Three Guns, No Dames

Carroll John Daly’s “Three Gun Terry,” introducing the first of the hard-boiled detective-heroes, was published in Black Mask magazine on this day in 1923. The story begins with Daly’s gumshoe playing tough with even the reader:

My life is my own, and the opinions of others don’t interest me; so don’t form any, or if you do, keep them to yourself. If you want to sneer at my tactics, why go ahead; but do it behind the pages — you’ll find that healthier.

Terry’s rule is “I ain’t interested unless I got to be.” His rates are $50 a day, $500 bonus when he “delivered the goods,” and “for every man I croak — mind you, I ain’t a killer, but sometimes a chap’s got to turn to a gun — I get two hundred dollars flat.” Sometimes Terry turns to women, too, until he gets wise: “I’m off dames; they don’t go well with my business.”

A month after “Three Gun Terry,” and also in Black Mask, Daly published “Knights of the Open Palm,” which scholars regard as having an even greater impact. This story marked the appearance of Race Williams, the hero whom Daly would turn into the first series detective in the hard-boiled genre, prototype for Hammett’s Continental Op (he appeared in October 1923), Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (1939), Spillaine’s Mike Hammer (1947), and the rest. Race’s self-introduction at the beginning of The Snarl of the Beast also has swagger:

It’s the point of view in life that counts. For an ordinary man to get a bullet through his hat as he walked home at night would be something to talk about for years. Now with me; just the price of a new hat — nothing more.

Over the next paragraphs Race elaborates that point of view, establishing parameters that the scholars, though forewarned by Race himself, find “existential” and “Emersonian”:

Right and wrong are not written on the statutes for me, nor do I find my code of morals in the essays of long-winded professors. My ethics are my own. I’m not saying they’re good and I’m not admitting they’re bad, and what’s more I’m not interested in the opinions of others on that subject.… I stand on my own legs and I’ll shoot it out with any gun in the city — any time, any place. Thirty-fourth street and Broadway, in the five o’clock rush hour, isn’t barred either. Race Williams — Private Investigator — tells the whole story. Right! Let’s go.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at