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Davis, Norbert

Page history last edited by PBworks 13 years, 9 months ago

Norbert Harrison Davis (1909-1949) was born on April 18, 1909 in Morrison Illinois. He grew to the height of six foot five, and moved to Southern California in the twenties. He took a degree in law and became a writer of pulp fiction. He lived in Los Angeles for most of his career and, after a brief early marriage, married Nancy Kirkwood Crane, the daughter of Francis Kirkwood Crane, himself a detective writer. He took his own life on July 28, 1949, leaving behind five novels and countless stories. He was philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's favourite writer, but they never met.


Davis is best remembered today for the wildly comic series of three books featuring the chubby private eye, Doan, and his oversized Great Dane Carstairs, who plays a more than equal role in the detective partnership.


Extensive articles about Davis can be found at the Rue Morgue Press website and the Black Mask Magazine site.


Mike Grost on Norbert Davis


Norbert Davis' reputation is floating in a strange limbo. On the one hand, his pulp work as a whole is almost completely unavailable. On the other hand, he has been praised to the skies by critics of pulp magazines. Getting at a more balanced point of view is more difficult. Davis began as a writer for Black Mask magazine; his early work was imitative of the hard-boiled Black Mask style. The best of these early pieces reprinted today is "Kansas City Flash" (1933). Davis wanted to write a more humorous and ingeniously plotted kind of fiction, however. Like the Hollywood detective hero of "Kansas City Flash", he wanted "to be hard-boiled and good-humored at the same time", to quote the first page of that story. He eventually came into his own in the magazine Dime Detective, for which he wrote two series in the early 1940's. All five of the Max Latin tales there were collected and reprinted in one volume in 1988; while Davis' other sleuth, William "Bail Bond" Dodd, appeared in eight stories, two of which have been reprinted in anthologies. Davis then wrote three novels about the detective team of Doan and Carstairs, and much non-mystery short fiction for the slick magazines.


Davis' Number 1 fan during the 1940's: the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who loved Davis' books. (Thanks to reader Martin Thau, who pointed this out to me!) Wittgenstein was especially enthused about Davis' first novel, the zany The Mouse in the Mountain (1943), which Wittgenstein knew under its British title of Rendezvous With Fear. Apparently, Wittgenstein recommended this book to many of his friends, and even tried unsuccessfully to contact the author. Reader John Tingley gives more information: "About the Wittgenstein reference - it can be found on pp. 528-29 of Ray Monk's biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Vintage, 1991). The 4.6.1948 letter to Norman Malcolm is printed in full on p. 109 of Malcolm's Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984). Wittgenstein was a special fan of Street & Smith detective magazines, and had Malcolm send them to him at Cambridge."


A article on Wittgenstein and Davis by Josef Hoffman can be found here.


Both Davis' plot and dialogue are full of paradoxes, which attempt to be both witty and clever. These paradoxes are in the tradition of such writers as Shaw and Wilde. Davis' stories are full of intricate, line by line point counterpoint dialogue between his characters. Each line of dialogue attempts to give a surrealistic, paradoxical twist to what was just said by the other person.


The relationship between Davis' private detectives and the police are especially complicated. The private eyes take especial delight in tweaking the noses of the police, often coming up with complex situations designed to annoy the police, but to which the cops have no choice but to consent, because the situation leads to the arrest of the bad guy. Another Davis plot twist: the police often try to pin the private eye's allegedly crooked schemes on them, only to discover their hidden positive side. However, Davis tends to be sympathetic to his police characters, as well. The heroic Mexican police in The Mouse in the Mountain seem designed to shatter stereotypes about Latin Americans, and his American cops, like all his characters, tend to be wily and persistent.


Davis was good at describing journeys into waste places: shacks in marshes near warehouses; snowstorms out West, weedy yards in isolated city manufacturing districts. Traveling in these environments usually results in comic physical indignities for his hero. The remote Mexican highlands of The Mouse in the Mountain, are one of the largest scale, and most successful, of such desolate regions in Davis. There is also the flash flood in the Mohave Desert at the finale of Sally's in the Alley.


