Pseudonyms include Harrison Hunt, Cedric Titus
“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.”
— Joseph T. Shaw, in an unpublished intro to The Hard-Boiled Omnibus
Chandler cited one of his early stories as an inspiration for his own writing. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was a huge fan. And John D. MacDonald, in an affectionate salute to the man, called him “a writer who almost made it.”
Certainly, NORBERT DAVIS was one of the great tragic figures among the pulp writers of the thirties and forties. He wrote westerns, war stories, romance and adventure tales as well as well as crime and detective fiction. Yet, he never quite got the recognition he deserved while he was alive (and even now, he’s at most a cult favourite, more read about than read), mostly because he abandoned his ace in the hole, a humourously hard-boiled crime hybrid he had perfected in the pulps, for a chance to write for the more lucrative market of the slicks. And it certainly didn’t help that he committed suicide at the age of forty.
Not a good career move, that.
Still, he left his mark. In the thirties and early forties there were several mystery writers who worked the same vein of zany hard-boiled, screwball stories, including Craig Rice, Dwight V. Babcock (who was a pal of Davis’) and Frank Gruber, but none could touch Davis at his peak.
He regularly sold to the very best of the detective magazines of the day, including Dime Detective and even occasionally Black Mask, and regularly appeared in such top titles as Argosy and The Saturday Evening Post.
Nor was he a hack — sure, he cranked out some turds, as did most of pulp crowd, but at his best, he was one of the most entertaining writers around, endlessly inventive, able to imbue even the most hard-boiled tales with a sense of whimsy, witty dialogue; glib, sardonic wisecracks, fast-paced action, chaotic plot twists and outrageous characters — a deft combo of tough guy action and screwball comedy that still stands up.
The guy was funny without rubbing your face in it. If Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was Don Quixote, the last Boy Scout, out to save the world, Davis’ detectives were Sancho, willing to do what it takes, and hoping for a good meal and a soft bed at the end of the day, more than willing to cut a few corners to get there.
And then, just when you thought he was just another funny man, he’d gently lay a patina of clear-eyed prose over everything, sharp, dead-on prose that bordered on poetry.
* * * * *
Norbert was born in Morrison, Illinois, but moved with his family to California, where he studied law at Stanford. Times were tough, though, and Davis had to take on various jobs to pay for his way through school, but, as he later wrote:
“It became obvious that, if I were going to continue what I reverently referred to as my educational career, there would have to be some changes made. I tried mowing lawns and polishing cars and shoveling sand, and I decided that a life of honest toil was not for me. So I started murdering people… with a typewriter, on paper. “
Obsessed with cracking the then burgeoning pulp market, Davis began sending out his fiction, and soon managed to sell a few stories to Black Mask. Encouraged, he continued writing for the pulps as he ploughed his way through law school. By the time he graduated, he was making such a good living from his writing that he never bothered taking the bar exam.
Instead, the tall, lanky writer moved to Los Angeles and befriended many of the other pulp writers in area. In fact, he even made the famous January 11, 1936 photo of The First West Coast Black Mask Get-Together. That’s Davis seated on the right, offering up up a big cheese-eating grin while a gloomy Dashiell Hammett lurks behind him, possibly concerned that the bar will shut before he can get back to it.
Davis and some of the others eventually formed a West Coast writers group called The Fictioneers, which met regularly at a watering hole on Western Avenue, and when Davis moved to Santa Monica, Raymond Chandler was a neighbour, living a few doors down.
In fact, Chandler was an early fan of Davis’ work, citing “Red Goose” (February 1934, Black Mask) in particular as an inspiration for his own fiction, and later recommending “Kansas City Flash,” another early story by Davis, for inclusion in James Sandoe’s Murder: Plain And Fanciful anthology. Chandler considered that story particularly “noteworthy and characteristic of the most vigorous days” of Black Mask.
