A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis in Black Mask – Vol 1
You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep
(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)
This past weekend was PulpFest 2021. It used to be here in Columbus, but moved to the Pittsburgh area a few years ago. Steeger Books released several new titles, including one from Norbert Davis. If you’ve been reading A (Black) Gat in the Hand here at Black Gate, you know I’m on a mission to raise Davis’ modern day profile.
Steeger is issuing a two-volume set with all the stories Davis sold to Black Mask editor Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw. And I’ve written new introductions for each one. I’m thrilled to see more of Davis’ stories back in print, and you can get a preview of volume one below; It’s my intro. I know, I know – how exciting! Keep reading for my thoughts on Davis and four of his Black Mask tales.
Like many of his contemporaries, Norbert Davis wrote for different outlets, including for the Westerns, war stories, and even romance markets. But he was at his best in the private eye/mystery field. Davis could write standard hardboiled fare, but he excelled at mixing humor into the genre. Unfortunately (and aided and abetted by his wonderful Doan and Carstairs novels), that has left the skewed view that he could only write screwball hardboiled stories. And that’s simply not accurate.
Davis was a law student at Stanford when “The Bonded Stuff” appeared in the March, 1932 issue of Real Detective. A mere three months later in June, his first submission to Black Mask, “Reform Racket,” saw print. Davis continued writing, and after he graduated in 1934, he never bothered to take the bar exam: A career in the pulps beckoned instead.
Though Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw, legendary editor of Black Mask, accepted that first submission, he didn’t feel that Davis’ hardboiled humor really fit the magazine. So, even with a home run in his first at-bat, the writer only managed to break into Black Mask a total of five times duringthe years of Shaw’s reign: 1932 – 1937. Davis had success in other markets, however, with eighteen mystery stories seeing print in 1936, for example. And several stories appeared in Black Mask after Shaw departed. Davis later ‘moved up’ to the higher-paying, more respectable, glossy slicks.
In “Reform Racket,” Dan Stiles returns to an unnamed town. A local crook named Bradford wants to pay Stiles for protection; his brother-in-law Georgeson offers him an unasked-for blackmail payment; and a cop named Ramlier says he’s quitting his job and ‘throwing in’ with Stiles. The rub is that Stiles has absolutely no idea why he’s so popular. We don’t know why he left town (though he indicates he was unpopular when he departed), why he came back, or why everybody has an agenda concerning him.
But Ramlier reveals that Georgeson is about to be picked as the reform candidate for mayor. And since the would-be-future mayor is married to Stiles’ sister, that makes Stiles an important man: Or so people think. He realizes Georgeson thought that he was hitting him up for money to depart – along with his notorious past – so that Stiles wouldn’t embarrass him during the election.
Davis tangles together Bradford, Georgeson, and Ramlier in a web of crime, a reform platform, and Stiles being proactive, rather than reactive. Many years before Raymond Chandler famously said “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand,” that’s exactly what Davis does in this story. Two men, actually.
This ten-page story is divided into seven numbered parts. Six pages and six parts are the set-up. I think that Shaw bought this one for the last four pages, which is the seventh and final part. It’s an action-packed finale, with four guns and five people getting shot. And we get character reveals for everybody of note. Davis poured everything into the climax and denouement. And it’s the ending that carries the story. Except for a few wise-cracks from Ramlier, there’s no humor in this story. While Davis’ enduring reputation is one of writing comedies, he regular wrote ‘straight’ hardboiled, starting right out of the gate.
Reform Racket” was the one and only appearance for Dan Stiles. Davis did write some recurring characters, with Bail Bond Dodd leading the pack, appearing eight times. But there was no Cardigan, or Jo Gar, or even a Bill Brent. Most of his characters were one and done. Fortunately, a few did make return engagements. It would be a full year before Davis returned to Black Mask, with a semi-detective, in “Kansas City Flash” in the March, 1933 issue.
Another one-off hero, Mark Hull, is our protagonist this time around. Hull is sort of a free-lance Bill Lennox. A former movie stunt-man, he hires out to studios for ‘hush-hush’ jobs. Hull is tough and, frankly, unlikable. The only reason the reader is rooting for him is because he’s looking for a kidnapped actress. As a writer, Davis would excel at depth in his supporting characters. The five Max Latin stories are populated with superb ones. But that came later, after Davis refined his skills. Even the damsel in distress isn’t captivating.
