Saturday, December 05, 2009

Norbert Davis' hard-boiled slapstick

I like to stick to my topic — crime fiction from outside the United States — so I was apprehensive about this post's subject, an American story by an American author. But the story appeared seventy-two years ago and, as Leslie P. Hartley reminded us, the past is a foreign country. Besides, the story is short, it's funny in some interesting ways, and you can read it free here.

Norbert Davis wrote novels with a dog as co-protagonist. He wrote stories set largely in a restaurant, and he created characters named Bail Bond Dodd and J.P. Jones (the J.P. stands for "Just Plain." That's the man's name — Just Plain Jones.) Yet despite those slapstick touches, and plots, dialogue and action to match, the stories work as hard-boiled tales. Little touches in some of the stories may even reflect the grimness of the Great Depression; he published his first stories in the early 1930s.

Here's the opening sentence of "Something for the Sweeper":
"Jones limped slowly along, his rubbers making an irregular squeak-squish sound on the wet cement of the sidewalk."
Is that slapstick (squish-squish), or is it gritty urban realism? In Davis, it's both. When you get to the end of this tale of murder and deception, you'll find the story has come full circle.

Find more free Norbert Davis online here, including his three man-and-dog novels featuring Doan and Carstairs, the former a deceptively harmless-seeming detecive, the latter a Great Dane Doan won in a card game. And read more about Davis at the Thrilling Detective Web site.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

I have meant to try one of these since a recommendation on forgotten books. Thanks for the reminder. Maybe sometime this winter, you would write another one for me?

December 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Has someone (me, perhaps?) done a forgotten books recommendation on Frank McAuliffe?

December 05, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I've read quite a few of Davis's short stories as well as two of his novels, "Mouse in the Mountain" and "Sally's in the Alley." Of the ss's I guess I'd say the Max Latin series is the best of a fair bunch. Maybe add "The Price of a Dime" and "Red Goose" to the list (both appeared in Black Mask in the 1930s).

However, I find his blend of slapstick and hard-boiled fiction an awkward combination, neither fish nor fowl, and really can't recommend him to people wanting to read the second-tier Black Mask writers.

A number of 1940s writers tried to imitate Raymond Chandler's humor and most, like Norbert, tended to go overboard when they did.

December 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like "The Price of a Dime," and I'd likely agree with you on the Max Latin stories. I also liked the Bail Bond Dodd story I read in, if recall correctly, The Big Book of Pulps.

Davis' blend of slapstick and hard-boiled works best when he achieves a kind of comic world-weariness. The purely comic bits do sometimes lead an uneasy coexistence with the action. I'm not the hugest Doan & Carstairs fan, but the wackiness does set off some of the surprisingly harsh violence nicely.

December 07, 2009  

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