Still, 1926 seems pretty early, long before the Spider and The Phantom Detective and even The Shadow, whose mask consisted of make-up rather than cloth.
The mask worn by Daly’s hero in The White Circle is not described in detail, but I got the impression it either covers his whole head, or hangs down to completely conceal his face. The same can be said of the mask worn by the hero’s arch-villain, known as The Black Circle.
The White Circle was Daly’s first solo novel. I say solo because it was slightly preceded by Two-Gun Gerta, published in book form the same year and co-authored by C.C. Waddell (that’s reviewed HERE).
It seems likely this adventure first appeared in a magazine, probably as a serial, but I’ve yet to discover where or when. If anyone has a clue, I’d sure like to hear about it. (And not long after posting this, I did! David Wilson reports that The White Circle was published as "The White Champion" in four consecutive issues of Flynn's, August 15, 1925 to September 5, 1925. Thanks, David!)
Our hero here is a two-fisted, two-gunned adventurer named Stacey Lee who has traveled the world and sown his oats, finally amassing a small fortune and settling down to a respectable life in the second echelon of New York society. As the story opens, he has lost that fortune and faces ruin.
But just in the nick of time, he’s approached by an old man calling himself The White Circle. The old man offers to restore Stacey’s riches if he agrees to don the white mask and do battle with the blackmailing scoundrel known as The Black Circle. Stacey agrees, and finds his old lifestyle has equipped him well to play masked avenger. And just to make it more fun, he is provided with a sheet of little White Circle stickers, so he can paste one on the body of every bad guy he shoots (shades of the Spider).
As is typical of Daly’s early work, the plot is creaky and melodramatic, and there are always curtains handy for someone, good or bad, to hide behind with a gun. But Daly’s prose was actually pretty good, except for his abominable habit of leaving thoughts and sentence unfinished, or loading his paragraphs with so many M-dashes that they became nearly incomprehensible.
Here’s the opening of the book, an example of Daly at his best:
I went to sleep broke—as free from money as a bluefish is from wings. And I went to sleep sober, without a care or worry. It wasn’t in me to drown my sorrow. I felt none—when a man comes back, he fights his way—not slops it. My life had been chuck full of adventure: South America, the gay boulevards of Paris, the shining steel in the hand of a vicious Arab in that romantic, forbidden section of the old hillside city of Algiers. Even the deadly, biting stillness of the jungle night in the sweating tropical climate of Africa was not unfamiliar to me.
In New York I turned a little bank account into a fortune; the instinct to take chances made me in Wall Street, and that instinct wiped me out. There was no kick. For two years I had lived, but there was nothing of romance in the city—that uncertainty of lurking foes, that living, breathing closeness to death that had ever been in my nostrils.
Not bad, eh?
But here’s a sample of the choppy stuff:
“Take off your coat,” I told him. “Sling it about your head—you know the house—is there a way down the back?—but lead, you must—I’d be lost out there.”
He nodded, his head wagging grotesquely through the haze—just a head, nothing more—the thick, seeping, clutching, stifling vapor pierced through the nostrils and into the base of the brain.
Coats over our heads—both at the door—Bert nearest the exit, we flung it open again. A burst of smoke again—a white, drifting wave that vanished almost at once—fire, just a raging fire—lay without, leaping from below—above the dark banister that guarded the stairs.
I know one other die-hard Daly fan who finds this early stuff unreadable. Me, I enjoy it anyway, but I’m hard put not to whip out a pen and edit as I read.
As far as I know, this book has never been reprinted in any form, and is one of the few Daly novels not available in PDF format from The Vintage Library. I think that's a cryin' shame. (More late-breaking news: Got an email from Bill Halvorson, who advises me that a 2008 reprint is available HERE. Great detective work, Bill!)
An aside: When I first started reading this book (sometime in the 80s, most likely), it taught me a great lesson. The lesson was: NEVER TAKE A RARE BOOK OUT OF THE HOUSE, YOU IDIOT!
At the time, I lived just across the river from downtown Portland, and often rode my bike to work. After much hunting, I had tracked down a British edition of The White Circle (which cost me about 30 pounds plus exorbitant postage), and had just started reading, so I strapped it to my bike rack and took it along, planning to read it on breaks and lunch.
Well! When I reached the other side of the bridge, the book was no longer with me. Frantic, I retraced my route all the way back to my house, and the sucker was nowhere to be found. Took me another year and a lot more bucks to track down another copy, this time the American edition pictured above. But I learned my lesson, and have not lost a book since, rare or otherwise.
More Forgotten Books at pattinase!