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by Bamber Gascoigne

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Jonathan (Wyatt) Latimer (1906-1983) - pseudonym Peter Coffin


American hard-boiled mystery writer, noted for his Bill Crane series, described as an "alcoholic private detective". The twists of Crane's adventures borrowed much from the unpredictable world of "screwball-comedies" of the 1930s. Without gaining such fame as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or later Mickey Spillane and Ross MacDonald in the mystery genre, Latimer produced fresh and lively private eye stories. Latimer also wrote screenplays, of which the most noteworthy is the script for Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key. He scripted one of the small classics of film noir, They Won't Believe Me (1946), which played with coincidences and clichés of crime films. The central character, a playboy suspected of murder he did not commit, is assured that nobody believes him and condemns himself in front of the jury: "I listened to my own story. I brought in my own verdict."

"In the cell to the right, a man was still crying. It was past sundown, and he had been crying since noon. He cried softly and persistently and querulously, without hope and without conviction, as does a small dispirited child at night." (from Headed for a Hearse, 1935)

Jonathan Wyatt Latimer was born in Chicago, the only son of Jonathan Guy Latimer, a lawyer, and Evelyn Wyatt, a violinist. He was christened Jonathan for an ancestor, Colonel Jonathan Latimer, who served on George Washington's staff during the Revolutionary War. After preparatoty education at Arizona's Mesa School, Latimer entered Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Upon completing the AB, Latimer traveled in 1929 to Europe, where he bicycled around France and Germany. From 1929 to 1934, he worked for the Herald-Examiner and later the Chicago Tribune. Most often Latimer assigned to cover crime. "I knew Al Capone, George "Bugs" Moran and assorted other gangsters, as well as whorehouse madams, pimps, dope peddlers and con men," Latimer recalled in an interview.

In the late 1930s, Latimer began screenwriting career, making scripts among others for the series Lone Wolf, depicting a jewel thief turned sleuth, and Charlie Chan, about an Oriental detective, originally created by Earl Derr Biggers. In 1937, Latimer married Ellen Peabody, and settled then in La Jolla, California, his city of residence for the following decades.

Murder in the Madhouse (1935) was Latimer's first novel, in which the protagonist is the hard-drinking William Crane, an operative for the Black Detective Agency, headed by a man named Colonel Black. "He felt very pleased he had fooled them into thinking he was drunk... He carried out his role so thoroughly he had to be helped into the phone booth..." His drinking buddies are Doc Williams and Tom O'Malley. Crane's devours martinis, bacardis, champagne, bourbon, whiskey, absinthe. Despite the liquor, and hangovers, Crane also manages to solve his cases. In this respect Latimer's plots follow more of less the classic whodunit. Noteworthy, during his investigation, Crane presents himself at a lunatic asylum as C. Auguste Dupin, the hero from E.A. Poe's stories.

Headed for a Hearse (1936) contains a classic locked-room problem. Crane has only six days to prove that Robert Westland did not murder his wife and rescue his wealthy client from the electric chair. In Red Gardenias (1939) Crane is paired with Ann Fortune, his boss's niece. Latimer's most hard-boiled novel, Solomon's Vineyard, written in 1941, appeared under the title Fifth Grave (1950). Now Crane is married and retired - so Karl Craven solves and revenges the murder of his partner. After five books Latimer abandoned Crane. "I just got kind of bored with him," he later explained. The Search for My Great-Uncle's Head introduced the amateur detective Peter Coffin, again a hero whose surname begins with C.

Latimer's novels appeared in The Crime Club group, which had a large readership. Irving Starr's Crime Club series lasted until late 1939. Latimer's other works include Dark Memory (1940), about the search of gorilla specimens in the Belgian Congo, Sinners and Shrouds (1955), a mystery novel, in which the protagonist is a boozing Chicago reporter, Sam Clay, who wakes up with a nude female corpse in his room, and Black Is the Fashion for Dying (1959), a story of the murder of an unpleasant Hollywood star. Basically this novel was a spin-off of screenplay. Its hero, Richard Blake, has been often regarded as Latimer's alter ego. He has made a career of writing films, and looks at journalism and the film industry with weary eyes.

