“The streets were dark with something more than night.” – Raymond Chandler
Erle Stanley Gardner once said of Carroll John Daly (1889-1958), the originator — even predating Dashiell Hammett by a few months in Black Mask magazine — of the hard-boiled detective story, that “Daly had never had the slightest experience with actual crime or criminals, much less with bullet wounds … Daly himself wanted no part of the rough and tumble.”
So what if life in post-World War I times was a little on the rough-and-tumble side, murder finally taken out of the parlor and vicarage and put out on the mean streets where it belongs? And so what if Daly, a shy movie theater owner who lived quietly in White Plains, New York, poured on an overcompensating amount of kill-'em-quick creativity and a cathartic vigilantism into his hard-boiled hero? The brash violence constituted in his contention that the good guy sent the bad guy “crashing through the gates of hell with my bullet in his brain,” exemplified neither the ratiocination typical of the turn of the 20th century tradition, nor the 19th century influence, nor its embodiment in the always logical Holmesian detective.
Daly’s hero, the adventurous but rough-around-the-edges private eye Race Williams, made his first appearance in the June 1, 1923 issue of Black Mask, in a short story called "Knights of the Open Palm," but what’s in a name? Race was predated by a month by Daly's "Three Gun Terry," which, in protagonist P.I. Terry Mack, featured a groundbreaking prototype for Race (and many of the tough, wise-cracking detectives ever since). Though they're more or less the same character, it was Race who went on to appear in numerous short stories and novels over the next 30 years.
As Race takes his cue — a pretty sedentary one, at that — at the beginning of The Third Murderer, which was originally serialized in Black Mask (June to August 1931) as “The Flame” and Race Williams, it doesn’t take long for any trace evidence of goodwill and charm to sap from his being as he waits for a criminal lawyer acquaintance in a bar and engages another patron in conversation. “I didn’t like his face and I told him so,” snappishly starts the fist chapter, “A Threat to Kill,” as peril pervades the pages.
There seem to be some mitigating factors that explain the bullying tactics of Race’s riotous provocations. “Maybe I’m not so hot at repartee,” he reflects, after a further and better attempt at banter gets out of hand, “but talking around this lad was like talking around a clothing store dummy. I knew him, of course. Eddie Gorgon, who had more than once beaten the rap for murder.”
Then things get femme fatalistic. When Gorgon mentions the little moll “called The Flame – Florence Drummond, The Girl with the Criminal Mind,” things get hellfire contentious, eye-for-an-eye, he-man out of hand, and we’re not just talking fisticuffs-fluff. Certain other themes and motifs that creep up throughout Daly’s writing career — traps, clichés, predictabilities, and dependencies he never escaped to advance his career — are conspicuous by their cheek-by-jowl nearness in the first chapter of The Murderer. The pre-Mickey Spillane stuff (Spillane an admitted Daly disciple), the over-the-top tall tales that come — well, everywhere — but especially as Race punches Gorgon down to the floor, claiming a further vigilante-driven desire to stand up to any man and pull a rod because "That's my living," has the flavor of timeless folklore run amok.
And when big brother Joe Gorgon comes to save the day from his fallen brother Eddie, a legendary, almost anachronistic outlaw element — fittingly, almost mythic — surrounds the “feared and fastest drawing gunmen in the county’s greatest city – or out of it, for that matter.” But if anyone was expecting rising tensions and a climax and cliffhanger at the end of this serialized chapter (of 32 chapters) — and you should expect them — you’d be sorely disappointed. Any wild, wild, western-style Wyatt Earp/Natty Bumppo rugged individualistic thrills are depleted when the aforementioned lawyer acquaintance pulls Race away: “‘Come, come,’ – said a soft persuasive voice.’ “‘Don’t be mixing yourself up in some common brawl that don’t concern you. We don’t want to be over-inconspicuous.’”
Uh, did I misunderestimate something? In any case, what happened — or, what didn’t happen, to be more accurate — was a bit of humor that hardly makes up for the conflict that could have been. And what is one to make of an awkwardly-written passage as this, something that's not an uncommon Daly feature?: “Eddie Gorgon was a big shot, with his brothers behind him. But then, I was something of a big shot, with nothing but myself behind me – or maybe a gun or two, though they’re generally before me.” Huh? There's got to be a better way of trying to say what he was trying to say.
But what do I know? And what do many critics and editors of Daly during and since the pulp heydays of the ‘20s and ‘30s know? Regardless of what detractors say, what reviewers or indifferent Black Mask editor Joe Shaw had to say — “Write them. I won’t like them. But I’ll buy them and print them.” — it must be remembered that Carroll John Daly, for the most part, had been a popular success: whenever his name appeared on a Black Mask cover, sales jumped 15%.
Which probably suited Daly just fine. He had a lead character he could vicariously mix up in some common brawls not of his concern, and Daly himself could remain as over-inconspicuous as the houses on the White Plains street he couldn‘t distinguish. Meanwhile, he’d just stay indoors and reap the rewards.