The Short Career of Robert Reeves

Although undergoing a period of decline, the pulp magazines of the 1940s provided an outlet for several fine young writers. Among the regular contributors to the crime pulps were Ray Bradbury and John D. MacDonald, then just beginning their illustrious careers. Discussing the Black Mask writers of that era, Anthony Boucher says:

One of the last of the writers developed by Black Mask, and one of the best, was Robert Reeves, who began pulp writing with the offbeat equipment of a degree in anthropology and a career as stage manager for the Theatre Guild. Today he’s possibly the least known of the major tough writers—probably because he died young without going on to the great success in slicks or films or radio that so many others achieved.1

The writing career of Robert Reeves spanned less than a decade. His first work was published in 1939 and the last in 1945. His contribution to the mystery genre, though small in quantity, was impressive. My research indicates that he produced three novels, nine short stories for Black Mask, and two short stories for Dime Detective. He may have written for other magazines, but I have been unable to locate any additional stories by him.

Robert Reeves

Robert Reeves

Little exists in print on the life of Robert Reeves. Dust jacket notes tell us he was born in New York City in 1912 (or in the last months of 1911) and raised on the south shore of Long Island. The best source of information on his education and early work experience is a short piece in Black Mask, from which we learn that he:

acquired an A.B. at New York University, Washington Square Branch, where he majored in History, English and Anthropology. He promptly put his education to work as driver of an armored Post Office Department truck. Among other activities that engaged his attention from time to time are carpentry, cabinet-making, candy-making, reading for Fox Films and various and sundry Broadway play-brokers. He had several years experience in show-business as a casting director, play doctor, stage manager and assistant producer. Stage managed for the Theatre Guild at one time. Has forsaken his other interests now to concentrate on the problem of making Cellini Smith support him.2

And Cellini Smith, Reeves’s private eye character, did support him—at least for a few years.

Most, if not all, of the Cellini Smith novels and short stories were written after Reeves moved to California in the late 1930s, probably in 1938. It is likely that he hoped to break into the movie industry, but all we know for certain is that he settled in geographical Hollywood, that section of the sprawling city of Los Angeles where members of his family had lived for some years.

Cellini Smith made his initial appearance in Dead and Done For, published by Knopf in 1939. The second Smith novel is No Love Lost (1941), which is also known as Dog Eat Dog—an earlier and shorter version that had been serialized in Black Mask—and as Come Out Killing, the slightly abridged 1953 paperback edition. The third and last in the series is Cellini Smith: Detective (1943).

Strictly speaking, Dead and Done For is not a private eye novel. The main character, Cellini Smith, keeps books for a gang that runs the pinball machines—an illegal activity—in New York’s Lower East Side. Cellini is a college graduate, his education paid for by the boss of the gang, Tony Moro. When Moro is arrested for the murder of a Broadway producer, Cellini investigates the crime in order to prove his boss innocent. Making a swift transition from bookkeeper to detective, he solves the case, but not before the number of corpses multiplies. In this book, and in this book only, Cellini bears some similarity to a character in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather named Tom Hagen, the role played by Robert Duvall in the movie.

Dead and Done For is a superior first novel, firmly in the hardboiled tradition. Reeves makes good use of his background in the theatre, and a minor character, Nicky, seems to be modeled on Reeves himself.

The next two Cellini Smith novels are set in Los Angeles. No longer tied to the underworld, as a result of certain events in the first novel, Cellini becomes a private investigator. Assisting him is sometime boxer Duck-Eye Ryan, formerly a gunman in the Moro gang, who functions as a comic sidekick. Another running character in these novels, and in the Cellini Smith short stories, is homicide detective Ira Haenigson, Cellini’s friendly enemy in the Los Angeles Police Department.

In No Love Lost, Cellini is hired by a group of prizefighters to solve the murder of boxing promoter Miles Morton. The boxers are certain that local professional wrestlers, whom they despise, are responsible for Morton’s death, but Cellini finds other suspects and uncovers a link to a scheme to ship crude oil to Japan (the time is shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor).

Cellini Smith: Detective has a similar plot. Here the victim is a young hobo, Danny Meade. The clients are Meade’s friends, also hoboes, and the likely suspects are members of a rival hobo organization, the Ramblers. The motive in the case involves the location of a deposit of tungsten ore, a material needed for the war effort. Much of the action takes place in a burlesque theatre, giving Reeves another opportunity to display his knowledge of show business.