Latimer admitted, that his intention was to kid the hard-boiled school of writing. He felt that Sam Spade was "a pretty deadly serious guy." Crane series turned out to be very popular - three of the books were made into films in the late 1930s with Preston Foster as Crane. But it was not only Crane who drank heavily: "The reporter from the City Press was named Jerry Johnson. His face had an unhealthy pallor; his black eyes were set deep in discolored sockets; he was drinking himself to death as fast as he could on a salary of twenty-six dollars a week." (from The Lady in the Morgue) In the 1930s narcotics were associated with the forces of evil but Latimer describes rather lightheartedly in The Lady in the Morgue a group of musicians getting stoned in the back room of a restaurant.

Crane films belonged to the best low-budgeted Universal pictures. The first, The Westland Case (1937), was adapted from Headed for a Hearse. "The Westland Case was a good if not brilliant beginning for the Crime Club. The novel had to be toned down for the screen, and Christy Cabanne's direction was adequate without deviating from the routine. But Preston Foster and Frank Jenks, as Crane and Williams, were delightful, capturing the proper amount of sardonic humor without overdoing it." (from B Movies by Don Miller, 1987) Lady in the Morgue, directed by Otis Garrett, is considered one of the minor treasures of 1938. This time the story deals with a disappearing corpse. Alberto Moravia has said in an essay, that Latimer "confronted frankly the necrophilia", which Moravia considered a "poorly disguised but genuine" streak of American literature and culture. Otis Garrett managed to apply some clever optical effects inside his budget. The screenplay was written by Eric Taylor and Robertson White. The Last Warning, the third Crane mystery, was filmed in 1938, with emphasis on comedy.

Throughout the years 1936 and 1937, Latimer lived in Key West, at 1218 Margaret Street, not far from the city cemetary. Several blocks away was Ernest Hemingway's manor. Hemingway appreciated Latimer's easy going personality, but not James T. Farrell, who according to Latimer "occupied my spare bedroom, ate my food, drank my liquor, and finally departed, saying neither thank you nor good-bye."

During World War, Latimer served in the United States navy as executive officer on a destroyer assigned to convoy duty in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. In 1946, he returned in La Jolla, continuing his film writing career. Latimer, who "knew everybody", became soon friends with Raymond Chandler. The creator of Philip Marlowe had also moved there and bought a house at 6005 Camino de la Costa. A less sociable character, Chandler took his countryman, the visiting British novelist J.B. Priestley, to Latimer's house "where will be gathered a reasonable selection of what passes for intelligent humanity in our city", said Chandler in a letter.

After Solomon's Vineyard, a version of Hammett's The Dain Curse, Latimer devoted himself for writing for the movies. In 1955 he broke his silence as a novelist with Sinners and Shrouds, from which Geoffrey O'Brien selected in his study Hardboiled America (1997) a model example of beautiful writing found from paperbacks: "Excited voices soared from near-by houses. A bulb, turned on back of a second-story window, lit the mist overhead. A door slammed somewhere. In the cottage, shrill above music, the telephone began to ring. Clay backed into the mist, turned and started for the street. A rose bush tugged at his coat, scratched his hand, crushed tulips made sighing noises under his feet. He began to runs as he neared the sidewalk."

In the Hammett film, The Glass Key, directed by Stuart Heisler and starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, Latimer showed his skill at writing apt dialogue. "Madvig: 'I'm going to society. He's practically given me the key to his house.' Beaumont: 'Yeah, a glass key. Be sure it doesn't break up in your hand.'" William Bendix as a brutal heavy steals the film with his deadly endearments: "You mean I don't get to smack baby?"

In They Won't Believe Me, directed by Irving Pichel, Lawrence Ballantine (Robert Young) is married to a rich woman, Gretta (Rita Johnson), but is also philandering with Janice Bell (Jane Greer) and Verna Carlson (Susan Hayward). He tries to leave his wife and marry Verna in Reno. Following several twists of the plot, Gretta dies accidentally and he is charged with the murder of Verna. At the end, Ballantine realizes that although he is innocent, his own account of his acts is too aggravating and he tries to escape from the courtroom. Ballantine is shot by a police, and he never hears the verdict: "not guilty". The film was based on Gordon McDonnell's novel.

