The great and the good, Part III
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"?]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.
"`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?'”
Here's how Whitfield handles his era's prohibition on swearing:
"The Kid swore."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."
"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."
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