Created by Peter Collinson
Pseudonym of Dashiell Hammett
Hammett scholar Vince Emery, citing William F. Nolan, suggested that Dashiell Hammett’s “The Road Home,” featuring professional manhunter HAGEDORN and originally published in the December 1922 issue of The Black Mask is in fact “the first hard-boiled detective story,” predating Carroll John Daly’s “Three Gun Terry,“ which is generally given that honour, by a good five months.
Certainly, Emery makes a compelling case for the Hammett story in his 2005 collection, Dashiell Hammett: Lost Stories, and goes on to say that:
“Literary historians will armwrestle over whether Nolan is right or wrong. There is no doubt, however, that the changes that Hammett planted with this seed still sprout today.”
He cites eight important points Hammett introduced in the story that he says helped define the private eye hero as we’ve come to know him:
- The detective is placed in an adventure story
- The Hero moves in a dangerous world
- The detective is a manhunter
- The hero is tough
- The hero is a working stiff
- The detective hero is distinctly American
- Criminals act and talk like criminals
- The hero’s moral sense is offended
He also lists six new “Hammettisms” introduced in “The Road Home” that would go on to define Hammett’s work — and that of the hard-boiled detective genre:
- The protagonist makes his own moral rules
- The detective is tempted.
- Spicy slang
- The detective gets surprised
- A thin man
- A circular fable
As I said, Emery certainly makes a convincing comment. The problem is that the very same issue of The Black Mask also features “The False Burton Combs” by Carroll John Daly, another story often touted as the first hard-boiled detective story.
And twenty years earlier, William Nolan himself had gone on at length in The Black Mask Boys (1985) about how “Three Gun Terry,” published in the May 15th, 1923 issue, was the first hard-boiled private eye story and that Daly was “the father of the hard-boiled private eye.”
Paternity tests are still pending, but at this point — not to get all gay rights in your face or anything — it looks like the hard-boiled private eye had two daddies.
But regardless of who came first, “The Road Home” is a neat little story, little more than a few pages, perhaps, but it certainly packs a punch. It’s a taut, minimalist tale of honour and treachery, violence and duty. Hagedorn is a gaunt, grey-eyed manhunter who’s been on the trail on the criminal Barnes for over two years. It’s never quite explained what Barnes’ crime is — or why exactly Hagedorn’s been after him for two years, following him overseas, through countless ports and deep into the jungle, despite a wife and daughter back home in New York. Hagedorn mentions, briefly, a promise made to his “people” but that’s about all we know about his motivations — or need to know.
In the end, despite the bribe Barnes offers him, Hagedorn is, simply, a professional manhunter. “Maybe manhunting isn’t the nicest trade in the world,” he explains, by way of justification, “but it’s all the trade I’ve got.”
Similar sentiments would later be echoed by Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade, among others.
- “The Road Home”… begins as a Stanley-meet-Livingston adventure that in only four pages says more about the inner compulsion of men who spend their lives hunting down criminals than in some novels.”
— Steve Lewis (August 2020, Mystery*File)
- “The Road Home” (December 1922, Black Mask; as Peter Collinson)
Also available in Dashiell Hammett: Lost Stories (2005)
- Who’s on First?
The First Hard-Boiled Private Eye Story. The debate continues…