Jonathan Latimer’s detective fiction falls into two groups: the 1930’s William Crane novels and the post-World War II novels. The earlier group reflects the author’s unique merging of puzzle-mystery and hard-boiled conventions to develop stories of wide appeal. The later, and unfortunately smaller, group shows Latimer seeking to build a richness of characterization and complexity of technique into the formulaic detective mystery. Functioning well as rational analysts, the protagonists of these books also tend toward introspection and a sensitive awareness of the complex interrelations of lives as they are touched by criminal behavior.
In the William Crane series, Latimer used a recurring fictional situation. The two detectives, William Crane and Doc Williams, are employed by the Black Detective Agency of New York City and are given assignments by its director, Colonel Black. Only the very wealthy, particularly those possessing old money, seem to apply to the Colonel, who is of the same class as his clients. (He wears English tweeds, drinks aged brandy, and has a dilettante’s interest in Elizabethan literature.) While Crane and Williams carry out assignments in Chicago, Miami, or a New England sanatorium, the Colonel remains in New York City to serve as a guide and a resource through telephone calls and telegrams. Black is present for an investigation only in The Search for My Great Uncle’s Head (1937), a novel that is not part of the Crane series.
Commonly, reviews of the William Crane novels emphasize their debt to the hard-boiled school of detective fiction. (One review of The Lady in the Morgue offered an alliterative catalog of the work’s characteristics: “Rough, rowdy, riotous, rum-soaked, irreverent.”) Yet the novels also have a firm basis in puzzle-mystery convention: the superrational detective and his confidant of lesser mental acuity, the locked-room murder, the searching out of all the clues, and the formal denouement in which the detective offers the analysis his brain has hatched to an assembly of the surviving innocent and guilty. In his special adaptation of these elements, Latimer conceives of an American setting (the seething city of the 1930’s, with polarized ethnic and economic classes) coming into contact with an efficiently managed organization (the Black Detective Agency).
Crimes in these novels have clear references to the dynamics of class, wealth, and power in the United States. Common threads run through the series. A generation of strong men have accumulated great wealth through intelligence, work, and will. Their second-and third-generation descendants, grown decadent and wasteful, conspire to inherit through murder or apparent murder (The Dead Don’t Care, 1938). Alternatively, the virtuous wealthy are preyed on by failed associates (Headed for a Hearse, 1935) or by classless professionals of great intelligence who desire the power that wealth confers (Murder in the Madhouse, 1935, and Red Gardenias, 1939). Often, Latimer’s murderers forge a significant alliance with elements of urban organized crime—represented by ethnic Jews, Italians, and Irish who are willing to kill the original fathers to establish their class and power through the possession of wealth.
The series detective William Crane fits nicely into the milieu of the upper class. His sophistication, wit, and graceful manners allow him to enter easily the boardrooms, estates, and watering holes of the rich. Like the wealthy, he seals himself off from the masses through a condescension toward the lower classes disguised as ethnic humor; in the Crane series, caricatures of Jews, Italians, Irish, and African Americans abound.
None of this, however, establishes Crane’s true character. Beneath the surface, the detective is an outsider who identifies with those criminals whom he is...
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