#216: The Search for My Great-Uncle’s Head (1937) by Jonathan Latimer

Great Uncle's HeadSummoned by an elderly relative to their secluded family pile, a young man finds himself isolated with a fixed cast of closely-related characters as murder, missing documents, an escaped lunatic, and all other sorts of puzzle plotting chicanery inveigle themself onto the scene.  Yes, in many ways The Search for My Great-Uncle’s Head is a vade mecum for the Golden Age of detective fiction — vast elements of it will appear achingly familiar — and plays perfectly in time with the tattoo of 1937 that Rich has got many of us investigating this month for Crimes of the Century at Past Offences.  But does the rest of the book hold up past these fundamentals?

Weeeeell, no.  If anything, the sheer volume of GAD tropes present herein — country house, dead patriarch, missing will, suspected beneficiaries, suspicious butler, love triangle, blameless people doing suspect things, escaped madman, affable amateur sleuth, etc, etc — seem to be present simply because they are expected.  Latimer doesn’t really ever convince as an author with a handle on his threads, and his attempts at spinning out a puzzle-oriented solution from having ramified the various elements of the solution doesn’t hold up in the least; indeed, were I pressed to pick an adjective to describe the plotting here, I’d most likely go for the satggeringly apt acephalous.

Not least to blame is the syncretism inherent in the way he tries to tell the story to begin with.  It starts off with a stir of Gothic (chapters 1-3), then becomes a sort of ‘meet the family’ comedy of sorts (chapters 4-12), and then finally decides it might want to be a detective novel at the halfway stage (chapters 13+).  This middle section is the killer, because very little happens while Latimer juggles tones and tries to settle on what to go for.  None of the comedy is especially funny, none of the events therein have any real bearing on the detective yarn to come…by the time Colonel Black showed up to finally start actually looking into the death and decapitation in the title I’d pretty much checked out.

And then Black himself isn’t really the peremptory presence the book needs.  He’s too…unfussy, amenable, almost too packed with idiosyncracies, to really drive the plot onwards.  Indeed, once again Latimer seems to be going out of his way to provide the type of thing this story is apparently supposed to have, rather than writing the book that he wants to actually write:

“The first emotion of the orthodox detective is suspicion, and who am I to be unorthodox? … Therefore I suspect everyone.  I suspect the third footman (if you have one) and the cook and the house’s faithful spaniel…”

“Collie,” I said.

“…And the groceryman (oh, most of all the groceryman!) and that pretty young lady…”

“Miss Leslie?”

He smiled, “I was thinking of Miss Harvey.”

“A definite touch, Colonel,” I said.

Perhaps the only real narrative thread of any interest is the gradual emergence of our narrator Peter Coffin — incidentally, also the nom de plume under which this was originally published — from a nebbish man with a self-imposed, childish self-image (declaring the age of 32 to be well past a man’s physical peak, or taking pride in how much sweetcorn he can eat in a single meal) to something more like the GAD hero of yore: chasing murderers, hunting out clues, etc.  And it’s nice to see this transformation occur piecemeal — allowing himself to be bullied or laughed at one minute, then assuming a responsibility on behalf of the family the next — rather than just suddenly clicking into place.  This part of the plot really works, but alas the rest isn’t quite up to the same standard.

Great Uncle's Head 2Late in the day, an impossible element enters the picture with someone being killed without any sign of footprints in the mud surrounding their location.  This is basic at best, and while the key clue resolving the murderer’s identity comes from this, you also have to ask yourself just how telling it really is.  Another moment of denial would have seen them walk free since it’s by no means concrete to my reading, but I’ll admit to some liberal skipping just to get through this.  When even the scant period details we get — a housemaid cleaning up the murder scene before the police get to it, because “she doesn’t know what a fingerprint is” being about the limit of it — can’t provide interest, you’re probably onto a bit of a loser here.

Ugh, dammit, I am not on a good run of books at present.  It is difficult to maintain enthusiasm, y’know?

star filledstarsstarsstarsstars

See also

John Norris @ Pretty Sinister: Coffin is trapped by his intellectual persona. The obvious eludes him. He is taken into confidence by some of his wily relatives who toy with him and yet he is never aware of their manipulations. He is something of an accidental detective like David Frome’s Mr. Pinkerton who almost always stumbled into a crime and got entangled in the investigation like a cat playing with a ball of yarn.

