Headed for a Hearse, published in 1935, was the second of five crime novels featuring private detective William Crane written by Jonathan Latimer (1906-1983). Latimer would go on to write some of the classic film noir screenplays, including The Glass Key, The Big Clock, Night Has a Thousand Eyes and The Unholy Wife.
Latimer is regarded as being a member of the hard-boiled school of crime writing, but Headed for a Hearse is in many ways rather uncharacteristic of that school. The style is hard-boiled, but combined with generous helpings of humour. And as far as content is concerned this is pure golden age detective fiction, with the typically convoluted and ingenious plot and the obligatory ending in which the detective explains the mystery.
Headed for a Hearse opens on Death Row, with three men facing execution in a week’s time. They are an odd assortment of convicted murderers - Vachera is a psycho sex killer, Connors is a labour racketeer while Robert Westland is a wealthy stockbroker and a prominent member of Chicago society convicted of killing his wife. Westland had been resigned to his execution, but now he’s changed his mind. He’s decided he wants to live.
He manages to persuade the warden to let him contact a new attorney, an experienced criminal lawyer and an old crony of Connors. And he manages to persuade this lawyer, Charlie Finklestein, not only that he is innocent but that there is a chance of proving his innocence. It’s a very slim chance, but the case appeals to Finklestein. The lawyer realises that the only way to save his client is by finding the real murderer, and to do this he calls on the services of private detective William Crane and his assistant, ‘Doc’ Williams. Crane has just six days to solve the case.
In standard golden age detective story style there are half a dozen possible suspects, there are alibis that may or may not turn out to be breakable and the timing of the murder turns out to be crucial. And more than that, this is a classic locked-room mystery.
William Crane is a delightful detective hero. He provides most of the story’s considerable comic elements whilst still remaining a fairly hard-boiled detective. In the course of attempting to solve the case Crane will consume prodigious quantities of alcohol, but as he explains at the end there’s nothing like a hangover for encouraging clear logical thinking.
Latimer manages the trick of combining humour with hard-boiled style surprisingly well.
Highly entertaining and recommended.