“Raoul Whitfield: Shoulder to Shoulder with the Best of Them” (by Boris Dralyuk)

Two weeks ago Mark Evan Walker contributed an article to this site about largely forgotten mystery writer Brett Halliday and his most famous character, Michael Shayne. This week another writer who has faded from memory—and was perhaps never given his full due during his lifetime—is discussed by Dr. Boris Dralyuk, whose articles have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, and many other publications.  Boris is also associate editor for Black Mask Press, where he works with Black Mask Magazine conservator and publisher Keith Alan Deutsch. In this capacity he has been involved in creating and editing e-books for the new Black Mask Library, which releases its first several titles by contributors to the classic Black Mask Magazine this month (MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Media). Raoul Whitfield, who was one of Black Mask’s most important contributors, is the subject of Boris’s post today. He has written an introduction to the Raoul Whitfield collection West of Guam: The Complete Cases of Jo Gar, which will be published by Black Mask Library in 2014, and shares with us some of his perspective on Whitfield. Readers who’d like to read more of Boris’s analysis will have to wait for the book. . . . —Janet Hutchings

Raoul Fauconnier Whitfield, one of the great pioneers of the hardboiled school of detective fiction, broke into the legendary Black Mask Magazine in March 1926, with the third-person aviation adventure “Scotty Troubles Trouble.” The February 1934 issue marked his final appearance in the magazine’s pages—a standalone first-person private-eye tale titled “Death on Fifth Avenue.” All told, he managed to place ninety stories with Black Mask, exploring a vast variety of settings, characters, and narrative perspectives. In the 1970s, Whitfield’s first wife, Prudence, told Keith Alan Deutsch, Black Mask’s current publisher and conservator, that Raoul saw himself as the originator of the “flying ace” genre. This may be true, but it is only a small part of his contribution. Whitfield’s characters—most notably, the Island detective Jo Gar, the conscientious gambler Alan Van Cleve, the dogged avenger Mal Ourney, and the prototypical Hollywood P.I., Ben Jardinn—have real depth and continue to resonate with modern readers.  They set a high standard for generations of hardboiled protagonists to come.

And yet, despite the originality and power of Whitfield’s fiction—as well as tireless boosting from Dashiell Hammett, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and EQMM’s own Frederic Dannay—he remains in the shadows.

It is now customary to weigh the lesser-known Black Mask boys against the two that made it, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. To weigh them, that is, and find them wanting. Since Chandler put his own unmistakable spin on the Black Mask house style, it is Hammett’s work that generally serves as the gold standard for the pure hardboiled mode. And none of the other pulpsters, the majority of critics have it, quite measures up. This opinion took hold in the early 1930s, when a couple of Hammett’s colleagues followed him into the hardboiled market – and it has hurt no one as consistently as it has Raoul Whitfield.

Even those critics who appreciated Whitfield’s novels compared him unfavorably to Hammett. Burton Rascoe’s otherwise glowing review in the August 1931 issue of Arts & Decoration, which praises Black Mask’s editor Capt. Joseph T. Shaw for sponsoring Hammett and Whitfield, demonstrates this tendency:

Another writer Mr. Shaw has nurtured and developed in Black Mask is Raoul Whitfield and before the field gets too crowded with people congratulating Mr. Shaw on his discovery and shouting applause to Whitfield, I want to get in a yell for him. Take a look into his new novel. Death in a Bowl (Knopf). If you get that far, you will be glued to your chair until you finish reading it. So far Whitfield seems a notch below Hammett as a character creator and he is not as careful a writer as Hammett; but he is inventive and dramatic and his hard-boiled people are hard-boiled people.[1]

There were, of course, a few dissenting voices, like that of the New York Herald Tribune’s Will Cuppy, who declared Green Ice (1930) to be “by several miles the slickest detective job of the season,” besting Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. But such voices were far between.

Cap Shaw himself gave in to the temptation to stack Whitfield against Hammett. Drafting an introduction to his Hard-Boiled Omnibus in 1947, Shaw characterized Whitfield as a “hard, patient, determined worker. His style from the first was hard and brittle and over-inclined to staccato. Later, he became more fluent.” When he writes that Whitfield rose to stand “shoulder to shoulder with the best of them,” it’s clear he has Hammett’s lanky frame in mind.

