A Review by Sam Wiebe
The sanitized, bland, and distinctly un-evocative covers for the newest iteration of Black Lizard inspired me to read a few more old pulp novels recently—the kind that usually feature lurid covers by artists like Robert McGuinness. It’s my small, silent and utterly meaningless pushback against the “downplay the ugly and problematic” trend in publishing.
These are ugly books, for one reason or another, and I will concede that they are problematic on one level or another. Maybe there’s some value in examining them in the bald honesty of their fears, desires, and irrational beliefs, in their evocation of a time period close to our own. I doubt it.
First up is Solomon’s Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer…
Listen. This is a wild one. Maybe the wildest yet.
Written in 1941, Jonathan Latimer’s Solomon’s Vineyard went unpublished in the US, and was only available in England. Gutted and bowdlerized, it was finally released in 1950, nine years later, as The Fifth Victim. Vineyard is a book of its time, and yet unlike other pulp novels from the 1940s.
Karl Craven arrives in a midwestern town with two goals: spring a senator’s daughter from a secretive cult who worship their recently deceased patriarch, Solomon; and avenge his partner, who was killed trying to effect this rescue.
Craven is a college football player gone to seed, a fat, booze-soaked and sex-obsessed PI who makes enemies at every step. Craven is dispassionate about his work, pragmatic about violence, and in thrall to his outsized appetites for steak, whiskey, and women. He’s Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op as written by Mickey Spillane (or Harold Robbins).
Latimer went on to write a series about a detective named Bill Crane, as well as episodes of the original Perry Mason and the Ray Milland film The Big Clock.
Solomon’s Vineyard was unavailable in the US in its original form until 1988, when it was put out by a company called International Polygonics, Ltd for their Library of Crime Classics imprint. This is the edition to get, and vastly different from The Fifth Grave.
How different? Here’s the opening from The Fifth Grave, republished recently by Mysterious Press:
From the way she looked under the black silk dress, I knew she’d be a hot dame. The silk was tight and under it her hips worked slow and easy. I saw weight there, and control, and, brother, those are things I like in a woman. I put down my bags and went after her along the station platform.
Not awful, but not very memorable. The language sounds dated, and the uninspired innuendo can’t cover its chauvinism. This could be any book pulled off the rack the decade it was published.
Now here’s the opening to the original Solomon’s Vineyard:
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 things I like in a woman. I put down my bags and went after her along the station platform.
A far better opening. You may dislike this narrator and his narrative entirely, you may find him a leering creep, but you know he’s going to be honest with us.
Only this isn’t quite the real first paragraph. Before this, on the opposing page, there’s a statement attributed to Karl Craven, not quite an epigraph:
Listen. This is a wild one. Maybe the wildest yet. It’s got everything but an abortion and a tornado. I ain’t saying it’s true. Neither of us, brother, is asking you to believe it. You can lug it across to the rental library right now and tell the dame you want your goddamn nickel back. We don’t care. All HE done was write it down like I told it, and I don’t guarantee nothing.
Before the story’s start we’re being told by the storyteller that it’s a good one, and wild, and we might hate it and want our money back before the end. A trigger warning, an enticement, a way to fuck with us?
“Karl Craven,” is not even the narrator’s real name. It’s the name he adopts in this town, for this job. Like the Continental Op, the character is nameless. Whether chosen by the author or the character himself, the name tells us something about both.
As William L DeAndrea says in his very good introduction to the 1988 Polygonics edition:
“The name “Craven” is Latimer’s little joke—or Craven’s. Every once in a while, we get to see the fear behind the toughness. Hardly anybody but a tough-guy PI would call his behavior or attitude craven. Merely sane.”
Still harder to find than it should be, in its restored form, Solomon’s Vineyard is a pulp classic and a seedy delight.
Respectfully submitted by Sam Wiebe (June 2023).