But mixing funny with felony has always been a hard sell, particularly for those aiming to crack Black Mask, then the toughest market of them all. Of the several hundred short stories Davis wrote, only a dozen or so ever made it into the legendary pulp mag. Black Mask‘s editor at the time, Josph T. Shaw, was not a huge fan of humour, although he begrudgingly included a Davis story in The Hard-Boiled Omnibus and admitted (in an unpublished intro to the story) that “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’.”
Yet Davis persevered, and made a good living selling to other pulps, including Double Detective, Detective Fiction Weekly and most notably, Mask’s rival, Dime Detective, where he flourished.
The legacy Davis left behind of delightfully eccentric (and often morally elastic) pulp detectives is well worth hunting down: the shady screwball private eye Max Latin (my personal favourite), the wise-cracking bailbondsman with the patched up eyeglasses Bail Bond Dodd, the chronically fatigued trust company investigator Just Plain Jones (he of the sore feet), and a host of others live on in old pulps and the occasional reprinted story.
But it wasn’t enough for Davis. By the forties Davis, like many of his friends, was itching to escape the pulp jungle, and try his hand at more lucrative markets. His first stab at a novel, The Mouse in the Mountain, introduced Doan and Carstairs, an oddball coupling of a short chubby P.I. and his snooty Great Dane and was published in 1943. A sequel, Sally’s in the Alley, soon followed.
Sales, unfortunately, didn’t exactly set the world on fire, and the third in the series, Oh, Murderer Mine, was published only in paperback. A fourth novel, Murder Picks the Jury, a standalone co-written with Black Mask pal W. T. Ballard and published under the pen name of Harrison Hunt, didn’t sell particularly well either.
Which must have stung. He’d been married briefly as a young man, but somewhere in the forties he’d remarried, to Nancy Kirkwood Crane, a sculptor and a writer herself, who’d had some success selling articles and romance stories to the slicks. Perhaps adding to the tension, Nancy was the daughter of Frances Crane, also a writer, and an even more successful one, having written the popular Pat and Jean Abbott mystery series.
So, perhaps encouraged by his wife Nancy’s success there, Davis cast his eyes on the greener pastures of the slicks. For a while he enjoyed modest success selling stories (mostly non-mystery romances) to The Saturday Evening Post. But as the decade progressed, that market too began to dry up for Davis. In 1949, at Nancy’s urging (she was originally from the East), or perhaps to be closer to the New York markets, they moved to Connecticut.
Unfortunately, within a few years he was dead. That same July, Davis drove to Cape Cod. Rumours abound about the cause of his suicide, many attributing it to his discovery that he had cancer or the recent stillborn death of his and his wife Nancy’s son, and others to a severe case of writer’s block, the death of his literary agent or simply poor sales (in the last year of his life, he only sold two stories). But whatever the reason, on the morning in July 28, Davis took a garden hose, hooked it up to his car’s exhaust and ran it into the bathroom of the house where he was staying. He died from carbon monoxide poisoning. He was 40 years old. He was cremated in Boston and his ashes were sent to Los Angeles.
Norbert Davis remains in a strange place in the ranks of the creators of P.I. fiction, caught in the no-man’s-land between the fact that only small bits and pieces of his output are available (he only wrote five novels, and until recently, only a handful of his short stories have ever been reprinted) and the fact that he has been, in the words of Pulp Mystery Adventure, “praised to the skies by critics of pulp magazines.” Certainly, anyone who has been fortunate enough to stumble across his work has come away more than satisfied.
If you’re lucky enough to come across a story by Davis somewhere, read it. And spread the word.
THE GRIM EPILOGUE
- Shortly after Norbert’s suicide, his widow Nancy’s suffered a near fatal automobile accident — in the same car her husband had used to kill himself. She was pronounced dead on the spot. Miraculously, she survived, although she was left facially mutilated. She supposedly had another child, Cynthia, soon after the incident, although of course that begs the question “How soon after the incident?”
