A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis’ Max Latin

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis’ Max Latin

“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)

A Black Gat in the Hand makes a rare Fall guest appearance! I think that John D. MacDonald was one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century – in any genre. He’s my favorite author, and I’ve written several essays about him here at Black Gate. His last piece of professional writing before he died was an introduction to The Mysterious Press’ collection of Norbert Davis’ Max Latin short stories. Written for Dime Detective magazine, they are one of my favorite private eye series’.

Unfortunately, MacDonald comes across as a grumpy old man shaking his cane and yelling “Get off my lawn, you kids!” He essentially accused Davis of being  a sell-out for moving from the pulps to the slicks. It’s a very unflattering intro. Steeger Books has reissued the collection, but with a new introduction: by me!

Getting to replace something that John D. MacDonald wrote is a thrill for me. As I am an unabashed Norbert Davis fan, it’s a lot more complimentary than JDM’s was. I listen to the audiobook of these stories several times a month. I really enjoy them. Below, find my new intro. And if it sounds like something you might like, swing by Steeger Books and order a copy. It really is one of my favorites.

Norbert Davis is considered one of Joseph ‘Cap’ Shaw’s Black Mask Boys: Those writers who formed the core of the legendary magazine editor’s stable. But Shaw only accepted four of Davis’ submissions, and one has to think it likely that there were more, but which were rejected. Davis would sell ten stories to subsequent Mask editors. Shaw did include a Davis story in his ground-breaking The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, but in reality, Davis was much less of a ‘Shaw guy’ than those more commonly identified, like Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Chandler, Frederick Nebel, Raoul Whitfield, or even Horace McCoy.

One of those five stories Shaw bought was “Red Goose,” which Raymond Chandler said impressed him more than any other tale he read when he began his career as a writer. I’d call that high praise!

Davis, who also did westerns, adventures, war stories, and even love stories, both for the pulps and the higher-paying ‘slicks,’ wrote and sold hardboiled stories to the pulps while he was a law student at Stanford. He was doing well at it, and when he graduated he decided rather than taking the bar exam, he would make a living as a writer instead! He never did become a lawyer.

Sadly, he is damned by being remembered as the master of ‘the screwball hardboiled story.’ It’s not an inaccurate appellation, but it’s not particularly rewarding to his reputation. Davis did those kinds of stories better than anyone, as evidenced by his enjoyable Doan and Carstairs novels, which feature the smartest canine in private eye fiction. And he did ‘straight’ hardboiled well, too: check out “Reform Racket,” which is Hammett-esque with its political theme. But it is the in-between where I think he nailed it: hardboiled with humor – but not over-the-top.

The Continental Op (Hammett), Carmady (Chandler), Cardigan (Nebel), Race Williams (Carroll John Daly), Jo Gar (Whitfield), Ed Jenkins (Gardner), Bill Lennox (W.T. Ballard), Dal Prentice (Roger Torrey): developing a series character was a viable path to pulp success. So, of course, Norbert Davis didn’t follow that route.

Benjamin Martin (1937-1938) did have five appearances in Detective Tales, with Dr. Flame (1939-1942) making four issues. John Collins (1942-1943) appeared in Black Mask three times after Shaw’s departure. I mentioned Ben Shaley, who was in the February, and April, 1934 issues of Black Mask, and then, sadly, vanished forever from the pulps.

Davis’ most successful ongoing character was William ‘Bail Bond’ Dodd, who appeared in eight issues of Dime Detective from 1940 through 1943. Steeger Press has issued the complete Dodd collection in two volumes. Dodd is an excellent example of Davis writing with humor, but not too much of it.

Finally, we come to the irrepressible Max Latin. He’s not your typical private eye, and he only appeared in five issues of Dime Detective, from July, 1941, through October of 1943. In a twist on the trope, Latin pretended to be absolutely corrupt, but wasn’t really as bad as he presented himself to be. Inspector Walters, the weary, cynical, career cop in the series, actually tells Latin a few times that he knows it’s partly an act. Latin is suitably offended by this ‘positive aspersion’ on his character.

In “Don’t Give your Right Name” (December, 1941), Inspector Walters confronts Latin after a dead body is found:

“I know the reason why you never get convicted of any of these things you get pinched for. It’s very simple. Because you aren’t guilty. You bend the law around like a pretzel, but you never quite break it. Taken all in all, you’re generally, almost honest.”

“You spread that rumor around and I’ll sue you for slander.”

