Re: RARA-AVIS: What Is Good Fiction?

Greg Swan (
Sun, 25 Jan 1998 16:00:51 -0700 michael david sharp wrote:
> Greg seems a little offended.

Yes, I was. I felt like a student who had ventured to answer a professor's
question. Unfortunately, the professor thought my answer either the result
of poor preparation or incredible naivete and decided to destroy me as an
example to others. That was probably more my feeling than your intent. For
myself, if not for you, I figured I better try to assert my status as a
human being, as opposed to words on a screen. Thanks for your friendly

Today, I thought I might explain in detail where I was coming from in my
original message. Time is short, though, so I'm not sure I'll be able to
continue the conversation beyond this note. If that's the case, I hope
you'll understand.

> Your comment that Daly might be better
> appreciated in a class dedicated to understanding pulp fiction seemed
> implicitly critical, as if we in the ivory tower were holding Daly to some
> literary standard he never meant to attain.

. . .

> But don't tell me (or imply) that I'd be able to see the quality of
> Daly if I came down off my high horse. Your argument that Daly has his
> merits is fine; your argument about the inadequacy of my class for
> understanding Daly is not.

This is the way I read your original query: you were distressed because you
were struggling to understand Daly's appeal and were looking for some help
figuring it out. Here's a more carefully prepared response to that query:

You aren't the first to scratch your head over Daly. Usually when folks
find out about Cap Shaw's infamous 1930 Black Mask writers poll, they are
just as puzzled as you. As you're probably well aware, in that poll Daly
placed first, Erle Stanley Gardner placed second and Hammett placed third --
despite the fact Hammett's Maltese Falcon had just run as a serial and its
hardcover reprinting was basking in critical praise.

How could Daly possibly be the number one Black Mask writer? Daly better
than Hammett? It's like the Twilight Zone!

My answer, which I still think is valid, is that from your vantage point in
the late 20th century you face something of a "paradigm paralysis" in
understanding and appreciating the pulp tradition of Daly (and probably his
literary heirs Robert Leslie Bellem and Alan G. "Carter Brown" Yates). I
certainly don't think your difficulty stems from sort of effete snobbery.
Instead of a high horse, you merely ride a different horse.

In reading the pulps (love pulps sometimes excepted!), I've come to believe
that the fiction in them was largely adventure fiction. The adventurers
wear different costumes -- space suits, loin cloths, P.I. badges, ten gallon
hats and so forth -- but it's all pretty much cut from the same cloth. Daly
is a shining star in the pulp tradition. Hammett is star, but of another
tradition. More on that later.

Robert Sampson, perhaps our premiere scholar in the field of pulps, seems to
understand the nature of Daly's work when he writes about Daly's most
popular creation, Race Williams: (see vol 4 of his "Yesterday's Faces: A
Study of Series Characters in the Early Pulp Magazines") "Race Williams is
often credited with being the first hard-boiled detective. That strains the
definition of detective. Williams is a hired adventurer who may
occasionally detect if he blunders into a clue the size of a bathtub and
painted bright pink. He has little use for clues, even less for chains of
reasoning." And further: "This (Race Williams') inspired posturing is an
imitation of the authentic hardboiled stance, not the real thing. It is the
reverse side of hardboiled, whose more notable practitioners were taciturn
men, touchy of their reputations, coldly pragmatic. They thought spare,
sudden thoughts and took spare, sudden action." As pulp, Daly is great. As
"hardboiled," at least the way we look on it in the late 20th century, he's
largely a counterfeit. Hence, my comment about Daly doing better in a class
focused on studying pulp fiction as opposed to hardboiled fiction.

Now, back to the dangling Hammett thread. If Hammett isn't really central
to the pulp tradition, where does he fit in? Daly's work, despite the
bloody violence and high body counts, is fantastic melodrama. Hammett and
also Chandler's work, and the work of those who followed in their footsteps,
belongs to American literature's trend toward objective realism. Sampson
again saves me from having to construct original sentences: "He (Daly) has
received little acclaim for this (his dectective fiction) . . . Critical
comment has tended to focus on Hammett and Chandler, whose objective
realism, glittering about a romantic core, could be tied to more familiar
literary lines. They could be associated with such respectable names as

I think Raymond Chandler realized he, and others objective realists like
himself, didn't quite fit in with the pulp tradition. Here's a quote from
his introduction to "The Simple Art of Murder," which collects some of his
pulp short stories -- and also some of his "slick" stories: "Some of us
tried pretty hard to break out of the formula, but we usually got caught and
sent back. To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the
dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack." Thus, Daly --
the small thin, extremely pale man who wrote through the night and slept
during the day -- was a hopeless hack to Chandler's (and possibly your) way
of thinking.

My response is that you and Chandler sit atop one literary tradition trying
to evaluate another. Comparing Daly to an objective realist using objective
realism as your measure could probably only lead to the conclusion: "I just
don't see the appeal."

I'm sure there's room for dispute . . . :)

On another note:

Anyone interested in Carroll John Daly, should check out "Mr. Siniser" in
Weinberg's Tough Guys and Dangerous Dames paperback. It's one of my
favorite Daly stories. The whole book is dynamite. I think it's one of
those "instant remainders." So, you get 600 pages of hardboiled pulp era
fiction for less than $10. It's got one story from almost every major
writer (selected sometimes because they were popular pulp writers and
sometimes because they were popular hardboiled writers): Lester Dent,
Whitfield, Paul Cain, Chandler, Nebel, Norbert Davis, Frederick Davis, Cave,
Gault, MacIsaac, Daly, Gardner, Paul Chadwick, John McDonald, Donald
Wandrei, Arthur Burks, Bellem, Gruber and Robert E. Howard. There's even
some oddities thrown in: Ray Cummings attempts hardboiled?! Don't miss it .
. .


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