Flashback: CALL IT MURDER IF YOU LIKE: RACE WILLIAMS AS CREATED BY CARROLL JOHN DALY

This originally appeared in issue 8 (Sept/Oct 2005)

CALL IT MURDER IF YOU LIKE: RACE WILLIAMS AS CREATED BY CARROLL JOHN DALY

By Gary Warren Niebuhr

Carroll John Daly (1889-1958) is credited with being the father of the private eye novel. When the short story “The False Burton Combs” appeared in BLACK MASK MAGAZINE (December, 1922), it heralded a new type of character: a nameless professional detective independent of the police force, identified as a “gentleman adventurer.” Three Gun Terry Mack, featured in the BLACK MASK (May 15, 1923) story “Three Gun Terry” followed. The famous quote, “I ain’t a crook and I ain’t a dick,” crystallizes the development of these lone wolfs who will become the P. I. as we know it. The key element to separating this type of detective from the eccentric detectives like Sherlock Holmes and amateur sleuths like Jane Marple was the need to get paid.

 

Daly was born in Yonkers, New York. He attended De La Salle Institute and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. From age twenty-two, Daly was a fiction writer. Until he was thirty-three years of age, he ran theaters that he owned in New York and New Jersey, including the first movie theater in Atlantic City.

 

Daly’s Race Williams begins his life in “Knights of the Open Palm” in the June 1, 1923 issue of BLASK MASK. One source lists thirty five Race Williams short story appearances. The oft-quoted statistic about his popularity claims that his name on the cover of BLACK MASK would increase its sales by 15-20%. Race is the first prototypical P. I. as we know it. Race loves the competition against his enemies, and he uses his guns without hesitation. Unafraid to take justice into his own hands, he is a killer with a cause. Readers should not expect someone who follows clues. Instead expect a tough-talking, fast-shooting hero not unlike the Western hero of popular literature. He says, “Call it murder if you like.”

 

Race’s first novel length appearance, THE SNARL OF THE BEAST (1927), finds the P. I. a near dilettante. Race is an orphan. He lives in New York’s lower Eighties in a brownstone with his servants that include his chauffeur Benny. Race is licensed, and carries a .44. He belongs to a club, and can quote Pepys and Wilde. In most of the books, he considers Sergeant O’Rourke of the NYPD a friend and ally. In SNARL, Race is called to a secret rendezvous with a client who is an addict living in a tenement. The Beast, an almost supernatural evil presence, attacks Race. It seems The Beast has an interest in Race’s client and the money that was supposed to be willed to him. Daly takes forever to get his point across, once taking ten pages to unsuccessfully unmask a female burglar. At the end of SNARL, Race takes a girl to Europe for a vacation. Not quite what I expected from the father of the P. I., and not quite worth recommending.

 

Race has changed by THE HIDDEN HAND (1929). There is no mention of a home life. He is described as being 6’, 180 lbs. He now carries two guns, the .44 and a .25. His rival in HAND, and in other books to come, is Gregory Ford, of the Consolidated Association of Merchants of NYC. Just hours after being approached about going to Miami, Florida to apprehend major crook McCleary, Race is almost assassinated. Then a mysterious fat man approaches him with a tale of a super crime god, The Hidden Hand. McCleary is just the first of four criminals Race hunts down in Florida, all of whom die before revealing who The Hidden Hand is. But any reader should be able to spot The Hand, and not even the nonstop action can save this one for a contemporary reader.

