheet asked for books that deserved better exposure. My copy was from one of those grey market pod publishers out there with countless spelling errors.

Graham Powell said...

I'm not as high on this book as some of the other commentators, though I did enjoy it. The plot went so far over the top I couldn't help wondering if Latimer was having some fun at the reader's expense.

Juri said...

I've read only the Finnish translation which was made from the abridged edition (and probably abridged a little more), but I remember liking it, even though it was 20 years ago. (Am I that old..?) I remember best the lady who can't enjoy sex unless Craven beats him up a little.