Tag Archives: 1930s America

The Lady in the Morgue: Jonathan Latimer (1936)

Solomon’s Vineyard is the entertaining, witty story of PI Karl Craven whose job to track down a missing rich dame is complicated by the fact she’s living in a well-guarded cult. Craven is a flawed character; he’s always on the lookout for the next meal, the next woman, and the next brawl. In The Lady in the Morgue, PI Bill Crane is also hunting for a mystery blonde, but in this case, she’s may already be dead. Screenwriter and author Jonathan Latimer (1906-1983) wrote a total of 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)

So here I am reading the series out-of sequence.

LADY IN THE MORGUEThe Lady in the Morgue opens in Chicago with the morgue attendant receiving a crank call for a Miss Daisy Stiff, who according to the attendant can’t come to the phone as “she’s downstairs with th’ other girls.” Crank calls are obviously a regular occurrence with this job, and the attendant has fun with the caller and with the two newspaper reporters sitting in the waiting room. An unidentified blonde, who checked into a “honky-tonk” hotel under the name Alice Ross has been listed as a suicide, and the reporters, along with PI Bill Crane are waiting in the morgue for someone to show who can identify the dead woman. There’s already an aura of mystery surrounding her death, and the waiting reporters speculate about the reasons why someone this beautiful would end her life. It’s an eerie, uneasy scene in the middle of a heat wave set against the maniacal  “feverish” cackles of a drugged  “crazy dame” in the nearby “psychopathic hospital.” Then Crane and the reporters decide to play a tasteless game and place bets on the contents of each vault.

Brilliant white light from a long row of bulbs on the ceiling of the room made their eyes blink. Their nostrils sucked in the sweet, sharp sickening antiseptic smell of formaldehyde. Icy air caused their shirts to stick clammily to their flesh. The steel door shut with a muffled thud, and all three of them momentarily experienced a feeling of being trapped.

While the game is a great excuse to pass time, and more importantly to eye the stiffs in the vault, it’s also a perfect scene which shows both the atmosphere and the callous behaviour of the reporters. Then there’s Crane using his opportunity to eyeball the mystery woman. The people in the vaults are no longer human; they’re just a sideshow, and the beautiful blonde suicide is the prize exhibit:

The attendant was looking at the girl’s body. “I wonder how long a guy would live if he had a wife as swell as that?” He ran a yellow hand over her smooth hip.

“You’d get used to her after a while,” said Crane.

“I’d like to try.” The attendant’s yellow face was wistful. “I’d be willing to trade my wife in if I could get a model like this.”

Crane has been hired by his employer, Colonel Black, to ascertain the identity of the young woman, and while two men show up to ID the blonde, someone else steals her body from the vault….

With the disappearance of the corpse, the mystery surrounding the woman’s identity deepens. Courtland, the scion of a wealthy east coast family turns up as a representative for his relatives who are concerned that the corpse may be a well-heeled heiress. But there’s another claimant, an unhappy gangster who is looking for his runaway wife, and in the wings there’s a third man also on the hunt for the gangster’s wife. With his sidekicks Doc Williams and Tom O’Malley, Crane is determined to recover the corpse and discover her identity. His investigation involves feuding gangsters, a snobby, wealthy matriarch, a sleazy hotel, a dance hall that’s little better than a bordello, and even a little grave robbing.

While Crane, with stubborn tenacity wants to solve the case, he’s not exactly the type that sticks to the rule books. Strongly individualistic, he’s not the sort to be hampered by rules or status., and when it comes to his cases, he brags “I solve ’em, drunk or sober.” He’s the type of man who appears to be easy-going, but in reality his seeming easy-going nature is a just a mask for doing things his way, at his pace. And above all, he’s going to enjoy himself in the process. Once Crane learns that he’s working for a wealthy family, he decides to cash in on the old expense account, and he rents a very nice room in a decent hotel, and then takes advantage of room service.

He even thought up an additional reason for taking the suite. It had windows on two sides of the hotel, he explained, and that gave you variety. You could look at the City Hall, or you could look at the Ashland building. Or, if you wanted to drop bottle, you had a choice. You could drop them on the heads of pedestrians on Randolph Street, or you could drop them on the heads of pedestrians on Clark Street.

Crane also likes to knock back whiskey with his breakfast, and at one point he decides to question a woman who works at a club:

O’Malley shook his big head. “You don’t want anybody to go with you. That’d be foolish. Two persons would make them suspicious. They’d think it was the cops, and everybody’d close up like clams.