As may be gleaned from the above remarks, neither of these latter two novels is to be taken seriously. In Dead and Done For, Reeves maintains a nice balance between toughness and humor. In the Los Angeles books, however, humor predominates. Some evidence can be found to support Anthony Boucher’s comment that Cellini “is unique among hardboiled private eyes in being admittedly an intellectual—and tough enough to get away with it.”3 Cellini does read books on anthropology and does occasionally make a witty quip, but his methods of detection rarely exhibit any real thought or ingenuity. I tend to agree with Ron Goulart, who says that Cellini Smith is “vaguely incompetent” and that the Reeves novels are “fine examples of the screwball side of the hardboiled school.”4

Of the eleven short stories Robert Reeves wrote for the pulps, seven feature Cellini Smith. All seven are set in Los Angeles, and most of them are mildly comic. The murders Cellini solves often occur in unusual settings: on an airplane in flight (“The Flying Hearse”), in an Army induction center (“Murder A.W.O.L.”), in a sanitarium for alcoholics (“Alcoholics Calamitous”). During World War II, Cellini becomes the security foreman at a Burbank aircraft plant, unhappy that he is frozen on the job and cannot volunteer for military duty.

Reeves created one other series hero, Bookie Barnes, who appears in three amusing short stories. Barnes is a truck driver who investigates crimes he encounters on the highway. He is called “Bookie” not because he makes book but because he attended college and once read a book.

The only non-series short story by Reeves is “Dance Macabre,” a crime story with a nightclub setting. The main character is Firpo Cole, a former pickpocket who does odd jobs in the club. This downbeat tale is not at all typical of Reeves’s work.

The fiction of Robert Reeves is worthy of further discussion, but I have chosen to devote the remainder of this article to an account of his final years—a story that, to my knowledge, has never been told. Despite an extensive research effort, this account is incomplete. Perhaps there are TAD readers who can provide additional facts.

On July 22, 1942, a spectacled, balding, thirty-year-old bachelor named Robert Reeves enlisted in the United States Army. After basic training, Private Reeves returned to Los Angeles to work at the recruiting and induction center. Later he was assigned to the Army Air Corps, serving in the 500th Bombardment Squadron of the 345th Bombardment Group.

While in the service, Reeves continued to write. In the years 1943 to 1945, he had one novel—Cellini Smith: Detective—and three short stories published. On the dust jacket of the novel, he mused about the postwar years:

Ambitions and aspirations after the war is over? It is difficult to say. I know one writer who wants to go to Tibet on a donkey, preferably in the company of Jane Wyatt, and another who wants to have his ashes scattered over the M.G.M. lot from a P-38. My ambition is to march down Unter Den Linden and then get a thirty-foot twin-screw boat strictly for fishing purposes.

But Reeves did not celebrate the Allied victory in Berlin, nor did he fulfill the dream of owning a powerboat.

His unit, the 500th Bomb Squadron, flew B-25 medium bombers on combat missions in the South Pacific from June 1943 to the end of the war. The squadron was stationed on New Guinea, Biak, Leyte, and other Pacific islands. By the summer of 1945, it was flying from Clark Field on the Philippine island of Luzon. The Japanese in the Philippines had been defeated, but B-25s were carrying out sorties over Formosa and night attacks on Japanese shipping.

I have been unable to establish whether Reeves flew combat missions or performed duties on the ground, but official records show that he died on July 11, 1945, only a month before the war ended. At the time of his death, Reeves held the rank of captain. His body was buried in foreign soil and re-interred, in 1950, at Fort McPherson National Cemetery near North Platte, Nebraska—far from the cities of New York and Los Angeles where he had spent most of his life. The fact that Reeves and four other GIs were buried in a common grave may indicate they died together in a plane crash.

Although now virtually forgotten, Robert Reeves was a talented mystery novelist and an important Black Mask writer. His untimely death cut short a career which had the potential of becoming a notable one.

Notes

  1. Anthony Boucher, Introduction to Come Out Killing by Robert Reeves (New York: Mercury, 1953), p. 4.
  2. “Behind the Black Mask” (department), Black Mask, October 1940, pp. 44-45.
  3. Boucher, p. 4.
  4. Ron Goulart, ed., “An Informal Reading List,” in The Hardboiled Dicks (Los Angeles: Sherbourne, 1965), p. 196.

Robert Reeves: A Checklist

The three listed novels feature Cellini Smith.

Novels:

  • Dead and Done For. Knopf, 1939; Ryerson (Toronto), 1939; Cassell (London), 1940; Grosset & Dunlap, 1941. Also published as Pas folle, la guepe! trans. Jacques David and Henri Robillot, Gallimard (Paris), 1951.
  • No Love Lost. Holt, 1941; Oxford (Toronto), 1941. Also published as Come Out Killing, Mercury pb, 1953. (An earlier, shorter version serialized as “Dog Eat Dog” in Black Mask, September–November 1940.)
  • Cellini Smith: Detective. Houghton, 1943; Allen (Toronto), 1943; Pony pb, 1946. Also reprinted in Thrilling Mystery Novel Magazine, Jan. 1946.

