26 May 2013

He Wasn’t The Best But He Was Good Enough

Although Carroll John Daly was one of the pioneer writers for Black Mask, Dime Detective and other pulp magazines and created the archetype for the hardboiled PI, he is not considered an iconic writer of hardboiled stories and is almost forgotten. In most critical essays he is almost always discussed in negative terms--unreadable, not a good writer--when compared to Hammett and other Black Mask writers. He is considered of historical significance because he was the first to feature the hardboiled tough guy in Black Mask magazine in the 1920s.

For this post, I decided to take a quick look at Daly to determine if his prose was as bad as the critics claimed. I began by reading the excellent essay “In Defense of Carroll John Daly” (originally published in The MYSTERY FANcier May 1978, volume 2, number 3) by Stephen Mertz on the Black Mask Magazine website. He Defends Daly against the charge that he is unreadable. Daly, he writes, was the most popular writer for Black Mask, more popular than Hammett or Erle Stanley Gardner, and had greater influence on later writers. When one of his stories appeared in the magazine, sales increased. 

Before the appearance of the hardboiled detective, Daly established the tough guy model in his story “The False Burton Combs” published in Black Mask in December 1922. The story is in the public domain, and downloadable from the Vintage Library website. The tough guy protagonist/narrator would become the tough PI of the later stories.

Daly created three private detectives. The first was Terry Mack in the May 15, 1923 issue of Black Mask in his initial hardboiled PI story “Three-Gun Terry.” The second was the first series hardboiled detective Race Williams, and the third was Vee Brown. None of my anthologies contained the Terry Mack story, and I couldn’t find it on the Internet. I read the very good Vee Brown story,“The Crime Machine” (Dime Detective January 1932) in the Hard-Boiled Detectives anthology.

I read two outstanding stories featuring Daly’s most famous PI, Race Williams. “Knights of the Open Palm” (Black Mask June 1923) in The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories is the first story featuring Race. “The Third Murderer” in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps is a novella that was serialized in the June-August 1931 Black Mask.  

While Reading the stories, I kept in mind Dale’s April 23 post on violence. Certainly in some of the hardboiled stories, the violence is gratuitous, but in the well-written stories, it is not out of place. Considering the PI protagonists and the bad guys they face, the violence is inevitable and expected. Daly’s PIs see themselves as gunslingers who never kill a bad guy who doesn’t need killing.

Yes, he wrote clumsy prose. The mixture of slang and formal language at times is disconcerting, especially when it comes from the semi-literate protagonist. His language at times grated on my nerves like fingers scratching on a blackboard. But the stories are still readable, exciting, and enjoyable in their unrelenting tension. The nonstop violence instead of making you want to put down the book, makes you want to keep reading as the tension rises until the shootout.

Although Daly wasn’t the most skillful prose stylist, he was good enough for those readers who, while riding the bus or train to work, could escape for a few minutes into the make believe world of gangsters, crooked policemen, and corrupt politicians. He did what the pulp writers were expected to do, told a good story. He also confirmed my belief that sometimes a good storyteller can overcome bad prose.


  1. Louis, your last sentence brought back something my daddy told me: It doesn't matter how well you say something if you have nothing to say.

  2. Louis, thanks for bringing Daly to our attention.

  3. Fran, your daddy was a smart man. Today's politicians should heed that advice.

    Louis,as a big fan of black mask type stories, your article was fun to read.

  4. Thanks for comments. I regret I couldn't include examples of Daly's prose, but it would have made the post too long.

  5. Thanks for introducing me to a new old author. That same contrast between slang and formal language is actually in a lot of Victorian sensation novels. I think we find it more grating than they did. Re bad prose - well, one of the most popular series of Victorian/Edwardian times was the Elsie Dinsmore series for children and young ladies. Really bad. So bad that I consider them camp and read them with guilty pleasure.

  6. This is Louis at his best, bringing us nearly forgotten figures and reminding us of our roots. And now I have to root out Mr. Daly.

  7. Where do you learn this? This is good and I appreciate your research.

  8. The holiday celebration may have clouded the question, but Louis' extensive reading and research is what brings us these articles.

  9. Carrol John Daly, and many other authors published in the pulp magazines, were assisted by editors, some better at their job than others. If you can find issues of DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE digests from the 1940's that feature Daly stories, there is a marked difference from his earlier fiction. I attribute this to Daisy Bacon, who over saw the pulp titles Street and Smith published.

  10. I cannot believe I forgot to mention in my other post that Daly had other popular characters. In DIME DETECTIVE there was Vee Brown and in DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY Satan Hall. Brown wasn't just a crime fighter, he also wrote popular songs! Satan Hall was a detective on a police force, nicknamed Satan because of the cast of his face that put fear in the criminals he hunted. Satan Hall was almost as popular as Race Williams. Many readers think the Hall stories are Daly's best.

  11. One correction. Vee Brown wasn't a PI. He was a cop. Specifically an NYPD detective assigned to the Manhattan DA's Office.

    Clay Holt, who appeared in seven short stories between 1934 and 1942, WAS a private eye. The second "Ticket to Murder," led to one Daly's few (perhaps his only film sale), and identically titled 1934 film starring Ralph Graves as Holt.


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