The Lady in the Morgue is the third book in Jonathan Latimer's series starring detective William Crane. Crane is a fast-talking, hard-hitting, hard-drinking private eye who finds himself in the middle of the mystery of the missing corpse.
The story opens in a Chicago morgue. The detective agency that Crane works for has been called in by a prominent and wealthy New York family to find out if the remains of an apparent suicide under the name of "Alice Ross" is actually those of the daughter of the house. Before any positive identification can take place, "Alice's" body has been "kidnapped" and the morgue attendant killed. The District Attorney, who seems to have a grudge against Crane, would love to saddle the private detective with the murder and the theft of the body. Two rival mobsters also believe that Crane is responsible for the corpse's disappearance and are willing to use whatever means necessary to make him reveal where she is. Crane spends the rest of the novel trying to track down the missing body, find out who she really was, and--incidently--who killed both her and the morgue attendant. He hooks up with two other operatives from the agency and spend a wild couple days--digging up graves, attending pent house parties, visiting dance halls, and being pushed around by mobster heavies. The story comes full circle when Crane & company finally track down the missing lady and bring her back to the morgue for a final showdown with the culprit.
Written in 1936, there is a lot of ultra-non-pc humor and references that some readers may not be able to overlook. And, for me, there seemed to be way more swearing going on than I'm used to in my vintage mysteries. All that aside, this is an action-packed, fast-paced example of the screwball hard-boiled mystery. Crane is successful in his investigations, but one would be hard-pressed to say that it was expected. The man spends more time downing whatever alcoholic beverage is handy (even mistaking embalming fluid for a delectable drink!), sleeping (or wishing he were sleeping), and wise-cracking with his colleagues than he does in actual detective work. But when the going gets tough, he does use his brains and deliver the goods. And the story is fairly clued, too--a bonus for a hard-boiled outing. But the highlight of this story is the interaction between Crane and the other operatives. Their antics in the car when they transport the missing body back to the morgue are not be missed. Three stars.
They assured him positively, on their honors, that they had not. Did he think they were the sort of characters who would dream of drinking anything before lunch? Did he think that? They both were deeply hurt. (p. 70)
"I suppose one of you even now has some of this deadly, habit-forming drug concealed about his person." [Bill Crane] They looked at him solemnly, protesting their innocence. O'Malley, in all fairness, said, yes, he did think he had a small potion somewhere about him. There was no telling when a man would be overcome with faintness; it was foolish to take a chance. (p. 71)
I solve 'em, drunk or sober ~Bill Crane (p. 82) [Apparently his motto....]
To Crane the scene looked like one of those horror movies in which mad scientists bring monsters back to life. In the flickering blue-white light O'Malley's face was fish-belly white; the girl's serene, peaceful, terrible. O'Malley held her away from the wall, let her drop. "Good catch," he said, and turning to Crane and Williams, watching bug-eyed, added, "Come on, you mugs."
In the space of a dozen major claps of thunder they were beside the rented car. "How're we going t' get her inside?" Williams wanted to know. " You can't bend her."
They finally angled her in the rear door and propped her up in one corner. Crane got in beside her, asked dubiously, "I wonder if she'll act as a conductor for lightning?" (p. 204)
All the best people have tried to kill me at one time or another. ~Bill Crane (p. 237)
Challenges: 150 Plus Reading Challenge, A-Z Reading Challenge, Embarrassment of Riches, Monthly Mix-up Mania, Mount TBR Challenge, Mystery and Crime Challenge, Off the Shelf, Outdo Yourself, Vintage Mystery Challenge, Book Bingo, A-Z Mystery Author