Once again, it’s the action-packed finale which is the story’s strength. And this one doesn’t involve guns. We also learn the reason behind the story’s title during the final confrontation.
This one has even less humor than “Reform Racket.” Hull does make a joke to get rid of a nosy old lady, but he doesn’t toss off quips, and nobody else is funny. Hull is a one-dimensional tough guy.
The pattern established, it was about a year before Shaw saw fit to print another Davis story, but it was worth the wait. “Red Goose” graced the February, 1934 issue.
“Shaley was bonily tall. He had a thin, tanned face with bitterly heavy lines in it. He looked calm; but he looked like he was being calm on purpose – as though he was consciously holding himself in. He had an air of hardboiled confidence.”
Side note: Pulpsters were paid by the word. And not well. Clearly, Davis saw adverbs as a way to wring a few more pennies out of each story. You really notice it in the terrific Max Latin stories. But once you realize it, you can’t help but see adverbs all over the place in his work. There’s nothing wrong with that (Mark Twain and Stephen King excepted) – but it’s tough to ignore after you become aware of it.
This was a much more competent Norbert Davis than the version which authored “Kansas City Flash.” in fact, I think you can point to “Red Goose” as the beginning of his career as a first-rate pulpster.
Once again, the humor that Davis is best known for is mostly absent from this story. But the exasperation Shaley shows with the fussy, humorless museum curator is pretty amusing. Reading “Red Goose” as a ‘straight’ harbdoiled story, this one shows that he was mastering the form. Keep in mind we’re only two years removed from his first publication.
Shaley agrees to find a painting from the 1500s, which had been cut out of the frame while the guards were distracted by a staged fight elsewhere in the museum. The museum will pay up to $5,000 for its safe return, which is a lot of money for the time. Davis incorporates the boxing scene, the art world, and a gang of thieves without honor, and packs them into this short tale. It’s well-crafted pulp with something of a twist at the end.
One thing I’ve noticed about Davis: villains get roughed up. In pulp stories, the heroes get worked over and shot – so do the bad guys. And this applies to women. If you believe someone should never strike a woman, you probably shouldn’t read Davis:
‘He picked her up by the front of her dress and slapped her in the face – quick, sharp slaps rocked her head back and forth.’
You can read the story and decide if she deserved that. But a villain gets what they have coming, regardless of gender. That’s just the state of thingsin those pulp days. I don’t have too much sympathy for the antagonists who are on the receiving end of what they deserve, male or female. It’s a rough and dangerous game.
Davis writes an action-packed final confrontation (did you expect anything else?), with Shaley and four others in one room of an apartment. There’s punching, strangling, and shooting, all in one chaotic scene. Shaley manages to get out alive and ends up back where he started, in the curator’s office, the case solved. Or is it?
A 1952 episode of the television show Suspense featured Shaley and the credits state that it was based on a Norbert Davis story. The Blue Panther certainly changed some things, but it was clearly based on “The Red Goose.”
“Red Goose“ should be read by anyone who simply dismisses Davis as the hardboiled guy that wrote with too much humor (which is an inaccurate viewpoint to begin with). Raymond Chandler said that “Red Goose” impressed him more than any other tale he read when he decided to become a hardboiled writer. That’s a fairly authoritative recommendation!
Shaw (grudgingly, one suspects) included “Red Goose” in his legendary Hard Boiled Omnibus compilation. In an unpublished introduction to the story, Shaw wrote,
“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’.”
Shaley made his only other appearance just two months later in “The Price of a Dime.”
Shaley’s secretary, Sadie, would have been an entertaining character if the series had gone on. She is trying to forcibly remove a large blonde woman from the office as this tale opens. It’s another scene where Davis shows he could write humor without going overboard. The woman’s brother, a bellhop of questionable integrity, is going to be arrested for some hotel shenanigans, and she wants Shaley to help.