Latimer cooperated in several film productions with the director John Farrow, including The Big Clock (1947), starring Charles Laughton and Ray Milland. In the story a crime magazine editor Milland tries to cover his own tracks while trying to run down the real murder of his boss's mistress. The film provided the basis of No Way Out (1987), starring Kevin Costner. The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) was based on Cornell Woolrich's novel. In the story - originally rather rambling - a former professional mind-reader discovers that his powers are genuine. He rescues the daughter of his associate at the cost of his own death. Latimer's screenplay, written with Barré Lyndon, has been praised for its compactness. Farrow's Plunder of the Sun (1953), filmed in Mexico in the Zapotecan ruins of Mitla and Monte Alban, was a combination of John Huston's Treasure of Sierra Madre and Maltese Falcon. Latimer's screenplay was based on David Dodge's 1950 novel. Latimer was also a successful television writer, and scripted over thirty episodes for the Perry Mason TV series, which made a star of Raymond Burr in the title role. Latimer died of lung cancer on June 23, 1983, at the age of 76.

For further reading: Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, ed. by Otto Penzler and Chris Steinbrunner (1976); 'Jonathan Latimer's William Crane - Part Two' by Jim Mc Cahery, in The Not So Private Eye, no. 2 (1978); 'Jonathan W. Latimer: An Interview' by Jim Mc Cahery, in Megavore, no. 11/ (1980); Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. by John M. Reilly (1985); The American Private Eye by David Geherin (1985); Stewards of the House: The Detective Fiction of Jonathan Latimer by Bill Brubaker (1993); Encyclopdia Mysteriosa by William L. DeAndrea (1994); The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery by Bruce F. Murphy (2001) - See also "hard-boiled" mystery writers: Horace McCoy, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane

Selected works:

