The novels and tales of Carroll John Daly reveal a world constantly beset by a variety of criminals bent on shaping their surroundings to fit their desires for money and the power that it brings. For the most part, Daly’s characters are not well developed and represent a very traditional view of the way in which the seven deadly sins corrupt humankind. Yet Daly was able to create in the fictional detectives Race Williams, Vee Brown, and Satan Hall men who were often as avaricious as the criminals they faced and as willing to go beyond the pale of law in bringing their prey to earth.
Race Williams first appeared in the story “Knights of the Open Palm” in Black Mask in June, 1923. He is described as being five feet, eleven and one-half inches tall, having black eyes and dark brown hair, and weighing 183 pounds. The reader is thus made aware of the fact that Williams is a physically powerful man to whom fear is probably a stranger. For some time before Daly’s work appeared in Black Mask, the magazine had been accepting detective stories and Western fiction; the detective stories, however, were usually of the “amateur sleuth” variety, and the Westerns conformed to the conventions that had characterized dime novels for several decades. What made Williams, the forerunner of Sam Spade and the Continental Op, different was that he was not an agency detective or an arm of the police authority. His fists and his gun were for hire, and he was generally not very particular about the character of his employer. He acted according to a simple code: Never kill anybody who does not deserve it.
The Snarl of the Beast
With Williams as a first-person narrator and characterized by sequential plotting, Daly’s stories quickly became a fixture in Black Mask in the 1920’s and early 1930’s. Daly’s second novel—and the first to feature Race Williams—was The Snarl of the Beast (1927). In it, Williams’s help is sought by the police in their attempt to capture a fiendish criminal known as the Beast. This master, who seems impervious to bullets, stalks the streets of the city, and the police are powerless to stop him. Williams agrees to hunt down the Beast if he is allowed to collect the reward money. Already a popular figure with readers of Black Mask, Williams attracted an even wider audience to Daly’s fiction, and Daly went on to produce seven more Race Williams novels.
The appeal of the two-fisted, often two-gun, tough-talking hero is not difficult to fathom. In the United States, the hard-riding, straight-shooting Western hero had been well established by the 1920’s. Appearing on the frontier in an age of lawlessness, the Western hero had come to represent truth, justice, and fair play. These “riders of the plains” were more than a match for a variety of evildoers bent on poisoning the well of a fledgling nation. Yet with the passing of the nineteenth century and the disillusionment arising from the ashes of World War I, American audiences seemed less and less interested in the romances of the American West. Even though the 1920’s has been romanticized as the Jazz Age, the fact is that the vast majority of Americans were struggling to make ends meet and dreaming of the day “their ships would come in.” Fair play, hard work, and honesty had not made them rich or famous. Although they certainly had freedom to do as they pleased, many felt powerless to change the conditions of their existence. Given this growing disenchantment with the American Dream, then, there certainly must have been a yearning to be able to control one’s destiny, to exercise power, to be an individual unfettered by rules. Daly’s conception of Race Williams provided his readers with a vicarious means of fulfilling that desire.
In story after story, novel after novel, Williams confronts a wide array of malefactors: petty thieves, corrupt politicians, gangland bosses, sinister foreigners, conniving women, and master criminals bent on taking over the nation or the world. Yet no matter what the magnitude of the threat these criminals pose, Williams is their master. He...
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