Whimsy is not a characteristic you normally associate with the hardboiled detective novel of the 1940s. Don’t get us wrong. Humor was okay in its place. After all, Chandler was read as much for Philip Marlowe’s wisecracks as for the author’s prose style and powerful narratives. Screwball elements were acceptable as well just look at Craig Rice’s novels featuring John J. Malone, whose ribald and drunken antics were echoed in books by a score of other writers. Even burlesque had its place, as witnessed by works like Blue Murder by Robert Leslie Bellem, although some will argue—incorrectly—that the Bellem book was bad writing, not deliberate self-parody.
But hardboiled writers, especially ones who wished to publish in Black Mask, the “bible” of tough-guy fiction, were advised to keep humor in check. That was something Norbert Davis found difficult to do, and it may go a long way toward explaining why only five of his stories (out of several hundred published) appeared in that illustrious magazine, even though he was considered by his contemporaries to be one of the best practitioners of the hardboiled form. Black Mask editor Captain Joseph Shaw thought whimsical story lines were inappropriate for his action-driven magazine, according to Ron Goulart in his study of pulp fiction, Cheap Thrills. Yet years later Chandler himself persuaded James Sandoe to include a Davis story in his landmark anthology, Murder: Plain and Fanciful, as being “noteworthy and characteristic of the most vigorous days” of Black Mask.
Vigor was indeed one of the hallmarks of a Davis story. Gunfights were not uncommon, and his prose, as modern-day private-eye writer Bill Pronzini points out in 1001 Midnights, was “occasionally lyrical in a hard-edged way.” He also had a talent for capturing the essence of his characters in short, unforgettable word sketches, as when Doan, the private eye hero of The Mouse in the Mountain, is first introduced: “He was short and a little on the plump side, and he had a chubby, pink face and a smile as innocent and appealing as a baby’s. He looked like a very nice, pleasant sort of person, and on rare occasions he was.” Dashiell Hammett, we suspect, would not have been displeased to have written those lines.
Still, it’s his humor that brings readers back to the stories of this nearly forgotten writer. And Davis was at his comic best in the three novels and two short stories (“Cry Murder” and “Holocaust House”) that featured private eye Doan and his remarkable sidekick, a gigantic fawn-colored Great Dane named Carstairs. Critic John L. Apostolou, writing in The Armchair Detective in 1982, called the first Carstairs and Doan novel and its sequel, Sally’s in the Alley (both published in 1943), “two of the funniest detective novels ever written,” adding that these “hilarious adventures marked the high point in the career of Norbert Davis.” Pronzini agrees, suggesting that Davis “was one of the few writers to successfully blend the so-called hardboiled story with farcical humor.” Both books were published in hardcover by William Morrow and today fetch extravagant prices on the rare book market. A third Doan and Carstairs novel, Oh, Murderer Mine, was less successful, appearing as a paperback original in 1946 from a small obscure publisher, although Pronzini writes that it contains “a scene in which Carstairs wreaks havoc in Heloise of Hollywood’s beauty salon that will have you laughing out loud.”
Carstairs is in a class all to himself in that long and illustrious succession of pets used in crime fiction, although we suspect Carstairs would have torn your arm off if you called him a “pet.” He certainly viewed himself as the dominant partner in the Carstairs and Doan Detective Agency, even though Doan had “won” him in a crap game. Part of that dominance comes from his sheer size. Carstairs isn’t just big. He’s enormous. Davis describes him: “Standing on four legs, his back came up to Doan’s chest. He never did tricks. He considered them beneath him. But had he ever done one that involved standing on his hind feet, his head would have hit a level far above Doan’s. Carstairs was so big he could hardly be called a dog. He was a sort of new species.” Doan also figures that Carstairs is his intellectual superior as well as being far better mannered. Boozing offends Carstairs, and Doan’s frequent imbibing (from which he never shows any ill effect) always elicits a menacing growl. Doan was once offered seven thousand dollars for Carstairs but turned it down. After all, during slow times in the detective business Carstairs brings in extra dough selling his “services” to the awed owners of fertile lady Great Danes. Carstairs is also a patriot. With the United States now at war, Carstairs is in the army (he’s on furlough during the events described in The Mouse in the Mountain), training other dogs to do what he does naturally.
While the Doan and Carstairs canon make up three of the four books Davis published in his lifetime, he was an extremely prolific writer of short stories, though writing wasn’t his first choice as a career. Born on April 18, 1909, in Morrison, Illinois, he was the first eldest son in his family not to take the first name of Robert in honor of the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, a distant ancestor. Norbert, his “fancy first name,” wasn’t an easy moniker for a young boy to be saddled with, and Davis considered it not only somewhat “ersatz” but just a bit “sissy.” He was Bert to his friends, although some, like E. Hoffman Price, called him “Norbie.”