Latimer led quite an interesting existence, incidentally, and Sergio has compiled this very, very good rundown of his life and career over at Tipping My Fedora.  Well worth checking out…

~

This is currently available from The Mysterious Press as an ebook, but my version is the one shown up top.  I submit this cover for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Cigarette or Pipe.

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Blood on His Hands from last week because in both novels the amateur sleuth — Jeffery Blackburn there and Peter Coffin here — are university academics.

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25 thoughts on “#216: The Search for My Great-Uncle’s Head (1937) by Jonathan Latimer

  1. Acephalous, what a word! And 1 star, ouch. Sorry your having a bad run, I’m in the middle (almost towards the end) of one that I am increasingly unsure of and it does drain the energy and enthusiasm for sure. Hope something picks up for you.

    When this parody/subversion of the form is done so heavy handedly its such a shame, and I think many writers get stuck in that ‘what this is supposed to be’ thing, not allowing their writing to flourish.

    I have seen this with the most recent death in paradise episode I have watched (in fact only half watched as I couldn’t get through it, it was so bad). Caught up moving house, only the last two episodes are available online, introducing another new detective to the series and it has now become a parody of itself, and the new writers are recycling and forcing tropes to the max so their is nothing natural about it any longer. Apologies if you have watched it already yourself, but I feel there is a link to be made here, when things become self parodying to the point of madness.

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    • There’s an Enf od the Golden Age post in what you’ve said above, I’m sure, but someone far more knowledgable than I would have to write it: the style here feels so much like someone bending themselves into the required shape, and I wonder how many novels failed to come off on account of the expectations of the era…or even if such a thing existed, and it’s simply a condition that I’ve imposed upon it retrospectively… Okay, I need to think about this!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think it’s happening now as well. I read an interesting post on ‘prologues’ for contemporary crime works, and because they have become popular many people are tacking them on at the end of the writing process, and they seem to be there just for shock or hook value, but often have little relation to the rest of the writing. The modern thriller in that sense starts to become a parody of itself as well.

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        • 1) I apologise for my terrible typing, and congratulate you on deciphering my meaning from this and all my other comments

          2) I have just this second finished writing a post for Saturday that might sort of touch upon the point you make above, and so shall wait until you’ve read that to expand upon this.

          3) I’ve also just remembered that I sent you an email about…something. You may be ignoring it on purpose, in which case I apologise for calling you out in public, but I also thought I should reassure you in case you thought it was…I dunno…like a parody account or something. Though, of course, it may have been too full of typos for you to comprehend it…

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  2. Sounds as if this standalone did not quite measure up to the author’s Bill Crane series. Although John seemed to be slightly more positive about the book, but I’ll probably still bump it down in favor of a Bill Crane novel. One of them as no less than two seemingly impossible crimes!

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    • Oh, no, do we have another Richard Forrest on our hands, where I pick the utter duffer and there are some passable ones that would have been more my style? Dammit, I always pick the duffer…

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  3. Oh dear! What a book! Reminded me a little of The Sunken Sailor whose use of GAD tropes sunk the plot entirely *shudders*. Never tried any of Latimer’s stuff before and not sure I will if this is his standard of writing. Also like thereaderiswarned loved the word acephalous. It shall be my new word for the day, even if I can’t pronounce it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m aware of the perils of comdemning someone who wrote seven books after only one, and the other comments here imply that this is not typical of Latimer. It would be greatly aided by himjust picing a lane and staying in it, as juggling the various tones he goes for is a difficult enough job on its own, and he doesn’t really convince with any voice.

      Seems he also wrote a PI series alongside this, so maybe that’s where his talent truly lies… Not, I’ll admit, that I’m in any rush to find out!

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  4. Oh my goodness! The word means exactly what it needs to mean for this review. I’m going to call one of my students “acephalous” today and see what happens. (Years ago, I had to backtrack hastily when I called a kid a shmuck!)

