(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)
And I take a break from the world of Nero Wolfe to bring A (Black) Gat in the Hand back to Black Gate.
The first image graven onto my Hardboiled Mt. Rushmore is Dashiell Hammett’s. The Continental Op and Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key – I think he did the genre better than anyone. Very narrowly going up second is Frederick Nebel’s. I’m a fan of Cardigan, MacBride and Kennedy, Gales and McGill, and much of his other pulp stuff. Steeger Books has made a plethora of his material available, and I’ve got most of it.
My third choice isn’t one of the expected names, like Raymond Chandler (it’s taken me a couple decades to warm up to his stuff), Erle Stanley Gardner (I do LOVE Cool and Lam), or Carroll John Daly (Race Williams has grown on me a bit over the years). Or a worthy name like T.T. Flynn, W.T. Ballard, Paul Cain, Roger Torrey, or Stewart Sterling. Nope – it’s Norbert Davis.
And Davis is right up there with Nebel, but there is much more of the latter’s work available, and I think he produced a greater amount of ‘better’ writings. But the five Max Latin stories rank among my favorites in the genre. And I’m a big Bail Bond Dodd fan. In the longer format, the Doan and Carstairs novels are arguably the best in the comedic-hardboiled school. I believe that Davis is probably the most under-appreciated pulpster of them all. And I think that with the Jo Gar stories, Raoul Whitfield may well be able to press that claim as well.
Davis grew up in rural Illinois. Good ol’ Abe Lincoln, at 6’4”, towered over his contemporaries. Davis was 6’-5”, and that would have been almost a foot taller than the average American male around him back then. That’s a significant difference. He moved to the West Coast and enrolled at Stanford’s Law School: Davis was no dummy. While a student, he began writing pulp stories, and he was selling them. By the time he graduated in 1934, he was an established pulpster – which of course, wasn’t exactly as lucrative as a successful law career. He had appeared in Black Mask for the first time two years earlier, with “Reform Racket.”
Erle Stanley Gardner was a practicing lawyer as he built his writing career; finally giving up law. Davis took a different approach. An AB (the Latin designation for a BA) and LLD in hand, he never took the bar. Lawyering was not to be Davis’ career path. He would be a professional writer – though, sadly, for not nearly long enough.
I have written introductions for two upcoming Davis short story collections, and I’m working on a third. I’m very much a fan. He could write straight hardboiled, and he could write screwballed hardboiled. Think of them as the hardboiled version of our ‘Right and Left’ political spectrum. I think the ‘center, – hardboiled with humor, but not too much of it – was where he was at his best. Unfortunately, Davis seemed damned with the ‘master of the screwball hardboiled comedy,’ and he is somewhat dismissed because of it.
I think that Bail Bond Dodd fits in the middle area. And Max Latin leans towards the screwball, but not too much. “Kansas City Flash” is included in one of the aforementioned books from Steeger, and you can see his ability to write what we now look at as traditional hardboiled. There are a few humorous comments in “Red Goose.” but it’s not a funny hardboiled story by any means.
In some fashion, Davis and his friend and fellow West Coaster, W.T. Ballard, cowrote Murder Picks the Jury, under the name Harrison Hunt. Harrison was Davis’ middle name, and Todhunter was Ballard’s. He >also wrote three short stories with Arthur K. Barnes as Dave Barnes.
Davis wrote three novels and two short stories featuring short, chubby, and slick PI, Doan. Doan is con artist and not to be underestimated. His partner is a huge Great Dane named Carstairs, who is the preeminent canine in detective fiction. Doan won him in a poker game, and now his life is ruled by the dog, who is probably more intelligent than he is. The stories are perfect examples of Davis’ ability to be funny and hardboiled. Ballard said that Davis was “too whimsical to fit well into the action pattern.”
Recurring characters were a ticket to continued work in the pulps, but Davis didn’t quite follow that path. Bail Bond Dodd appeared in eight issues of Dime Detective, with Benjamin Martin, Doctor Flame, and Max Latin featuring in five stories each. Davis didn’t write about any other character that many times. He seemed to prefer ‘one-offs.’ Dodd is mostly funny in the situations which the unimpressive-looking bail bondsman finds himself forced into. Dodd’s no Mike Hammer. But he’s tough enough to deal with what life constantly throws at him. After Max Latin, he’s my favorite Davis character.
I just finished writing an introduction to a new edition of the Latin short stories, being issued by Steeger. It’s replacing the original introduction written by my favorite author, John D. MacDonald. It was the last thing JMD wrote professionally, and he was in a pretty cranky mood that day. I’m thrilled to get to write something to succeed one of his works. Latin is one of my favorite private eyes.
When a character refers to him as being a little shady, he replies, “black as night.” Latin’s reputation brings him clients who are not looking for a white knight. He doesn’t have an office, working out of a back booth in a restaurant named after the chef, Guiterrez. Guiterrez is a terrific character and helps the series excel. I really wish there had been more than five Latin stories.
Davis was very good at developing strong supporting characters, whether recurring, or one-time. That’s not something even other good pulpsters always pulled off. In fact, I think Davis was about as good at it as any pulpster I’ve read. And I have read more than my share. Patricia Wentworth Craig, from the first Max Latin story, is a real treat!