Stories in Black Mask:

  • “The Flying Hearse” (March 1941; Cellini Smith)
  • “Dance Macabre” (April 1941)
  • “The Cat with the Headache” (June 1941; Cellini Smith)
  • “Murder in High Gear” (August 1941; Bookie Barnes)
  • “Bail Bait” (January 1942; Cellini Smith)
  • “A Taste for Murder” (November 1942; Cellini Smith)
  • “Murder A.W.O.L.” (November 1944; Cellini Smith)
  • “Blood, Sweat and Biers” (January 1945; Cellini Smith)
  • “Alcoholics Calamitous” (September 1945; Cellini Smith)

Stories in Dime Detective:

  • “Over a Barrel” (March 1942; Bookie Barnes)
  • “Murder Without Death” (June 1942; Bookie Barnes)

Authored by John L. Apostolou. Copyright © 1985 by John Apostolou. Reprinted by permission of the author. Article originally appeared in The Armchair Detective (Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring 1985).

Norbert Davis: Profile of a Pulp Writer

For his anthology of Black Mask stories, The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, Joseph T. Shaw wrote some introductory material that did not appear in the book. His unpublished preface to the story “Red Goose” reads:

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. His sense of humor is prodigious and, as far as we know, never got him into serious trouble….

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.”1

Anyone familiar with the stories or novels of Norbert Davis would tend to agree with Shaw’s picture of the author as an easy-going optimist. The truth, however, is that Davis—like many humorists and comedians—had a serious, perhaps even troubled, side to his character. It would seem that Shaw knew Davis the writer, not Davis the man.

Several years ago, I conducted a lengthy copyright search that resulted in my gaining extensive information on the life of Norbert Davis. Although the project I had been pursuing was eventually dropped, a thick file of correspondence and documents remains in my possession. These materials plus some more recent research form the basis for this article.2

I. The Beginnings

Norbert Harrison Davis was born on April 18, 1909, in Morrison, Illinois. His parents were Robert and Euphemia Davis, and his mother’s maiden name was Harrison. His family was proud of its relationship, through an ancestor named Jeanie Burns, to the Scottish poet Robert Burns. By 1909, there were so many male relatives named Robert in the family that Mr. and Mrs. Davis decided to make a small break with tradition and give their son the different, though similar, name of Norbert.

Davis referred to Norbert as his “fancy first name.” It appears to have caused him some pain and embarrassment during his childhood years. “I considered Norbert not only ersatz but slightly sissy,”3 he later confessed. Although he came to accept the name in adult life, he was usually called Bert by his friends.

Davis grew up in Morrison, a small city in a farming district of northern Illinois.4 He grew to the height of six foot five, almost a foot taller than the average American male in the nineteen-twenties. By the end of that decade, he had moved, along with thousands of other Midwesterners, to Southern California. Of his situation in 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression, 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.

I laid them away in short stories, novelettes, and novels in seven installments. About 80,000 corpses later, I found myself sitting on the front steps of Stanford with an A.B. in one hand, and an LL.D. in the other, and no job in sight. So I went on killing people.5

Responding to a request for background information made by Joseph Shaw in 1946, Davis produced a somewhat different version of his beginnings as a writer:

All my English instructors were completely unimpressed with my literary effort, but I had a Public Speaking professor who told me that what I said in my mumbling and bumbling manner was often quite interesting in a nonsensical way and why didn’t I try writing some of it. So I did. He invariably told me it was wonderful and would positively sell for thousands of dollars. Finally an editor I had been bombarding wrote me, somewhat plaintively, and asked me why I didn’t read his magazine and figure out something that there might be some remote possibility of him using. That was a new idea to me, but I was willing to try it. I sold him the next story I wrote. About that time I discovered Black Mask, and it became my bible, as it did many many other writers who were beginning about then. You can picture me writing “Red Goose” in a college rooming house between bouts with Blackstone and Coke and other legal luminaries while my roommates read over my shoulder and alternately applauded and viewed with alarm. Law students are inclined—and no wonder—to be pessimistic, and it was predicted that you would not even read the story, that if you did you wouldn’t like it, and that even if you did like it you wouldn’t buy it, and by one ultra-cynic, that if you did buy it the check would bounce. As is evident, none of these dire prophecies came to pass.6

By 1934, the year he received his law degree, Davis was selling regularly to the pulp market. He was so busy writing stories that he never bothered to take the bar exam. I cannot identify his first published story, but his first story in Black Mask was “Reform Racket” in the June 1932 issue.