In the late 1920s, Davis and his family moved to California where he attended college, eventually earning a law degree from Stanford, although he never bothered to take the bar exam. By the time he graduated he was an established pulp magazine writer. If he was only making a penny or two a word, he was writing a lot of words, and his stories were appearing in the leading pulps of the day, including Dime Detective, Double Detective, and Detective Fiction Weekly as well as Black Mask. Nor did he confine himself to crime fiction. He wrote whatever he could sell—adventure stories, love stories, westerns. In fact, one western story, “A Gunsmoke Case for Major Cain,” was filmed in 1941 as Hands Across the Rockies, starring B western actor Wild Bill Elliot.
Davis began selling stories at an early age, as E. Hoffman Price points out in a biographical sketch of Davis in his memoirs, The Book of the Dead. While an undergraduate, Davis took a few writing classes and after an instructor had torn apart one of his early efforts, Davis stood up in class—an imposing figure, if absurdly thin, at six feet five inches—and pulled a check from his pocket. “Sir, this is a check for $200 from Argosy. The editor didn’t find much fault with my story.” The instructor wasn’t impressed, pointing out that they weren’t in class to learn how to make money writing but to learn how to appreciate literary merit.
In his early post-Stanford years, Davis had to make money and plenty of it, according to Price, who along with Davis, Cleve Adams, W.T. Ballard (with whom Davis collaborated on one noir novel, Murder Picks the Jury, published in 1947 as by Harrison Hunt), and several other writers made up The Fictioneers, a Los Angeles area group that met at each other’s homes to discuss writing and share tips. Unlike writers in the East, who were closer to the markets, these isolated California writers were supportive of each other’s efforts and did their best to help newcomers like Price break into print. Even Chandler, who for a while lived on the same street as Davis in Santa Monica, attended a few of their meetings, which usually involved a great deal of strong drink and often ended with a visit to the closest burlesque theater.
In his early years as a pulp writer, Davis was married to his first wife, Frances, and lived in Los Altos in the San Francisco Bay Area. The two of them often fought over her extravagant spending, according to Price. By 1939, Davis had had enough of Frances. When Price paid him a visit, he found Davis dictating a story into a machine. “The check for this yarn will pay off every charge account and leave me with enough for one ticket to Santa Monica. I am hauling out.”
And so he did, eventually divorcing Frances. He later married another writer, Nancy Kirkwood Crane, whose stories were appearing in the higher paying slick magazines, like The Saturday Evening Post. Nancy was the daughter of mystery novelist Frances Crane whose Pat and Jean Abbott mystery series was already enjoying the kind of widespread popularity Davis could only dream about. Davis himself began to make the switch from the pulps to the slicks in the mid-forties, selling a number of humorous short stories to them—a critical mistake in his writing career, according to John D. MacDonald in his introduction to The Adventures of Max Latin, a posthumous Davis short story collection published by the Mysterious Press in 1988. “It tells me that Norbert Davis had some sort of counterproductive disdain for the market that had been feeding and housing him for eleven years,” he wrote. If Davis thought he had learned all he could from his pulp writing he was mistaken, MacDonald claimed, pointing out that among the splendid writing he produced there were still patches of bad stuff, mixed up with the merely competent.
Nor did Davis experience total success in this new medium. By the late 1940s, his stories were being rejected by some of the slicks while his wife’s career was progressing at a rapid rate. In 1949, he and Nancy moved from California to Salisbury, Connecticut, perhaps to be closer to the New York publishing houses.
That same summer, Davis drove to the resort community of Harwick, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. He had recently been diagnosed with cancer. There, early in the morning of July 28, he ran a hose from his car’s exhaust to the bathroom of the house where he was staying. His body was discovered there later than day. He was just forty years old. He left no note. At probate, his estate was valued at less than five hundred dollars.
Was MacDonald right? Had Davis left the pulps too soon? Would he eventually have gained the kind of success he obviously so desperately craved? Or would he have gone on, as many of his contemporaries did, to write for television or the movies? We’ll never know the reason why despair won out over life. The irony in all this is that a man who eventually came to find only unbearable sadness in life could produce books filled with such joy and exuberant humor. It’s a bitter irony that perhaps only Norbert Davis would have appreciated.
Tom & Enid Schantz
Much of the information for this introduction was taken from an article by John L. Apostolou (“Norbert Davis: Profile of a Pulp Writer”) in The Armchair Detective, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1982; from E. Hoffman Price’s memoirs, The Book of the Dead, Arkham House, 2001; and from John D. MacDonald’ s introduction to The Adventures of Max Latin, Mysterious Press, 1988. Thanks also to Bill Pronzini who spurred the project on, generously copying stories and articles from his own voluminous files. Any merit this introduction may have is due solely to their generous contributions, while any mistakes are the sole responsibility of the editors.