“No, I thought about that.” Crane took a long, reflective drink of whiskey. “They won’t think we’re cops if we get drunk enough, not if we get blind drunk.” He waved an arm at Courtland. “that just goes to show you nothing is wasted, not if you’re wise. You and I have been drinking all day. If we were to go to bed it’d all be wasted. yes, sir, every drop, Every sweet little drop.” He sampled his own drink to show what he meant by a sweet little drop and continued. “But I’m wise. You think I just drink for amusement?”

Then he asks his buds “well, gentlemen,” Crane demanded; “which one of you are willin’ to sacrifice your integrity and get drunk so’s you can come with me?”

Bill Crane, a complete reprobate, is an amusing anti-hero, the typical sort of PI, low-rent and unimpressed by status markers. While he doesn’t appear to take the crime seriously, this is just his style. While there’s never any doubt that he’ll solve the mystery, the fun comes from reading his tactics: sleeping in, consuming huge breakfasts, and generally enjoying himself when he can. There are a few scenes between Crane and the female sex, and Crane isn’t exactly much of a gentleman. The Lady in the Morgue is highly recommended for fans of vintage crime novels

Lady in the morgue2Review copy.

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I Should Have Stayed Home: Horace McCoy (1938)

“This is Hollywood, old man,” he said, “where morality never crosses the city limits.”

Last year, I read and enjoyed Horace McCoy’s (1897-1955) masterpiece They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? This was one of those novels I’d intended to read for some time, a title that had crossed my path more than once, so when I saw I Should Have Stayed Home by the same author, I knew I had to read it. When I say that the two novels are connected, I Should Have Stayed Home does not carry the punch of McCoy’s masterpiece. How could it? Nonetheless I Should Have Stayed Home is another look at exploitation–and once again it’s the exploitation of young would-be actors and actresses who’ve arrived in Hollywood and are desperate to be discovered. The big question in both books is how far are they prepared to go for fame, but while Gloria and Robert in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? opt for a dance marathon, Mona and Ralph in I should Have Stayed Home are still hoping for bit parts that segue into brilliant careers.

I should have stayed homeThe story is told by Ralph a young, naïve small town theatre actor from Georgia lured to Hollywood by a talent scout who promised a screen test. Once there, the promised screen test was taken, but there were no calls and now he lives in a small bungalow, barely able to make the rent, with bit part actress, Mona. Disillusionment has begun to set in but it’s not deep enough to make Ralph return home. While he acknowledges that Hollywood is “the most terrifying town in the world,” he’s not ready to give up, and that’s partly because he’s sent letters home bragging about his Hollywood success. With lies, he’s fabricated a scenario of success, and now he’s done that, he keeps hoping for that big break so that he won’t have to go home and admit the truth. Once again, McCoy paints a very bleak picture of Hollywood:

Feeling the way I did, alone and friendless, with the future very black, I did not want to get out on the streets and see what the sun had to show me, a cheap town filled with cheap stores and cheap people, like the town I had left, identically like any one of ten thousand other small towns in the country–not my Hollywood, not the Hollywood you read about. This is what I was afraid of now, I did not want to take a chance on seeing anything that might have made me wish I had stayed home, and this is why I had waited for the darkness, for the night-time. That is when Hollywood is really glamorous and mysterious and you are glad you are here, where miracles are happening all around you, where today you are broke and unknown and tomorrow you will be rich and famous.

When the novel begins, the days of not being called for a part have morphed into a crisis. Mona and Ralph’s friend, Dorothy–who lives in the same bungalow complex–has been arrested for shoplifting and sentenced to the women’s prison at Tehachapi for three years:

She had come out to Hollywood to crash the movies too, but she had crashed a department store instead.

Dorothy’s arrest sets off a chain of events that mark a turn in Ralph’s fortunes and also a bitter shift in Mona’s attitude, but whether these are good or bad changes remains to be seen. As a naïve and sexually inexperienced protagonist, Ralph doesn’t understand a great deal of what goes on behind closed doors, and he certainly is no match for the man-eating, wealthy socially prominent, nymphomaniac” Mrs Smithers, an obnoxious woman who uses a series of men as her gigolos. As Mona, who is a big sister figure to Ralph warns:

As innocent as you are, a woman would have to start taking your pants off before you got suspicious.

After a few hours in the company of Mrs. Smithers, Ralph realizes that “nobody can beat the movie game without help–and the quicker you play ball, the quicker you succeed.”  

