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Red Meat, Red Blood and Pure Americana

By Stilicho Americanus

Red Meat, Red Blood
and Pure Americana

The American patois of the twentieth century was born in the pulps. More specifically, the common language was born in pulp magazines like Black Mask and Dime Detective Magazine.

There, in between flimsy, pulp wood paper advertisements for correspondence courses and vril-inducing pills, hardboiled detectives like Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op or Frederick Nebel’s Cardigan duked it out with gangsters and gun molls, all the while keeping as cool as can be with endless glasses of hard liquor. The roman noir begat film noir, and thus the unique darkness of corrupt American streets became an international art form for the cynical, wayward, and lonely. Even those unfamiliar with the pages of a Raymond Chandler novel know a hardboiled noir story when they see the signs: tough loners with interior monologues, femme fatales with Lucky Strike lips, crime (usually murder and/or blackmail), secrets, corrupt cops, and city streets set to the soundtrack of rain and jazz.

But there is more. One of the lesser-known traditions of the hardboiled yarn concerns the prevalence and potency of religious cults. Yes, you read that right. From Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer opener, The Moving Target (1949), to Hammett’s The Dain Curse (1929), American detective and crime tales from the early to mid-twentieth century have often included perverse cults as villains. Much of this can be blamed on California and the Golden State’s reputation for fostering religious weirdos with messiah complexes. In The Moving Target, the sun worshipper Claude mans his solar temple atop a mountain belonging to the missing millionaire, Ralph Sampson. Santa Teresa private eye Lew Archer learns that Claude’s mumbo-jumbo is actually cover for a lucrative scheme whereby he and other criminals bring in illegal laborers from Mexico to work on local farms. In The Dain Curse, the short and pugnacious Continental Op learns about the Temple of the Holy Grail — a splinter sect whose San Francisco headquarters features an altar that hides a complex network of steam tubes and pipes. Rather than faith, the Temple actually sells morphine and murder. The spiritualism is all bunk in such novels, and more often than not all the religious pageantry is cover for criminality.

The same holds true for Jonathan Latimer’s overlooked classic, The Fifth Grave. First published as a hardcover in the UK in 1941 under the title Solomon’s Vineyard, American readers did not get a taste of this ultra-violent gem until it appeared in the Mystery Book Magazine, number 13, in August 1946. This version of the story lacked a lot of the novel’s juicier qualities, such as its love of profanity and sex. A third version of the novel was released by Popular Library in 1950. It too proved highly sanitized and a pale shadow of the original manuscript. By that point, Latimer was already a busy man in Hollywood. The crime novelist was very in-demand in the 1950s, penning scripts for the films Submarine Command (1951), Plunder of the Sun (1953), and The Unholy Wife (1957). One wonders what he thought about all the mutilation of his masterpiece.

Here are the facts of the case: Jonathan Latimer was born on October 23, 1906, in Chicago, Illinois. Having graduated from Knox College, he became a reporter who specialized in covering sensational crimes. After writing articles about Jazz Age gangsters like Al Capone and “Bugs” Moran, Latimer turned to fiction writing. He hit the big time with the private-eye character William Crane. Crane got the big-screen treatment as early as 1937’s The Westland Case, with Preston Foster portraying Crane. According to crime writer and historian of the hardboiled genre, Max Allan Collins, the William Crane novels are a sort of halfway house wherein the hardboiled novel meets the “classic drawing room mystery” first popularized by the Victorian masters Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Fifth Grave does away with the older conventions. And instead of the affable Crane, Latimer put another P.I. into the maelstrom. Meet Karl Craven of St. Louis.

Craven is a big man — well over six feet tall and north of two hundred and forty pounds. Prior to becoming a two-fisted private eye, Craven played defensive tackle for Notre Dame. The novel never says if he’s a good Catholic boy or not. Then again, given how Craven acts in The Fifth Grave, it is unlikely that he’s a familiar face at Mass. Craven fights, sets up men for murder, and fornicates his way through the small town of Paulton, Missouri. In between such debauchery, he puts away an ungodly amount of beer, hard liquor, and red meat. “I want a change of clothes, Charles. And some whisky and breakfast,” Craven tells the bellboy at his hotel. And what does Craven want for breakfast? “Eggs and bacon and a sirloin steak.” Elsewhere, Craven orders steak and salad while on a date with a gangster’s girlfriend. He puts away a four-pound steak for lunch. “I couldn’t seem to get enough meat,” he says to himself. “My system craved it all the time. Rare meat.”