Shaw then relays a fascinating anecdote about Black Mask shoptalk:

Long and fascinating were the discussions between Whit and Dash. Whit maintained that, given characters and a general plot, it was a cinch to write a detective story. When in a spot, all you need do, is use the well-known props. A good writer should produce a novel without any of these appurtenances to achieve effect. And Dash’s comeback, “All right, if you want to make it the hard way, try writing a book omitting every word that has the letter ‘f’ for example.”

It appears that Whitfield had all the “well-known props” at hand, but aspired to get along without them, to be a “good writer.” As Shaw put it, “Whit was ambitious. He wanted to invade other fields than that of crime detection and criminal conflict.” This version of Whitfield—the competent, workaday storyteller reaching beyond his hard-won skills and meager talents—doesn’t quite jibe with the other, more intimate account that emerged at around the same time.

The only substantial description we have of Whitfield’s actual process comes from his first wife, Prudence, who took it upon herself to preserve her former husband’s legacy after his death in 1945. Between 1947 and 1949 Prue managed to republish six of Whitfield’s stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Frederic Dannay, one half of the Queen franchise and the primary editor of EQMM, was himself an advocate of Whitfield’s work. He mined his conversations and correspondence with Prue for valuable, if not always reliable, information, which he then doled out in headnotes to the stories. Here is Prue’s vivid description of Whit at work, care of Dannay:

Raoul Whitfield always wrote very easily and quickly, and with a minimum of correction. He had a particular talent for starting with a title and writing around it. His wife has said that once he had a title, he had the story. He would place neat stacks of chocolate bars (which he ate by the thousands) to the right of his typewriter, and a picket fence of cigarettes to his left. He wrote and chain-smoked and ate, all in one unified operation. He could be surrounded by a cocktail party going at full blast—and keep right on writing. [2]

More on those cocktail parties later. First, another tidbit from Prue and Dannay:

The fact is, Raoul Whitfield needed very little to start him on a story. An incident which most people would consider trivial, a newspaper account buried on an inside page, a casual remark by a stranger—these were the fragile details out of which he wove flashing designs. [3]

Place this next to Prue’s image of “Hammett writing laboriously, alone in a room, with dirty dishes strewn all over the kitchen floor,”[4] and a neat dichotomy begins to take shape: Dash slaved away on masterpieces, while Whit dashed off “flashing designs.”

Shaw’s Whit is yeomanlike and ambitious, while Prue’s hums along like a well-oiled machine; neither can really match Hammett, the inspired perfectionist.

In truth, Whitfield was no less agile a hardboiled stylist than Hammett. On that score, one could cite the unfailing instincts of French connoisseurs: The first hardboiled novel translated by Marcel Duhamel, the editor of Gallimard’s Série Noire, was neither Red Harvest nor The Maltese Falcon, but Whitfield’s Green Ice (Les Émeraudes sanglantes, Gallimard, 1931).[5] As Jean-Paul Schweighaeuser writes in Le roman noir français (1984), for France, “Raoul Whitfield led the way.”[6] Meanwhile, F. Scott Fitzgerald—a native-born cognoscente of the genre—was ready to declare Whitfield “as good as Hammett” when suggesting neglected books to Malcolm Cowley in the April 18, 1934 issue of New Republic.[7]

Or one could take Dash’s own word for it. He and Whitfield had a profound appreciation for each other’s writing. It was Hammett who recommended Whitfield’s Black Mask “Crime Breeder” series to Blanche Knopf for hardcover publication as Green Ice. Some years earlier, Dannay reports, Whitfield had gone to bat for Dash in the magazine trade:

Whitfield was writing prolifically and being published like mad, but Hammett’s stories were appearing only now and then. Whitfield, who was surely one of Hammett’s first boosters, used to write many letters to editors asking: “Where is this man, Hammett? Why don’t you accept more of his stories?” [8]

Hammett’s review of Green Ice in the New York Evening Post gives us a good sense of just what he saw in his friend’s work: “The plot does not matter so much. What matters is that here are two hundred and eighty pages of naked action pounded into a tough compactness by staccato, hammerlike writing.”[9]

No, it wasn’t just the ease with which Whitfield spun his plots. The plots didn’t matter nearly as much as the “hammerlike” style, and the world of “naked action” it depicted. To be sure, Whitfield was capable of lyricism, and the language of the Jo Gar tales, like the detective himself, is redolent of “the climate of the Islands” (“Signals of Storm” [1930]). But it is Whitfield’s command of the tough, laconic mode that sets him apart. The following passage from Green Ice, in which the tough protagonist Mal Ourney peruses a newspaper account of a gangland murder, distills the hardboiled to its essence: “ ‘Angel’ Cherulli had been found in an alley behind his club, with a flock of thirty-eights in his stomach and chest. There wasn’t a clue. He had many enemies. The rest of the story was just writing.” Nothing else need be said. Each declarative sentence carries a load. Neither Ourney nor Whitfield is about to waste precious time on “just writing.”

