Friday, May 6, 2011

Forgotten Books: Two-Gun Gerta by C.C. Waddell and Carroll John Daly

Last Friday, the Edgars over, Irene and I had half a day to kill in New York. So after a stroll across Central Park, we rode the subway down to Otto Penzler's legendary Mysterious Bookshop. An amazing place. It would be just fine with me if Mr. P chose to relocate to Portland.

Among the many tempting books was one I had been craving for at least 25 years. And it wasn’t even a mystery. It’s a western. Sort of.

Two-Gun Gerta (1926), co-written with C.C. Waddell, was the first book to bear Carroll John Daly’s name. The story originally appeared in two parts in People’s Story Magazine in October, 1923.

At the time, Daly had been selling stories for a year and half, and his seminal hardboiled detective tales, “Three Gun Terry Mack” and “Knights of the Open Palm” had already appeared in Black Mask.

Having never read C.C. Waddell, it’s hard to guess how much of Two-Gun Gerta should be attributed to him, and how much to Daly. Waddell was a far more experienced writer, and had been selling his stories since at least 1901.

I have, though, read a ton of Carroll John Daly, and his presence here is strong. The book’s hero - and narrator - Red Connors, sounds very much like the early Race Williams, and Two-Gun Gerta is sort of a prototype for Race’s femme fatale, The Flame, the Girl with the Criminal Mind. One moment she's ready to blast the hero to hell, and the next she's melting in his arms.

The novel is billed on the title page as “A Western,” and I suppose that’s true, but the label seems almost tongue-in-cheek. The story takes place in present-day (circa 1923) Mexico, and hero Red Connors is a silent movie stuntman on a brief sabbatical from New York. All he knows about the West is what he’s learned from the studio’s resident technical expert, an old time cowpuncher.

The narration, then, is a strange blend of New York wise guy slang and silent movie cowboy lingo. What makes it work is Daly’s exuberance. Like his early Race Williams stories, Two-Gun Gerta is more than an adventure - it’s an adventure in reading. Daly is having fun and doesn’t care who knows it. You never know what surprises are laying in wait in the next paragraph, but you can count on finding some.

Daly was by no means a good writer. In this book, the characters are cardboard thin, the plot is pure melodrama, and the narration shifts from present to past tense and back again. But Daly's writing is always FUN, and it was his joyride storytelling style that made him more popular then Hammett and the other Black Mask writers of the 20s and early 30s.

The main problem with this book (aside from what some folks would term atrocious writing) is the heavy use of racial slurs and derogatory stereotypes. That stuff was not  uncommon in 1923, but I don’t recall seeing it in Daly’s other work, so I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and lay the blame on Mr.Waddell.

Bottom line: This book isn’t for everybody, and maybe for very few. But if you’re a Race Williams fan, it’s a must. If you like Westerns, and you’ve sampled other authors from this era - like Zane Grey, Max Brand, Charles Mulford or Johnston McCulley - you’ll find this a bit of a shock. It’s nothing at all like them. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that Two-Gun Gerta is nothing like anything anyone has read before, or ever will again.

If you’re interested, you won’t have to wait 25 years like me. For better or worse, this book is now available as a PDF download from Vintage Library, for a measly five bucks. (The hardcover cost me $35, and that was a bargain.) Check it out HERE, if you dare.

The Vintage Library page quotes the first four paragraphs, offering a hint of the style, and I notice that the first of the slurs, "greaserland," has been changed to "Mexico." So it's possible the whole book has been cleaned up. On general terms, I disagree with that practice, but I suppose if it makes this novel palatable to more readers, I really shouldn't kick. Two-Gun Gerta, after all, is a far cry from Huckleberry Finn. I just hope that if the Vintage Library folks have censored the book, they're honest enough to acknowledge it. 

The above pic of Daly appeared in Black Mask. I disremember the year. "About that photo you have," Daly said. "It was taken some time ago. I have since tucked in my shirt."

More Forgotten Books at pattinase!


Todd Mason said...

WAS Daly actually more popular than Hammett, et al.? I gather he was in the same league...but, then, Seabury Quinn was the biggest draw in WEIRD TALES history. Pulp readers having been about as oblivious to what I think they should prefer as modern readers. If Only They Knew (only 99% joking).

And thanks for your running series of story reprints and convention coverage...I hope you had as good a time as it seems.

Cullen Gallagher said...

So you snagged that copy! I had seen it at Otto's before and I had been contemplating getting it.

George said...

I love it when friends find books they've been looking for for years! This sounds like a winner (for a winner!).

Dan_Luft said...

The first time I went to the Mysterious Bookshop I had the great experience of walking up the staircase and finding Otto himself sitting at that desk where he is so often photographed.

Charles Gramlich said...

I loved the bookstores in New York and Boston. SO many goodies I'd heard about but never seen. Of course, these days I order most of my stuff right off the net, but in the old days!

Brian Drake said...

I'm sure somebody else can supply the details I lack (I'm at the office) but there was a Black Mask poll taken after Joe Shaw took over that rated Daly above Hammett and Gardner. I forget by what percentage. But over time Daly couldn't keep up and after the war he was toast.

Evan Lewis said...

Yeah, Gardner was second and Hammett third. When Shaw left Black Mask, Daly moved Race Williams to Dime (which was then a better magazine), where he was big draw through the rest of the 30s. Daly was also a star at Detective Fiction Weekly into the late 30s. He kept on writing for pulps until 1955, but for last fifteen years he was just one of the guys.

Anonymous said...

A terrific review of a writer we share a great deal of affection for though for different reasons. 'Fraid to say that I had a copy of this one but after having no inclination to read it after 25 years I finally just gave it to a fellow collector. Your review does not fill me with regret. You put your finger on it, Evan, by saying early Daly is FUN. I'll go along with that. He did turn out some good stuff in the 20s & 30s though I find the Race stories of that period close to unreadable. I'm hoping that an upcoming project I'm involved in with Black Dog Books, focusing on Daly's postwar work, will repudiate the impression that he became "toast" and just "one of the guys" as the years went on. I think Daly got better as the years went on (ironically as his markets died out) but hey, that's what makes horse racing. Thanks for keeping the ol' boy in the public eye and also for that great picture!

--Stephen Mertz

Anonymous said...

I have a problem with "cleaning up" a book, regardless of what things might feel like if said today in our contemporary setting. I'd have no problem reading the word "greaserland" meaning Mexico. I am curious though - did a character say it, and in what context? Certainly if someone had referred, in 1950, to where I grew up as Butch Wax land I'd have taken no offense. But I don't mean to bring up the whole updating argument that has been raging since the Twain revisions took place...

That's a great find, and I'm glad you got to go to The Store. I never did get tot he West Coast store in L.A. before it closed.

Evan Lewis said...

Almost all the slurs are tossed off casually by the narrator, Red Connors, as he addresses the reader. Since he's the hero, and otherwise possessed of sterling qualities, there's no blaming his language on a fault of character.