Friday, June 10, 2011

Forgotten Books: The White Circle by Carroll John Daly

I don’t know who the should get the credit for being fiction’s first masked do-gooder. Some folks say it’s the Scarlet Pimpernel, who was in the masked hero business as early as 1903. Zorro entered the ranks in 1919, and I’m guessing there were numerous modern-day crime fighters using the gimmick prior to 1926.

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).

By the time this book was published, Daly had been writing Race Williams story for three years, and Stacey has a lot of Race in him. Which is all to the good, of course. I like a hero who isn’t shy about using his trigger fingers.

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!


Ron Scheer said...

Thanks. I enjoyed this. You have me curious about how the masked avenger got started, as well as what accounts for his staying power. I have yet to come across this character reading early-early westerns.

George said...

Very enlightening, Evan! It would be great if some of these old books found their way into becoming ebooks.

Deka Black said...

This is very good! First masked avenger... i always thinked was The Scarlet Pimpenel, but after this, i'm not so sure.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review! While I may or may not be the "die-hard Daly fan" referred to in your review, I do have a soft spot in my heart (head?) for this one as it was the first Daly novel I ever read. Daly's 1920s stuff embodies all of the charm and shortcomings you cite here (ah, those handy curtains!) and while I do prefer the later stuff there certainly were a few others from this early period that are worth noting. The Snarl of the Beast, The Hidden Hand, The Tag Murders and Tainted Power all have elements to recommend them.

--Stephen Mertz

Evan Lewis said...

Shucks, Steve, I was trying to keep your identity a secret.

Brian Drake said...

Wow, I didn't know about this one, and I thought I was a Daly fan. Anyway great review. The story also seems to have the usual Daly staples: male's with feminine sounding names, the two guns, etc. He had his formula and he stuck with it. All of my Daly books are in a box somewhere but now I'm thinking I should go and dig them out for a read.

Evan Lewis said...

Now that I've started again, I'll probably re-read the rest in order. The only one I lack is the second-to-last, Murder at Our House.

Anonymous said...

I'll bet that book is still sitting there somewhere, but it may have gotten wet by now.

Great review and thanks for the quotes. Until I read this I thought the start of the masked hero thing was when I tied a red bandana around the lower part of my face and galloped across the lawn on my broomstick horse. That would have been about 1950. Well, perhaps I did know better.

I'd have said it was the Pimpernel, then Zorro. Still, this guy is in New York, and I can see similarities to Spider and Savage though the latter had no mask.

Anonymous said...

And when was the first appearance of The Lone Ranger?

Evan Lewis said...

Old Kemosabe didn't come along until 1933.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Oh for the days when publishers didn't think they needed an interesting cover to sell a book.

Todd Mason said...

They thought those were interesting covers, Patti!

I hate losing books, but mostly I have in times of distraction...high-school era insomnia led to walking away and leaving at least one library book on a payphone. Once drove away having forgotten that I had left a library-sale purchase on the car's roof. Like that. (I never found that one again...the Asimov autobiography on the phone was apparently turned in to the system by a Samaritan.) Sympathies.

I've decided that the bits of Daly I've read in the BLACK MASK and related anthologies might be enough...

Evan Lewis said...

Late breaking news: Bill Halvorson informs me the book is available here:

shonokin said...

Thanks for the info on The White Circle, I had no idea it was a masked hero story. Guess I'll have to hit up cafepress.

I'd say Spring-Heeled Jack is quite a few years before any of the masked pulp heroes we know today. Though in the early part of the 18th Century he was an urban legend's boogie man, by mid-century he was turning into a masked, caped and spring-heeled crusader.

In one of the iterations which can be found online, his story will sound familiar: A young rich boy loses his parents and through the machinations of an evil relative loses his estates. In retaliation the boy takes up a costume to terrorize evil-doers.

shonokin said...

Oops, looks like the link got truncated? Try again...

Evan Lewis said...

Thanks for the Spring Heeled Jack link. I'll be checking that out!

shonokin said...

So I ordered THE WHITE CIRCLE from cafepress after reading this post. Got it yesterday and I'm about halfway through it. This definitely has a lot of Race Williams in it. In fact a lot of it has the feel and situations found in Snarl of the Beast. A lot of house under siege stuff. The story-telling and action is very tight in the first third, creating a true "page-turner" that I couldn't put down.

A common Daly-ism occurs as it gets into the 2nd third, where it bogs down in some scattershot storytelling. But I expect it to pick up at the end. I'm enjoying it a lot, so thanks for the head's up. The format of the cafepress book is a little funky but still very readable.

Personally I love Daly's writing. He might not be a technical master of grammar but he spins a darn fine yarn!

Anonymous said...

"...I don’t know who the should get the credit for being fiction’s first masked do-gooder. Some folks say it’s the Scarlet Pimpernel, who was in the masked hero business as early as 1903...."

I don't think the Scarlet Pimpernel wore a mask though, you may be thinking of Daffy Duck's Scarlet Pumpernickel, who was more of a pastiche of Zorro plus the Pimpernel.
I think the Pimpernel wore disguises - an old woman, a gypsy, a soldier, etc... but there was no identifiable/recognizable Pimpernel masked identity/persona, like there was for Zorro.