There are other comments like that throughout the stories. Latin’s bad image is good for business, and he bristles at the allegation that he’s better than he appears. You be the judge.

But it’s not just Latin that carries the stories. If you are a fan of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe (and why the heck wouldn’t you be?), you know that those stories aren’t really about the plots and the crimes to be solved. It’s the interplay between the regulars at Wolfe’s New York City Brownstone which draws readers back to the stories over and over. It’s about Wolfe, Archie, Fritz, Inspector Cramer, Saul, and the rest of the cast, and how they relate to each other. The Latin stories are similar, be it Latin, Guiterrez, Dick, or even Happy.

Norbert Davis was very good at writing characters. He was also very good at writing atmosphere. And he was equally adept at hardboiled and at comedy. That’s a lot of strengths to work from. For me, there are three recurring elements in the stories that really stand out: the restaurant, the characters, and Max Latin himself.


Guiterrez (we never get a first name) is a top-flight chef and runs the restaurant which bears his name. That establishment, along with Guiterrez and his head waiter, Dick, is a fixture in the series.

Max Latin comes across like a not-official private investigator, though we learn in a later story that he is duly licensed. He doesn’t have an office; he operates out of a back booth at the restaurant. By the end of the first story, we realize that Latin actually owns the place, but not openly. That explains why the staff does what he tells them to, and why his booth is always available for him.

Early in the first story, “Watch Me Kill You!,” a prospective client comes to Latin’s booth and Guiterrez says to him, “Did you know that Latin is nothing but a crook? Did you know he just today got out of the county jail, cell three, north tier?”

When the man replies that he thought Latin was a private inquiry agent, Guiterrez adds, “Also a crook. But you probably are, too.”

Now, Latin had, in fact, just gotten out of jail that day, but Guiterrez’ tone is set. He consistently runs Latin down as a crook. He hates his customers and tries to get rid of them any way he can. But it’s always packed at his place, because his food is so good. And it enrages him that his patrons wolf down his food. He wants them to savor it: to slowly enjoy it.

The place is a dump. The ceilings are sooty, and the tables and booths are nothing special. The staff is loud, insulting and gives poor service. Guiterrez, his disdain for his customers, and his attitude towards Latin, are a treat in every tale.

Dick, the headwaiter, is another full-blown character, always of interest in his scenes. We first meet him as “A waiter wearing a baggy grease-stained coat that was at least three sizes too large for him and an apron that would have served for a circus tent…”

It’s anybody’s guess whether he will pull a plate, a ridiculously expensive bottle of brandy, or a huge knife out from underneath his voluminous apron. He has a propensity for removing cork bottles with his teeth and making insulting comments to his boss. It’s impossible to imagine the place without him.

Guiterrez’ is always a place we like to read about, though I’m not sure about actually eating there.


Guiterrez and Dick are integral to the scenes at the restaurant. And we’ll get to Latin. But Davis populates the series with a plethora of strong characters. Detective Inspector Walters, Homicide, provides the police presence in the series. He knows Latin is constantly up to something, though as mentioned, that Latin isn’t as ‘bad’ as he seems. He’s a good cop, who has worked too hard, for too long. He’s worn down by all he’s seen, and it shows on his face. When he discovers that he’s going to have to deal with the wealthy and influential Patricia Wentworth Craig, he says he’ll have to walk soft and talk small. “It seems like they could put me out to pasture or something in my old age.”

He is honest, and does his best, though he is a bit too prone to chasing after Latin: Walters tells him that he is minding his business when he follows Latin around. In “Don’t Give Your Right Name,” Latin impersonates Walters, and introduces the detective as his subordinate. It’s an enjoyable scene with Walters, who is a gruff, but likable, character. He appears in all five stories, and he more than pulls his weight.

Patricia Wentworth Craig, the client’s husband in the first story, is one of my favorites. Her imperious attitude is wonderful. Telling Walters that she has no doubt Latin is guilty of killing someone, she says, “You will see to it that he is hanged, of course. Good evening.” To her, it’s a done deal. She instructs him to use the third degree on Latin, and guarantees that no one will object. She absolutely dominates her scenes.

In “You Can Die Any Day,” Rene and Raymond play two criminals Latin hires to scare a woman. Yep – you read that right. They are brothers, and not your typical heavies. Davis again gives us compelling characters to provide depth. They’re hired through Happy, who runs the garage where Latin rents his cars. Happy lights up his scenes and is a fun addition to the stories.

