“I began to think about how it would be to live in Mexico. I had nearly four grand. That would last for a while. The trouble was, they didn’t have many redheads in Mexico.”
Author and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer’s 1941 novel Solomon’s Vineyard comes with more than a little notoriety, but prior to perhaps his most infamous novel, Latimer (1906-1983) wrote 5 Bill Crane mysteries in the 30s:
Murder in the Madhouse (1935)
Headed For a Hearse (1935)
The Lady in the Morgue (1936)
The Dead Don’t Care (1938)
Red Gardenias (1939)
Solomon’s Vineyard was published in England in 1941, but it didn’t appear in America until 1950 in an expurgated version and under a different title, The Fifth Grave. Therefore, if you, dear reader, wish to seek out this amazing piece of vintage nastiness, complete with a religious cult, S&M, a little necrophilia, a whorehouse and small-town corruption, make sure you seek out Solomon’s Vineyard as it was originally written. And here’s how it begins:
From the way her buttocks looked under the black silk dress, I knew she’d be good in bed. The silk was tight and under it the muscles worked slow and easy. I saw weight there, and control, and brother, those are the things I like in a woman. I put down my bags and walked after her along the station platform.
She walked towards the waiting room. She had gold-blonde hair, and curves, and breasts the size of Cuban pineapples. Every now and then, walking, she’d swing a hip until it looked like it was going out of joint and then she’d throw it back in place with a snap, making the buttocks quiver under this dress that was like black skin. I guess she knew I was following her.
The libidinous narrator is private detective Karl Craven who’s hired to rescue (or kidnap) an “emotionally unbalanced” heiress who’s living in a religious cult living at Solomon’s Vineyard on the outskirts of the small town of Paulton. The cult leader, a “prophet” who called himself Solomon died 5 years previously, and his body is kept in state inside a temple while his crazed followers wait for his return. Craven arrives in Paulton to join his womanizing partner who’s already been there for a few weeks on a re-con mission. Checking into one of the town’s hotels, Craven has several indications that this town is rotten; there’s debris blowing in the street, and an unshaven cop watches disinterestedly as a car flies through a red light. Pretending to be a hardware salesman, Craven noses around town trying to find a way to get close to the heiress, and earn the big cheque (he’s already spending) paid for her safe return. Craven is ready to admit that “religious cults are the hardest nuts to crack.”
There’s a wry sense of humour in the story emanating from Craven’s narration. Part of the tongue-in-cheek humour comes from Craven’s style of action and his habits, and the fact that he refuses to take anything too seriously. But there’s also a shade of humour to be found in how Craven views himself vs how he is viewed by others.
I got out of my clothes and put my revolver in a bureau drawer. On my way to the shower I caught sight of myself in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door and stopped to look at my belly. The knife wound was healing fine. There would be a scar, but what the hell! What’s a scar on the belly? I saw I was getting bigger. Every time I looked at myself naked I saw that. It wasn’t all fat; the flesh seemed hard enough but it still kept coming.
But since he’s called “fatso” in the story, we can imagine that Craven is more heft than brawn. Early in the story, Craven admits that there are “only three things” he likes in the “world; food, fighting and… women.” He ogles soft porn mags, reads Black Mask, wonders why J. Edgar Hoover isn’t on to the killer methods of a fictional G-Man, craves rare meat, is excited by the sight of blood, knocks back bottles of bourbon, and while he prefers blondes, he doesn’t hesitate at a redhead if she has curves in the right places. He consumes ridiculously huge breakfasts consisting of large amounts of booze & meat (6 double lamb chops is one example), chases a nightclub singer named Ginger until he pisses off her boyfriend, hood Pug Banta, and has several fights throughout the course of the story–including a shoot-out in a Turkish bath. It doesn’t take Craven long before he’s mixed up in the town’s politics, and he learns how the cult, run by “the Princess,” a blonde whose perfume makes him think of “black lace underwear” gets its money: “Liquor, and dope and immorality.”
Craven is a reprobate and a heel to use the language of the times. Speaking of the times, the story reflects gender and race attitudes of the period, so women are dames, and the staff at several of the hotels and houses are black but called “negro” and employed in demeaning roles as bellboys and doormen. Craven establishes a relationship with one such character, and sends him out frequently on various vice errands. While Craven is morally unscrupulous, he sticks it to the bad guys, but there are one or two rusty principles buried deep down. His initial plan was to work undercover, but since he’s too obviously interested in the heiress, he decides to stir up action instead. He blunders into the lives of the town’s key players, whipping up a shit storm in his wake and using his cynical knowledge of human nature to pit various people against each other. While some of the consequences of Craven’s actions are expected and desired, some of his plans cause collateral damage, but Craven doesn’t exactly waste time worrying about consequences; he understands that people are cast into roles in life and act accordingly. He gets the job done, doesn’t worry too much about appearances of the finer points of ethical behaviour, and has definite ideas about women, including the belief that if you spend something on a dame, you get something in return. He’s also rather curious about Solomon’s Vineyard due to the orgies they hold and their secret ceremonies which involve sex.
Craven offers his philosophy about life at several points, and while he’s a tough guy, he’s also partly bon vivant, and time after time he lists the meals he eats–whole peach pies & three hamburgers, four pound steaks and raw eggs. This is a man, a former football player gone to seed, of large appetites: booze, food and women. Tagged a hard-boiled crime novel, Solomon’s Vineyard, with its humorous touches, leans towards pulp and that is helped, of course, by the whole religious cult scenario. But what’s so marvellous here is Craven’s narration.
I didn’t belong to the school of thinkers who held all whores had hearts of gold and would give you their last two bucks to keep some guy from starving. All the whores I ever knew, and brother, I knew plenty, would get you drunk and jack-roll you if you gave them half a chance.
The book’s last line which nails Craven’s personality made the book. I won’t write it here, but for fans of the genre, do yourself a favour and check out this detective novel. The Black Mask edition of this title is the unexpurgated version.