Although best known as the author of the hardboiled novel Green Ice (1930), Whitfield was in his time (1897–1945) one of the most popular and prolific suppliers of short fiction to Black Mask. Kicking off a new series, Tales from the Black Mask Morgue, this volume exhumes 18 of Whitfield’s 24 stories about Jo Gar, the Island Detective who plies his trade in the exotic Philippines. For a hardboiled private eye, the little brown man is surprisingly sedate—he rarely stoops to violence, raises his voice, or speaks in any more expressive way than “tonelessly”—and his patterns of speech and deduction owe less to the Continental Op than to Father Brown. At his best, in stories like “Signals of Storm” (declining to investigate two murders at a distant plantation, Jo Gar meets murder closer to home) and “The Great Black” (a magician’s killer depends on an ingenious alibi), Whitfield can solve a high-concept puzzle with as satisfying a thunderclap as G.K. Chesterton. Even lesser adventures like “The Mystery of the Fan-Backed Chair” present teasing riddles Jo Gar emphasizes to his official counterparts, friendly Lt. Juan Arragon and his less friendly successor Lt. Sadi Ratan, with Chestertonian wit. But only the last two stories, written for Hearst International Cosmopolitan, escape the lazy fondness for epithet that can make Jo Gar numbingly sententious (“Death is always bad. . . . It has the feeling of finality”).
Black Mask fans will be especially intrigued to find just how quiet stories can be without losing their hardboiled edge.