Shaw, who like his writers tall, once published a list of Black Mask writers who were over six feet. He was no doubt pleased with Davis’s great height, but only five stories by Davis were printed in the magazine during the years that Shaw was its editor. In his book, Cheap Thrills: An Informal History of the Pulps, Ron Goulart indicates, by quoting an unnamed friend of Davis, that Shaw found Davis’s work too whimsical to fit into the action pattern of Black Mask.7

II. Los Angeles and the Fictioneers

Norbert Davis lived in the Los Angeles area during most of his writing career. He associated with other pulp writers and was a member of the Fictioneers, a writers’ club founded by W.T. Ballard and Cleve Adams. The group of about twenty-five members met once a month in the Nikabob Cafe at 875 South Western Avenue in Los Angeles. The meetings were informal and their real purpose, Ballard recalls, “was to get comfortably drunk and then en masse attend one of the local burlesque theatres.”8

The meetings, however, were not mere social functions. The Fictioneers was a pulp oriented group, and Ballard says that:

One of the things that held it together was that most of us were working in the same markets. In the east there was a lot of backbiting among competitors, but in Hollywood because we were three thousand miles from our markets, we clung together, passing on any information which might help the other fellow.9

In an interview published in The Armchair Detective, Ballard spoke about the lifestyle of pulp writers in Los Angeles during the thirties and forties: “We worked hard, played hard, lived modestly, drank but few to excess, gambled some when we had extra cash. Most of our friends were other writers.”10

Davis and W.T. Ballard, better known today as western novelist Todhunter Ballard, were good friends who did some writing in collaboration. Using the joint pseudonym of Harrison Hunt, which was derived from their middle names, they wrote the novel Murder Picks the Jury. They also collaborated on a short story, not a mystery, for the Saturday Evening Post.11

Raymond Chandler attended several meetings of the Fictioneers. He and Davis were acquainted, but not close friends. For a time in the fall of 1940, they were neighbors, living a few doors apart on San Vincente Boulevard in Santa Monica. Both were represented by New York agent Sydney A. Sanders.

Chandler, the older and more intellectual of the two, respected Davis’s talent. When Chandler was studying pulp fiction, prior to his first sale to Black Mask, he read and admired Davis’s early stories. Years later he recommended a story by Davis, “Kansas City Flash,” for inclusion in James Sandoe’s anthology Murder: Plain and Fanciful. The story was one of a group selected by Chandler as being “noteworthy and characteristic of the most vigorous days” of Black Mask.12

Davis maintained a good relationship with member of his family, many of whom lived in Southern California. His first novel was dedicated to his mother; and the second, to his aunt, Jeanette Harrison, a physician who had a practice in Los Angeles for many years.

Davis was married as a young man, but the union did not last long. Some years later, he married again. His second wife, an attractive woman, had the maiden name of Nancy Kirkwood Crane. She was a writer from the East, who had a child, a son, from a previous marriage.

III. Flogging the Typewriter

Norbert Davis was a prolific writer of pulp fiction. Besides detective and mystery stories, he wrote love stories, adventure stories, war stories and even westerns. In fact, his only sale to Hollywood was a western story entitled “A Gunsmoke Case for Major Cain,” which became a movie, starring Wild Bill Elliot, called Hands Across the Rockies (1941).

Since the going rate was one or two cents a word, a pulp writer had to produce dozens of stories and several hundred thousand words a year. Some authors, Robert Leslie Bellem, Lester Dent, Walter Gibson and a few others, knocked out as many as a million published words a year. I doubt that Davis reached that figure in any one year, but he came close.

Frank Gruber captures the flavor of the pulp era in his book, The Pulp Jungle. He tells of the rejection and loneliness chat he had to overcome, of having to deal with insensitive and dishonest editors. Recalling a hectic period when he was producing over eight hundred thousand words a year, he writes:

This is an enormous amount of writing, any way you slice it. The manual labor involved in typing eight hundred thousand words a year is considerable. I flogged the typewriter day and night, I flogged it in the early hours of the morning, I beat at it, late at night. I worked Saturdays and Sundays.13

Hal Murray Bonnet has also written about his years as a pulp writer. He gave his reminiscences the pointed title “It was never that much fun!”14

Being represented by Sydney Sanders, a top agent, Davis may have been protected from unscrupulous editors. Still he, like all pulp writers, was under constant pressure to grind out the words. During the thirties and forties, about two hundred short stories and novelettes by Norbert Davis were published in the pulps. He was a frequent contributor to Black Mask, Dime Detective, Double Detective, Detective Fiction Weekly and Argosy.