The protein is necessary fuel, for the caper at the heart of The Fifth Grave is a rough one. Craven’s official responsibility is simple enough. His goal is to return the young and beautiful Penelope Grayson to her wealthy father. Penelope is an adherent to a strange, pseudo-Christian sect who occupy a large mansion surrounded by a vineyard. Known simply as the Vineyard, the group worships their dead benefactor, a certain Solomon whose body is preserved in a glass coffin. When Craven enters Paulton, he is just in time for the Ceremony of the Bride — a blasphemous ritual where a selected female is chosen to spend the night in Solomon’s mausoleum. The brides never make it out alive. Penelope Grayson is slated to be the next Bride of Solomon unless the big city shamus can put a stop to it.

In the midst of the evil workings at the Vineyard, Craven has to pursue two other cases. One involves his former partner, a large Swede named Oke Johnson. On the day of Craven’s arrival in Paulton, he learns that Oke has been murdered by someone wielding a rifle outfitted with a suppressor. The police haul in Craven for questioning and unintentionally give him some leads. These leads point him to a sexy little number named Ginger. Craven plays the hero and saves Ginger from a drunken salesman. This kindness is repaid by Ginger’s boyfriend, Pug Banta. Banta is a former East St. Louis hood who runs all the vice in Paulton. Banta insults Craven during their first meeting, and that’s all it takes. Craven engineers Banta’s downfall. First, he continues to woo Ginger in a public manner. Next, Craven plays both sides in a death’s dance where Banta and his men shoot up a Greek restaurant and dancehall frequented by one of Paulton’s illustrious citizens (who dies in the melee). Craven learns that Banta is the underling of the mysterious Princess of the Vineyard, and when she takes a liking to the gumshoe, Craven holds the Princess’s power over Banta’s head until the gangster freaks out and gets caught by the police during the botched murder of a crooked lawyer named Thomas McGee.

Craven’s adventures against Banta are reminiscent of Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929). In that highly influential novel, the Continental Op plays the various criminal factions of Personville, Montana against each other, resulting in mutually assured destruction. The Op goes “blood simple” as he plays a deft hand in various deaths (without coating his own hands in crimson). Craven does something similar, playing off Banta and the Princess. But unlike many hardboiled detectives, Craven engages in another kind of physical action with the Princess. The leader of the Vineyard is a sexual dynamo and a vampiric lover who drains Craven during their many encounters. This quality further adds to the mystique of the Princess, who besides being the boss of the unholy congregation at the Vineyard, is also Paulton’s top crime lord. The Vineyard, you see, is a front for all kinds of graft, from prostitution to illicit liquor sales. However, unlike all the other faux cults in the history of American crime fiction, the Vineyard does hide malevolent secrets, such as the walking dead.

The Fifth Grave is the definition of an action-packed thriller. This slim and taut volume is the quintessence of hardboiled noir. Craven is a tough-talking, action-first hero who embodies a lost type of masculinity. Craven is cool, capable, and never prone to much self-reflection. He has a job to do, which is first and foremost. But he also knows that every man has a right to revenge against guilty parties. He is a loner, but not lonely. He has multiple sexual conquests in the novel, but never bothers with love. In the end, he sums it all up by saying “being a detective toughens a fellow up, Mr. Grayson.”

Toughness. That is the key word when it comes to The Fifth Grave and the entire ethos of hardboiled noir. The men in these novels take a lot of lumps. More often than not, they are the ones getting beat up in a fist fight. But they always get back up. And despite not being eggheads, the private eyes of the pulps always proved more clever than the crooks and cops arrayed against them. This is the trademark of American-style detective fiction. While the British originals emphasized logic puzzles, the Americans prioritized violence and action. The Fifth Grave is all-American in that fashion. Furthermore, it exudes the old frontier mythos of the lone man standing up against a litany of villains. Craven is a cowboy with a badge, and when he’s done with the job, Paulton is just a little cleaner.

The Fifth Grave is escapist fiction, to be sure. But it also a window into a vanishing American ethos and style. There is no navel-gazing to be found. There is no agonizing over emotions. There is no wider social commentary about the plight of sex workers or the limited economic prospects of Greek immigrants. It is a rough and tumble novel set in a bygone Midwest. Craven is masculine. He eats meat and drinks like a fish. More importantly, he is a working man sure of his place in the world, and sure of his mission. A lot of guys reading this need to find their mission. Maybe a glass of whisky and a steak for breakfast would be a good start.

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MAN’S WORLD is now available, for the very first time, as a high-quality printed magazine. Across 200 glorious pages, you’ll find everything that made the digital magazine the sensation that it was – the best essays, the most brilliant new fiction, interviews, art, food, sex, fitness – and so much more.

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