Headed for a Hearse (1935) by Jonathan Latimer

Having joined the blogging sphere 7 years ago it has been great to connect with fellow reviewers who enjoy classic crime fiction. It’s nice how we all have our niche interests within the genre as well. Female sleuths and comic crime, for example, are certainly two themes which crop up on my blog a lot. However, one subgenre which does not appear on my blog with any great frequency is hardboiled detective fiction. It’s just not my cup of tea.

So when I was sent this book to review, I must admit I was a little bit anxious about whether I would enjoy it. Nevertheless, I was intrigued that the novel contains a locked room mystery and I also thought this might be a rare occasion wherein I will have reviewed a locked room mystery that Jim at the blog The Invisible Event has yet to read.

Synopsis

‘Robert Westland’s date with the executioner is just around the corner when he finally decides to fight the murder rap sending him to the electric chair. Framed for his wife’s grisly demise, Westland is in a bind, and his last hope is Bill Crane, a booze-soaked detective who’s as ruthless with a quip as he is when trawling the streets for Chicago’s most brutal criminal element. Crane’s got just six days to suss out the real killer–he sets his sights on a cast of oddball characters, aided by a lime squeezer, a quart of whiskey, a monkey wrench, a taxicab, a stopwatch, and a deep sea diver… but in 1930s Chicago, everyone’s got a secret, and the pressure is on for Crane to separate the dangerous from the truly homicidal before it’s too late. Chicago crime beat journalist-turned-novelist Jonathan Latimer blends hardboiled detective fiction with a shot of screwball comedy in the fast-moving, realistic 1935 baffler Headed for a Hearse, an exciting combination of the macabre and the humorous.’

Overall Thoughts

Max Allan Collins writes the introduction to the American Mystery Classics reprint of this title, and he begins by sharing his entry point into reading hardboiled fiction. He also expresses a feeling that this subgenre is ‘in dispute’. This surprised me as normally it is Golden Age Detective fiction which is deemed inferior to hardboiled fiction. In addition, Collins offers an interesting claim that Latimer’s Bill Crane novels:

‘are probably the most successful melding of the hardboiled novel and the classic drawing-room mystery. Latimer’s only rivals in writing the hardboiled drawing-room mystery are the much-celebrated Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner.’

The term ‘hardboiled drawing-room mystery’ intrigued me and I am interested to know what others make of it. My experience of Gardner’s work has predominantly been of his Perry Mason mysteries, which I have to say didn’t strike me as particularly ‘melding’ in ‘classic drawing room mystery’ elements. It has been a long time since I have read anything by Rex Stout, so my memories are somewhat dimmer, but I can see more of a ‘melding’ of styles in his work.

I found Collins’ introduction very useful in outlining how Latimer’s book goes about blending crime fiction styles, such as in the way Bill Crane goes about solving case: ‘some frantic and hardnosed detecting – one part inspired drawing-room methodology (wait till you see how Crane locates a missing gun!), one part methodical gumshoeing (Crane tracking down the seller of another gun).’ Furthermore, I was highly intrigued when Collins mentions that ‘for much of the way, Latimer has the suspects all serve as detectives,’; a device Collins argues works well due to the story’s ‘“ticking clock” […] structure.’

Collins concludes his introduction by discussing the issue of racism in the novel. He begins by mentioning that:

‘Latimer’s characters, as befits the times, often reveal racist attitudes at an alarming rate, by modern standard anyway. I think it’s clear when Latimer’s union thug makes such remarks, that the author is reporting social attitudes, not approving of them.’

This seemed like a reasonable suggestion as there is fallibility in automatically assuming a writer holds the same attitudes as their characters.

Collins goes on cite racism in the narrative voice, yet the following comments gave me pause for thought:

‘Those who find this offensive, and that should be most of us, must cut Latimer some slack, here. The use of rough slang, even in narration, is obviously Latimer working at maintaining a hardboiled edge. It is style, not racism. In retrospect, it might be an unfortunate artistic choice. But that is all it is.’

Writers using politically incorrect language as that was the language of the society they were living in, has mileage as an argument, but I am not convinced that hardboiled fiction gets a greater right than other subgenres to use such language, which is what I felt this passage was saying in its final sentences. But maybe I have misunderstood or read this incorrectly.

Moving on to the mystery itself, the tale opens with a scene set on death row; stark and grim and including a variety of inmate responses to the approaching deadline of their execution. This is a setting that I have not encountered much within my reading, and I found it gave a different feeling to say the death row type scenes we get in Anthony Berkeley’s Trial and Error (1937). In that story such a setting is given a sense of nobility. Perhaps we get a grimmer tone in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon (1937), although I would say our perspective on a prisoner facing execution is that of Lord Peter Wimsey’s. Latimer’s book puts the experience back into the hands of the people facing the death sentence and I felt his opening shows us the collective component of it. It was also interesting to learn about the daily routine of living on death row and its impact on the inmates. For example, ‘in jail they make you get up early. It was absurd. Time would pass much faster if they would let you sleep until noon, but instead they ring an electric bell at 6 A. M.’ With Berkeley and Sayers’ also the impending death sentence features near the end of the mystery, whilst with Latimer it is his opening gambit and is what propels the rest of the plot. This is similar to Philip Macdonald’s The Noose (1930), although again this is centred much more on the sleuth Colonel Gethryn.  