Judging from the many Davis pulp stories that I have read, he was able to maintain a surprisingly high level of quality. His Black Mask stories are certainly worth reading, with the possible exception of “Reform Racket,” an awkward early effort, and the jingoistic “Bullets Don’t Bother Me.” The Max Latin series in Dime Detective is also recommended.

In addition to his pulp writing, Davis began, in the early forties, to write hardcover novels and slick magazine stories. His first novel, The Mouse in the Mountain, was published in 1943, with the second, Sally’s in the Alley, appearing that same year. These are, in my opinion, two of the funniest detective novels ever written. Bill Pronzini has called them “minor classics.”15

Both books feature the team of Doan and Carstairs, Doan, whose first name is never mentioned, is a short, fat detective and Carstairs—a gigantic Great Dane—is his partner and constant companion. Their hilarious adventures represent a high point in the career of Norbert Davis.

A third Doan and Carstairs novel, Oh, Murder Mine, appeared as an original paperback in 1946. A more conventional work, this novel is not as cleverly plotted or as arousing as the first two. Doan and Carstairs were also featured in two pulp stories.16

Murder Picks the Jury was published in 1947. A crime novel, coauthored by Davis and Ballard using the pseudonym of Harrison Hunt, it has a rather dark tone, reminding me of the work of David Goodis. In a letter to TAD,17 Pronzini states that the novel is based on a shorter and somewhat different story by Davis,18 and that Ballard may have worked alone to produce the longer version.

Davis entered the slick magazine market with two stories appearing simultaneously in issues of Collier’s19 and The Saturday Evening Post,20 both of which were dated January 1, 1944. He went on to write many more slick stories, about four a year. They are not in the mystery genre, but fall, for the most part, in the love story category. Although the stories are not his best work, he and his agent must have been pleased to receive the higher rates that the slicks were paying.

IV. The Davis Style

Phillip Durham writes: “There is a strong feeling for the joy of violence in the stories of Norbert Davis.”21 Herbert Ruhm refers to “the cockeyed gruffness of Davis.”22 Closer to the mark, I believe, is this comment by Ron Goulart; “In Norbert Davis’ work you’ll find a Bogart-like mixing of toughness and humor.”23

The Davis style deserves a more extensive analysis than can be given here, however I shall make a few remarks on the subject. Simply put, Davis wrote in a style that combines the toughness of the Black Mask school with his own brand of screwball humor. Robert Leslie Bellem and Robert Reeves attempted much of the same thing, but Davis’s light touch and solid craftsmanship raises his work to a level that they rarely achieved.

Although humor is always present in Davis’s most characteristic work, he produced a great amount of straight hard-boiled detective fiction. The following excerpt from “Kansas City Flash” is a good example of a Davis action scene:

Mark Hull came out of his daze in time to hook his foot around the thin man’s ankle. The thin man made no effort to catch himself, to ease his fall. He slammed down limply all at once. He moved a little on the rug. His hands went out in front of him, clutching. His feet jerked in short little kicks. He made soft, choking noises. Then he stopped moving suddenly, as though he were a mechanical toy that had run down.24

Davis’s humor could have a subtle, almost sardonic quality as in this description, also from “Kansas City Flash,” of a movie star, Doro Faliv:

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.25

In the whimsical Doan and Carstairs novels, there is some tough writing, but humor is clearly dominant. This passage from The Mouse in the Mountain is a description of a remote Mexican village, Los Altos,26 during World War II:

In Los Altos, there had been a rumor going the rounds that some rich tourists from the United States who were staying at the Hotel Azteca outside Mazalar were going to make a bus trip up to Los Altos. It was obvious, of course, that this rumor wasn’t entirely to be trusted. Anyone with any brains or a radio knew that the people from the United States were too busy raising hell up and down the world to look at scenery except through a bombsight.

But tourists of any brand had been so remarkably scarce of late that the mere hint of their impending arrival was enough to touch off a sort of impromptu fiesta. The inhabitants of Los Altos shook the mothballs out of their serapes, mantillas, rebozas and similar bric-a-brac and prepared to look colorful at the drop of a sombrero. They gathered in the market place with their pigs and chickens and burros and dogs and children, and slept, argued, bellowed, squealed, cackled or urinated on the age-old pavement according to their various natural urges.27

V. Nineteen Forty-Nine

A forgotten pulp writer, Arthur J. Burks, made a profound impression on the young Frank Gruber when he said that the life of a pulp writer was seven years. “At the end of seven years you’ve got to go on to better writing, or go downhill.”28 Davis probably never met Burks, but we can assume that he heard similar statements at the meetings of the Fictioneers. He made his move into “better writing” in the mid-forties, cutting back on his pulp work and concentrating on hardcover novels and slick stories.

