Friday, July 9, 2010

Fiction: The Lady in the Morgue

The Lady in the Morgue
(Jonathan Latimer, No Exit Press, 1988, reprinted from 1936)

The morgue attendant jerked the receiver from the telephone, choked off the bell in the middle of a jangling ring. “Hello,” he said. Then impatiently: “Hello! Hello! Hello!” Wan electric light, escaping like Holstein cream from a green-shaded student desk lamp, made the sweat glisten on his lemon-yellow face. His lips, against the telephone mouthpiece, twitched. “You want Daisy? Daisy! Daisy who?”
Elbows leaning hard on the golden-oak rail dividing the morgue office from the waiting room, two newspaper reporters idly stared at the attendant’s white coat. Their shirts were open at the collar; their arms were bare; their ties, knots loosened, hung limply around their necks; their faces were moist in the heat. On the wall behind them a clock with a cracked glass indicated it was seventeen minutes of three.
“Oh, y’ want Miss Daisy Stiff,” said the morgue attendant. “She told ya to call her here, did she?” He screwed up one eye at the others. “Well, she can’t come to the phone. She’s downstairs with the other girls.”
Ballooning dingy curtains, waves of hot night air rolled in through the west windows, rasped the reporters’ faces, made their lungs hot.
The morgue attendant said, “I don’t care if y’ did have a date with her; she can’t come to the phone.” He chuckled harshly. “She’s stretched out.”
The opening lines of The Lady in the Morgue

A relatively forgotten author, Latimer seems to be gaining new critical attention amongst contemporary fans of detective literature, as can be seen by the publication of such books as Bill Brubaker’s Stewards of the House: The Detectives of Jonathan Latimer. Intellectual attention or not, Latimer is hardly a household name, and most of his books have been out of print for years. The Lady in the Morgue was the third of the five books he had written about the heavy drinking detective Bill Crane and his equally alcoholic sidekicks Doc Williams and O’Malley. Upon publication the Crane books obviously did well enough to be bought by Hollywood, where three of the Crane novels were given the B-movie treatment—including The Lady in the Morgue, in 1938—featuring the forgotten Preston Foster as Crane. Still, after five novels, Latimer got bored with his characters and dumped the series, reviving Crane only once and briefly as a bit character in his later, legendary multi-violent novel The Fifth Grave (aka Solomon’s Vineyard).
Crane, a one-time reporter for the Herald-Examiner (later the Chicago Tribune), moved to La Jolla, CA after serving in the Navy during the Second World War. A friend of Raymond Chandler, he scripted or co-scripted some twenty films, ranging from lowly Lone Wolf and Charlie Chan programmers to such classics as the second film version of The Glass Key (1942 / trailer), The Big Clock (1948 / trailer) and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948). Supposedly Latimer claimed that he started his Bill Crane series almost in teasing of the hardboiled school of detective fiction that so flourished at the time, but considering that the first Crane novel followed the publication of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man by roughly a year, one night surmise that kidding had less to do with it. Bill Crane and his cronies fit very much into that sub-genera of the detective fiction of the day, so well embodied by William Powell and Myrna Loy in the 1934 film version of The Thin Man (trailer) and its numerous sequels, that of the screwball comedy alcoholic detective having a hell of a crime to their martinis, whiskeys, gins, et all.
Unlike Nick and Nora, however, Bill, Doc and O’Malley tend to use words like “nigger” and some of their theoretically funny episodes are spectacularly sexist, not to mention way beyond borderline tasteless. You know you aren’t in for a children’s tale in The Lady in The Morgue when, in the first chapter, Latimer not only has his characters perusing the corpses of the city morgue for fun, but has a minor character describe the corpse of importance as “Nice” when he whips off the covering sheet from the body “slender, not with the stringy tenderness of a boy, but firmly rounded....”

Still, sexist or politically questionable or tasteless or not, The Lady in the Morgue is a well written page-turner. True, in this modern age, such conspicuously excessive alcohol consumption might be hard to accept much less laugh about, but it is sooooo excessive that one quickly becomes immune to it. Besides, the plot is fun enough to keep one interested.
Crane, sent to Chicago on a case arrives on time for the body of “Alice Ross,” a suicide, to vanish. Both the cops and two local gangsters think that he is responsible for the disappearance, so through most the book he is almost as busy avoiding them as he is solving the case. Going from strange beds to alcohol to cheap dance halls to alcohol to weed-wasted bohemian ceremonies to alcohol to acts of grave robbing to alcohol to alcohol to alcohol and so forth, the hunt for both the missing body and murderer and various missing women is convoluted but logical. Crane’s detective abilities can’t be faulted, even if his character can be.

The Lady of the Morgue is excellent and entertaining and well worth reading, despite the damage it might cause as you grit your teeth at the heroes' vocabulary. Much like the n-word in Mark Twain's writing, the vocabulary is often deplorable by any thinking person's standards, but it has to be accepted to enjoy the book for what it is: a well written, well thought and unjustly ignored classic of the comic hardboiled detective school.

Images (taken from the web):
(I can't supply an image of the No Exit Press edition because I lent it out and never got it back. Lesson learned [again]: don't lend books, CDs or DVDs.)
Top Two: Different covers to different editions.
Third: Poster to the film.
Fourth: Yet another nifty cover.
Bottom: The good man himself, Jonathan Latimer.

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