Sunday, June 03, 2012

Dead Man's Brand - Norbert Davis

I first encountered the work of Norbert Davis in Ron Goulart's anthology THE HARDBOILED DICKS (one of the most important and influential anthologies of the past fifty years, if you ask me), which included a story featuring Davis's private eye character Max Latin, "Don't Give Your Right Name". Great stuff, and since then I've read many other pulp mystery stories by Davis. He's probably best known for his trio of novels featuring a PI named Doan and a Great Dane known as Carstairs. I have these but haven't gotten around to reading them yet.

I knew Davis had written other things besides mysteries, but I wasn't really aware he had done Westerns until Tom Roberts of Black Dog Books published DEAD MAN'S BRAND, a collection of eight of Davis's stories from various Western pulps. (And that's Tom's artwork on the cover, by the way.) As you might expect if you're familiar with Davis's work, they're all top-notch yarns.

"A Gunsmoke Case for Major Cain" (DIME WESTERN, October 1940) is a frontier legal thriller with an exciting courtroom scene and a neat twist. It was also Davis's lone film sale, serving as the basis for the Wild Bill Elliott vehicle HANDS ACROSS THE ROCKIES, as detailed by Bill Pronzini in his introduction and Ed Hulse in his afterword. "Their Guardian From Hell" (STAR WESTERN, March 1937) is a hardboiled tale featuring a self-loathing gunman who protects a family of settlers from the villains out to steal their land. In "Leetown's One-Man Army" (STAR WESTERN, October 1941), a drifter named California Tracy with a score of his own to settle finds himself in the middle of a war between a cattle baron and some sodbusters, a traditional plot that Davis enlivens with some fine writing and a nice twist. The title story, "Dead Man's Brand", is from the November 1942 issue of STAR WESTERN. In it, drifting cowboy Dave Tully tries to claim an inheritance and finds himself framed for a murder: his own. "The Gunsmoke Banker Rides In" (STAR WESTERN, July 1942) is another well-plotted Western mystery about a banker who's surprisingly fast with a pair of .41 caliber derringers.

This volume also includes three stories from earlier in Davis's career. "Death Creeps" (ACTION STORIES, December 1935) finds troubleshooter Dave Silver being hired to find the Creeper, a mysterious murderer who kills from the darkness. In "Sign of the Sidewinder" (WESTERN ACES, June 1935), Tom Band, an American cowboy framed for a murder he didn't commit, is broken out of a Mexican prison to carry out a mission of vengeance for his benefactor. This is my favorite story in the collection, a great noir adventure yarn. Tom Band returns in the almost as good "Boot-Hill Bait" (WESTERN ACES, November 1935), which finds him on the trail of a fortune in outlaw loot. If there are any more Tom Band stories, I'd love to read them.

In all of these stories, Davis's smooth prose is a joy to read, and he handles humor, emotional torment, and lightning-paced action all with equal ease and effectiveness. These are simply some of the best-written Western tales you'll ever read, and DEAD MAN'S BRAND is a great collection. It gets my highest recommendation.


Walker Martin said...

I definitely agree about Goulart's HARDBOILED DICKS anthology. When I first read it in the late 1960's, I was collecting only the SF pulps. Goulart's book made me aware that it was possible to collect other pulps like detective, western, adventure. I wrote him a fan letter and he sold me his detective pulps that he used for his research on the collection.

DEAD MAN'S BRAND is another collection that I like, in fact I even reviewed it on Black Dog Books is publishing some excellent and unusual books. For instance, they just published a collection of Fred Nebel stories; not his detective work but his adventure fiction.

Charles Gramlich said...

Gotta check this out.

michael said...

Steve M also gave this a very good review that can be found on westernfictionreview. com. I am waiting for Blackdog to make this available as an Ebook.

Chap O'Keefe said...

I, too, first encountered Norbert Davis in the late '60s via the influential Goulart anthology. A very under-rated, under-recognized writer. Maybe it had something to do with his early death, which was re-recorded in the intro piece to the Black Horse Extra online magazine for December 2010 ... along with a comment by Davis on pulp fiction. The circumstances of its making were more than enough to endear Davis's fiction to most readers of this blog!

Rittster said...

Norbert Davis is one of my top five favorite writers. I think SALLY'S IN THE ALLEY, with Doan and Carstairs, is his best book. THE MOUSE IN THE MOUNTAIN is a close second.I'm aware of the Max Latin volume, and of other anthologies which a single story, but I'd love to see a hefty volume (or volumes)reprinting pages and pages of his short stories.

Walker Martin said...

If you go to and type in Norbert Davis and Wittgenstein, you will get a hit on the Mystery File article about how one of the great 20th century philosophers was a fan of Norbert Davis. He loved his writing.

Altus Press has plans to reprint alot of Norbert Davis.

Anonymous said...

You definitely need to read those Doan & Carstairs books. They are a lot of fun and great when you need to lighten your mood.

Jeff M.

Tom Roberts said...

Thanks for the write-up, James. I'm sure followers will appreciate your insight about these fine Western tales by Norbert Davis.

Sadly, there appear to be no further adventures of Tom Band.

Tom Robert
Black Dog books