On the Spenser series

Introduction: In Pursuit of Spenser

By Otto Penzler

Apart from their affection for dramatic stories with the classic Greek arc of a beginning, middle, and end, aficionados of mystery fiction agree on virtually nothing. One significant exception to that generality is in the realm of the hardboiled private detective story, where there is virtually no disagreement that the trajectory of its greatest proponents is a straight line from Dashiell Hammett to Raymond Chandler to Ross Macdonald to Robert B. Parker.

It is Carroll John Daly who actually invented the form, producing the universally acknowledged first hardboiled private eye story with “Three Gun Kelly,” which featured Terry Mack and ran in the May 15, 1923, issue of Black Mask magazine. Daly built on his historical significance by writing a Race Williams story, “Knights of the Open Palm,” for the June 1, 1923, issue of Black Mask. When he wrote a second Race Williams story, “Three Thousand to the Good,” for the July 15, 1923, issue, he had created the first series character in the history of the hardboiled dick. Just as there subsequently have been better airplanes than their Kitty Hawk contraption, it is Wilbur and Orville Wright who will always be remembered for getting there first, and this is Daly’s place–though he is less remembered today than either the Wright brothers or the infinitely superior tough-guy writer who immediately followed him, Dashiell Hammett.

While Daly was little more than a creative hack writer, Hammett elevated the private eye story to the status of serious literature. Arguments persist about whether Hammett  …

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