Carroll John Daly is now not much more than a footnote in the history of crime fiction. A footnote, but a very significant one. Carroll John Daly, it is generally admitted, invented the hard-boiled detective story.
His story Three Gun Terry was published in Black Mask on 15 May 1923 and it was the first story to bring together all the elements of the hard-boiled detective story. Some of the other elements had appeared in earlier stories but Three Gun Terry is the genuine article. It is the template on which every hard-boiled detective story is based. And in 1927 Daly produced the first hard-boiled detective novel, The Snarl of the Beast.
You would think that Daly would have gone on to be a very major figure in the genre but it didn’t quite work out that way. Daly contributed dozens of stories to Black Mask over the course of two decades and was popular with readers but he was overshadowed by other writers who took his template and did more interesting things with it. Critics have never found much to admire in Daly’s fiction and even the various editors of Black Mask were not overly impressed by his work. Dashiell Hammett would soon become the darling of hard-boiled fiction fans, critics and the editors at Black Mask. Daly’s most popular creation, private eye Race Williams, would serve as the model for Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. By the early 1950s Spillane was selling books by the tens of millions while Daly was finding it next to impossible to get published. The simple truth is that while Daly was the pioneer the real rewards were reaped by writers who were simply better writers. In their very different ways and despite their very different styles Hammett and Spillane had the genuine talent that Daly lacked.
Notwithstanding all that, Three Gun Terry was the story that started it all. In 1923 Black Mask was not even a specialist detective fiction pulp magazine. The stories in Black Mask in the early days covered a wide variety of genres including, amazing as it may seem, romance. It was the immediate popularity of Carroll John Daly’s tough guy private eye stories that caused Black Mask to concentrate more and more on hard-boiled fiction.
So why was Three Gun Terry such a sensation at the time, and why was Daly unable to capitalise fully on his innovations?
Three Gun Terry is certainly fast-moving and exciting. There’s a great deal of violence and an impressive body count. Private eye Terry Mack has the tough guy attitude in spades. He’s a loner, as a good hard-boiled hero should be. He has an uneasy relationship with the police. He has plenty of underworld connections. He’s perfectly at home on New York’s mean streets. He’s unpolished and he’s cynical. He doesn’t believe in doing anyone a good turn unless he’s getting paid for it. He’s very quick with a gun. In fact he always carries three guns - two big automatics plus a little .25 automatic up his sleeve. He’s just as quick with his fists, and with wise-cracks. He doesn’t trust dames. He’s not the sort of guy who gets invited to the best social functions - he’s more at home in a speakeasy. For all that, he is in his own way a hero. If Terry Mack takes on a case for a client he’ll do his best to deliver the goods even if it means taking big risks.
All the right ingredients are there. The problem is that Daly was very much a pulp writer and nothing more. He could tell a good exciting story and do it quite efficiently. He had neither the ambition nor the ability to do any more. There is no attempt at characterisation, no subtlety, no polish. Daly’s writing style is rough and ready and his ear for dialogue is often less than sure. His hard-boiled patter comes off sometimes; sometimes it’s embarrassingly clunky.
The plotting is serviceable enough - there’s a conspiracy to cheat a young woman of her fortune, there’s a hunt for a vital document, there are kidnappings and it serves its purpose in providing opportunities for plenty of action.
Daly’s first Race Williams story, Knights of the Open Palm, followed hard on the heels of Three Gun Terry. The plot is slightly more unusual - Williams comes up the Ku Klux Klan while trying to find a young farmer’s son who has been kidnapped. Again the plot provides the hero with the chance to indulge in copious amounts of gunplay. Daly had no great skill in creating suspense but he makes up for it with plenty of action. Race Williams is hardly distinguishable from Terry Mack. You certainly get the sense that both Terry Mack and Race Williams see violence as more than just a necessary part of the job. They enjoy it. They make Mike Hammer seem like the quiet sensitive type.
It’s probably harsh but fair to describe Daly as little more than a hack, but he could be an entertaining hack and his writing unquestionably has a great deal of energy. Three Gun Terry is worth reading for its historical interest but while it’s crude it’s quite enjoyable.