Friday, September 7, 2012

Forgotten Books: A SATAN HALL novel by Carroll John Daly - The Mystery of the Smoking Gun

OK, you probably know how much I like Race Williams (if not, click HERE and see). But as much I like Race, I like Satan Hall even better. And he's in top form here in The Mystery of Smoking Gun. (And here's good news: Though the print edition is a hard get, Vintage Library offers a PDF version for the bargain price of $6.95. That's HERE.)

Satan Hall was Daly's second-busiest character, appearing in 23 pulp stories between 1931 and 1954, plus an 8-part, never-reprinted serial called "Satan's Vengeance." A second novel-of-novelettes, Ready to Burn (also available in PDF from Vintage Library), was published in England in 1951. Four more adventures were collected in the 1988 Mysterious Press volume The Adventures of Satan Hall.

Frank "Satan" Hall is no-nonsense New York police detective who doesn't play well with others. Not only does he look like old Beelzebub  (complete with pointy ears), but he has a personality to match. Luckily, the commissioner appreciates his unique talents and uses him as a one-man task force to combat whatever criminal currently poses the greatest threat to law and order.

This time, that threat is a smooth-talking but ruthless mob boss named Johnny Zitto. Zitto is well on his way to taking over all the rackets in town, and only one man has a chance of stopping him. Yep, Detective Satan Hall.

Satan is actually a detective in name only. He doesn't mess with stuff like clues or evidence. He simply challenges the bad guys to kill him, and when they try - he kills them first.

It works like this: He walks boldly into a bar full of mobsters, hands empty and at his sides. His steady tread is like the drumbeat of doom as he crosses the room, stopping inches from the face of a known killer. The killer looks into Satan's slitted green eyes and feels fear right down to his soul. Up comes Satan's left hand, slapping the killer's face and rocking him back on his heels. Up comes the right hand, delivering another slap. Then Satan's right balls into a fist and comes up from his knees to wallop the guy on the point of the chin.

That mobster now bears Satan's Mark, and his reputation is shot. His only chance to redeem himself is to go gunning for Satan. These killers are invariably fast with their hands - most are able to draw and  shoot in exactly one second. But when they're dealing with Satan Hall (as is the case with Race Williams) they are always exactly one-half second too late.

Aside from the commissioner, Satan has only one friend. Sort of. She's Mattie Hearn, a girl who was raised in the rackets and has only scorn for the law. Like Race Williams' femme fatale The Flame, Mattie is pure of body (she's saving it for Satan) but has a criminal mind. She'd gladly quit the rackets if Satan would declare his love for her - but he can't. He's so much an instrument of the Law ("I am the Law," he says from time to time) that he can't allow himself to be distracted by personal feelings. Such is love, Carroll John Daly style.

As a title, The Mystery of the Smoking Gun is pretty silly. The only explanation I can think of is that publisher had a drawing of a smoking gun laying around and was hot to use it. There is a brief reference to a particular smoking gun, but there’s no mystery about it. It’s smoking because Johnny Zitto has just used it to kill a rival. And heck, this is a Carroll John Daly book, so could open it to any page at all and smell gunsmoke.

Actually, this 1936 "novel" is made up of five connected pulp novelettes originally published in Detective Fiction Weekly in 1933. And as far as I can tell Daly didn't change a word. Here's the breakdown:

In the first segment, "Death by Appointment," Johnny Zitto's gunman Chet Barloff (above, leering through a secret panel) has two reasons to blast Satan's brains out. One, Chet's taken a fancy to Mattie Hearn, and two, Satan killed his brother Ed. Guess who comes out of this scene alive?

In "Satan's Mark," Zitto is hot to take over the Bronx, and his chosen lieutenant is a hotshot called Gunner Krause (above, with pipe wrench). Unfortunately for Gunner, he too falls for Mattie Hearn. After Satan puts the Mark on him, Gunner traps him in the back of burning taxi and attempts to put his lights out. NOTE TO GUNNER: Never bring a pipe wrench to a gunfight.

"If It Is Murder" ponders the deep philosophical question, Is it murder ... to kill a rat? Mobster Joe De Grassie (above, dying) comes to town, trying to bully Johnny Zitto (above, with smoking gun) into joining his nationwide criminal Combine. The commissioner is so worried, he'd be happy if Satan skipped the pleasantries and simply gunned De Grassie down. Thankfully, De Grassie pushes Zitto too hard, especially when he develops a yen for (guess who) Mattie Hearn.

In "Satan Strikes," brutal Chicago mobster Tanto Marcco (above with knife) tries to fill De Grassie's Combine shoes. But when Mattie (above, gagged) spurns his advances, he plans to slice her up and frame Zitto for the job, counting on Satan to execute Zitto. Tsk, tsk.

And now the finale, "Satan's Threat." Sadly, this story was not featured on the cover, and the mag probably paid the price in poor sales. Up until now, Zitto's relationship with Mattie has been strictly business,  but it was inevitable that he too succumb to her virtuous charms. Enter Satan (above left) and it's goodnight, Johnny.

For the illustrated lowdown on Satan's five earlier adventures (including the poop on my theory that his creation was inspired by the "blond satan" Sam Spade), click HERE.

And watch for the last Satan Hall story, "Avenging Angel," in the upcoming collection Race Williams' Double Date and Other Stories from Black Dog Books.

Forgotten Books is a pattinase production.


Anonymous said...


Deka Black said...

Mattie must be a really charming woman

Cap'n Bob said...

That mobster must be a 97 pound weakling if he needs two hands to wield a pipe wrench.

Ron Smyth said...

Sounds like a character I'd love. I've read several books by Daly but none about Satan Hall. I'll have to rectify that ASAP.

George said...

Like Ron, I haven't read any Satan Hall books. I'm downloading the one you recommended.

Oscar Case said...

The covers tell an exciting story in themselves.

Evan Lewis said...

Though there are similarities to Race Williams, the storytelling is more traditional - all third person, with multiple points of view. It reminds me of good Hero Pulp writing.

Norman Walz said...

I recommend this book for those interested in obtaining a complete collection of Satan Hall stories. I'm about half way through myself.

Evan Lewis said...

The Compleat Satan Hall is finally out? I thought it was still on Battered Back Burner.

Norman Walz said...

The Compleat Satan Hall has been available from Battered Box for about three or four months. Very nice!

shonokin said...

Always love a good Daly post! The price on the Battered Silicon book is actually pretty good. Still kinda high for a poor shlub like me but I'll have to contemplate getting that one.