The year 1949 was a fateful one for Norbert Davis. It began auspiciously with the publication of a short story by Davis and his wife Nancy in the January 8 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.29 His career, however, was not going well.

Although his stories for the slicks were appearing at a respectable race, the pulp market, still a source of income, was rapidly collapsing as a result of competition from comic books and paperbacks. Black Mask was in decline, and in a few years, pulp magazines would no longer be published.

Davis had not established himself as a successful author of hardcover novels. He had not made the transition to motion picture writing as had Hammett, Chandler, Gruber and others. The possibility that television could provide him with a new market for his work may have not been apparent in 1949.

Early in that year, Davis moved from Southern California to Connecticut. His last California address was in Los Angeles at 1171 South Norton Avenue, about a mile from the Nikabob Cafe where the Fictioneers held their meetings. He had lived in a modest apartment in a multi-unit complex then known as a court.30

It is conceivable that Nancy Davis, being an Easterner, had urged her, husband to make the move to Connecticut. At any rate, they settled in the small community of Salisbury in the northwest corner of the state. The desire to be closer to the New York publishing houses probably was a consideration favoring the move.

That summer, for what reason I do not know, Davis made a trip to Harwich, Massachusetts, The town of Harwich is on Cape Cod. Not far from the Kennedy family compound, it was in this resort setting that Davis, apparently despondent over career difficulties and other problems, took his own life.

According to the death certificate on record at the Massachusetts Division of Vital Statistics, he ran a garden hose from the exhaust pipe of his car to the bathroom of the house in which he was staying. In the early morning of July 28, Norbert Davis died, at the age of forty, from inhalation of exhaust gases. His body was cremated in Boston and burial of the ashes took place at Inglewood Park Cemetery, near Los Angeles, on August 11.

Davis had died without leaving a will. In a document filed two months after his death, his estate was estimated at five hundred dollars.

Why did Norbert Davis end his life? There is no simple answer to that question. Since many of Davis’s friends and relatives are deceased and others who might have pertinent information are unwilling to discuss the matter, arriving at an answer is extremely difficult. Despite an intensive search, I was never able to locate Davis’s widow. I can positively place her in Westport, Connecticut, in September 1949; but there the trail ends.

No doubt, Davis had problems of a personal nature that my research has failed to uncover. Twenty years of flogging the typewriter may have taken a toll on his physical and mental health. Separation from close friends and relatives, most of whom were three thousand miles away in California, probably aggravated his situation. It is possible that he needed the support that these people would normally have provided.

I shall not speculate further on the reasons for Davis’s suicide. My purpose in writing this article was not to answer that question, although it could hardly be ignored, but to help restore Norbert Davis to his rightful place among the major pulp mystery writers and to introduce Davis to a new generation of readers. If interest in his work is generated, perhaps the tough, funny exploits of Max Latin and the screwball adventures of Doan and Carstairs will once again become available to mystery fans.

