Carroll John Daly's The Snarl of the Beast was first published in
serialized form in Jun-Jul-Aug-Sept of 1927 in the classic Black Mask
detective magazine. For an analysis of how the novel was broken down for
serialization, as well as an excellent discussion of the novel in
general, see Michael Grost's site here. In fact, Grost's exegesis of the book
is so good that I can only consider this review to be supplemental to
his at best.
Daly is generally considered to be the father of the hard-boiled
detective genre, although my own view is that he is maybe more like the
crazy grandfather by this point. He's kind of like the grandfather you
used to listen to when you were a kid with a mixture of awe and a little
bit of fear. Nevertheless Daly is one of the great ones, and if one's
fingers don't tremble a little writing about him then you probably
aren't getting quite what this guy did for the world of fiction.
That being said, I'm going to do a review of his novel anyway. Hey, I can
play it tough when I have to.
One of the amazing things about Daly's work and his creation of the
hard-boiled style is that Daly himself was a agoraphobe who hardly ever
ventured out of his own house. Bad things happen if you go out of your
house. It's a really rough world out there, and you'd have to be crazy
not to expect bad things to happen on every block you walk down. I
think it is clear, then, and also wonderful, and a kind of miracle, that
Daly's unfortunate paranoia was transformed into the dark prose of
the hard-boiled style — arguably the most dominant literary style in
America in the twentieth century.
Daly's prose style is gritty and real. You can almost feel the pavement
under Race's feet and smell the trash in the cans in the back of the
buildings. Snarl of the Beast has an ominous feel to it throughout the
length of the narrative. You kind of expect bad things to happen given
this type of world, and in fact they do happen. You never know who your
friends are or even if you have any. But one thing is for sure, you can
pretty much count on having enemies.
There is a passage from the beginning of the novel that is so
significant in terms of the future of this type of fiction that it needs
to be quoted in its entirety:
"The police don't like me. The crooks don't like me. I'm just a halfway
house between the law and crime; sort of working both ends against the
middle. Right and wrong are not written in 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. When the time comes for some quick-drawing
gunman to jump me over the hurdles I'll ride to the Pearly Gates on my
own ticket. It won't be a pass written on the back of another man's
This type of hard-boiled ethical ground was to continue down through the
form. And you frequently find examples of it today in novels, movies,
and television crime dramas. This certainly is not the place for a
in-depth discussion of the hard-boiled form. That would take something
like a Ph.D. dissertation on the matter, and even then there would
probably be disagreements. But there is no doubt that the idea of the
detective with their own moral code — one that is not necessarily
according to the law but which they are faithful to anyway — continues
in various permutations down to the present era.
It goes almost goes without saying that the novel follows the serial-
style of plotting, inasmuch as Daly was one of those who created that
kind of plotting in the first place. The point being that this is not
your normal Agatha Christie, "Golden Age" detective tale with it's
"fair-play" style plot. This is ocean's away from that kind of thing,
both literally and structurally.
In fact, my only disagreement with Grost with regard to this book
concerns the plot. Grost calls the plot "thin." If by thin you mean
almost non-existent in the Golden-Age sense, yeah, that's true. But for
me that is a positive thing. Grost remarks that the novel has a dream-
like quality to it. And in this case, you have about as much of a chance
of figuring out what is going to happen next or of how it is all going
to come out as you would some cold-sweat dream on a December night.
What that means is that the novel always keeps you on your toes guessing.
And I like that. That's a "plot" that I can turn the page wanting to see
Race is a man of action. He's not one of those thinking types. And in
fact Race spends a good deal of time here and there thinking about how
he's not one of those thinking types. But never fear. Just around the
next corner or at the edge of the next alley there will be plenty for
Race to do, to take a swing at somebody or pull his gun or have somebody
take a swing or pull their gun at him. The action is paramount.
Given this emphasis on action, I find it interesting then that Daly, one
of the creators of the hard-boiled style, should have chosen to put his
Race Williams narratives into the first-person — the most self-
reflective of literary modes. For an action-styled hero, third person
would have been at least as good or perhaps even preferable. One is left
wondering about this type of legacy, then, given the roots put down by
Daly and others like Hammett. My own analysis is that this early choice
of the first-person was almost destined to give way to another type of
private-eye hero, one who was not so much action centered as self-
reflective. In other words, destined to flow into the style that
Chandler developed and into private-eyes such as Phillip Marlowe.
It has often been commented that the true successors to Daly were
writers like Mickey Spillane, and for good reason. Spillane's Mike
Hammer is a true rough-and-tumble private eye in the Daly/Race Williams
tradition, a guy that's not shy about sucker-punching some slob who is
tailing him or who feels any guilt about sticking somebody's fingers in
a drawer to get a little information out of them. And in fact Spillane
acknowledged Daly as one of his main influences.
But one's detective does not necessarily have to be of the tough sort to
draw on the tradition set by Daly. In fact, any time any private-eye or
cop out there walks down the dark and dirty street of a novel — "down
these mean streets a man must go" — he is in the tradition of Carroll
Crazy grandfather or not, Daly is still with us. And we're still listening to him.
P.M.P.I. RATING (OUT OF 5)