Death in a Bowl (1931)

Death in a Bowl cover

Raoul Whitfield was one of the first generation of hard-boiled writers published by Black Mask Magazine. His writing career mirrored that of his friend Dashiell Hammett – a high volume of short stories published in the pulps from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, a relatively small number of novels (most of which were constructed by combining together several short stories, as Chandler would later do with his early novels), and then a fairly early decline into poor health and literary unproductiveness.

He is a fairly obscure figure, compared to his Black Mask peers Hammett, Carroll John Daly (author of some of the earliest recognisably ‘hard boiled’ stories) and Erle Stanley Gardner (creator of the hugely successful Perry Mason series). Peter Ruber and Victor A. Berch’s biographical essay acknowledges Whitfield’s status as ‘Black Mask’s Forgotten Man’, and suggests that he was significant for the volume of work he produced during his decade of productivity, if not for the quality of that work.

Many of his stories were set in Manila, and featured Filipino detective Jo Gar, while others were tales of air adventure (the Black Mask website has an example of his aviation stories: ‘Scotty Scouts Around‘, from April 1926). Death in a Bowl, published in three issues of Black Mask during 1930, and then collected into a novel in 1931, is mainly notable (particularly from my perspective) for its setting – Ben Jardinn is a private eye based in Hollywood, Los Angeles, predating Chandler’s Philip Marlowe by several years.

The plot concerns the murder of a celebrated conductor, Hans Reiner, in the middle of a performance at the Hollywood Bowl (hence the rather bathetic title). Prior to the murder, Jardinn is hired by two clients – Reiner’s brother Ernst, a Hollywood director, and a scriptwriter with a grudge against Reiner – and Jardinn balances his seemingly contradictory obligations to each of them while manoeuvring events in the interests of his agency.

The most interesting moment in the novel is an unexpected moment of vulnerability displayed by Jardinn. The scene is jarring enough that it’s tempting to consider it accidental, a misstep by a limited writer working quickly and more concerned with creating tension than consistent characterisation. But intentionally or not, it seems to prefigure the occasional moments of vulnerability and disorientation that Chandler will have Marlowe undergo in his novels.

Throughout Death in a Bowl, Jardinn is presented as typically hard-boiled – sneering, speaking ‘savagely’ and ‘harshly’ to his secretary Carol Torney (although often in a wisecracking, semi-affectionate way), ‘brutally’ and ‘sharply’ to his own clients:

Jardinn said brutally: “In six months you’ll hardly remember how things happened. In two years it’ll be an incident you can regard as something rather remote. The sooner you start forgetting—the better.”

Reiner narrowed his eyes. His face was slightly flushed.

Gott—you are like ice!” he breathed. “He was—my brother.”

This conversation takes place the first time Jardinn meets with Ernst Reiner after the murder of the latter’s brother, and this flippant attitude to death, perhaps the archetypal hard-boiled pose, is maintained throughout the vast majority of the novel:

Jardinn frowned. He said suddenly: “By God! I forgot to take that lighter out of my blue suit when I sent it to the laundry this morning!”

Carol Torney snuffed her cigarette in the ashtray.

“You don’t take this murder seriously enough,” she mocked.

He grinned at her. “Business is business,” he said slowly, and reached for the phone.

Midway through the novel, Jardinn receives a fearful phone call in the middle of the night from Carol Torney, his secretary, and goes to her home to investigate. There is no answer at the front door, so he goes to the back door and breaks in:

Inside the kitchen he stood motionless, listening. The dark had always bothered him; he was afraid. Conflicting thoughts filled his head; he had to fight down the desire to turn, go out. In the bungalow living room he could hear a clock ticking. It helped. It was a symbol of the commonplace.

He wanted to go into the living room, through the tiny dinette, in the darkness. Light would make him a mark. But he wanted light. Carol’s fear-gripped voice was still sounding in his ears. It combined with the dark to make him uncertain. He fumbled for the light switch, snapped it. The kitchen was white with the glare. […]

He stood without moving, near the light switch, and searched the room with his eyes. He needed the sound of his voice, so he said: “All right—everything’s pretty—I’ve been a target—nobody here.”

There is nothing in the preceding pages to really prepare us for this fear and uncertainty on Jardinn’s part. His general demeanour is flippant, unruffled; he appears no more than mildly irritated by the intricacies of the case and the potential treachery of his colleagues. That he is not merely anxious here about Carol Torney’s safety, but actually afraid of the dark and tempted to flee, is genuinely striking.

The reassurance provided by the ticking clock, and later by his own voice, is also interesting. The clock is a ‘symbol of the commonplace’, but it is also a marker of regular time, rationalised time – chronology, the construction of which is central to any detective’s investigation, and the disruption of which is symptom of disorientation. And it is in sound that Jardinn seeks comfort: the ticking of the clock, and his own speech; in this, the passage unexpectedly brings to mind one from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus:

A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos.

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Author: Alex Pavey

I'm a UCL English Literature PhD, researching Los Angeles literature and cinema across the twentieth century - particularly, although not exclusively, narratives of crime and detection.

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