Pulp Pages spotlights the best of hardboiled and noir fiction of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s.
“The streets were dark with something more than night.” - Raymond Chandler
When the going gets tough, the tough get chilblains: “Jones limped up to the high counter and leaned on it with his elbow, looking as mysterious and hard-boiled as possible in view of the fact that his feet were hurting him more and more all the time.”
The characterization of the unassuming and self-deprecating detective in Norbert Davis’ short story “Something for the Sweeper” – as a proverbial knight whose armor has lost a bit of its shine — is typical of the amusing mysteries of this unsung but prolific and versatile writer.
Though he was adept in writing darker war stories, adventure tales, and westerns, it was the distinctively droll mystery and detective stories submitted to the pulp magazines in the 1930s and 1940s that set Davis apart. The no-nonsense Black Mask published Davis’ more noirish and violent pieces, but his more whimsical and laugh-out-loud efforts found a home with other pulp pubs such as Dime Detective.
As the Illinois-born Davis found success with ever-increasing outlets for his short stories, he skipped out on taking the bar exam after finishing law school at Stanford. Instead, he moved to Los Angeles, for a time living a few doors down from Raymond Chandler, who was a big booster of this wit-steeped word-slinger. Davis joined up with other pulp masters to form a writer’s group called the Fictioneers, and got cracking on the wisecracks while sharpening the sardonic slang and simile-stamped cynicism that is part of the curriculum in the school of hardboiled knocks.
But far from being a parodic take on tough-guy lit, Davis’ case-hardened but breezy style carried more than enough substance in plot, theme, and characterization. In addition to a couple of magazine features, the Bail Bond Dodd series and the Max Latin novellas, Davis’ humor fueled, starting in 1943, three hardcover novels: Mouse In The Mountain, Sally’s In The Alley, and Oh, Murder Mine. Unfortunately, disappointing sales may have contributed to his despondency over his career before his suicide in 1949.
Norbert Davis lives on, however, in his many writings — the nuanced, near-noir quirkiness, too, as attested to indeed in “Something For The Sweeper,” from 1937. After all, our protagonist P.I. Is named “just plain Jones, J.P. Jones." "See," he goes on, "my mother had a lot of kids, and she always thought she ought to give them something fancy in the way of first names on account of there being lots of Joneses around.” As you might guess, after names such as Horatius, Alvimina, and Evangeline were depleted, mom’s imagination conked out and apathy kicked in for the twelfth child, our hapless hero.
Of course, Jones has to explain that too may times than he cares to explain, including on his current case, which sounds simple enough – he’s been hired to find a man, Hendrick Boone, who’s inherited a lot of money from his dead and long-estranged brother. His first obstacle comes when he goes to Boone's house and finds only his wife and daughter, both of whom seem a little defensive and jumpy before they even know what they‘re defensive and jumpy about.
"Oh, but he didn’t do it!” Mrs. Boone declares, preemptively. “Really he didn’t … He couldn’t have, you see. He’s been in the hospital, and his condition is very serious, really it is, and he couldn’t have done it.” The interrogation of sorts continues:
- 'Done what?' said Jones.
She moved her hands a little, helplessly. 'Well — whatever you think he did. Was it — windows again?'
'Windows?' Jones asked.
'I mean, did you think he broke some windows, like he usually does?'
'He makes a habit of breaking windows?'
She nodded. 'Oh yes. But only plate glass ones.'
'Particular, huh? What does he break windows for?'
Her sallow face flushed slightly. 'He sees his image. You know, his reflection. And he thinks he’s following himself again. He thinks he is spying on himself. And so he breaks the windows.'
'Well, maybe it’s a good idea.' said Jones. 'Is he ever troubled with pink elephants?'
Things eventually get straightened out, and we learn that a tipsy Mr. Boone had had a falling out years ago with his rich brother when he broke the plate glass window in his brother’s living room. Then the daughter, Sarah, enters the picture, a little too unabashedly inquisitive about what will happen when the old man quickly “drinks himself to death” with the money. When she learns that the income will go to her mother, she says, “It would, hey? That’s something that needs a little thinking about.”
Not just an off-hand remark, off course, and it is at this point that Davis starts mixing a little murder with his Thurber-esque tendencies. As Jones heads out to the hospital to see Mr. Boone, the wheels are set in motion for an unpredictably convoluted and quite entertaining series of twists and turns, gumshoeing and sleuthing, mistaken identities, and killers lurking in the shadows.
And then along came Jones, cracking wise and cracking another case…