The story includes rumblings of trouble in Hollywood. In one scene, an actress mentions the Scottsboro Boys, so this places the story in 30s. There’s also discussion about the Communist party, the Anti-Nazi league, censorship, blacklisting & anti-union sentiment. In one scene, for example, a publicist walks off his job over the film The Road Back (1937)–a very real film based on a novel by Erich Marie Remarque:

“This was in the Los Angeles Times yesterday” he said. ‘”This is from the movie column in that great reactionary journal. Listen ‘The German Consul, incensed at final scenes in The Road Back’–that’s one of our big pictures–‘incensed at final scenes in The Road Back, showing German youngsters being drilled as soldiers, has induced Universal to revise the film’s editing. At the same time, the studio will try to work in some more love interest.’ He took a few more sips of his coffee, looking at me. “That’s why I quit,” he said. Wouldn’t you?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t see anything in that article to make you quit.”

“You don’t? Haven’t you seen any of those pictures in Life or Fortune about all the German youth being drilled in uniforms with guns and wearing signs across their breasts: “We were Born to Die for Hitler?”

“I don’t believe so,” I said.

“Well it’s true anyway. That Hitler’s going to start another war and why should the German consul get his bowels in an uproar because we show German kids drilling? I didn’t get sore about that, you understand, because the German consul’s bowels are always in an uproar about something. What I got sore about was the studio letting him tell ’em where to get off.”

I should Have Stayed Home was written in 1938. That was 5 years after Goebbels had Remarque’s books publicly burned and the year Remarque, who was living in Switzerland, had his German citizenship revoked, and it’s interesting to see McCoy infuse his novels with topical subjects.  This is a weaker novel than They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Ralph isn’t a strong enough character to carry the narrative, but it’s still a prescient tale of exploitation and corruption, and the insider’s view of the flexible politics of the studios gives great insight to Hollywood of the 30s. Review copy.

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No Orchids for Miss Blandish: James Hadley Chase (1939)

“From now on, you’re going to wear mink, baby.”

No Orchids for Miss Blandish  (1939) by James Hadley Chase has been on the reading radar for some time. I saw the film version in 2010 and then Emma, from Book Around the Corner reviewed the book here. After seeing the film version, and reading the controversy about the book, I thought I was prepared. I wasn’t. The book is far darker, far more unpleasant, so if you like your crime books bleak, nasty and downright unsavoury, then you might want to check out No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

No orchids for miss BlandishThe story begins with a couple of cheap crooks, Bailey and Old Sam, stopping at a gas station on the way to Kansas City. Old Sam is sleeping, so Bailey, worried about money and even contemplating robbing a bank if things don’t look up soon, steps inside the diner for a Scotch. Bailey and Old Sam form an ad-hoc gang with a sleaze ball named Riley as the brains of the operation. It’s slim pickings for these trio of bottom-feeders. The lucrative jobs are too big and complex for their slipshod 3 man operation, and that leave the petty jobs that don’t yield much. It seems to be a lucky break when tipster fat Heinie, a “leg man for a society rag that ran blackmail on the side” waddles into the diner and mentions that multi millionaire Blandish is throwing a party for his daughter’s 24th birthday. Her gift will be the family diamonds and after the party at the Blandish mansion, she’ll move on to the Golden Slipper nightclub with her boyfriend, Jerry MacGowan. Bailey keys onto the fact that the couple and the diamond necklace will be alone and vulnerable. Heinie warns him off any thoughts of knocking off the necklace as Bailey and Riley “aren’t big enough to handle a job like that.”  But to Bailey, the job sounds like a cinch: Waylay a society dame and her cream puff escort then grab the diamonds. Simple.

Bailey takes the idea to Riley, the head of the gang, and a man in Bailey’s opinion who spends “too much time in the sack with that broad of his,” a cheap, mouthy striptease dancer named Anna. The plan is to go to The Golden Slipper while Miss Blandish is slumming and then follow the couple, waylaying them along the route, and making a fast smash and grab. But the plan goes wrong and morphs into a kidnapping, and then bad luck sends members of the vicious Grisson gang into their path….

The Grisson gang, considered by other crooks as “good third-raters,” is led by Ma Grisson–a tough as nails, “big, grossly fat and lumpy”  woman  who sounds as clever, mean and evil as the FBI fabricated-for-the-media version of Ma Barker. (This can’t be coincidence as the author, James Hadley Chase was supposedly influenced by the tale of the Barker Gang when he wrote No Orchids for Miss Blandish.) Ma Grisson sees the Blandish heiress as means of becoming the “richest, the most powerful, and the most wanted public enemies of Kansas City.” In other words, the Blandish girl is a ticket out of the small-time, and with a prize like that Ma Grisson is willing to take some risks.

Some of the novel includes the dynamics between the various gang members. There’s an unlicensed alcoholic doctor, “Doc” who comes in handy when the boys need stitching up, Eddie who “wouldn’t have been bad looking, but” for the cast in his eye, Flynn, Woppy and finally Ma’s son, the dysfunctional, psychotic, and none too clean Slim Grisson, the man with a taste for knives.

