JONATHAN LATIMER – The Fifth Grave. PI Karl Craven. Popular Library, 1950.

   Jonathan Latimer’s The Fifth Grave has an interesting publishing history, having been originally published by Methuen in England in 1941 under the author’s own title, Solomon’s Vineyard. Its first appearance in the U.S. was in Mystery Book Magazine (August, 1946), and [until now] the first and only appearance in book form is the December, 1950 Popular Library edition (#301), with a subsequent second printing in April of the following year. All of Mr. Latimer’s other books appeared first in the U.S. in hardcover editions.

   Narrator and private eye Karl Craven from St. Louis .discovers his partner Oke Johnson shot dead in Paulton where they had come to rescue a client’s niece, Penelope Grayson, -from a religious cult group located near town at Solomon’s Vineyard. The founder, Solomon, lies in state in their imposing white temple — “the temple that bootleg built.”

   The business end of the vineyard is naturally in other than unsoiled hands and Craven has quite a time separating the wheat from the chaff, especially since he must save a seemingly doped Penelope before the impending Ceremony of the Bride, a Walpurgis Night when she is to become the fifth wife of the dead Solomon, with her grave already dug and complete with headstone.

   A far cry from Latimer’s series investigator William Crane, Craven is as hard-boiled as they come. An egoist, he justifies all his actions; anything goes, he feels, when it’s question  of “fighting fire with fire.”  His likes are simple — food, fighting, women, and liquor. Some scenes are definitely  not for those with weak stomachs. like the one in which Craven forces an antagonist’s head through  prison bars, sacrificing some skin in the process.

   On the obese side, Karl Craven becomes an object of worship himself by the masochistic nympho princess residing at the Vineyard.  He narrowly escapes death twice, including a fabulous scene in a steak room. There is quite a bit of action and suspense with more than one surprise before the case is resolved to the mutual satisfaction of Craven and the client. Written in a terse and often brutal language, it has to be a classic of its kind.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 4, Number 3 (June 1981).