Raoul Whitfield ( 1896-1945)
Raoul Whitfield, who wrote under his own name and the pseudonym Ramon Decolta, was nearly as productive as Earle Stanley Gardner for a brief period. Born in 1898 in New York City, young Whitfield went to the Philippines with his father, who served in the U.S. Territorial government. He visited Japan, China and other ports that served him as settings later on. Sent back to the States to recover from an illness in 1916, Whitfield landed in Hollywood and worked as a silent screen actor. He resembled the later actor Cary Grant right down to his cleft chin, but acting bored him. When World War I began, Whitfield signed up and connived his way into pilot’s training. By 1918 he was an aviator in France, and although he only flew combat towards the war’s end, he used his experience later in dozens of air-adventure stories that Black Mask and other pulps prized. After the War he wrote for the Pittsburgh Post, though his family wanted him to work his way up in the management of the steel industry (he was related to Andrew Carnegie). Whitfield married another reporter; they quit their jobs and went to the west coast of Florida, where he began writing full time. His first story for Black Mask appeared in March 1926, with eight more the same year. When Shaw became editor, he coached Whitfield and his production increased again. By 1927 Whitfield was also publishing under the pseudonym “Temple Field” and appearing regularly in four other magazines. 1 One of his editors described Whitfield’s method:
“He had a particular knack for starting with a title and writing [the story] around it…. He would place neat stacks of chocolate bars 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” 2
In addition to his Gary Greer air adventure stories, Whitfield launched his “Crime Breeder” series about an ex-convict hero named Mel Ourney. These five stories between 1929 and 1930 became the basis of Green Ice, Whitfield’s best-known novel. It brought him to the attention of Dashiell Hammett and even S.S. Van Dine liked it. Hammett and Whitfield became drinking companions and argued endlessly about the mechanics of pulp stories. Many critics, however, have found a bit too much imitation of Hammett in Whitfield’s work. Whitfield’s second important detective, Jo Gar, was unique. A soft-spoken Filipino, Gar was short, slight, narrow-shouldered and prematurely gray. Possessing an interior toughness, Gar put aside personal emotions and pursued most of his cases with laconic questions. “Manila is a city of heat,” he explained; “heat breeds laziness.” 3 In his conservation of energy and understated dialogue, Gar is the opposite of Race Williams and only a distant cousin of Sam Spade. Whitfield published twenty-four stories about this “Island Investigator” between 1930 and 1933. In many issues of Black Mask he had stories under his real name and his pseudonym. In the eight-year period between 1926 and 1933, Whitfield published 155 stories, including eighty-eight in Black Mask.
In 1934 Whitfield married his second wife, New York intellectual/socialite Emily Vanderbilt Thayer, and his life changed. They bought a ranch in New Mexico, they traveled extensively, and he stopped writing. The couple broke up in 1935 and that summer Emily committed suicide. Whitfield inherited everything, but by 1944 he had squandered it all. He was destitute and fell seriously ill; Hammett sent money, but Whitfield, forty-six, died of tuberculosis in a military hospital in January, 1945. Whitfield never matched Hammett in quality, but he was an important writer for Black Mask, which has more information about him at this site. Green Ice is a classic, and his Ben Jardinn stories (Death in a Bowl, 1931, above left) are praised by critics. His most enduring contribution may turn out to be the first Latino private eye, Jo Gar, whose stories even appeared in the slicks (August 1937 Cosmopolitan). These stories have been reissued.
1 Nolan, Black Mask, 130. 2 Fred Dannay, quoted in Nolan, Black Mask, 130. 3 David Geherin, The American Private Eye: The Image in Fiction. (New York: Ungar, 1985), 33.