A number of Raoul Whitfield’s stories from BLACK MASK have been reprinted and anthologized over the years. I’ve read quite a few of them and enjoyed them all, going back to one of his Jo Gar stories that was reprinted in the anthology THE HARD-BOILED DICKS, which I bought at The Book Oasis in Seminary South Shopping Center in Fort Worth on a December evening in 1967. (Yes, I remember that. Just don’t ask me what I had for lunch yesterday.)
Anyway, I’d never read any of Whitfield’s novels until now. GREEN ICE was his first novel, published in 1930 and based on a series of five linked novelettes published in BLACK MASK from December 1929 through April 1930 that are put together pretty seamlessly. It’s the story of what happens when ex-con Mal Ourney gets out of Sing Sing after having served a two-year sentence for manslaughter. Mal wasn’t really guilty; he took the rap for his girlfriend at the time, who was really behind the wheel in a fatal car crash. She comes to meet Mal when he’s released, but he’s no longer interested in her and refuses to go with her. A good thing, too, because a short time later, she’s dead, the first of at least a dozen murder victims in this novel.
While in prison, Mal has made friends with several small-time crooks who were drawn into the rackets by the big bosses, the men Mal refers to as the crime breeders. He decides that when he gets out, he’ll go after these big bosses and try to bring them down. Before he can even get started on his crusade, though, he finds himself up to his neck in murder after murder, all of them tied together by some missing emeralds, the green ice of the title. This is one of those early hardboiled novels where the plot gets incredibly complicated, to the point that Whitfield has to stop the action every so often to have his characters explain to each other everything that’s happened so far. He even manages to save one last major twist for the very end.
Plots so complex that they get a little far-fetched are a hallmark of hardboiled fiction from that era, though, as is terse, staccato prose. Whitfield delivers on that score, too. There’s a little snappy patter and considerable tough guy slang, along with plenty of fistfights and tommy-gun massacres, before Mal finally untangles all the various interwoven strands of plot. As you can imagine, I thoroughly enjoyed it, too. These days, GREEN ICE would have to be considered a historical novel, but if you’re interested in the genesis of hardboiled crime novels or just looking for a good yarn, I recommend it.
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