He was tall, reedy and pasty-faced. His loose, half-open mouth, his vacant, glassy eyes made him look idiotic, but a ruthless, inhuman spirit hid behind the idiot’s mask.

Slim Grisson’s background was typical of a pathological killer. He had always been lazy at school, refusing to take the least interest in book work. He began early to want money. He was sadistic and several times had been caught torturing animals. By the time he was eighteen, he had begun to develop homicidal tendencies. By then, his mental equipment had degenerated. There were times when he would be normal to the point of being quick-witted, but most times he behaved like an idiot.

Slim is barely held in check by his mother who “refused to believe that there was anything wrong with him.” So there’s an inherent, festering sore in the gang’s power structure: Slim is out-of-control and yet his mother refuses to reign him in. It’s with the introduction of Miss Blandish into the equation that the power balance within the gang changes.

More gangs have come to grief through a woman than through the cops.

The novel’s violence is swift, merciless and sadistic. The 1948 film version of the novel played like some sort of deranged love story, and that glamoured up what’s really at play here. After all, there are some things worse than death….

No orchids for miss Blandish 1961James Hadley Chase (real name René Brabazon Raymond) was British but chose to set this, his first novel in America, a country he’d yet to visit. Now to the question of versions:  Chase revised the novel in 1961, and I have two versions: a kindle version and a print version which are quite different. The kindle version, originally from Harlequin books, refers to television and Slim being a television addict (“He never grew tired of watching the moving pictures on the twenty-one inch screen.“) The kindle version says 1939 on the front but the Harlequin edition was published in 1951.  The out-of-place reference to televisions in the 1930s is absent in my Bruin Crimeworks edition, and the Amazon description of this book says it’s the 1961 updated version, but inside the book there’s a page “note to the reader” which says that this version is “yet a further update” to the 1961 update. So how many versions are there?

The revised print version from Bruin Crimeworks is even nastier (read “embellished,” and here’s just a taste–a scene which isn’t so detailed in the earlier kindle version. BTW, I blotted out the victim’s name in order to not spoil the plot suspense for potential readers:

“I’m giving it to you there,” Slim said, pricking the shuddering flesh with his knife. “Right in the guts, *****, and you’re going to take a mighty long time to croak. I know just where to stick you.”

“Come on, Slim! You wouldn’t do that to me. I’m a stand up guy, don’t I keep telling you? You know me. You ain’t gonna cut me like that. No! Slim! …No!… For Christ’s sake…Jesus, God…Don’t do me, Slim!”

Slim, still grinning, held the knife-point just below *****’s navel and put his weight on the handle. The knife went in slowly as if it were going into butter. ***** drew his lips back. His mouth opened. There was a long hiss of expelled breath as he stood there. Tears sprang from his eyes. Slim stepped back, leaving the black hilt of the knife growing out of ***** like a horrible malformation. ***** began to give low, quavering cries. His knees were buckling but the cord held him up so that the blade slowly cut deeper inside him.

Slim sat on the grass a few feet away and gave himself a cigarette. He pushed his hat over his eyes and squinted at *****.

“Take your time, Pal. We ain’t in a hurry.” He gave him a crooked smile as his fingers traced the sky. “Ain’t them clouds pretty?”

And here’s the same scene in the kindle version:

Slim looked over at ***** who shut his eyes. A horrible croaking sound came from him. Slim cleaned his knife by driving it into the ground. The he straightened.

“*****…” he said softly.

****** opened his eyes.

“Don’t kill me, Slim.” he panted. “Gimme a break! Don’t kill me!”

Slim grinned. The moving slowly through the patch of sunlight, he approached the cringing man.

The book has been made into two film versions: No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948) and The Grissom Gang (1971). Pick your poison.

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Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: Horace McCoy (1948)

“She was tremendous, all right, but at the wrong time and in the wrong places.”

The next time someone starts waffling on about the ‘good old days,’ tell them to go read Horace McCoy’s novel, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. That should take care of their nostalgia. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, full of bleak despair and the illusion that the big time is right around the next corner for its doom-laden characters, reminds us that violence has always existed in the spectrum of human behaviour.  

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is narrated by Ralph Cotter, a hardened convict who’s serving time, and when we meet  him, he’s just about to break out of jail with fellow prisoner Toko. McCoy’s details convey the horror of convict life: the frantic queues for the toilets, the over-worked chemical privys, rotten smells, hints of prison rape, and the way in which Cotter addresses the guards as “my liege,” “me-lord,” “Sire,” “master” and “majesty.” Cotter wakes up on the morning of the prison break chained to his bunk in a fetid crude dorm room along with 71 other prisoners. Toko’s sister, Holiday, has bribed someone to hide weapons in the cantaloupe patch where the prisoners work unchained, and she’s included Cotter in the escape plan simply because she’s concerned that Toko doesn’t have the guts to carry it through.

