There is a misconception that has long existed among critics and scholars of hardbolled detective fiction that is in sore need of clearing up. Namely, that Dashiell Hammett was a far better writer of detective fiction, and far more influential, than Carroll John Daly.
It is recorded fact that Daly, in the pages of Black Mask in 1923, produced the first hardboiled private eye story, predating Hammett’s first Continental Op tale by a number of months. It is also a fact that Daly was no flash-in-the-pan. His main character, New York shamus Race Williams, was a star attraction in the pulps as late as 1955. These are facts which the critics and scholars cannot argue. Yet upon admitting them, they—from Ron Goulart to David Madden to William Nolan to Steinbrunner/Penzler and back again—all declare Daly as “unreadable” by today’s standards, suggest that his only real contribution to the genre was being the first at bat, and express relief that development of the form was left to more competent hands like Hammett and Chandler.
Well. At the risk of being found guilty of blasphemy by my colleagues, I submit that Daly and Hammett rank neck-and-neck as detective story writers. Further, I submit that Hammett’s stylistic influence was severely restricted to one decade and one immediate group of disciples. Today, Daly’s influence is still splattered across every paperback rack in the country.
Dashiell Hammett wrote three serious novels against a crime milieu—Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key—which certainly rank him as a mainstream heavy and which are arguably masterworks, no matter who’s defining the terms. But as for much of his Black Mask work, which may have led to bigger things but which on its own constitutes genre writing, the best gauge of its comparative quality versus Daly’s work is to be found in the results of the various reader polls conducted by Black Mask all through the twenties.
The importance and relevance of these polls cannot be overstated. This is the audience to whom the output of these two writers was immediately aimed. Make no mistake. If the readers had not laid their dollars and cents on the newsstand counters, there would have been no hardboiled detective genre. The publishing business was no different then than now. It’s the nature of popular culture. If it’s not popular, if it isn’t accepted and encouraged by sales, it doesn’t get published.
The results of those polls? Daly consistently ranked with Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner as the readers’ favorite.
Understandably, Joe Shaw, who edited Black Mask during the twenties and who encouraged Hammett in the development of his objective prose style, vehemently despised the ultra-subjective work of Daly. Yet the readers demanded Daly’s wild, free-swinging Race Williams yarns. Daly was one of the most popular detective writers of his time. Whenever his name appeared on a Black Mask cover, sales jumped 15%.
Hardly the mark of an “unreadable” author!
And so we come to the matter of influence. Hammett’s primary contribution to the genre, developed during his Black Mask days via his Continental Op stories, was a realistic portrayal of the urban underworld, presented in sparse, diamond hard prose. Yet in most of these early stories (“Fly Paper” and “The Cutting of Gouffignal” are the most notable exceptions) the Op is portrayed as a procedural company man and the adventures themselves often come across as lifeless and flat as the true-to-life detective agency reports which Hammett was admittedly attempting to imitate.
Sure, Hammett played a part in the development of the moral “code” of the American private eye. But in this he must share honors with any number of other Black Mask Eye writers. His major influence was one of introducing realistic content.
As for any immediate stylistic influence, it was at most shortlived. The imitators of Hammett’s precision drill writing style (Raoul Whitfield, Frederick Nebel, Paul Cain, Rogery Torrey, etc.) didn’t last long. By the late thirties most of them had already disappeared. By the early forties the subjective style of Raymond Chandler had come to the fore. Chandler envisioned the Eye as a lonely, honest, wisecracking, poetic, worldweary modern knight—a concept that certainly owes more to Daly’s Williams than to Hammett’s Op—and it is this concept which is with us today in the work of people like Ross Macdonald, Robert B. Parker and Bill Pronzini.
Hammett’s man was the most realistically drawn, to be sure, but this objective bureaucrat from the Continental Agency was not the generally accepted concept of the Eye that has endured.
Daly’s contribution to the hardboiled genre was indeed monumental; far more than simply being the first at bat. And his impact was felt far beyond the private eye field alone. The Shadow, The Spider, The Phantom Detective—all the famous masked avengers of the pulps were merely gussied up versions of Race Williams. Daly took the two-gun American Hero from the wooly plains of the West and transplanted him in New York. He allowed his hero to retain all those traditional fantasy concepts of what the American Hero is and has been since the days of Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, and he gave him the desire and ability to back up his code of individualism, his distrust of authority and his interest in Justice over Legality, with a pair of smoking .44s.
And yes, Daly is still with us today, though, with the exception of a fine novelette in last year’s The Hardboiled Detective and a scheduled appearance in this year’s The American Detective (edited by Steve Krauzer, dua from NAL), he has been out of print for more than twenty years. Beyond his spiritual influence over Chandler and Chandler’s host of pupils, Daly has had a much more direct influence on a number of other contemporary thriller writers.
Mickey Spillane freely admitted to being a Daly disciple. In fact, Spillane’s second Mike Hammer adventure, My Gun is Quick, was closely patterned after Daly’s 1929 Race Williams novel, The Hidden Hand. Daly’s modern counterpart is Don Pendleton. Pendleton’s “Executioner” hero, Mack Bolan, could well be Mike Hammer’s son and Race Williams’ grandson. The laws of the land are inefficient? The salt of the earth are being ripped off? Here comes the tough guy with his personal moral code and his blazing guns and everything’s all right again. Only the packaging is updated. And it’s interesting to note that Spillane and Pendleton are as universally berated by the critics as Daly is—and just as widely read and imitated!
To say nothing of Daly’s other major pulp character, Police Detective Satan Hall—the original renegade killer cop who was the basis for Dirty Harry, Spillane’s The Gill from The Last Cop Out (1973) and countless others.
In addition to being important as an influential pioneer, it should also be pointed out that, the critical establishment aside, Carroll John Daly was a damn good thriller writer. He had his faults, sure. His characters on occasion speak more like 19th century Victorian actors or refugees from a dime novel than like hardbolled underworld types. He was prolific; there is, inevitably, a certain amount of repetition in the Daly canon. As well as a pronounced 1920’s naïveté (if that may be considered a fault). And some of his novels are episodic—much like Hammett’s first two books—rather than existing as sustained works building to one all-powerful climax.
Yet few pulp writers, then or now, could match Daly for raw readability; for sequences of almost unbelievable headlong pace; for putting you right there in the action as only a truly masterful suspense artist can. His best was topnotch blood and thunder writing, and he did more high quality work than even his most generous critics generally give him credit for.
The defense rests.
A Very Select Checklist: The Best of Carroll John Daly
- The White Circle. Clode, 1926.
- The Snarl of the Beast. Clode, 1927.
- The Man in the Shadows. Clode, 1928.
- The Hidden Hand. Clode, 1929.
- The Tag Murders. Clode, 1930.
- “Satan’s Vengeance.” Never published in book form; a serial appearing in Detective Fiction Weekly, 7 March through 25 April 1936.
- “City of Blood.” Dime Detective, October 1936.
- “Hell With the Lid Lifted.” Dime Detective, March 1939.
- “Not My Corpse.” Thrilling Detective, June 1948.
This article was originally published in The Mystery FANcier, May 1978 (Vol. 2, No. 3).
Authored by Stephen Mertz. Copyright © 1978 by Stephen Mertz, reprinted by permission of the author.