A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hardboiled Manila – Jo Gar

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hardboiled Manila – Jo Gar

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

Several hardboiled books were not actually novels at the start. They were multi-part serials in the Pulp magazines of the day. Perhaps the most famous of these is Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which ran for five installments from September 1929 through January of 1930. Likewise, Ned Beaumont’s four-part adventure became The Glass Key. The same happened with The Continental Op. And it wasn’t just Hammett. Paul Cain’s The Fast One is arguably the finest hardboiled novel ever – and it was a serial.

Raoul Whitfield’s The Laughing Death enthralled readers for nine issues in a row. A five-issue story became Green Ice; and Ben Jardinn spent three issues working on a murder in Death in a Bowl. The author of several novels for juvenile boys, Whitfield actually wrote another hardboiled novella, except it wasn’t collected and issued separately, so it’s not regarded as a book. And this was the only serial featuring his wonderful island detective, Jo Gar.


I’m talking about stories that were written about ninety years ago. Granted, they haven’t been all that easy to find for most of that period, but the Jo Gar stories I’m going to discuss were reprinted in 2003 by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press. Steeger Books (Altus Press at the time) reprinted the complete collection in 2013. And you can go online and order it right now if you wanted. AND…The ‘uncollected novel’ was included in Penzler’s The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories. It’s also in print. So, you’ve had plenty of chances to read Gar. You’re on your own! – END WARNING

I’ve already written about Whitfield here at A (Black) Gat in the Hand, so you can click here for background information on him. His father served in the Philippine Territorial Government, and Raoul grew up partly in Manila, making trips throughout the Far East. These experiences gave verisimilitude to his Gar stories.

The prolific pulpster wrote twenty-six stories featuring his little Filipino detective for Black Mask. Because his other stories were regularly appearing under his own name, the Gar stories were credited to Ramon Decolta. The little detective immediately became an immediate favorite, as starting in February of 1930, five of six Black Mask issues included a Gar adventure.

There was a month off, and in the September 1930 issue, Whitfield started the three-part story which became his best-known work, Death in a Bowl. That month, the first of a six-part Gar adventure also appeared (under the Decolta byline). Whitfield had two novels going simultaneously in Black Mask!

Otto Penzler dubbed the Jo Gar serial The Rainbow Diamonds in his Big Book, and that’s as good a title as any. It’s more of a classic hardboiled PI tale than the other stand-alone stories, with Gar going all the way to San Francisco, and a main character in the series surprisingly killed off. Gar is not averse to shooting his big Colt revolver in his Manila adventures, but he proves himself as tough a gunman as any big-city PI in this serial.

“Shooting Gallery” was the first story after the conclusion of The Rainbow Diamonds. Appearing in October of 1931, It begins with a prospective client welcoming Gar back to Manila. And Gar mentions that he has rested up after recovering the Von Loffler diamonds. There are a few stories which refer back to the prior one, though “Nagasaki Knives” is the only ‘two-parter’ (following “Nagasaki Bound”).

In “Shooting Gallery,” Gar has been hired by a Senor Kanochi, who runs a successful amusement park, the Park of the Moon. He had installed a shooting gallery, which quickly became very popular.

Shooting galleries used to be a common entertainment at American amusement parks and amusement piers/arcades. One featured prominently in a Max Thursday novel, by Wade Miller (actually Bob Wade and Bill Miller – I am LONG overdue on an essay about their San Diego PI). And if you read The Big Sleep, a ‘home-made’ shooting gallery at the Sternwood Estate is actually the key to the whole mystery. The movie versions all cut it out, resulting in their muddled plots.

Senor Konachi’s unlikable son-in-law, Vincente, works there, changing the targets between rounds. Kanochi said a man called him and demanded he pay Vincente’s large gambling debt, or Vincente will be killed. Kanochi refuses to pay off the debt, and hires Gar to keep his son-in-law from being killed.

There’s one characteristic of the series that can often handicap a mystery story. Gar has no ‘Watson.’ There is not a helper, or assistant, or landlady, or even a girlfriend. Except, curiously, he does have an assistant, Sidi Kalaa, in the second-to-last story: “The Mystery of the Fan-Backed Chair.” No explanation of where he came from, no background on his life, nothing. And he’s gone in the next story, which was the last one that Whitfield wrote about Gar. And even in his one appearance, Kalaa does not serve as a sounding board. It was an odd inclusion.

Gar talks to himself several times, in each story. He also thinks silently, serving the same ‘info dump’ function. But it’s usually a case of voicing his musings.