Davis' color imagery is most often linked to people's clothing. Men are in blue, a color Davis seemed to have found particularly appropriate for men: see Max Latin's blue topcoat and hat, the blue uniformed elevator operator in "You Can Die Any Day", the G-Man's suit at the start of Sally's in the Alley, and the Count's navy blue tuxedo in "Give the Devil His Due". There are also the blue flashlights carried by the soldiers in that story. A man is named "Blue" in Sally's in the Alley. There is also a lot of blue carpeting in locations Davis finds sophisticated. By contrast, there is the black gown worn by the glamorous woman in "Don't Give Your Right Name", Gertrude Glenn's green dress in "You Can Die Any Day", the red uniform worn by the waitress at the drive-in in Sally's in the Alley, and the woman's red high heeled shoe in "Watch Me Kill You!". Walls in swanky locations in Davis tend to be colored as well: there is the red enameled art gallery in "Watch Me Kill You!", and the black leather paneled elevator in "Give the Devil His Due".


"Murder in the Red" (1940), a Dodd tale, is an elaborate shaggy dog story. While trying to track down one character, Dodd finds a lead to another character who knew the first. So Dodd starts tracking this character, who in turn suggests a lead to a third character, who Dodd tracks in turn. And so on, with nearly infinite recursion. The whole story is a delightful labyrinth. At the end, Davis reconstructs in turn the activities of various characters in the story: first he shows a linear picture of what the mobsters were up to, then he reveals what the older men did, then he traces the activities of the heroine, then he reveals the killer and the killer's activities, and at last he traces the route of one of the murder victims. The whole thing has some affinities to the "pulp style of plotting", in which different groups of characters are constantly operating at cross purposes to the reader's mystification, but Davis' almost musical style of plotting is his own here. The Mouse in the Mountain also shows a similar technique, wherein one character will introduce another character as a friend or acquaintance, followed by the new character introducing other characters, and so on throughout the novel. There is a branching pattern, or tree like structure among the characters in the story. "Murder in the Red" shows much less of Davis' paradoxical dialogue than his later works in the 1940's; this kind of dialogue appears in Davis' other work as early as 1937, so Davis was simply operating in a different mode here.


The Max Latin stories tend to be much more straightforward puzzle plot mysteries than are many of Davis works'. They are less cats-cradled in their plots than the two Bail Bond Dodd tales that are available today. The stories open with comedy in Guiterrez' restaurant. Then a client or clients sees Max Latin there in the booth that serves as his office. Latin goes out, usually at night, on a crooked sounding errand for his client, usually to some fairly sinister location. There he unexpectedly discovers a murdered body. Often the killer tries to kill Latin at this point too. Inspector Walters of Homicide shows up, and Latin gives him a sort of run-around, combined with Walters often refusing to believe Latin's true but unfortunately implausible account of events. Finally, Latin goes to some second location, often swankier than others in the tale, and solves the crime. Not every story adheres completely to this approach, but it is a fairly good blueprint for an "average" Max Latin tale.


Davis' tales often end with explanations centering around complex business maneuvers involving high finance, and the rich in general. His more powerful male characters like to propagate elaborate illusions about themselves, involving role playing and trickery. Some of the high powered men on both sides of the World War II conflict in Sally's in the Alley, also fall into this category, and promote similar illusions, while their schemes are also explained in the finale. In contrast, lower class men in Davis' world can be prey to obsessions which they act out compulsively. Davis had a special fondness for violent women; they show up with great regularity in his tales. So does a combination of humor and violence, which can be very disturbing, and which makes his work much less entertaining than one would like. He also likes mild mannered little men, who can be concealing major secrets.


Davis' characters include small businessmen with bizarre ideas on how to run their business. These include the eccentric chef Guiterrez in the Max Latin stories, his waiter Dick, and the bus driver Bartolome and the painter Amanda Tracy in Mouse. Extensions of this businessman with unusual obsessions include his private detectives. Both Max Latin and Doan take an off kilter approach to their work. Both pose as crooked detectives. Both loudly proclaim their corruption, and deliberate involvement with crooked sounding schemes. These schemes tend to be quite imaginative, just as the strange approaches of Davis' businessmen are fresh and new. Behind this mask, however, Davis' detectives are actually trying both to solve crimes, and manipulate bad guys into jail or giving up their ill gotten gains. Davis also seems to like characters who are involved with the arts: painters, musicians, lecturers, museum workers.


