Jonathan Latimer is seventy-five years old. He lives in La Jolla, California. He has been a newspaper reporter, a writer of mystery novels, a screen writer and a TV writer. He is also a survivor of the golden age of the hardboiled detective paperback: the Thirties and Forties. After some prior correspondence, this interview was received by Maurice Neville, Santa Barbara rare book dealer and publisher, and his colleague, James Pepper.
JL: Let me get this straight. You’re actually serious about putting out a new edition of Solomon’s Vineyard?
A: Yes, we are.
JL: And you want me to write an introduction?
JL: Don’t you two realize the book is an antique, more than forty years old?
Q: So don’t you think it’s about time it saw the light of day again?
JL: You honestly believe it’s worth reprinting?
A: We think it’s possibly the best book you ever wrote.
JL: Well, thanks. You know, I’m beginning to like you guys.
Q: Then you’ll do our introduction?
Q: No?! Why not?
JL: Because that sets up a no-win situation. I praise the book, I’m boasting. I knock it, then why am I writing an introduction?
Q: But you wouldn’t actually knock it, would you?
JL: I suppose not, I went through it the other day and I have to admit it’s held up damn well. Better than the Bill Crane books.
Q: Which brings up something we’d like to ask. The Lady in the Morgue. The Dead Don’t Care and the other Crane books were tremendously successful. Best seller lists, slick magazine sales, movie sales… what made you suddenly switch to Solomon’s Vineyard and a new detective?
JL: Crane drank too much.
Q: No, seriously…?
JL: Change of pace. The Crane books were light-hearted, not to be taken too seriously. Booze, babes and bullets. So I decided to go for something closer to reality.
Q: You consider a cult leader once a year killing and then violating a virgin from among his followers reality?
JL: Do you consider the Manson killings reality?
A: You’ve got a point there.
JL: Well, point or not, I enjoyed writing the book.
Q: Why was it called Solomon’s Vineyard in England and The Fifth Grave in the United States?
JL: The British editor used my title, but when Mystery Book Magazine published it in New York the editor called it The Fifth Grave.
Q: You didn’t object?
JL: I thought his title was better.
Q: Was he the one who expurgated it for Popular Library?
JL: I don’t know who did that, or why. Nothing in it, really, that would make a nun blush.
Q: Did the editor point out the likeness to Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Your detective trying to find the killer of his partner?
JL: No. I didn’t know I’d lifted the idea until somebody mentioned it years later.
Q: Did Dashiell Hammett ever bring up the similarity?
JL: I never knew him.
Q: You’re supposed to have said he was too dumb to operate a self-service elevator. How could you if you didn’t know him?
JL: I said he was too drunk. Only time I ever saw him was one morning around 3 A.M, at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. He was being lugged across the lobby by an assistant manager and two bellhops. They wrestled him into the night elevator and ran him upstairs where I suppose they put him to bed. Hell of a fine writer, though, drunk or sober.
Q: Another quote that must come back to haunt you: your saying that Raymond Chandler had a heart of ice.
JL: I don’t remember saying that, but one time I did think it.
Q: When was that?
JL: Right after he and his wife, Cissy, moved from Hollywood to La Jolla. He asked me over one afternoon to look at his new house. I got there around five and was trying to decide whether to ask for Scotch or a Martini when a maid wheeled in a cart. On it were assorted cups and pots and plates of little cakes. My choice was tea with milk, or tea with lemon! That’s when I got the heart-of-ice thought.
Q: You weren’t friendly after that?
JL: Oh, sure. But whenever I went to his house I had a couple of solid belts first.
Q: What do you think of his books?
JL: Classics! He created a turf for himself out of old Los Angeles that to this day I can still hear
and see and smell and feel. And he wrote sentences and paragraphs that shot off sparks like a Fourth of July rocket.
Q: Did you encounter any other writers of the hardboiled school in your early Hollywood days?
JL: James Cain. He was at RKO Studios while I was there, but he never spoke to me. Actually, he never spoke to anybody.
Q: Who else?
JL: Horace McCoy. I was an early drum beater for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and his other books. We both worked for Paramount just before World War II. He looked tough, but he was really a very modest, very gentle guy. Spoke to me every time he saw me.
Q: Any others?
JL: A whole bunch over the years. But none were in the same league as the four I’ve named.
Q: We seem to have wandered pretty far afield from Solomon’s Vineyard. How did you get the idea for the book?
JL: I was sent by my paper, the Chicago Herald-Examiner, to Benton Harbor, Michigan. A bank cashier who’d appropriated both the contents of the vault and the president’s wife was on trial there. Walking around town during recesses, I kept noticing a cluster of large buildings on a vine-covered hill two or three miles away. A religious colony, I was told, but people I talked with seemed oddly secretive about it. So late one afternoon, after I’d filed the days story, I drove out to look around. I left my car half way up the hill
and started on foot towards the top. It was near dusk by then, crickets starting to chirp, birds making soft going-to-bed sounds, but half a hundred white-robed men and women were still cultivating the adjoining vineyards. At the hill’s top, white buildings squared off a deserted rectangle of grass. I walked into this and suddenly found myself in a zone of very cold air, It was silent in the zone, no insects, no birds, no anything, but there was an odor: fetid, feral, pervasive, like the odor around the big cat cages at a zoo.
Q: Did you discover what caused all this?
JL: No, because I was terrified. I felt I was being watched by someone or something powerful and dangerous and evil.
Q: What did you do?
JL: I got out of there… and never went back.
Q: And Solomon’s Vineyard was a fictional way of exorcising that terror?
JL: If it was, it didn’t work. After fifty years I still dream about the place and wake up with ice along my spine.
Q: That’s very interesting. And wouldn’t you say, after all you’ve told us, that you can write our introduction now?
JL: I’d say I just had.