Notes

  1. Joseph T. Shaw, drafts of Introductory material for The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, Joseph Thompson Shaw Collection, UCLA Research Library, Los Angeles.
  2. I am grateful to many people who kindly provided me with information on Norbert Davis. They include the late Dr. Jeanette Harrison, Mrs. Sydney A. Sanders, Mills Ten Eyck, Jr., of the Authors League of America, and Barbara E. Adams of William Morrow and Company. I also wish to thanks two friends—Tod Johnson and Mitchell Rose—and the staff of the UCLA Special Collections Department for their most helpful assistance.
  3. Quoted in “Keeping Posted” department, The Saturday Evening Post, September 30, 1944, p. 4.
  4. Morrison’s only claim to fame: in May 1874, James Sargent installed a time lock mechanism in the First National Bank of Morrison, the first such installation in the United States.
  5. Quoted in “Keeping Posted,” p. 4.
  6. Quoted in Shaw.
  7. Ron Goulart, Cheap Thrills (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1972), pp. 127–28.
  8. Quoted in Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1976), p. 74
  9. Quoted in MacShane, p. 74.
  10. Quoted in Stephen Mertz, “W.T. Ballard: An Interview,” The Armchair Detective, 12 (Winter 1979), p. 17–18.
  11. Todhunter Ballard and Norbert Davis, “Kelley Makes a Deal,” The Saturday Evening Post, May 17, 1947, pp. 22 et passim.
  12. James Sandoe, ed. Foreword to Murder: Plain and Fanciful (New York: Sheridan House, 1948), p. vii.
  13. Frank Gruber, The Pulp Jungle (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1967), p. 177.
  14. Hal Murray Bonnett, “It was never that much fun!” Xenophile, No. 38 (1978), p. 141.
  15. Quoted in Robert J. Randisi, “An Interview with Bill Pronzini,” The Armchair Detective, 11 (January 1978), p. 48.
  16. Norbert Davis, “Cry Murder!” Flynn’s Detective Fiction, July 1944, pp. 8–27, and “Holocaust House,” a two-part serial in Argosy in 1940.
  17. Bill Pronzini, Letter, The Armchair Detective, 12 (Summer 1979), p. 268.
  18. Norbert Davis, “String Him Up,” Double Detective, February 1938.
  19. Norbert Davis, “A is for Annabelle,” Collier’s, January 1, 1944, pp. 20 et passim.
  20. Norbert Davis, “Get Out and Get Under,” The Saturday Evening Post, January 1, 1944, pp. 16 et passim.
  21. Philip Durham, “The Black Mask School,” in Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, ed. David Madden (Carbondale, Il.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968), p.71.
  22. Herbert Ruhm, ed., Introduction to The Hard-Boiled Detective (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1977), p. xii.
  23. Ron Goulart, ed. Preface to “Don’t Give Your Right Name,” by Norbert Davis, in The Hard-Boiled Dicks (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1965), p. 1.
  24. Norbert Davis, “Kansas City Flash,” Black Mask, March 1933, p. 85.
  25. Ibid
  26. Davis has some fun with names in The Mouse in the Mountain. Los Altos was, and still is, a large apartment-hotel on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Davis also uses Doan (a patent medicine: Doan’s Pills), Carstairs (a brand of liquor), Janet (his aunt’s first name: Jeanette) and Bay City (a fictitious city in Raymond Chandler’s stories). In Oh, Murderer Mine, he uses Bert (his nickname) and T. Ballard Bestwyck (W.T. Ballard).
  27. Norbert Davis, The Mouse in the Mountain (New York: William Morrow, 1943), p. 24.
  28. Quoted in Gruber, p. 29.
  29. Nancy Davis and Norbert Davis, “The Captious Sex,” The Saturday Evening Post, January 8, 1949, pp. 18 et passim.
  30. The apartment complex still stands in what is now a neighborhood mainly populated by blacks, Chicanos and Asian-Americans. The Nikabob was torn down several years ago.

Norbert Davis Checklist

This checklist is limited to Davis’s mystery and detective fiction, specifically his novels and his pulp stories in Black Mask, Detective Fiction Weekly and Dime Detective. For his slick magazine stories, see The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature for the years 1944 to 1949.

The list of novels is, I believe, complete. Of his many pulp stories, however, only those in the above-mentioned magazines are listed. My major source of data was the extensive pulp magazine holdings of the UCLA Research Library, Special Collections Department. Since there are gaps in these holdings, it can be assumed that some stories are missing from the checklist.

For each story that I have actually examined, the name of the main character, usually a detective or a lawyer, is included.

Novels:

  • The Mouse in the Mountain. Morrow, 1943; Grosset & Dunlap, 1944; Rue Morgue Press, 2001. Published as Rendezvous With Fear, Withy Grove Press (London and Manchester), 1944.
    Also published as Dead Little Rich Girl, Handi-Books pb, 1945.
  • Sally’s in the Alley. Morrow, 1943; Boardman (London), 1944; Grosset & Dunlap, 1946.
  • Oh, Murderer Mine. Handi-Books pb, 1946.
  • Murder Picks the Jury, as by Harrison Hunt (joint pseud. with Willis Todhunter Ballard). Curl, 1947; McLeod (Toronto), 1947. Published as A L’estomac! trans. Jacques Papy, Gallimard (Paris), 1951.

