Thursday, September 17, 2009

Satan Hall 1: Satan's Lash

Reading a Satan Hall story again was like getting reacquainted with an old friend -- a friend with pointy ears and a mean disposition.

Carroll John Daly is acknowledged (often grudgingly and sometimes with embarrassment) as the author of the first hardboiled detective story. He beat Hammett to the punch by a few months, and many mystery historians wish he hadn’t. Sure, Hammett was a far better writer. He deserves his status as a hardboiled icon. But Daly didn’t just write that first story and fade in obscurity. He kept at it well into the 50s and was one of the most popular writers of his day. Daly’s most famous creation was Race Williams, a two-gun lead-slinging P.I. who pretty much formed the mold for the hardboiled detective.

But Daly created other heroes too, and the one I find the most intriguing is Satan Hall. As far as I know, this appearance in the August 8, 1931 issue of Detective Story was Satan’s debut. This is a couple of years after Sam Spade appeared in Black Mask, and after The Maltese Falcon was published as a novel. So I have to wonder: was Satan Hall Daly’s answer to Sam Spade?

Here are the opening lines of The Maltese Falcon:
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down - from high flat temples - in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

And here’s our first look at Satan Hall:
The patrolman wet his lips, tried to speak and failed as he stared at the man before him. He knew him, of course. Everyone knew “Satan” Hall, the hardest, cruelest, and most sinister detective on the city’s force. The officer looked at the features again, studied them almost as if for the first time, although he knew them well: that peculiar head with its features all seeming to come to points, starting at the chin and making one great capital letter V, ending in the brim of his gray slouch hat. And though he couldn’t see it, the officer knew that the jet-black hair began in a single thin line down by his forehead, widening as the hair thickened, to make that same V again. Even the ears, just visible below the hat, were tapering at the ends; and the curve of the lips, in tune with the slanting eyebrows, gave a satanic expression to the entire face.

In Daly’s hands, the small v and small s satan motif became big capital Vs and Satan with a capital S. Unlike Spade, Satan Hall is a police detective, but in another parallel, this story is about Satan’s unrelenting crusade to avenge the death of his partner.

Satan made his next appearance in Detective Fiction Weekly, holding court for several years, and was the subject of many more great pulp covers. You’ll see them here as the Almanack rolls along, and I’ll do a lot more yapping about the life and times of Satan Hall.


Chris said...

That's a pretty fascinating comparison between the two texts up there. Also, "Satan" Hall is an amazing moniker!

Evan Lewis said...

Just don't call him that to his face, Chris. He's been known to slap guys down for less - and the welt it leaves is called "The Mark of Satan."