Burton Combs (real name unknown)

Created by Carroll John Daly
(1889-1958)

“I ain’t a crook; just a gentleman adventurer and make my living working against the law breakers. Not that work I with the police — no, not me. I’m no knight errant either.”

Carroll John Daly‘s short story, “The False Burton Combs,” which appeared in the December 1922 issue of The Black Mask, is often credited with being the first hard-boiled private eye story. Although the hero identifies himself as more of a “gentleman adventurer” working as a middleman between the cops and the crooks, rather than as a detective, he does cop to having worked as a “soldier of fortune” in the past. And, as he’s fond of saying, he “ain’t a crook.”

In the story, he’s hired by some rich swell, the “real” Burton Combs, to travel to Nantucket under his identity, and upon arriving on the island, to continue to pose as Combs for reasons that aren’t exactly clear at first, except that the real Combs is in “some kind of trouble.” Fortunately, there’s enough murder and mayhem that comesrushing in to cover any holes.

There’s no doubt it’s a transitional piece, looking backward to Poe and dime novel ideas of masculinity, but almost all the other elements that we we would soon come to associate with the hard-boiled detective genre are present and accounted for.

The unnamed hero (we never do learn his true name) is a hard-boiled sort of egg, for sure; a tough guy for hire, a cynical lone wolf wending his way through a corrupt world where the forces of law and order are ineffectual at best, and far too often just as crooked as the criminals they’re supposed to be putting away. His ethics are a little on the shady side, and he’ll go as far as killing if he has to, but he’s held in check by his own rigid personal moral code.

Unfortunately, the story didn’t exactly set the world on fire, perhaps because the undeniable whallop of the story is slightly diluted by a rather sappy ending, which seems to come out of left field.

But Daly (and Dashiell Hammett [see below]) were definitely on to something. Daly would fill out his character and give him (slightly) more depth — and a name. First it was “Three Gun Terry,” whose first adventure is generally acknowledged as the first hard-boiled private eye story where the hero himself cops to being a private eye, and then Race Williams, who was essentially Terry under a new monicker, who would go on to appear in Black Mask and other pulps well into the 1950s.

HEY, WAIT A MINUTE!

It should be noted that another school of thought posits that Hammett’s “The Road Home,” which appeared in the very same issue of The Black Mask, was actually the first hard-boiled detective story. Although the hero of that yarn doesn’t identify himself as a detective either, but rather a “manhunter”. Reading the two stories back-to-back (and in fact, that’s exactly how they appeared: back to back) it’s obvious the detective story is going through a monumental shift right before your eyes. Almost all the tropes of a new sub-genre are present or suggested in one or both stories.

THE EVIDENCE

  • “I had an outside stateroom on the upper deck of the Fa River boat and ten minutes after I parked my bag there I knew that I was being watched.”
    — the opening line (not bad, huh?)
  • “There ain’t nothing in governments unless you’re a politician. And as I said before, I ain’t a crook.

SHORT STORIES

  • “The False Burton Combs” (December 1922, The Black Mask)

FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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