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RAOUL WHITFIELD. Death in a Bowl (1931).

11 Oct

An early product of the tough-guy school of crime writing, this tale of greed, ambition, and murder in Tinseltown exhibits a besetting flaw of its type: It mistakes brute action for dramatic tension, and offers mere confusion in place of genuine mystery. The basic riddle that private eye Ben Jardinn must crack—Why and how did someone shoot musical conductor Hans Reiner during a concert at the Hollywood Bowl?—has merit both in its setup and in its solution. But the path that Whitfield carves between his crisp, provocative opening and his intriguing conclusion is strewn with narrative non-sequiturs. DeathBowl.jpg In dialogue, characters throw comments at one another that are either random or opaque. At the level of plot, scenes of violence, revelation, or reversal occur with no discernible connection to the scenes that precede or follow them. (One chapter, for example, starts with Jardinn entering a hospital where a key suspect, whom readers had last seen being put under arrest, will soon die. There is no narrative preparation for this event—no explanation of how the suspect arrived in that parlous state—nor any effort to link this plot turn to the story as a whole. It just happens.)

Thematically, too, the novel makes broad leaps but lands nowhere in particular. Are women, even the best among them, duplicitous by nature? Do clients always lie? Is there something inherently problematic about having a “business partner”—a fellow who operates as neither a true colleague nor an open competitor? And if the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” then how can a fellow trust anyone but himself? In this respect, as in others, Whitfield bulldozes across essentially the same terrain that Dashiell Hammett explores in The Maltese Falcon. Unlike Hammett, he charts a course that seems arbitrary rather than inevitable.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on October 11, 2018 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel

 

2 responses to “RAOUL WHITFIELD. Death in a Bowl (1931).

  1. Richard Robinson

    October 12, 2018 at 8:21 AM

    I really, really like Whitfield’s Jo Gar stories. The only other work by him that I’ve read is GREEN ICE, which, while pretty good and fast-moving, isn’t up to the standard of the Gar work.

     
    • Mike

      October 13, 2018 at 9:14 AM

      I appreciate your comment, Richard. I read this one a number of years ago, back when I cared about clear and careful plotting above all else. I might well have a more charitable view of the book if I read it today.

       

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