McCoy grounds the book in 1933 with the Akron disaster, so we are firmly in the gangster era. The book starts strongly with Cotter playing it cool as the day begins. Toko, a bundle of nerves, almost blows the plan, but Cotter desperate to escape (and just what is going on with the “sickly sodomist“in the next bunk?) carries the day, and in a blaze of machine gun fire, Cotter makes his escape. So what does Cotter, a man who thinks Karpis, Baby Face Nelson and Dillinger are all amateurs, do with his freedom? The novel continues with the saga of Cotter’s post prison life on the run, and it isn’t pretty. The problems begin with the debt Cotter has accrued from the club-footed garage owner, Mason, the man who supplied the getaway car and the guns, and the problems continue with Toko’s sister, machine-gun toting, bed-hopping, “pure animal” Holiday. Cotter embarks on a brutal crime spree, and a brush with two crooked cops only fuels his desire for money. Along the way, there’s blackmail, vicious heists committed with stunning violence, and no less than two duplicitous women.

McCoy crafts Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye in such a way that we begin not knowing just what Cotter is capable of. All he wants is freedom and fresh air for a change, but as the novel wears on, Cotter’s savagery is gradually revealed through his numerous cold-blooded killings. There are no good guys here. Everyone does what they can to get ahead and if that means slaughtering or sleeping your way to a few extra bucks, then McCoy’s characters are fine with that. While Cotter is clear-minded and direct with his criminal actions, he’s a little messed up when it comes to women, and to complicate matters there are two very different women who think they own a piece of Cotter. Here’s the sexually rapacious Holiday and Cotter:


She grabbed me by the shoulders of my coat, clutching the padding and poking her face almost against mine. “What’s the matter? You run out of places to go?”

“Please…” I said. “I’ve had enough melodrama for one day.”

“Me sitting here in this stinking apartment all day…”

“Please,” I said, “I’m exhausted.”

“Oh, so you’re exhausted! From what! Being lumped up in the sack with that bitch all afternoon?”

“Please,” I said. “I’m hot and sweaty and in no mood to fight.” I tried to take her hands off my shoulder but she was holding too tightly. Her eyes were wide and rabid and her lips were thin. “I’ve been with Mandon. You’re the only bitch I’ve seen today. Honest.”

She snorted and then without warning she clawed at my face. I caught this hand and knocked the other one from my shoulder and slapped her across the nose. But she wanted to be tough. She growled in her throat and raised both arms to grab me around the neck, and I slugged her on the side of the head, knocking her down. I reached and lifted her dress and tugged at it between my hands and finally managed to tear off a hunk. She lay on her back, looking up at me, her eyes smouldering, fully conscious, but saying nothing. With the hunk of her dress, I wiped the spittle from my face, and then threw the rag at her and went into the bedroom, closing the door.

Goddamn it, I thought regretfully; but this clawing business had to stop and that was the only way to stop it, the only way. She’s a goddamn savage, this dame is, a real primitive, and the only way to teach her something is to knock her on her ass. Well, she’s sure as hell come to the right place….

Cotter and Holiday make a hellish team: he solves his problems with violence, and she seals her deals with sex.  

While not as disciplined a novel as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (there’s some redundancy), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is a classic American noir, packed with hard-boiled desperate characters, but there’s something very different about McCoy. Here’s a scene of Cotter in a gay bar. At first he feels uncomfortable and then has a significant moment of revelation:

The noxiousness and disgust I had felt a few moments earlier were gone, my own strength and virility, of which I was so proud when I entered, with which I could prove our difference, now served to emphasize our sameness. We all had a touch of twilight in our souls; in every man there are homosexual tendencies, this is immutable, there is no variant, the only variant is the depth of the latency, but in me these tendencies were not being stirred, even faintly, they were there, but this was not stirring them. No. The sameness was of the species, of the psyche, of the  … They were rebels too, rebels introverted; I was a rebel extroverted–theirs was the force that did not kill, mine was the force that did kill…

Quite a statement for a book published in 1948, and another reason I love noir for its presentation of an alternate world in opposition to mainstream society. For film buffs, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was made into a film starring James Cagney and one of my favourite lost Hollywood stars, Barbara Payton.

Review copy from the publisher, Open Road Media

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Filed under Fiction, McCoy Horace