“Give the Devil his Due’s” Count Fidestine Fiolo and his unamorous pursuit of future heiress Hester Zachary makes for a terrific story. That story also gives us madame-gone-straight Rosie Fitzgerald, who absolutely could have been a recurring character in any pulp series. You can picture her running girls in an Old West saloon.

I’d be hard-pressed to name one of Davis’ contemporaries who was better at fleshing out an array of recurring and varying characters in pulp tales. Of course, there were only five Latin stories, so it’s a small sample. But this element absolutely shines through. And the author is worthy of recognition for it.


Which brings us to the star of the series. At the beginning of that first story, Latin is just out of jail for helping to ‘recover’ some stolen goods which he may well have arranged to be stolen in the first place. He was arrested for compounding a felony, though the District Attorney’s Office couldn’t prove it. The same crime is discussed in regards to the case he’s hired for in the next story. Questionable ethics are absolutely part of Latin’s persona.

Referred to as a private detective on the shady side, he replies, “black as night.” The stories are replete with Latin’s own intimations that he’s ‘crooked as a swastika.’ His shady reputation plays a part in the clients approaching him in all five stories. Walters is more right than wrong about the PI, though like all private detectives, Latin operates ‘out there’ on his own. And I would say that secretly disposing of a body and not reporting it is a questionable activity.

A private eye like Latin certainly needs a lawyer on call, and that’s Abe Moscowitz. You can believe his client causes some work for him. He is amusing in a brief appearance in “Don’t Give Your Right Name.” He deserved more time in the series, and is another example of Davis’ ability to consistently create strong supporting characters – not an easy accomplishment in the short story format.

Latin’s interactions with Guiterrez are something to look forward to throughout the stories. And his personality, sometimes benevolent – more often, self-serving – makes for an interesting protagonist. I think that the Latin stories are Davis’ best-work, and Norbert Davis is on my Hardboiled Mt. Rushmore. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them. It truly is a shame there are only five.

And a bit of a warning: In Latin’s world, and indeed, throughout Davis’ work, villains get their comeuppance. And in the world of the hardboiled pulps, that includes violence. Women get hit, just like men. Davis punches out a woman in “Don’t Give Your Right Name.” It turns out she’s a murderess, and she attempts to kill Latin a couple different ways, but he does cold cock her.

To end on a lighter note: Davis never met an adverb he didn’t like. He uses more adverbs per page than any other pulpster I’ve read. For a guy getting paid by the word, he had no use for Stephen King’s advice. Latin doesn’t smile, he smiles glumly. Guiterrez doesn’t just go through the back door to the kitchen, he slaps violently through it. Dick doesn’t nod. He nods slowly. A maitre d’ shivers realistically.

So, enjoy the exploits of Max Latin, and keep an eye out for those adverbs. They’re deliciously everywhere.

Other Norbert Davis Essays Here at Black Gate:

Norbert Davis’ Ben Shaley
Norbert Davis goes West(ern)
Norbert Davis – ‘Have one on the House’
Norbert Davis – ‘Don’t You Cry for Me’
The Forgotten Black Masker – Norbert Davis
Norbert Davis in Black Mask – Volume 1
Norbert Davis’ “The Gin Monkey”

Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2022 Series (15)

Asimov – Sci Fi Meets the Police Procedural
The Adventures of Christopher London
Weird Menace from Robert E. Howard
Spicy Adventures from Robert E. Howard
Thrilling Adventures from Robert E. Howard
Norbert Davis’ “The Gin Monkey”
Tracer Bullet
Shovel’s Painful Predicament
Back Porch Pulp #1
Wally Conger on ‘The Hollywood Troubleshooter Saga’
Arsenic and Old Lace
David Dodge
Glen Cook’s Garrett, PI
John Leslie’s Key West Private Eye
Back Porch Pulp #2

Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2021 Series (8)

The Forgotten Black Masker – Norbert Davis
A (Black) Gat in the Hand is Back!
Black Mask – March, 1932
Three Gun Terry Mack & Carroll John Daly
Bounty Hunters & Bail Bondsmen
Norbert Davis in Black Mask – Volume 1

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
Raoul Whitfield
Some Hard Boiled Anthologies
Frederick Nebel’s Donahue
Thomas Walsh
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
Day Keene
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

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Bob_TieSmile150.jpgBob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made its Black Gate debut in 2018 and has returned every summer 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.

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