- “This will probably strike you as highly improbable if you know your Hollywood, but the lobby of the Orna Apartment Hotel, off Rossmore south of Melrose, is done in very nice taste.”
— intro to Sally’s in the Alley
- “She was one of the real mysteries of Hollywood. She was thin and flat-chested, with a complexion like yellow paste. Her black hair was lifeless and dull. Her features were assembled in regular enough order, but her face gave a queer blank effect, as though there was nothing but emptiness behind it. But on the screen she was marvelous. She was the essence of allure. She could send goose pimples along your back by just turning her head. The camera brought something out that wasn’t there.”
— “Kansas City Flash”
- “(Doan) 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.”
— The Mouse in the Mountain
- “The Mojave Desert at sunset looks remarkably like a painting of the Mojave Desert at sunset which, when you come to think of it, is really quite surprising. Except that the real article doesn’t show such good color sense as the average painting does. Yellows and purples and reds and various other violent sub-units of the spectrum are splashed all over the sky, in a monumental exhibition of bad taste. They keep moving and blurring and changing around, like the color movies they show in insane asylums to keep the idiots quiet.”
— from Sally’s in the Alley
- “Paroled to Murder” (April 1932, Detective Tales)
- “Reform Racket” (June, 1932, Black Mask; Dan Stiles)
- “Kansas City Flash” (March, 1933, Black Mask; Mark Hull)
- “The Ghost Of Murder Alley” (December 1933/January 1934, Frontier Stories)
- “Red Goose” (February 1934, Black Mask; Ben Shaley).. Kindle it!
- “Four Drops of Blood” (February-March 1934, Frontier Stories)
- “The Price of a Dime” (April 1934, Black Mask; Ben Shaley)
- “The Black Pill” (April/May 1934, Frontier Stories)
- “The Green Skull” (July 1934, Frontier Stories)
- “The Death Cross” (September 1934, Frontier Stories)
- “The Gin Monkey” (January 15, 1935; Dime Detective; Max Clark)
- “Golden Lead” (February 1935, Lariat Story Magazine)
- “Hit and Run” (April 1935, Black Mask; Jake Tait)
- “Black Death” (May 18, 1935, Detective Fiction Weekly; Sarr)
- “Sign of the Sidewinder” (June 1935, Western Aces; Tom Band)
- “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)
- “Boot-Hill Bait” (November 1935, Western Aces; Tom Band)
- “One Man Died” (January 18, 1936, Detective Fiction Weekly)
- “Dancing Dimes” (February 1936, Public Enemy)
- “The Missing Leg” (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)
- “The Case of the Greedy Guardian” (October 3, 1936, Detective Fiction Weekly)
- “Come Home and Die” (November 1936, Detective Tales)
- “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)
- “Their Guardian from Hell” (March 1937, Star Western)
- “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)
- “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)
- “Death Sings a Torch Song” (1937, Dime Detective)
- “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, Dime 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)
- “No Miracles in Murder” (June 1940, Detective Tales; Doctor Flame)
- “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)
- “A Gunsmoke Case for Major Cain” (October 1940,Dime Western Magazine)
- “You’ll Die Laughing” (November 1940, Black Mask; Dave Sly; aka “Do a Dame a Favor?”)
- “Holocaust House” (Part One) (November 16, 1940, Argosy; Doan & Carstairs)
- “Holocaust House” (Part Two) (November 23, 1940, Argosy; Doan & Carstairs)
- “No Miracles in Murder” (December 1940, Detective Tales)
- “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)
- “Leetown’s One-Man Army” (October 1941, Star Western)
- “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 You 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)
- “The Gunsmoke Banker Rides In” (July 1942, Star Western)
- “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, Doctor Flame)
- “You Bet Your Life” (September 1942; Dime Detective; Bail Bond Dodd)
- “Beat Me Daddy” (November 1942, Black Mask; Sgt. John Collins)
- “Dead Man’s Brand” (November 1942, Star Western)
- “You Can Die Any Day” (December 1942; Dime Detective; Max Latin)
- “Tigers In The Sky (March 1943, Argosy)
- “Gun-Speed and Gold” (March 1943, Lariat Story Magazine)
- “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)
- “Wild Rubber Runs Red” (September 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)…Buy this book..Kindle it!
