Thursday, January 14, 2016

Death of a Friend

Read/Watch 'em in Order #64

Raoul Whitfield was one of the many great writers who contributed strong hard-boiled tales to Black Mask magazine.

Whitfield created a number of hard-boiled detectives, but Jo Gar is the most unusual and arguably the best of his creations. Whitfield had lived for a time in the Philippines while growing up (his dad worked for the Territorial Government), so he drew on this experience to give us Jo, a Spanish-Filipino P.I. who works out of an office in Manila. He used the pen name Ramon Decolta for the Jo Gar tales.

The Jo Gar stories are short, sharp, and often violent tales, with Jo often having to bring his Colt automatic into play before he could wrap things up. As Jo's entry at the Thrilling Detective website phrases it: There was no doubt Gar meant business -- his small, Colt automatic was called into service with alarming frequency, and the dying confessions of men who thought they'd get the drop on "the Island detective" were as much a part of the stories as his seemingly endless supply of brown-paper cigarettes.

But Jo was smart as well, often working directly with the police and helping them stay on the right track by picking up on clues they would miss.

His usual police contact was Juan Arragon--a cop who inevitably ended up suspecting the wrong man and would need Jo to find the real killer. But, despite this, Juan was friendly and appreciative of Jo's help. The two were friends and, except for a few stories that took Jo out of Manila, Juan was a series regular.

So when Juan is abruptly killed in the story "Diamonds of Death," it's a bit of a shock.

This story was published in the February 1931 issue of Black Mask. It was the 10th Jo Gar story published and the first in a series of six dealing with the theft of 200 grand worth of diamonds.

The story starts out with a bang--Jo happens to be nearby when a diamond merchant is robbed and, in fact, one of the getaway cars collides with the horse-drawn taxi in which Jo is riding. The robbers also killed two men during the heist. Juan Arragon responded to the crime, commandeering a car to pursue them. But both Juan and the car he was in vanish.

Not long after, Juan's body is found in Jo's office. It looks as if Juan had made it there on his own and manage to write a note before he died. But Jo notices several clues that show the note is a forgery--an attempt to lure him into a trap. The crooks fear him more than the official police.

The criminals have, in fact, planted several false leads, which results in a police car being ambushed by a pair of thugs with machine guns. The private eye is nearby when this happens. He plugs one of the bad guys. "The one who walks badly--always in white," mutters the wounded man before dying. Dying men in fiction seem to be legally required to talk in cryptic sentence fragments.

Jo decides not to pass this information on to the cops. In fact, he tells the police chief that he's out of it--it is, after all, a police matter.

But Juan had been his friend. Jo will trail the killers on his own.

All the Jo Gar stories are good, but I think this particular story arc is the best of the lot. The plot is well-constructed and moves along at a brisk pace, while Jo Gar is an effective and likable protagonist. Whitfield gives us not just an unusual setting in these stories, but a detective who both fits the profile of the standard hard-boiled detective while simultaneously defying stereotypes. We'll continue to follow the Island Detective through the next five stories as he leaves the islands to track down the stolen diamonds and the killers of his friend.

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