  • Back to Work: The Story of the P.W.A., 1935 (ghostwriter, published under Harold Ickes's name)
  • Murder in the Madhouse, 1935 (William Crane novel)
  • Headed for a Hearse, 1935 (William Crane novel)
    - Suuntana sähkötuoli (suom. Tapani Bagge, 1988)
    - film: The Westland Case, 1937, prod. Universal Pictures, dir. by Christy Cabanne, screenplay Robertson White, starring Preston Foster (as Bill Crane), Frank Jenks (as Doc Williams), Carol Hughes Barbara Pepper
  • The Lady in the Morgue, 1936 (William Crane novel)
    - Vain yksi on joukosta poissa (suom. J.S. Helander, 1973)
    - film: The Lady in the Morgue, 1938, prod. Universal Pictures, dir. by Otis Garrett, screenplay by Eric Taylor, starring Preston Foster (as Bill Crane), Patricia Ellis, Frank Jenks (as Doc Williams), Thomas E. Jackson
  • The Search for My Great Uncle's Head, 1937 (as Peter Coffin)
  • The Dead Don't Care, 1938 (William Crane novel)
    - film: The Last Warning, 1938, prod. Universal Pictures, dir. by Al Rogell, screenplay Edmund L. Hartmann, starring Preston Foster (as Bill Crane), Frank Jenks (as Doc Williams), and Joyce Compton
  • Red Gardenias, 1939 (William Crane novel)
  • The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt, 1939 (screenplay, dir. Peter Godfrey, starring Warren William, Ida Lupino and Rita Hayworth)
  • Phantom Raiders, 1940 (original story; screenplay by Willam R. Lipman, dir. Jacques Tourneur, starring Walter Pidgeon, Donald Meek and Joseph Schildkraut)
  • Dark Memory, 1940
  • Solomon's Vineyard, 1941 (as The Fifth Grave in 1950; somewhat bowdlerized)
  • Topper Returns, 1941 (screenplay, with Gordon Douglas and Paul Gerald Smith, dir. Roy Del Ruth, starring Joan Blondell, Roland Young and Carole Landis)
  • A Night in New Orleans, 1941 (screenplay, dir. William Clemens, starring Preston Foster, Patricia Morison and Albert Dekker)
  • Whistling in Dixie, 1942 (screenplay, with others, dir. S. Sylvan Simon, starring Red Skelton, Ann Rutherford and George Bancroft)
  • The Glass Key, 1942 (screenplay, based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, dir. Stuart Heisler, starring Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and Brian Donlevy)
  • They Won't Believe Me, 1947 (screenplay, with Gordon DcDonell, dir. Irving Pichel, starring Robert Young, Susan Hayward and Jane Greer)
  • Nocturne, 1946  (screenplay, with Frank Fenton and Roland Brown, dir. Edwin L. Marin, starring George Raft, Lynn Bari and Virginia Huston)
  • Night Has a Thousand Eyes, 1948 (screenplay, with Barré Lyndon, dir. John Farrow, starring Edward G. Robinson, Gail Russell and John Lund)
  • The Big Clock, 1948 (screenplay, with Harold Goldman, dir. John Farrow, starring Ray Milland, Maureen O'Sullivan and Charles Laughton) 
  • Beyond Glory, 1948 (screenplay, with Charles Marquis Warren and William Wister Haines, dir. John Farrow, starring Alan Ladd, Donna Reed and George Macready)
  • Sealed Verdict, 1948 (screenplay, dir. Lewis Allen, starring Ray Milland, Florence Marly and John Hoyt)
  • The Accused, 1949 (screenplay, with others; uncredited; dir. William Dieterle, starring Loretta Young, Robert Cummings and Wendell Corey) 
  • Alias Nick Beal, 1949 (screenplay, with Mindret Lord, dir. John Farrow, starring Ray Milland, Audrey Totter and Thomas Mitchell)
  • Copper Canyon, 1950 (screenplay, with Richard English, dir. John Farrow, starring Ray Milland, Hedy Lamarr and Macdonald Carey)
  • The Fifth Grave, 1950
    - Viides hauta: "kovaksikeitetty" amerikkalainen salapoliisiromaani (suom. Aune Suomalainen, 1951)
  • The Redhead and the Cowboy, 1951 (screenplay, with Liam O'Brien and Charles Marquis Warren, dir. Leslie Fenton, starring Glenn Ford, Edmond O'Brien and Rhonda Fleming)
  • Submarine Command, 1951 (screenplay, dir. John Farrow, starring William Holden, Nancy Olson and William Bendix)
  • Botany Bay, 1953  (screenplay, based on a novel by Charles Nordhoff, dir. John Farrow, starring Alan Ladd, James Mason and Patricia Medina)
  • Plunder of the Sun, 1953 (screenplay, dir. John Farrow, starring Glenn Ford, Diana Lynn and Patricia Medina)
  • Sinners and Shrouds, 1955
  • Back from Eternity, 1956  (screenplay, with Richard Carroll, dir. John Farrow, starring Robert Ryan, Anita Ekberg and Rod Steiger)
  • The Unholy Wife, 1957  (screenplay, with William Durkee, dir. John Farrow, starring Diana Dors, Rod Steiger and Tom Tryon)
  • The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays, 1957 (animation; teleplay with Frank Capra, dir. Frank Capra and William T. Hurtz)
  • Hemo the Magnificent and... The Unchained Goddess, 1958 (animation; teleplay with Frank Capra, dir. Richard Carlson, William T. Hurtz)
  • The Whole Truth, 1958  (screenplay, dir. John Guillermin, starring Stewart Granger, Donna Reed and George Sanders)
  • Black is the Fashion for Dying, 1959 (as The Mink-Linen Coffin in 1960)
  • Markham, 1959-60 (teleplays: The Long Search; A Coffin for Cinderella; Sing a Song of Murder; Candy Store Jungle; Vendetta in Venice, starring Ray Milland)
  • Hong Kong, 1960-61 (teleplays: Murder by Proxy; The Dragon Cup; The Jade Empress, starring Rod Taylor)
  • Checkmate, 1960-1962 (teleplays, with others: The Sound of Nervous Laughter, Target: Tycoon, starring Anthony George, Doug McClure and Sebastian Cabot)
  • Perry Mason, 1958-65 (teleplays: The Case of the Curious Bride . . . The Case of the Fugitive Fraulein, starring Raymond Burr)
  • Colombo, 1972 (teleplay: The Greenhouse Jungle, dir. Boris Sagal, starring Peter Falk, Ray Milland and Bob Dishy)

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