- “Not So Very United” (August 26, 1944, The Saturday Evening Post)
- “The Deperate Divorcee” (September 30, 1944, The Saturday Evening Post)
- “A Is for Annabelle” (January 1, 1944, Colliers)
- “Send Back Something” (January 27, 1945, Colliers)
- “A Penny Saved Is Not Much” (May 12, 1945, Colliers)
- “Never Argue With A Civilian” (May 5, 1945, Colliers)
- “A Penny Saved Is Not Much” (May 12, 1945, Colliers)
- “The Beezlebub Blast” (March 2, 1946, Colliers)
- “You Can Always Marry the Woman” (April 13, 1946, The Saturday Evening Post)
- “Marriage For Sale” (April 1946, Complete Stories)
- “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 writing as “Todhunter Ballard”)
- “What Will Marjory Say” (October 25, 1947, The Saturday Evening Post)
- “Build Me A Bungalow Small” (December 6, 1947, Colliers)
- “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)
- “Sweet And Simple” (April 1949, American Magazine)
- “Fear House” (October 1950, 5 Mystery Stories)
- “Till the Killer Comes” (February 1951, New Detective)
- The Mouse in the Mountain (1943; aka “Dead Little Rich Girl,” “Rendezvous With Fear”; Doan & Carstairs) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Sally’s in The Alley (1943; Doan & Carstairs) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Oh, Murderer Mine (1946; Doan & Carstairs) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Murder Picks the Jury (1947; written with W. T. Ballard as Harrison Hunt)
- The Adventures of Max Latin (1988; Max Latin) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Dead Man’s Brand (2012) | Kindle it!
An e-collection of Davis’ western stories.
- The Complete Cases of Max Latin (2013; Max Latin) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Complete Cases of Bail-Bond Dodd, Vol. 1 (2015; Bail-Bond Dodd) | Buy this book
- HANDS ACROSS THE ROCKIES
56 minutes, black and white
Based on the short story “A Gunsmoke Case for Major Cain” by Norbert Davis
Screenplay by Paul Franklin
Directed by Lambert Hillyer
Starring Bill Elliott as Wild Bill Hickok
Also starring Mary Daily, Dub Taylor, Kenneth MacDonald, Frank LaRue, Donald Curtis, Tom Moran, Stanley Brown, Slim Whitaker, Harrison Greene, Art Mix, Eddy Waller, Hugh Prosser
As far as I know, Davis’ only screen credit, a pretty much run-of-the-mill B oater.
260 25-minute episodes
Black and white
Premise: Live plays featuring people in dangerous and threatening situations.
Opening narration: “Well calculated tales to keep you in suspense.”
Producers: Martin Manulis, Robert Stevens, David Herlwell
Directors: Robert Milligan, David Heilweil, Byron Paul
Narrator: Paul Frees
Announcer: Rex Marshall, Boris Karloff
“The Blue Panther”
(October 14, 1952)…Watch it now!
Based on a character created by Norbert Davis
Teleplay by Max Ehrlich
Directed by Robert Mulligan
Starring Michael Strong as Ben Shaley
Also starring Phyllis Brooks, Bruce Gordon, Erik Rhodes, Gina Petrushka, Michael Garrett, Tom Avera, Michael Gazzo, Gene Anton Jr.
- Norbert Davis: An Appreciation (1988; by John D. MacDonald)
- Norbert Davis: Profile of a Pulp Writer
Black Mask Magazine.com’s profile and bibliography by John L. Apostolou, from which some of the information for this piece was culled
- Hard-boiled Wit: Ludwig Wittgenstein and Norbert Davis
Josef Hoffmann’s fascinating look at one of Davis’ more surprising fans.