Friday, February 14, 2014

Forgotten Books: FIVE by Temple Field (Raoul Whitfield) (1931)

Raoul Whitfield began his pulp career writing air war stories and gravitated toward crime. The novel Five, originally published in Black Mask between September 1929 and June 1930, is a transitional story, offering a strong taste of both genres.

The hero, Gary Greer, is a pilot, an ace during the Great War who now runs an air field on the edge of Center City, a town every bit as corrupt and gangster-infested as Dashiell Hammett’s “Poisonville.” Honest officials are a dying breed in Center City, and the latest to die is Gary’s father, the prosecuting attorney. When the elder Greer is gunned down, Gary embarks on a vendetta to wipe out the five men responsible. (The spine of the book says "Five men had to die!" and their names are floating around Gary's head on the cover at right.)

During the Joe Shaw years (1926-1936) Black Mask ran a lot of serials, usually disguised as loosely connected novelettes. Red Harvest and The Dain Curse were two of these, as were most of the Race Williams novels collected during those years. The majority of those serials appeared in four or five parts, resulting in episodic novels with clearly defined breaks between segments.

Not so with Five. It ran in nine parts, known as the Laughing Death series, and the plot was simply too complex to be chopped into nine short stories. As a result, Five was a true serial rather than a series, and holds together well as a novel today. (But “Laughing Death”? That I don’t get. There’s plenty of death here, but no humor, and I don’t recall anyone laughing.) Over the course of those nine segments, Five shared the magazine with all five parts of The Maltese Falcon, the second-to-last Continental Op story, and the beginning of The Glass Key.

Five is also unusual in that it appeared as by Raoul Whitfield in the magazine, but in hardcover under the pen name Temple Field. The same fate befell another Whitfield “series” (this one a six-parter) published in 1932 as Killer’s Carnival.

Whitfield was the single most prolific contributor the Black Mask during the Shaw years, and his style varied from medium to hard-boiled. Five was written in his hardest vein, akin to his best known novel Green Ice, with clipped, terse prose and plenty of tough dialogue.

Gary Greer is a relentless vigilante, hiding from both the police and the underworld as he tracks down his father’s killers. But his opponents are merciless and brutal, and if Gary succeeds it will come at great personal cost.

The dust jacket describes it thusly:

FIVE is a story of gun-fire and airships, of love and revenge. Sanford Greer (S.G.), Prosecuting Attorney of Center City, is put “on the spot” by five men. Gary Green, who is the pilot in charge of the South Side Airport, soars out to get these five men and avenge his father’s death.

Swift, written in dynamic prose, thrill piled upon thrill, this book of Mr. Field’s has the gusto of an Edgar Wallace, and something of the power of a Dashiell Hammett.

Temple Field lives in New York City, likes to collect material in night outlets and speakeasies, and is young enough to enjoy writing every word he writes.

I discussed the Whitfield novel The Virgin Kills HERE and the story collection Silver Wings HERE.
Coming soon: "Murder Extra!" a complete mystery novelette from Argosy.

More Forgotten Books at pattinase.


Stephen Mertz said...

Wow. Sounds great. Never even heard of this one. Someone reprint this, please!

J F Norris said...

Both these "Temple Field" books are nearly impossible to find. I remember a bidding war for a copy of FIVE that turned up on eBay back in 2001. I had no idea why it was being bid on like it was a rare jewel. It started at 99 cents an ended at over $200, IIRC. I later found out that it was won by Bill Pronzini. I wrote him and asked what's the interest in the book. Then he explained all to me. I've been looking for first editions of all of Raoul Whitfield's books ever since. But it's like trying to capture a yeti and bring it back to a zoo.

Evan Lewis said...

I picked up both Temple Field books back in the '80s. Good thing. I'd never be able to afford them now.

Rob P. said...

This serial version of this novel originally ran from February 1929 through October 1929 in Black Mask.
I recently took the time to compare the original appearance of the first part of the story in the February 1929 issue to the first few pages of the book appearance. For all intents and purposes the book is completely rewritten. To what extent this continues throughout the entire book version I have no idea as I only have this February 1929 issue to compare against.

Cap'n Bob said...

I see one of the men who must die is Babe Lewis. A long lost uncle, perhaps?

Evan Lewis said...

Mighty interesting, Rob. I wonder if those magazine installments were really designed as short stories.

Babe Lewis is a very bad dude, Cap'n, so I have no doubt we're related.

Anonymous said...

If you're interested, there's a copy of FIVE on Ebay now.