Other standard characters in Davis' work include young males and boys with outrageously aggressive personalities, such as the rotten, bratty kid Mortimer in Mouse, and the autograph hunter Steamer in "Don't Give Your Right Name". Rich, powerful, beautiful, young women also make an appearance in Davis work, including movie stars and heiresses. Under a veneer of politeness and graciousness they are completely spoiled and self indulged, and determined to do exactly as they please. These women tend to have an entourage of obnoxiously upper crust male followers, who have both a parasitical relation to the women, and a haughty "get out of my way you worthless proles" attitude to everyone else. These men are often prepared to engage in fist fights, cause incidents, and otherwise gum up the plot. They have a certain shrewdness, and no scruples, but otherwise are none too bright, unlike the much cleverer private eye and police characters.


Davis' novella "Murder in Two Parts" (1937) was recently reprinted. The first half has some funny dialogue about a drunk the hero has to look after; this is the earliest Davis story I've read to show his trademark humor and clever dialogue. The relationship between his detective hero Brent and the drunk anticipates a little that between Doan and the dog Carstairs; in each the rather sneaky detective has to look after a non rational being who is physically large, self-confident, and powerful. Davis liked small, wooden, ramshackle, nearly cubical structures for the settings of his crimes, such as the bum's waterfront shack in "Murder in the Red". This story has a bathing cube, something I've never heard of elsewhere. The Golden Age interest in unusual architecture extended to Black Mask, where this story appeared. The story's finale on a sea side cliff in the fog recalls other suspense finales in Black Mask tales exploiting sea side phenomena, such as the hurricane ending of Lester Dent's "Angelfish" (1936). The tale also continues Davis' color coding: a female murder victim is wearing green pajamas, whereas a man is wearing a blue suit. A bad guy's green ring is the tip-off to his identity to Brent; clearly in Davis' world, this is the "wrong" color for a man to be wearing: it should be in blue!




The Mouse in the Mountain (1943) aka Dead Little Rich Girl, Rendezvous With Fear

Sally's in The Alley (1943)

Oh, Murderer Mine (1946)