A crazy, violent escapade follows, with a Hollywood director in the middle of it all. At one point, when things go a bit poorly, someone says of an angry Shaley, “No, he gets that way when he’s mad. And when he’s mad, he’s a great big dose of bad medicine for somebody.” That doesn’t bode well for the bad guy.
Unlike “Red Goose,” this story ends with a chase scene and a shootout – on the lot of a western movie. And Norbert Davis never again wrote any stories about his Los Angeles detective.
Shaley isn’t one of the great hardboiled private eyes, but Davis wrote two good stories about him, and the PI represented 40% of his success in making sales to Joe Shaw at Black Mask. One wonders why he didn’t write a few more Shaley tales, which he could reasonably have expected Shaw to buy> Davis was still a young writer in the field, and appearing in Black Mask would certainly help him sell to other magazines. And even though eight of his stories were accepted by the magazine post-Shaw, he never revisited Shaley.
So, enjoy Norbert Davis’ earliest work in Black Mask. And look for volume two, with the remaining ‘Shaw-approved’ stories. And let’s face it: you can trust Raymond Chandler’s recommendation, can’t you?
And along with this Davis book, there are some really great new releases from Steeger: Lester Dent’s Oscar Sail; Raoul Whitfield’s long out-of-print novel The Laughing Death (a Black Mask serial); the first of several upcoming stories about T.A. Tinsley’s society reporter, Jerry Tracy; all of Carrol John Daly’s Three Gun Tery Mack stories; and Norvell Page’s Jules Tremaine stories. Man oh man!
Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2021 Series (6)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand is Back!
Black Mask – March, 1932
Three Gun Terry Mack & Carroll John Daly
Bounty Hunters & Bail Bondsmen
Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2020 Series (19)
Hardboiled May on TCM
Some Hardboiled streaming options
Johnny O’Clock (Dick Powell)
Hardboiled June on TCM
Bullets or Ballots (Humphrey Bogart)
Phililp Marlowe – Private Eye (Powers Boothe)
Cool and Lam
All Through the Night (Bogart)
Dick Powell as Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar
Hardboiled July on TCM
YTJD – The Emily Braddock Matter (John Lund)
Richard Diamond – The Betty Moran Case (Dick Powell)
Bold Venture (Bogart & Bacall)
Hardboiled August on TCM
Norbert Davis – ‘Have one on the House’
with Steven H Silver: C.M. Kornbluth’s Pulp
Norbert Davis – ‘Don’t You Cry for Me’
Talking About Philip Marlowe
Steven H Silver Asks you to Name This Movie
Cajun Hardboiled – Dave Robicheaux
More Cool & Lam from Hard Case Crime
A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2019 Series (15)
Back Deck Pulp Returns
A (Black) Gat in the Hand Returns
Will Murray on Doc Savage
Hugh B. Cave’s Peter Kane
Paul Bishop on Lance Spearman
A Man Called Spade
Hard Boiled Holmes
Duane Spurlock on T.T. Flynn
Andrew Salmon on Montreal Noir
Frank Schildiner on The Bad Guys of Pulp
Steve Scott on John D. MacDonald’s ‘Park Falkner’
William Patrick Murray on The Spider
John D. MacDonald & Mickey Spillane
Norbert Davis goes West(ern)
Bill Crider on The Brass Cupcake
A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2018 Series (32)
George Harmon Coxe
Some Hard Boiled Anthologies
Frederick Nebel’s Donahue
Black Mask – January, 1935
Norbert Davis’ Ben Shaley
D.L. Champion’s Rex Sackler
Dime Detective – August, 1939
Back Deck Pulp #1
W.T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox
Black Mask – October, 1933
Back Deck Pulp #2
Black Mask – Spring, 2017
‘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
MORE Cool & Lam!!!!
Thomas Parker’s ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’
Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part One)
Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part Two)
William Patrick Maynard’s ‘The Yellow Peril’
Andrew P Salmon’s ‘Frederick C. Davis’
Rory Gallagher’s ‘Continental Op’
Back Deck Pulp #3
Back Deck Pulp #4
Back Deck Pulp #5
Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw on Writing
Back Deck Pulp #6
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 has returned every one since.
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 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 organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series, as well as the award-winning ‘Hither Came Conan’ series.
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.