Friday, March 19, 2010

The Book You Have to Read: “The Adventures of Max Latin,” by Norbert Davis

(Editor’s note: This is the 86th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Ed Lin, author of the much-praised novels Waylaid (2002) and This Is a Bust (2007). Lin, who is of Taiwanese and Chinese descent, is the first author to win two Members’ Choice Awards in the Asian American Literary Awards. His next book, Snakes Can’t Run--the sequel to This Is a Bust--will be published by Minotaur Books early next month.)

Norbert Davis is ubiquitous in pulp-fiction anthologies, and his three novels about Carstairs (a Great Dane) and Doan (a schlubby detective) were brought back into print earlier this decade by Rue Morgue Press.

But what remains in print by Davis only hints at his unique ability to blend zany humor with the hard-boiled. I’ve read that when Davis was contributing to Black Mask, his funny bone stuck in the craw of legendary editor Joseph T. “Cap” Shaw--hence the low number of stories he managed to publish in that now-famous journal.

It was only when Davis wrote for Dime Detective that he fully realized his unique vision. He did his best work in the Max Latin stories, which were originally published in the 1940s, and were collected in a 1988 Mysterious Press volume called The Adventures of Max Latin.

Every character in those tales has a dual identity of some sort. Max Latin seems to be a crook who owns a restaurant. Guiterrez seems to be a chef who hates his customers for shoveling their food down instead of savoring it (“They are all pigs”). Dick seems to be an unusually efficient waiter who wears “an apron the general size and proportions of a parachute.”

But Max is also a screwball private eye, tall and thin with “catlike” green eyes and feline prowess. Bullets aimed his way do little but knock his hat off his head. Guiterrez and Dick provide support services, backing up alibis and waylaying cops and crooks who come after Latin. Ask Dick if he expects his boss in anytime soon and this is what you’ll hear:
“Latin? Oh, he’s probably off on a bat. He gets drunk every night that he don’t load himself up on marihuana. A very low character, that Latin.”
There are only five Max Latin yarns in existence, and even though they read pretty quickly, you will want to take your time with them. Why? Because as soon as you finish one, you’ll want to begin another.

Comedic jousting and hyped-up murder hijinks are themes bred to spin out of control. But in Davis’ infallible hands, Max Latin can keep up his end of the repartee without dulling his rough edge.
“You wanted to consult me?” Latin said to Mrs. Farmer.

She nodded eagerly. “Yes, Mr. Latin, you wouldn’t hesitate to kill a person, would you?”

“Depends on who he is,” said Latin, “and on how long you want me to hesitate.”

“But that’s so wrong! Oh, that’s a terrible attitude for
you to take!”

“Nope,” said Latin. “I know lots of people who need killing.”
This seems like a perfect setup for one of those “Don’t call me ‘Shirley’” jokes. And surely, the Max Latin stories are predecessors of the Naked Gun series of movies. Both weave together madcap laughs with murder. But while Leslie Nielsen’s Frank Drebin is clueless, Max Latin is always in the know, even if he is sometimes outplayed before regaining the upper hand in the end. Also, while Drebin falls for the charms of Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley), Latin demonstrates no weakness for dames.

The only woman Latin goes for is Lady Liberty. Because these stories were written and published while World War II was raging, Davis makes numerous references to fighting the Axis powers. Latin has a curious handicap that renders him unfit for military service, but he tries to bribe his way in.

Apart from bribery and his propensity for getting arrested on charges that are later dropped, Latin’s only true vice is the top-shelf brandy that Dick the waiter is always ready to serve him. There is the customary comic touch of producing the glasses from under his huge apron while pulling out the cork of the bottle with his teeth.

As Latin takes all of his meals at Guiterrez’s restaurant, in the booth that he has also commandeered as his business office, he must often choose between reaching for another glass of brandy or for coffee. Brandy’s for laughs. Coffee’s for action. Either way, you, the reader, are richly rewarded.

I am far from the only Max Latin fan out there. Used copies of The Adventures of Max Latin (with an introduction by John D. MacDonald) typically go for $30 and up, which is amazing for a trade paperback published 22 years ago. The original issues of Dime Detective in which the Max Latin stories appeared regularly fetch $50 or more on eBay. You can bet I bid on them. Like the other Norbert Davis fans, I’m just trying to get closer to the magic.

READ MORE:Hard-boiled Wit: Ludwig Wittgenstein and Norbert Davis,” by Josef Hoffmann (Mystery*File).


Richard Robinson said...

This looks great. Seems to me I read some Davis, stories about Norgil the Magician. but not this. I'll look for it!

Ed Gorman said...

This is one of my favorite pulp collections. Norbert Davis was a fine writer; I mean if he was good enough for Ludwig Wittgenstein who am I to argue? These stories are especially strong. As is the introduction by John D. MacDonald in which he talks about wanting to t improve on one of Davis' opening lines (in a story not included here) but failing when he tried it. JDM also talks about his own time in the pulps and how Davis, like many others, seemed to get lost when he graduated to the slicks. Davis is a major treat.

Nikki Thornton said...

Liked your post. Someday I hope to write a book where the royalties will pay for the copies I give away.