Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Max Latin, Private Inquiry Agent

by Pa Rock
Pulp Fan

Nobert Davis was a pulp fiction master who wrote hard-boiled crime stories and novels, often with a humorous edge, in the 1930's and 1940's.  He eventually graduated to the "slicks" where he had some tamer work published in The Saturday Evening Post and other more reputable outlets before dying by his own hand in 1949 at the young age of forty.

One of Davis's signature creations was a fictional detective by the name of Max Latin.  Latin, who referred to himself as a "private inquiry agent" was featured in only five stories, all of which ran in the pulp magazine, Dime Detective, during the World War II years of the early 1940's.  I recently came across a collection of those stories entitled The Complete Cases of Max Latin, a volume which I enjoyed immensely.

Max Latin was unique as a private investigator in several respects.   He purported to be ethically challenged and stated a readiness to help clients in criminal endeavors - though, to his favor, there were no instances in the stories of him actually behaving in a criminal manner.  He had an arrest record of numerous incidents where he was locked up in the Los Angeles jail system, but he was always released for lack of evidence.  Latin even bragged about having his own specific cell at the jail.

One of Latin's more unique aspects, however, was his office.  He operated out of a loud and raucous restaurant in Los Angeles called Guiterrez's where he had his own special booth, replete with a telephone jack and a microphone for taping conversations and broadcasting some of his meetings to witnesses who were standing by in the kitchen.  Anyone who wanted to see Max Latin had to join him in his booth at the restaurant, a place where the hospitality wasn't always hospitable.

Guiterrez's was managed by the chef, a fellow named Guiterrez, who was a wonderful cook - so good that the upper crust of Los Angeles society flocked to the somewhat seedy establishment to enjoy his splendid meals.  But Guiterrez  had a temper and would often say exactly what was on his mind - and sometimes refused to serve certain customers.  In one instance he became angry with a customer and gave his custom-prepared steak to a derelict whom he discovered dumpster-diving in the alley behind the restaurant.  Although Guiterrez prepared gourmet meals for Latin, he always had a set of disparaging remarks ready to keep the detective grounded in reality.

The other employee fixture-of-note at the restaurant was Dick, the head waiter.  Dick was short and skinny with an apron that he was able to wrap around himself several times.  Dick kept an amazing amount of things beneath his apron, including a bottle of Latin's favorite brandy and what seemed to be an unlimited supply of glasses.   He was always quick remind Latin of how expensive the brandy was and to caution him not to be sharing it with his clients.

It became apparent in the second or third story of this collection that one of the reasons Guiterrez and Dick were so tolerant and protective of Max Latin was that he was actually the owner of the restaurant.

Norbert Davis was a masterful crime-plotter who created highly memorable characters and settings.  He was also a quick wit who could spit out snappy one-liners faster than bullets spraying from a gangster's machine gun.  The work of Norbert Davis formed an important contribution to the American canon of crime fiction, but the contribution was cut tragically short by his early demise.  The author's death also ended the career of Max Latin, a private inquiry agent with a promising future.

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