Here, Kanochi has just left the office after hiring the detective. Gar:

‘…murmured very slowly: “Senor Kanochi has lied before. He is a potential murderer He does not care for his son-in-law. He has much money. Even should the publicity of an ‘accident’ at his shooting gallery mean a loss of business, I do not think the half-breed would regret too much. Yet he fears the ‘accident’ theory might not be strong enough. So he has invented a story-”’

There’s a break to describe Gar’s movements, then two more sentences of him talking to himself. Another break, then two more sentences aloud.

This isn’t ideal. And I think in the hands of a less-skilled writer, it would be sloppy and harm the story. I just accept it for what it is. If I didn’t enjoy the stories so much, I might consider this poor writing and it would stick out like a sore thumb (does a healthy thumb not stick out? What about a green one?).

But I can understand if this doesn’t work for some readers. I certainly wouldn’t recommend the technique to inexperienced writers. If you notice it, and it bothers you, you’ll either have to come to terms with it somehow, or you definitely won’t love the series like I do.

There is a classic ‘Rule’ for mysteries which the Gar stories break. And usually, violating this guideline weakens the story. But while there’s no denying this characteristic, the stories don’t suffer too much for it. Well, not for me, at least.

Whitfield doesn’t ‘play fair’ with the reader. It is impossible to solve the case before the reveal. And that’s because, in almost every story, Whitfield withholds key information.

In “The Man From Shanghai,” on page sixteen (of eighteen), Gar takes Lieutenant Ratan to the murderer’s shipboard cabin. There has been no mention of, or reference to, this character. Nor any hint as to their motive. It comes totally out of left field at the end of the story.

It’s quite common for Gar to reveal some bit of information hitherto completely unknowable by the reader, allowing him to solve the case. I stink at figuring things out ahead of time, so it’s not like this ruins ‘a game’ for me. I don’t mind, but Whitfield certainly doesn’t give the reader much chance to figure things out. I accept it for what it is and move along.

There is a regular police presence in the series (the main officer changes during the series), but Gar works solo. Lieutenant Ratan is handsome, well-built, stands as if at attention, and has a perfectly-fitting uniform. There is no warmth between the two men. Of course, Ratan has little use for Gar’s conclusions, and Gar is ultimately proven correct. Such is the case here.

Ratan dismisses the death as an accident, while Gar continues to investigate. Using some info we didn’t know he obtained (see above), he confronts an accessory, then lowers the boom on the villain. Sometimes Sherlock Holmes chose justice over the law. Gar doesn’t follow the letter of the law in affixing blame, but he has reasons for the choice he makes in this case.

One final element: The weather in the Gar stories becomes an ongoing character. The malaise brought on by the heat; the storm warnings – followed by the storms; the consideration of taking a case because it’s cooler in another area of the islands: Whitfield weaves the climate into the stories. His experience living abroad with his father comes in handy.

There are over two dozen Jo Gar stories, and I think I enjoy every one. The little detective, the Philippines setting, his seemingly always calm demeanor: it’s really an enjoyable series, and it is definitely in my Top Five favorite Hardboiled Pulps.

I’ll let Ellery Queen give you a final recommendation. Queen said that the Gar stories had “the best features of the hardboiled manner: the aura of authenticity, the staccato speech, the restrained realism. The tales are lean and hard – and unforgettable.”

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Will Murray on Dashiell Hammett’s Elusive Glass Key
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John Bullard on REH’s Rough and Ready Clowns of the West – Part I (Breckenridge Elkins)
John Bullard on REH’s Rough and Ready Clowns of the West – Part II
William Patrick Murray on Supernatural Westerns, and Crossing Genres
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YTJD – The Emily Braddock Matter (John Lund)
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Hardboiled August on TCM
Norbert Davis – ‘Have one on the House’
with Steven H Silver: C.M. Kornbluth’s Pulp
Norbert Davis – ‘Don’t You Cry for Me’
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Erle Stanley Gardner’s ‘The Shrieking Skeleton’
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MORE Cool & Lam!!!!
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Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part Two)
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The Black Mask Dinner

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Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made its Black Gate debut in 2018 and has returned every summer since.

His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017. And he irregularly posts on Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective in ‘Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone.’ He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’).

He organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series, as well as the award-winning ‘Hither Came Conan’ series. Which is now part of THE Definitive guide to Conan. He also organized 2023’s ‘Talking Tolkien.’

He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI, XXI, and XXXIII.

He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.


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K. Jespersen

For some reason, your description of the regular police presence and the integration of the weather as plot element and sur-character in the Jo Gar novels is reminding me of Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries. Those integrate the climate, the society’s religious beliefs, and the political history of Laos into the stories in a possibly similar way. Though not hard-boiled, the Dr. Paiboun mysteries are cheerfully cynical. Would you recommend Jo Gar to a Paiboun reader, or are the two series less similar than it might seem?

K. Jespersen

Ah, I see. Thank you!

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