As Harrison Hunt

Murder Picks the Jury (1947); written with W. T. Ballard


Short stories


  • "Paroled to Murder" (April 1932, Detective Tales)
  • "Reform Racket" (June, 1932, Black Mask; Dan Stiles)
  • "Kansas City Flash" (March, 1933, Black Mask; Mark Hull)
  • "Red Goose" (February 1934, Black Mask; Ben Shaley)
  • "Four Drops of Blood" (February-March 1934, Frontier Stories)
  • "The Price of a Dime" (April 1934, Black Mask; Ben Shaley)
  • "The Gin Monkey" (January 15, 1935; Dime Detective; Max Clark)
  • "Hit and Run" (April 1935, Black Mask; Jake Tait)
  • "Black Death" (May 18, 1935, Detective Fiction Weekly; Sarr)
  • "The Girl with the Webbed Hand" (August 24, 1935, Detective Fiction Weekly; Slattery)
  • "Trip to Vienna" (October 19, 1935, Detective Fiction Weekly)
  • "The Devil's Scalpel" (November 1935; Dime Detective; Bill Ray)
  • "One Man Died" (January 18, 1936, Detective Fiction Weekly)
  • "Dancing Dimes" (February 1936, Public Enemy)
  • "The Missing Legs" (February 22, 1936, Detective Fiction Weekly)
  • "Blue Bullets" (March 13, 1936, Argosy)
  • "Diamond Slippers" (March 14, 1936, Detective Fiction Weekly; Simon Saxton)
  • "Reprieve from Death" (April 1936, Detective Tales)
  • "Hell's Freight "(April 1936, Public Enemy)
  • "The Rag-Tag Girl" (May 1936, Phantom Detective)
  • "Clues on Crutches" (June 20, 1936, Detective Fiction Weekly)
  • "Public Defender" (June 27, 1936, Detective Fiction Weekly; Michael)
  • "Satan's Doll Shop" (August 1936, Detective Tales)
  • "Upside-Down Man" (August 1936, Ace-High Detective)
  • "Murder Harvest" (September 12, 1936, Detective Fiction Weekly; James Michael)
  • "Murder Medicine" (October 1936, Detective Tales)
  • "Come Home and Die" (November 1936, Detective Tales)
  • "The Case of the Greedy Guardian" (October 3, 1936, Detective Fiction Weekly)
  • "Black Bandana" (November 21, 1936, Argosy)
  • "Death's Medal" (December 1936, Pocket Book Detective)
  • "Bad Actor" (February 1937, Pocket Book Detective)
  • "5 to 1 Odds on Murder" (February 6, 1937, Detective Fiction Weekly)
  • "A Gamble in Corpses" (March 1937, Detective Tales)
  • "Death Stops the Show" (April 1937, Detective Tales)
  • "Something for the Sweeper" (May 1937; Dime Detective; Just Plain Jones)
  • "Top Hat Killer" (June 26, 1937, Detective Fiction Weekly)
  • "Letters from Home" (June 1937, Pocket Book Detective)
  • "Death Sings a Torch-Song" (July 1937; Dime Detective; Dennis Lee)
  • "Beauty in the Morgue" (July 31, 1937, Detective Fiction Weekly; John Mark)
  • "Cubes of Blackmail" (August 1937, Detective Tales)
  • "Trail of the Talented Butcher" (September 1937, Detective Tales)
  • "Trail of the Talented Butcher" (September 1937, Detective Tales)
  • "Indian Sign" (September 18, 1937 , Detective Fiction Weekly)
  • "Judge of the Damned" (October 1937, Detective Tales)
  • "Idiot's Coffin Keepsake" (October 1937, Strange Detective Mysteries)
  • "Mountain Man" (October 2 1937, Detective Fiction Weekly; Saul Jarret)
  • "Medicine for Murder" (October 1937, Black Mask; Dr. Bruce Gregory)
  • "Underworld Judge-and Jury" (November 1937, Detective Tales)
  • "Beware Death's Tolling Bell" (November 1937, Strange Detective Mysteries)
  • "Devil Down the Chimney" (December 11, 1937, Detective Fiction Weekly; Dan Crail)
  • "Murder in Two Parts" (December 1937, Black Mask; Brent)
  • "Charge it to the Corpse!" (January 1938, Detective Tales)
  • "Cat's Claw" (January 8, 1938, Detective Fiction Weekly)
  • "String Him Up!" (February 1938, Double Detective)
  • "Noose Around Your Neck" (March 1938, Double Detective)
  • "Murder Buried Deep" (March 12, 1938, Detective Fiction Weekly)
  • "Murder Walks Tonight" (April 1938, Detective Tales)
  • "Corpse on the Hearth" (May 1938, Detective Tales)
  • "The Judge Looks at Death" (June 1938, Detective Tales)
  • "Mad Money" (Part One) (June 25, 1938, Argosy)
  • "You Listen!" (July 1938, Double Detective; with Dwight V. Babcock)
  • "Mad Money" (Part Two) (July 2, Argosy)
  • "Mad Money" (Part Three) (July 9, 1938, Argosy)
  • "Mad Money" (Part Four) (July 16, 1938, Argosy)
  • "Mad Money" (Part Five) (July 23, 1938, Argosy)
  • "For They Would Gladly Die!" (September 1938, Detective Tales)
  • "Murder on the Mississippi" (October 1938, Double Detective)
  • "Marriage is Murder" (October 15, 1938, Detective Fiction Weekly)
  • "Jail Delivery" (October 22, 1938, Argosy)
  • "My Client, the Corpse" (December 1938, Detective Tales)
  • "Hex on Horseback" (January 1939, Street & Smith Detective Story Magazine; also All Fiction Detective Stories Annual, 1942)
  • "Death of a Medicine Man" (February 1939, Double Detective)
  • "Ideal for Murder" (February 11, 1939, Detective Fiction Weekly; Tom Grey)
  • "Oasis of Dying Men" (March 1939, Detective Tales)
  • "Sand In the Snow" (Part One) (April 1, 1939, Argosy)