However, this starker opening from Latimer does not impede the arrival of elements more commonly associated with ‘the classic drawing-room mystery’. I love the explanation a character gives for why the boss of a private detective agency is not able to take on the case and Bill Crane is being tasked with it instead: ‘Colonel Black, who heads the agency these men work for, is searching for a missing Shakespeare folio in England and can’t help us.’ The name sounds wonderfully Cluedo-like, and it is the type of line you would expect to read in a ’drawing-room mystery’. Latimer’s choice of setting certainly makes it stand out more. Certain suspects in the book also feel less in keeping with a hardboiled mystery, such as Lawrence Wharton, who lives for hunting and shooting. He does not contribute much to the investigation, but I found the way he expressed his belief in his cousin’s innocence hilarious: ‘A man who sits a horse the way he does, sir, doesn’t kill his wife.’

Although Bill Crane is the professional sleuth who uncovers the solution to the murder, the investigation kicks off with all the suspects operating as amateur detectives. This feature felt like a very Golden Age Detective aspect, as the way Latimer deploys this trope put me in mind of a group of scouts being sent out on a treasure hunt, following up various pieces of damning circumstantial evidence. I would say the group have more enthusiasm than competency, as near the start of the case four of them end up watching their key witness get shot to death in the same restaurant as them.

Given the time pressure I was surprised by how remarkably upbeat everyone is and the attention given to eating. No time is stinted when it comes to meals and time is even made for everyday shopping purchases and clandestine dalliances with random women, though this latter item is utilised more to comically show up Robert Westland’s legal representative.

For most of the book little to no progress is made on the case and I began to have grave concerns for Robert Westland’s survival. Nevertheless, I enjoyed observing the characters follow up their leads. What I enjoyed less was how Bill Crane suddenly figures it all out near the end of the book and then goes dashing around for proof. I felt this undermined the puzzle aspect of the story and I would have liked to have seen information/evidence better spaced out throughout the text. The solution to the locked room element is nothing remarkable, but perfectly sound. In terms of whodunnit I was fishing in the right waters from very early on, but I was not spot on. Furthermore, the solution has many other interesting features that I had not anticipated and one plot event which had mildly irked me, amusingly turned out to be an important clue which had not properly registered.

So whilst this was not a perfect mystery, I am still glad I read it, as I was surprised by how much I did enjoy it. The ‘melding’ of crime fiction writing styles worked well for me overall. I don’t think I will be rushing out to buy any Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett soon, but I can definitely see me giving Jonathan Latimer another go in the future.

Rating: 4/5

Source: Review Copy (American Mystery Classics)

15 comments

  1. I am glad to hear that I am not the only one who has anxiety about whether I will enjoy a book. Sometimes I think I am the only one with prereading anxiety.

    This author is more familiar to me because of the screenplays he wrote, although I did know he also wrote crime fiction novels. We have been watching a lot of old Perry Mason TV episodes and I have noticed that he is the screenwriter for some of the episodes. He also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing. And quite a few other films.

    I will have to get a copy of this and see what I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve never read any of the Bill Crane books, but three of them were made into films in the late 1930’s including Headed for a Hearse, which was filmed as THE WESTLAND CASE:

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, I’m delighted to be inspiring people, however it comes about 🙂

    I’ve read a few of Latimer’s books — The Search for My Great-Uncle’s Head, The Dead Don’t Care, another one whose title eludes me — and didn’t really like any of them, so I’m happy you got something positive out of the experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well when someone is as well read as you are when it comes to locked room mysteries, it is kinda cool to find one you haven’t read. Not a feat which happens very often. What didn’t work for you with the other Latimer books you have read?

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      • Mainly they were dull and terrible — sorry, I don’t remember much beyond that 🙂 He strikes me as someone who was very inconsistent, and that means he likely wrote one blistering book somewhere in his time…but I’m not moved to trawl through his oeuvre to find it. Too many other authors doing too much that’s more interesting to get to first.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s interesting. I thought liking things like the Cool and Lam books they might be more up your street. But if you know an author doesn’t work for you then that is useful to know, as you say too many books to read and too little time. I imagine your response to Latimer is probably similar to the one I have with Crofts lol

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  4. You’re a lot kinder to Headed for a Hearse than I was. The death row scenes stand out and remember liking Crane’s false-solution to the locked room, but in any other way it’s an unremarkable mystery novel. The Dead Don’t Care is even worse without anything to redeem it or punch it up a little (like those death row scenes). On the other hand, I thought Murder in the Madhouse was really good and had a fun angle to introduce Crane to the reader. Like a hardboiled version of Patrick Quentin’s Puzzle for Fools.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well its good to know that Murder in the Madhouse is worth looking out for.
      I wonder if I found the book more interesting or ‘remarkable’ because it is very different to what I usually read. I imagine if I read a lot of country house mysteries, for argument’s sake, back to back that certain books might seem less remarkable, than if I had read them with different writing styled books in between.

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  5. I’ll probably have to make private apologies to JJ as I really like Latimer’s books. His output wasn’t huge (10 novels in total I think, including a non mystery) but I find the comparison by Collins to Rex Stout fairly apt. The fifth and final Crane book, Red Gardenias, is more in the Thin Man mould while Solomon’s Vineyard from 1941 about a PI (not Crane) looking into a religious cult was considered pretty risque in its day and censored in the USA. Incidentally, he came out of retirement to write an episode of COLUMBO in the early 1970s.

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