Nameless
(aka "the false Burton Combs")
Created by Carroll John Daly (1889-1958)

"I ain't a crook; just a gentleman adventurer and make my living working against the law breakers. Not that work I with the police -- no, not me. I'm no knight errant either."

Carroll John Daly's short story, "The False Burton Combs," which first appeared in the December 1922 issue of The Black Mask, is often credited with being the first hard-boiled private eye story. Although the hero identifies himself as more of a "gentleman adventurer" working as a middleman between the cops and the crooks, rather than as a detective, although he does cop to having worked as a "soldier of fortune" in the past. And, as he's fond of saying, he "ain't a crook."

There's no doubt it's a transitional piece, looking backward to Poe and dime novel ideas of masculinity, but almost all the other elements that we we would come to associate with the hard-boiled detective genre are present and accounted for.

The unnamed hero of this tale ("Burton Combs" is the alias he assumes at one point -- we never learn his true name) is a hard-boiled sort of egg, a tough guy for hire, a cynical lone wolf wending his way through a corrupt world where the forces of law and order are ineffectual at best, and far too often just as crooked as the criminals they're supposed to be putting away. His ethics are a little on the shady side, and he'll go as far as killing if he has to, but he's held in check by his own rigid personal moral code.

Unfortunately, the story didn't exactly set the world on fire, perhaps because the undeniuable whallop of the story is slightly diluted by its rather sappy ending which seems to come out of left field.

But Daly (and Hammett [see below]) were definitely on to something. Daly would fill out his character and give him (slightly) more depth -- and a name. First it was "Three Gun Terry," whose first adventure is generally acknowledged as the first hard-boiled private eye story where the hero himself cops to being a private eye, and then Race Williams, who was essentially Terry under a new monicker, who would go on to appear in Black Mask and other pulps well into the 1950s.

* * * * *

It should be noted that another school of thought posits that Hammett's "The Road Home," which appeared in the very same issue of The Black Mask, was the first hard-boiled detective story. Although the hero of that yarn doesn't identify himself as a detective either, but rather a "manhunter". Reading the two stories back-to-back (and in The Black Mask, that's exactly how they appeared: back to back) it's obvious the detective story is going through a monumental shift right before your eyes. Almost all the tropes of a new sub-genre are present or suggested in one or both stories.

SHORT STORIES

  • "The False Burton Combs" (December 1922, The Black Mask)

RELATED LINKS

  • The Nostalgia League Library: "The False Burton Combs"
    A nicely produced rendition of the story available for online reading: solid layout, consistent formatting & accompanied by a thoughtful, intelligent introduction. They also offer nice renditions of Michael Arlen's "Gay Falcon" and Dashiell Hammett's " The Sardonic Star of Tom Dooley" from 1923 if anyone's interested.

  • The Hardboiled Detective.com: "The False Burton Combs"
    Another nice clean version, with an intro by Ben Solomon that includes some nice comments on this site, tucked away in
    a much larger site, where Ben offers detective fiction on a subscription basis. Sure.

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.


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