    Maybe we’re all going through a rough period because your 1937 theory is for the birds!!!!!!!! Do like I do to chase away the blues: sign up for a Scandinavian crime fiction class. I’m reading my first now. The world is awful. There is no order to restore. Fun times!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, sometimes a large vocbulary isn’t an asset: I’ll leave to you imagine the explaining that was necessary when I referred to a child as being ‘niggardly’ in his dealings with his classmates (it was meant to encourage him!)…didn’t make that mistake again.

      And, no, I disagree about the 1937 thing: if anything, the fact that someone is going clearly out of their comfort zone to write something so crammed with tropes and yet without the basic understanding of how these tropes fit together shows to me that the awareness and hence prevalence of these ideas was clearly very high. I never said every book from 1937 would be good, just that it’s what I take as the high water-mark of the GAD conventions. The poorness of this book has convinced me even more.

      And did you really sign up for that course?! Should we expect brooding posts on ex-lovers, the bitterness of winter, the stale tobacco smell that greets you as you wake alone every morning in your freezing apartment, the name of a long-lost lover dancing through the remaining remnants of your dream-fuddled mind, stairwells, whiskey, and, I dunno, taxes? Yay. I’m sure we all look forward to that.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve read Solomon’s Vineyard and The Lady in the Morgue and they were both great fun. Both had doings with religious cults. Perhaps you just were unlucky with this title?

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    • I usually am; I’ll park Latimer for now, but it would appear that his usual metier was not this, so he may come across better in his PI novels. And TomCat says there are impossible crimes in there somewhere, so I’ll do some research and come back to him in…oh, several months. At least.

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  6. This is definitely atypical for Latimer. No wonder he hide behind a pseudonym. I liked the kooky Colonel Black but only because he enlivened the otherwise dreary book. Latimer is an excellent mystery plotter and writer overall. His career lasted well into the TV era and, IMO, he wrote some of the best original scripts for the Perry Mason series when he took over as story editor for a season or two. Don’t write him off based on this poor book. See TomCat’s and Guy’s comments for confirmation. The Bill Crane books are excellent. HEADED FOR A HEARSE, MURDER IN THE MADHOUSE, THE DEAD DON’T CARE are all very well done. There’s a similarity to Craig Rice’s comic crime novels as he tends to indulge in absurdities, farcical situations and Crane’s heavy drinking is often played for laughs. Latimer’s last three books (without Bill Crane) are much darker and tend towards noir as in SOLOMON’S VINEYARD (aka THE FIFTH GRAVE, in its expurgated version) or SINNERS AND SHROUDS.

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    • Thanks, John, I appreciate the encouragement: he seems a little off-kilter here, and I’d find it difficult to believe that this was his normal mode of transport, given the hard work he makes of a pretty simple plot. When the memory of this one has faded, I’ll track down a Bill Crane novel and report back — if I can warm to Philip Macdonald after X v. Rex then I can definitely warm to Latimer after this, and the comments here have convinced me that there’s something here worth looking into further. I just need to get this taste out of my mouth first… 🙂

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      • I probably should’ve mentioned in my previous comment that I’ve read, and reviewed, two Bill Crane novels. Murder in the Madhouse was a splendid and original introduction of the character, which has Crane going undercover in a private sanatorium as a patient who thinks he’s Poe’s Auguste Dupin. It’s rather reminiscent of Patrick Quentin’s A Puzzle for Fools and has a minor locked room mystery towards the end.

        Headed for a Hearse was an uneven story, but the death-house scenes were excellently written and deliver the best parts of the book. Crane also comes up with a false solution for the problem of the locked apartment that’s better than the real one. So hopes this helps when you decide to give Latimer a second shot.

        My comments are pending approval again. What’s wrong with wordpress? This is supposed to be a platform for communication.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks, I am definitely going to return to Latimer (I’ve just checked, and he is available on Kindle) and I’ll definitely bear the adivce you, John, and Guy have given in mind. Here’s hoping it’s a more positive return…

          As for WordPress…I know, it’s weird. But, hey, at least your comments go to be moderated; I’ve tried leaving comments on Blogspot blogs for you, John, Curtis Evans, and others and it won’t let me, no matter what I do. Most vexing, as it cuts the amount of discussion possible down by at least half — and, dammit, discussion is what we’re here for!!

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