Davis moved into the higher payer slicks market in the early forties; possibly pushed along that path by his wife. He did not become a best-selling novelist; Hollywood did not come calling, as it did for many of his contemporaries (one story did become a B-Western); his pulp sales dried up as the industry breathed its last; and it’s rumored he and his wife had a troubled marriage. He was living in Connecticut with his wife, when he went on his own to Massachusetts in the summer of 1949. On July 28, 1949, he ran a garden hose from the exhaust of his car into the bathroom of his cottage. He died. His estate was valued at $500. He was only 40 years old.
Legendary Black Mask editor Joseph ‘Cap’ Shaw included “Red Goose” in his seminal The Hard Boiled Omnibus. In an unused preface to that story, Shaw wrote:
“Norbert Davis is a natural. If we were to pick anyone who, in spite of all human trials and tribulations, looks upon life resignedly and mostly as all fun, our nominee would be Bert. His sense of humor is prodigious and, as far as we know, never got him into serious trouble….
There is one thing that makes Bert Davis an individualist; he always did and always will write just what he very well pleases: mostly what strikes him as “funny.”
I’ve read better endorsements.
John D. MacDonald is my favorite writer. Period. I think he’s arguably the greatest American writer of the 20th Century – in any genre. I’m that big a fan. The last published work he wrote, was the introduction to Mysterious Press’ collection of Max Latin stories. And in what is subtitled ‘Norbert Davis, An Appreciation,’ MacDonald talks about his own career, and essentially calls Davis a sell-out for moving from the pulps to the slicks. And implies that maybe he wouldn’t have killed himself had he not done so. It’s not very appreciative.
With even Shaw and MacDonald damning Davis with faint praise in introductions to his own works, it’s not surprising that Davis is rarely mentioned among the leading pulpsters. It’s pretty difficult to find stories which didn’t appear in either Black Mask or Dime Detective, though he published hundreds of them.
Not everything he wrote was good. But the same is true of Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, and every other pulpster who cranked out hundreds of thousand of words a year, just to survive. Davis wrote funny, very well. Better than most. But he could write with a modicum of humor, or without any at all. As I said, Davis is my third-favorite pulpster. He’s absolutely worth checking out. Leave a comment on this post if you want any suggestions, or to talk about him. Or any pulpster, for that matter.
Mark me down as big Norbert Davis fan. Prior Davis posts:
Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2020 Series (22)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hardboiled May on TCM
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Some Hardboiled streaming options
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Johnny O’Clock (Dick Powell)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hardboiled June on TCM
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Bullets or Ballots (Humphrey Bogart)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Phililp Marlowe – Private Eye (Powers Boothe)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Cool and Lam
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: All Through the Night (Bogart)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Dick Powell as Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hardboiled July on TCM
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: YTJD – The Emily Braddock Matter (John Lund)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Richard Diamond – The Betty Moran Case (Dick Powell)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Bold Venture (Bogart & Bacall)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hardboiled August on TCM
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis – ‘Have one on the House’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand – with Steven H Silver: C.M. Kornbluth’s Pulp
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis – ‘Don’t You Cry for Me’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Talking About Philip Marlowe
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Steven H Silver Asks you to Name This Movie
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Johnny Angel (George Raft)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux
A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2019 Series (15)
Back Deck Pulp Returns
A (Black) Gat in the Hand Returns
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Will Murray on Doc Savage
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hugh B. Cave’s Peter Kane
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Paul Bishop on Lance Spearman
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: A Man Called Spade
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hard Boiled Holmes
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Duane Spurlock on T.T. Flynn
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Andrew Salmon on Montreal Noir
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Frank Schildiner on The Bad Guys of Pulp
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Steve Scott on John D. MacDonald’s ‘Park Falkner’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Patrick Murray on The Spider
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: John D. MacDonald & Mickey Spillane
A (Black Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis goes West(ern)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Bill Crider on The Brass Cupcake
A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2018 Series (31)
With a (Black) Gat: George Harmon Coxe
With a (Black) Gat: Raoul Whitfield
With a (Black) Gat: Some Hard Boiled Anthologies
With a (Black) Gat: Frederick Nebel’s Donahue
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Thomas Walsh
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – January, 1935
A (Black) Gat in the hand: Norbert Davis’ Ben Shaley
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: D.L. Champion’s Rex Sackler
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Dime Detective – August, 1939
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #1
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: W.T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Day Keene
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – October, 1933
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #2
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – Spring, 2017
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Frank Schildiner’s ‘Max Allen Collins & The Hard Boiled Hero’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Campbell Gault
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: More Cool & Lam From Hard Case Crime
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: MORE Cool & Lam!!!!
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Thomas Parker’s ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part One)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part Two)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Patrick Maynard’s ‘The Yellow Peril’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Andrew P Salmon’s ‘Frederick C. Davis’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Rory Gallagher’s ‘Continental Op’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #3
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #4
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #5
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw on Writing
A (Black) Gat in Hand: Back Deck Pulp #6
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: The Black Mask Dinner
Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made it’s Black Gate debut in the summer of 2018 and returned in 2019 and 2020. Bet on a 2021 sighting.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017. And he irregularly posts on Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective in ‘Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone.’
He organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI.
He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.