Thursday, May 8, 2014

Sally's in the Alley

by Pa Rock

I have written on the prodigious 1940's pulp master, Norbert Davis, before.  When he graduated from law school at Stanford, young Davis was already making so much money cranking out stories for the pulp magazines like Dime Detective, Double Detective, Detective Fiction Weekly, and Black Mask, that he couldn't be bothered to even take the bar exam.   He eventually graduated to "slick" publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, but his fiction did not generate the same demand in the upscale magazines as it had in the pulps.  Norbert Davis took his own life at the young age of forty.

During Davis's short lifetime he wrote pounds of short stories, like the five involving a "private inquiry agent" named Max Latin which have been previously noted in this space.  But Davis also tried his hand at being a novelist, albeit briefly.  The entire canon of Norbert Davis novels totals only four, with the first two being written in 1943 at the height of World War II, and the final two in 1946 shortly after the war's end.

The first three Davis novels (The Mouse in the Mountain, Sally's in the Alley, and Oh, Murder Mine) feature a plump Los Angeles detective named Doan and his sidekick, Carstairs.  The usually grumpy Carstairs also happens to be a Great Dane, a dog of such size that Doan believes he might belong to a different species altogether.   Doan won Carstairs in a crap game, though he later came to the conclusion that he might have actually lost that game and just didn't realize it at the time.

Carstairs is not a talking animal, but through his actions he says plenty.  He likes to sleep, does not like to be disturbed, and is offended by people imbibing alcohol - especially his master.  Carstairs' enormous size is often a controlling factor in the situations that arise throughout his adventures with Doan.

I have just finished Sally's in the Alley, the middle book in the Doan/Carstairs trilogy.   (There are also two Davis short stories featuring the  detective and his dog - or, perhaps more accurately, the dog and his detective.)    The novel was contemporary at the time it was written, focusing on the war effort on the home front, and populated with an oddball assortment of patriots, spies, government agents, and desert misfits.  It is one part hard-boiled detective fiction, and two parts rapid-fire farce, an odd mixture that seems to work.  The story rolls right along, the action is at times brutal, and zippy one-liners keep the laughs coming.

Sally's in the Alley provides an insight into a unique time in American history, even if it is partially from a canine perspective.   It's not great literature, but it's not bad.

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