Wednesday, March 30, 2011

book review: Headed for a Hearse by Jonathan Latimer

"'I remember Sullivan, that's the house detective, gave a sort of snort when he went into the living-room from the hall. We all ran in behind him, and there she was on the living-room rug. She looked just like she was asleep, except for her pretty brown hair.'
'her hair?'
'It was all soaked with blood.'"

It's always going to be hard to play with the hard-boiled detective format but one option, used here by Latimer, is to wait a fair bit before you introduce the private eye into proceedings.

Not only wait a bit but then even when he has been introduced play the character in a minor key until they suddenly emerge towards the last third as the principal driver of the action.

Does it work? Only to a degree. While you wait for the detective to take centre stage you naturally search for alternatives and even when the action is in full flight you find yourself as a reader holding back from giving the hero your fulsome support.

The reason for the mechanics of the book stem from the clever premise that a man who has just a couple of days before facing the electric chair suddenly decides to fight to clear his name.

Robert Westland is rich but starts the book almost happy to take the rap for the murder of his wife. But after a conversation with one of the real murderers in the cell next door to his own he decides he will fight.

Money being no object he hires a crack lawyer and a tram including colleagues, his girlfriend and a couple of recommended private detectives.

As one of the private detectives Bill Crane seems to take an age coming to the foreground of the action but once there he moves swiftly, aided by heavy doses of alcohol, to start to piece together what really did happen to Mrs Westland.

Part classic locked room part Chandler in feel the book does finally spring into life and deliver. But for me it took slightly too long and the plot twists that are unwound so quickly at the end happen before the reader is introduced to the story and as a result lose their ability to interest slightly.

Perhaps the book just hasn't aged as well as some of its contemporaries. In 1935 it might have had the reader gripped but in 2011 it struggles in places and that's not good for any 'hard-boiled' crime novel.

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