Stories in Black Mask:

  • “Reform Racket.” June, 1932 Dan Stiles.
  • “Kansas City Flash.” March, 1933 Mark Hull. Rpt. in Murder: Plain and Fanciful, ed. James Sandoe. Sheridan House, 1948. Also rpt. in The Hard-Boiled Detective, ed. Herbert Ruhm. Vintage pb, 1977.
  • “Red Goose.” February 1934 Ben Shaley. Rpt. in The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, ed. Joseph T. Shaw. Simon & Schuster, 1946; Pocket Books pb, 1952.
  • “The Price of a Dime.” April 1934 Ben Shaley.
  • “Hit and Run.” April 1935 Jake Tait.
  • “Medicine for Murder.” October 1937 Dr. Bruce Gregory.
  • “Murder in Two Parts.” December 1937 Brent.
  • “You’ll Die Laughing.” November 1940 Dave Sly. Rpt. in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, September 1954, as “Do a Dame a Favor?”
  • “Walk Across My Grave.” April 1942 Sheriff Jim Laury. Rpt. in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, November 1953.
  • “Don’t Cry for Me.” May 1942 John Collinsi.
  • “Bullets Don’t Bother Me.” August 1942 Sam Carey.
  • “Beat Me Daddy.” November 1942 Sgt. John Collins.
  • “Name Your Poison.” May 1943 Sgt. John Collins.

Stories in Detective Fiction Weekly:

(In 1943 magazine became a monthly, Flynn’s Detective Fiction.)

  • “Black Death.” May 18th, 1935 Sarr.
  • “The Girl with the Webbed Hand.” August 24th, 1935 Slattery.
  • “Trip to Vienna.” October 19th, 1935
  • “One Man Died.” January 18th, 1936
  • “The Missing Legs.” February 22nd, 1936
  • “Diamond Slippers.” March 14th, 1936 Simon Saxton.
  • “Clues on Crutches.”June 20th, 1936
  • “Public Defender.” June 27th, 1936 Michael.
  • “Murder Harvest.” September 12th, 1936 James Michael.
  • “The Case of the Greedy Guardian.” October 3rd, 1936
  • “5 to 1 Odds on Murder.” February 6th, 1937
  • “Top Hat Killer.” June 26th, 1937
  • “Beauty in the Morgue.” July 31st, 1937 John Mark.
  • “Indian Sign.” September 18th, 1937
  • “Mountain Man.” October 2nd 1937 Saul Jarret.
  • “Devil Down the Chimney.” December 11th, 1937 Dan Crail.
  • “Cat’s Claw.” January 8th, 1938
  • “Murder Buried Deep.” March 12th, 1938
  • “Marriage is Murder.” October 15th, 1938
  • “Ideal for Murder.” February 11th, 1939 Tom Grey
  • “The Lethal Logic.” April 29th, 1939 Prof. Carlson.
  • “A Vote for Murder.” July 15th, 1939 John Gaul.
  • “Mud in Your Eye.” October 14th, 1939 Craig.
  • “Never Say Die.” November 11th, 1939 Les Free.
  • “Cry Murder!” July 1944 Doan.

Stories in Dime Detective:

(All five Max Latin stories appear in The Adventures of Max Latin, Mysterious Press, 1988.)

  • “The Gin Monkey.” January 15th, 1935 Max Clark.
  • “The Devil’s Scalpel.” November 1935 Bill Ray.
  • “Something for the Sweeper.” May 1937 Jones.
  • “Death Sings a Torch-Song.” July 1937 Dennis Lee.
  • “Drop of Doom.” December 1939 Dale.
  • “Murder Down Deep.” February 1940 William Dodd.
  • “Murder in the Red.” April 1940 William Dodd.
  • “This Will Kill You!” August 1940 William Dodd.
  • “Watch Me Kill You!” July 1940 Max Latin.
  • “Come Up and Kill Me Some Time.” October 1941 William Dodd.
  • “Don’t Give Your Right Name.” December 1941 Max Latin. Rpt. in The Hardboiled Dicks, ed.
    on Goulart. Sherbourne Press, 1965; Pocket Books pb, 1967.
  • “Have One on the House.” March 1942 William Dodd.
  • “Give the Devil His Due.” May 1942 Max Latin.
  • “Who Said I Was Dead?” August 1942 William Dodd.
  • “You Bet Your Life.” September 1942 William Dodd.
  • “You Can Die Any Day.” December 1942 Max Latin.
  • “Too Many Have Died.” April 1943 Peter Tracy.
  • “Charity Begins at Homicide.” October 1943 Max Latin.
  • “Take It from Me.” December 1943 William Dodd.

This article was originally published in The Armchair Detective (Vol.15, No.1, 1982) and contains revisions and corrections to the original appearance.

John has been a mystery fan for many years, with major areas of interest being Japanese mystery fiction and the writers of the pulp era. He has written several articles for The Armchair Detective, Deadly Pleasures, Cads, and other fanzines, and is a regular contributor to Mystery & Detective Monthly. He edited, with Martin Greenberg, two anthologies: Murder in Japan (1987) and The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories (1989).

Authored by John L. Apostolou. Copyright © 2001 by John L. Apostolou. Reprinted by permission of the author.