 

In THE TAG MURDERS (1930), Race now weighs 190 lbs., and he smokes. He has an office, with new carpet, and his home has steel shutters that can protect him from his enemies. Race has an office boy named Jerry Donnighan whom he rescued from New York’s underworld. Five New York underworld characters have been murdered and metal tags have been pinned to their corpses. Race is hired by Burton Jewelry, which has lost a clerk to The Tag Murderer. The jewelry murder proves to be a dodge, for which the real Tag Murderer extracts his revenge. When Race kills the Tag Murderer’s chief assassin, he is marked for death. Sent to distract him is The Flame, a classic femme fatale, who adds greatly to the confusion. He falls for The Flame, who is really Florence Drummond, “The Girl With the Criminal Mind.” The conclusion finds Race acting as knight-errant for a little girl before the case is closed. Really the first of the Race Williams books to live up to Daly’s reputation as the Father of the P. I. and one that can be recommended.

 

Minutes after Race witnesses an underworld rubout in TAINTED POWER (1931), the dead man’s boss hires Race to protect him at a rendezvous with The Flame. Seems three different sets of crooks are negotiating for The Power, or the ultimate control of all things criminal in New York City. Race’s romance of The Flame continues to the point where the besotted P. I. declares his love for her. But it is the sorry plight of pal NYPD Sergeant O’Rourke and Florence’s wisdom that changes Race from being a lackey to The Power into the force that ultimately brings about the downfall of those who desire it. All action with little depth to the plot, this novel can still be recommended for what Race and Daly are—the origins of the hardboiled style.

 

Within the space of a few minutes in THE THIRD MURDERER (1931), Race punches out one of the racketeering Gordon Brothers, is invited to a rendezvous with The Flame, and gets hired to be a bodyguard to an anonymous client. The person the client wants protected is murdered and The Flame announces her return to the criminal world by turning over Race to the Gordons. Event after event occurs in rapid succession with Race being dragged along in confusion, never really getting a handle on this case. NYPD’s O’Rourke and his own Flame are leading him by the nose, but it is Race’s guns that make the difference when the chips are down. Now that Daly has found his rhythm with these books, they are achieving what his readers wanted.

 

In THE AMATEUR MURDERER (1933), Race is called to Baltimore by his client Hulbert Clovelly, and he arrives in time to witness the death of an Englishman named Wacco in a deserted warehouse. Asked to stay in the Park View Hotel under his client’s name, he is enticed into a scheme to sell a diamond worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. By train, Race leaves the city with most of those chasing the diamond, and is on hand when Rita Haskins is murdered. She is the girlfriend of Bronson, the main criminal, and she was selling him out for the riches the diamond would have provided. But everyone seems to be selling everyone else out, including P. I. Gregory Ford, who could either be Race’s friend or foe. When the ensemble arrives in New City, more bad things happen, but this book seems to lack pace despite its manic tempo. In a sense, it is almost too much for its own good. Daly has been better, and this work just does not seem to cut it. It has the feel of being written from beginning to end without any idea where it wanted to go.

 

Race is asked to join the team led by The General which intends to battle the evil agents of the nation of Astran in MURDER FROM THE EAST (1935). Astran is getting government secrets through the torture and murder of the families of those who work for the government, including The General himself. The evil Mark Yarrow seems to be taking orders from Florence Drummond, The Flame, while the double agent known only as The Number 7 Man feeds Race the latest from the inside. Florence’s husband, Count Jehdo, is the main agent of Astran, and Race’s love for her complicates his battle against the evil influences. A bit thick in some places but still one of the more enjoyable cases.

 

Unfortunately, I have never been able to locate a copy of BETTER CORPSES (1940).

 

The collection, THE ADVENTURES OF RACE WILLIAMS, published in 1989 long after Daly’s death, provided access to four of the Race Williams short stories. All of these stories have an overly romantic style in their dialogue and plot coupled with the brutal force of Race’s actions. In “Some Die Hard,” Race is hired by a dead woman who needed to be protected on her twenty-seventh birthday, her day of inheritance. In “Dead Hands Reaching,” some hoods make the mistake of offering Race money not to take a case, with predictable results, as Race tries to stop the flow of drugs into New York City. The story is continued in “Corpse & Co.,” where the hoods try to reestablish the drug trade. The final story is “City of Blood” where Race cleans up Redmond City.