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CARROLL JOHN DALY (1889-1958)

Carroll John Daly, identified as the 'pioneer of the private eye,' is credited with creating the hard-boiled detective. Daly demonstrates why he deserves that title in «The False Burton Combs,» which is considered to be the genesis of the private eye. In it, Daly defines the credo and personality not only of the unnamed protagonist in the story but also of his soon-to-be-created hero Race Williams, the tough-talking hard-boiled private eye of his own most successful series, and a thousand who would follow the pattern. The hero says, "I ain't a crook; just a gentleman adventurer and make my living working against the law breakers. Not that I work with the police-no, not me." He adds, "I'm no knight errant, either," anticipating how the hard-boiled hero would be used by Dashiell Hammett and, especially, Raymond Chandler.

Daly, born in Yonkers, New York, and a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, had given up on an acting career, become a movie projectionist, and moved from that into ownership of a chain of movie theatres. He didn't begin his writing career until the Roaring Twenties was in its third year, and the tone of his tales exactly fits the American hedonism of the period.

In a sense, Daly took the moralistic, 'white knight' hero of the pulp Westerns and converted him to fit the mood of a country turned cynical by World War I and by the official corruption that accompanied Prohibition. Race Williams declares that he makes his own ethics, and his solutions are more likely to be accomplished with a pistol shot or a punch than with the sharp reasoning of the courtly sleuths who had preceded him. His adventures are told in the first person, allowing the reader at once to experience the physical sensations and inner thoughts of the hero. Two other hard-boiled detectives created by Daly, Vee Brown and Satan Hall, followed in the same formula.

In disclaiming any moral intentions and describing himself as a soldier of fortune, the protagonist of «The False Burton Combs» sets the Race Williams pattern. He also anticipates Williams's attitude toward the establishment: "There ain't nothing in government unless you're a politician. And, as I said before, I ain't a crook."

The hero also states that he "never took women seriously. My game and women don't go well together." That attitude was often reflected in detective fiction of the 1920's. But while Daly's male heroes disdain women, the author is able to create the occasional exemplar of a woman who is clearly heroic. Strong female characters like the 'pretty game little kid' Marion St. James, whose courage is essential to the hero's well-being, were as unusual in Daly's era as is the resolution of this remarkable story.


A Jury of Her Peers | The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories | The False Burton Combs







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