Friday, October 3, 2014

Forgotten Books: THE TAG MURDERS by Carroll John Daly (1930)

Damn! Race Williams just doesn't get any better than this.

Back in the early 90s, Otto Penzler began reprinting the Race Williams novels, with Snarl of the Beast and The Hidden Hand. Sadly, they didn't sell well enough for the series to continue. And the saddest part it is that book three - The Tag Murders - is where the:Race stories really kick into high gear.

This book has everything you expect from Race Williams: action, humor, braggadocio and plenty of shooting. But it also has a couple of mystery stories - complete with plots - and a fine scene in which Race goes all Jack Bauer on a deserving slimeball. But best of all, it features the first appearance of Race's most important co-star, The Girl With the Criminal Mind - The Flame.

Like most (if not all) of Daly's novels, this one appeared first, in pieces, in the pulps. In this case, that pulp was Black Mask, in four consecutive issues beginning with March 1929. In the several cases I've been able to examine, the text of Daly's novels was lifted directly from the pulps with no revisions. Sometimes a paragraph or two was dropped, but nothing new was added. I'm guessing that's the case here, because The Tag Murders breaks nicely into four novelettes.

The first, originally published as "Tags of Death," is an unusually traditional mystery story. It's also unusual in that the novel's main plotline - about a criminal organization killing citizens and leaving metal tags on the bodies - is merely the background to the real mystery.

Part two, "A Pretty Bit of Shooting," takes the Tag killers on directly and uncovers the secret behind the gang's seemingly pointless advertising. It builds to a spectacular climax in a crowded Broadway theater.

By the time part three, "Get Race Williams," rolls around, Race is such a threat to the gang that they put a hundred thousand dollar bounty on his head. And when his murder proves difficult, they bring in the really big guns - the girl/woman, angel/devil known as The Flame. The Flame is Daly's most complex and interesting character and will be tormenting Race on and off for the rest of  his career, so witnessing their first encounter was a real kick in the butt.

Part four, "Race Williams Never Bluffs," takes up 110 pages of the book (more than one-third) and must have been one of the longest Race novelettes ever to appear in Black Mask. This one has everything - including infernal devices and torture - and brings the story home in fine style.

Bottom Line: If you like Race Williams, you're going to love The Tag Murders. As a book, it's dang near impossible to come by, but the text - in PDF format - is readily available from Vintage Library. And right now it's even on sale. They're offering 10% off the usual bargain price of $6.95.  For instant gratification, I suggest you click HERE.


George said...

Love Carroll John Daly! I enjoyed your review!

Stephen Mertz said...

Couldn't agree with you more. From this period, certainly Daly's most popular both influentially and sales-wise, THE TAG MURDERS is the best of the best. Frankly by the mid-30s The Flame had become a lazy, tiresome plot device in the Race series but she truly is a kick-butt co-star in this gem. An oh, those beautiful Black Mask covers! Thanks for a terrific review.

Richard said...

Looks like copies are available, if one wants to spend $175 for one. YIKES!

Ron Smyth said...

I do like Race Williams and your review is enticing. Doubtless I will get the PDF version at some point. There's just so much to read on Mount TBR already.