Saturday, February 01, 2014

The great and the good, Part III

Raoul Whitfield's 1931 story "About Kid Deth" (that's not a spelling mistake. Deth, not death, is correct.) is as chilling and hard-edged as anything this side of his fellow Black Mask writers Paul Cain (Fast One) or Dashiell Hammett (The Glass Key). 

Whitfield's story takes its place alongside Cain's and Hammett's novels on my list of crime fiction written in the early 1930s that reads, entirely or in part,  as if it could have been written today.  But, like some of his colleague Frederick Nebel's writing, Whitfield's story is rife with verbal quirks that have dated badly and that keep its author out of the Hammett-Raymond Chandler pantheon. (Cain might be part of a hard-boiled Big Three had he written more than just Fast One and Seven Slayers.)

In "About Kid Deth," these quirks often take the form of periphrasis — a fancy, though scientifically and grammatically precise word for wordiness. Current preference in American English (and, damn it, in stories that come across my desk at work) calls for the car's engine rather than the engine of the car, the girl's body rather than the body of the girl. Not so in Whitfield's story.

Then there's Whitfield's weird penchant for the word tone. No one ever speaks bitterly in "About Kid Deth." No one ever says anything, his voice casual. No one ever speaks grimly or easily. Rather:
"She spoke in a low, bitter tone."

“`Hello, Deth,' he said in a casual
tone."
“`Think so?' he said in a strange tone." [ed. note: What is "a strange tone"?]

"`You can’t—not that way,' he said in a hard
tone."

“`At Old Andy’s,' he replied in a low
tone."

"He said in an uncertain
tone: `Watch what you do, Kid.'”

"He spoke in a low, easy
tone."

"He said in a grim
tone: `Yeah? Did he do that job?'”
By today's standards, that's the stuff of an early, rough draft. Then there's swearing. Publishing mores in the 1930s did not permit curse words, and the results can look odd to readers today, our eyes and ears assaulted by four decades of artistic and literary cursing. "The skunks!" exclaims a character in Nebel's Crimes of Richmond City, and a reader today can't help but smile.

Here's how Whitfield handles his era's prohibition on swearing:
"The Kid swore."

"Joey Deth lowered his hands and
swore."

"Kid Deth
swore."

"Rands
swore hoarsely."

"He
swore shakily."

"Then he sat back and
swore softly and more steadily."
Granted, the brisk, monosyllabic swore conveys the right, er, tone for a hard-boiled story, but at the risk of a certain sameness. Chandler, on the other hand, turned the prohibition on swearing to entertaining, creative advantage in The Big Sleep in 1939, as Hammett had in "The Girl With the Silver Eyes" in 1924 — seven years before "About Kid Deth."

I may be lazily leftish in my politics, but I'm a cultural conservative in one respect: I believe in artistic discrimination and artistic standards, with absolute, if hard to define, differences between bad and good, and between good and great. Whitfield and Nebel are good, and worth seeking out today. Hammett and Chandler are great. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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13 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

Your featured book cover prompts me to say one thing: What a great book! Even if it were not great reading, which it is, it nevertheless can serve as a massive doorstop.

February 02, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My only complaint about that excellent book is that its size and its soft covers are an occasionally unwieldy combination. Reading it in bed at night, one sometime feels that a massive weight is not so much resting on one's chest as slithering over it.

Frederick Nebel's Crimes of Richmond City, about which I wrote recently, is also here, along with Chandler, Hammett, and every pulp writer you're likely to have heard of or nor heard of. It's fine book for making comparisons such as the one I make in this post.

February 02, 2014  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Would these stories also be examples of the 'behavio(u)rist' POV I've become obsessed with, Peter? And would it be worth my while investing in The Big Book of Pulps?

gb

February 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gerard, not all these stories take that point of view, at least in its strict sense. I don't have the book in front of me, but I seem to recall instances in which Frederck Nebel's MacBride thinks angry thoughts. I'd have to take another to look to see if Whitfield's Joe Deth does the same.

February 03, 2014  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

No worries, Peter. I can have a look at it myself when I get the time for another No Alibis trip. Pretty good chance Dave will have a copy of this (or something similar).

Cheers

gb

February 04, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's a terrific resource--1,100 pages of pulp.

Now you have me thinking about what influence these American stories of the 1920s, '30, and '40s may have had in Europe.

February 04, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gerard, you might try the book I'm reading now -- David Peace's Red or Dead--for a novel that gives a thorough picture of its protagonist without, however, getting inside his head.

February 05, 2014  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Thanks for the recommendation! I'll definitely check it out.

RE influences on Europe; I'll keep an eye out for your future thoughts.

Cheers

Gerard

February 05, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder how widely pulp writers other than Hammett and Chandler are known in Europe. I'll be interested in finding out whether David stocks the Big Book of Pulps volume. And I wonder what his thoughts are on the European/UK/Irish pulp writers other than the Big Two.

I know he stocks or has stocked Peace, because I bought two of the Red Riding novels at No Alibis.

February 05, 2014  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Hey Peter

Just thought I'd let you know, Dave does indeed stock The Big Book of Pulps, though it was sold out when I called in on Friday. I'll probably have a copy by the end of the week, though.

And I forgot to pick up a copy of Red or Dead! But yeah, he definitely stocks Peace. The man himself actually attended the Down These Green Streets (ed. Declan Burke) launch in Belfast for a little while, but I missed him! Could have kicked myself. I'd only just finished reading the third in the Red Riding quartet.

gb

February 10, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder how much overlap there is between The Big Book of Pulps and the upcoming Mammoth collection.

Interesting that David Peace attended the Down These Green Streets launch. Does he have a special interest in Irish crime writing? Did he just happen to be in Belfast at the time?

February 10, 2014  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

I think he just happened to be here, Peter. Not entirely sure. I'll ask Dave if I think of it next week.

gb

February 13, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Give my regards to Dave. I was pleasantly surprised that not only did he remember me when I visited the shop a second time, but he said, "You look different. You shaved your beard." He;d make a good detective.

February 13, 2014  

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