  • "Sand In the Snow" (Part Two) (April 8, 1939, Argosy)
  • "Sand In the Snow" (Part Three) (April 15, 1939, Argosy)
  • "Sand In the Snow" (Part Four) (April 22, 1939, Argosy)
  • "Sand In the Snow" (Part Five) (April 29, 1939, Argosy)
  • "The Lethal Logic" (April 29, 1939, Detective Fiction Weekly; Prof. Carlson)
  • "Death Asked for Golden Slippers" (May 1939, Detective Tales)
  • "Murder Highway #1" (July 1939, Detective Tales)
  • "A Vote for Murder" (July 15, 1939, Detective Fiction Weekly; John Gaul)
  • "Children of Murder" (September 1939, Detective Tales)
  • "Back Road to Death" (October 1939, Detective Tales)
  • "Model for Murder" (October 1939, Double Detective)
  • "Mud in Your Eye" (October 14, 1939, Detective Fiction Weekly; Craig)
  • "Trip to Vienna" (October 19, 1939, Detective Fiction Weekly)
  • "Never Say Die" (November 11, 1939, Detective Fiction Weekly; Les Free)
  • "Drop of Doom" (December 1939; Dime Detective; Dale)
  • "The Corpse Lottery" (January 1940, Detective Tales)
  • "Murder Down Deep" (February 1940; Dime Detective; Bail Bond Dodd)
  • "Murder in the Red" (April 1940; Dime Detective; Bail Bond Dodd)
  • "Watch Me Kill You!" (July 1940; Dime Detective; Max Latin)
  • "Dance for the Dead" (July 1940, Street & Smith Detective Story Magazine)
  • "This Will Kill You!" (August 1940; Dime Detective; Bail Bond Dodd)
  • "Fear House" (September 1940, Detective Tales)
  • "You'll Die Laughing" (November 1940, Black Mask; Dave Sly; AKA "Do a Dame a Favor?")
  • "No Miracles in Murder" (December 1940, Detective Tales)
  • "Holocaust House" (Part One) (November 16, 1940, Argosy; Doan & Carstairs)
  • "Holocaust House" (Part Two) (November 23, 1940, Argosy; Doan & Carstairs)
  • "Hang Him High" (Part One) (May 17, 1941, Argosy)
  • "Hang Him High" (Part Two) (May 24, 1941, Argosy)
  • "Hang Him High" (Part Three) (May 31, 1941, Argosy)
  • "Hang Him High" (Part Four) (June 7, 1941, Argosy)
  • "Hang Him High" (Part Five) (June 14, 1941, Argosy)
  • "Hang Him High" (Part Six) (June 21, 1941, Argosy)
  • "Come Up and Kill Me Some Time" (October 1941; Dime Detective; Bail Bond Dodd)
  • "Don't Give Your Right Name" (December 1941; Dime Detective; Max Latin)
  • "Crime at Hudson's Rill" (January 1942, Street & Smith Detective Story Magazine)
  • "Murder: Do Not Disturb" (February 7, 1942, Argosy)
  • "Have One on the House" (March 1942; Dime Detective; Bail Bond Dodd)
  • "Walk Across My Grave" ( April 1942, Black Mask; Sheriff Jim Laury)
  • "Don't Cry for Me" (May 1942, Black Mask; John Collinsi)
  • "Give the Devil His Due" (May 1942; Dime Detective; Max Latin)
  • "The Tale of the Homeless Corpse" (June 1942, Detective Tales)
  • "Bullets Don't Bother Me" (August 1942, Black Mask; Sam Carey)
  • "Who Said I Was Dead?" (August 1942; Dime Detective; Bail Bond Dodd)
  • "Doctor Flame's Murder Blackout" (September 1942, Detective Tales)
  • "You Bet Your Life" (September 1942; Dime Detective; Bail Bond Dodd)
  • "Beat Me Daddy" (November 1942, Black Mask; Sgt. John Collins)
  • "You Can Die Any Day" (December 1942; Dime Detective; Max Latin)
  • "Too Many Have Died" (April 1943; Dime Detective; Peter Tracy)
  • "Name Your Poison" (May 1943, Black Mask; Sgt. John Collins)
  • "Rendezvous with the Russians" (May 1943, Argosy)
  • "Charity Begins at Homicide" (October 1943; Dime Detective; Max Latin)
  • "Take It from Me" (December 1943; Dime Detective; Bail Bond Dodd)
  • "Get Out and Get Under" (January 1, 1944, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • "Cry Murder!" (July 1944, Flynn's Detective Fiction; Doan & Carstairs)
  • "Not So Very United" (August 26, 1944, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • "The Deperate Divorcee" (September 30, 1944, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • "You Can Always Marry the Woman" (April 13, 1946, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • "Just a Nice Quiet Title" (June 8, 1946, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • "I'll Tell My Mother" (January 25, 1947, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • "Kelly Makes a Deal" (May 17, 1947, The Saturday Evening Post; with W. T. Ballard)
  • "What Will Marjory Say" (October 25, 1947, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • "Defiant Lady" (February 28, 1948, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • "A Beautiful Fraud" (March 27, 1948, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • "Girl Hunt" (July 10, 1948, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • "The Lady on the Highway" (October 23, 1948, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • "The Captious Sex" (January 8, 1949, The Saturday Evening Post; with Nancy Davis)
  • "Fear House" (October 1950, 5 Mystery Stories)
  • "Till the Killer Comes" (February 1951, New Detective)


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