And therein lies a key animating tension of hardboiled prose: It is a literature that aspires to silence. A protagonist boiled hard enough has no use for words at all. Action alone counts. At its best, the action of hardboiled fiction reflects not only the unrelenting brutality of life as its authors see it, but also a kind of transcendent mindfulness beyond matter, a presence in the moment. There is a strangely meditative quality to Whitfield’s most frantic and violent scenes, even if the Buddha ends up as collateral damage:

Van Cleve turned his back. He took two steps towards the door that led from the library to the living room and the phone. Then he leaped to one side. Barney’s gun crashed, and the Buddha on the library table shot jade chips across the amber light from the table lamp. Dale Byrons screamed. (Killers’ Carnival [1932], published under the pseudonym Temple Field)

The finest hardboiled stylists—like Whitfield, Hammett, and the consciously “ultra-hardboiled” Paul Cain—are true modernists; their dissatisfaction with language’s insufficiency, its inability to capture “naked action,” drives them toward ever-greater experimentation, ever-greater refinement. Ultimately, it drives them to silence.

Whitfield more or less abandoned writing during his second tempestuous marriage to a socialite named Emily O’Neill Davies Vanderbilt Thayer. It seems he began to leave his typewriter more and more often to join those cocktail parties going on around him. Decades later, Prudence told Keith Alan Deutsch that Whitfield “was bored with writing; plotting came too easily.” Maybe so—and maybe other things proved too hard.

[1] Burton Rascoe, review of Death in a Bowl, Arts & Decoration 35, no. 4 (August 1931): 83.

[2] Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (October 1947): 16.

[3] EQMM (March 1949): 81.

[4] EQMM (May 1948): 40.

[5] See Marcel Duhamel, Raconte pas ta vie (Paris: Mercure de France, 1972), 293.

[6] Jean-Paul Schweighaeuser, Le roman noir français (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1984), 16.

[7] F. Scott Fitzgerald, in Malcolm Cowley, “Good Books That Almost Nobody Has Read,” New Republic 78 (April 18, 1934): 283.

[8] EQMM (May 1948): 40.

[9] Dashiell Hammett, review of Green Ice, New York Evening Post, July 19, 1930, p. 5A.

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4 Responses to “Raoul Whitfield: Shoulder to Shoulder with the Best of Them” (by Boris Dralyuk)

  1. Thanks for this piece. I loved Raoul Whitfield when I discovered him. The great Fort Worth blues singer Johnny Reno gifted me a copy of Green Ice back in 1984 and RW’s speedy hardboiled style infected my own work from then on. I had just turned in my second novel, Tough Baby, when I read the other RW titles, and I immediately revised the book, RW style, in my mind, anyway, and stripped the narrative down about 50%. I really dug learning details about RW’s life and the thing about gobble chocolate bars always stuck in my mind.

  2. So this is going off on a tangent, but I’ve been wondering, what exactly is the theme of the Black Mask department in EQMM? Is it hard-boiled stories? Stories that are reprinted from Black Mask? a different editor? something else? What distinguishes a story in the Black Mask section from one anywhere else in the magazine?

    • Janet Hutchings says:

      Hi Elliotte,
      The Black Mask department consists primarily of new stories that I choose. However, we sometimes feature reprints from the original Black Mask, and these are recommended to me by Keith Alan Deutsch, Black Mask’s conservator. I think almost all contemporary “hardboiled” fiction has roots that can be traced back to Black Mask, so I consider the full range of the hardboiled field to be the domain of our Black Mask department. There is an emphasis on finding fast-paced stories with lots of action. “Noir” stories also fit this department. A lot of these stories are not as fast paced. They tend to focus on characters who can’t put things right without crossing dangerous moral boundaries, and who find that justice (an essential outcome in classical mysteries) either cannot be achieved, or has shades of gray. This type of story too has roots in the original Black Mask magazine. Stories in the Black Mask department are usually edgier and often more violent than other stories in EQMM.

      Hope this answers your questions.

      Janet Hutchings

  3. John Reynolds says:

    I think it’s good to remember Whitfield. Too bad the stories have never been gathered into an Anthology. Maybe some day…

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