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A MADCAP MURDER MYSTERY
on June 9, 2010
Unfortunately, Norbert Davis, the author of OH,MURDER MINE, is not as well known as other pulp fiction writers of the 1940's for three reasons. First, his stories encompassed a wide array of genres, so he never built a reputation as a practitioner of a specific type (e.g. detective, SF, etc.) . Second, his detective stories included a strain of humor which was highly unusual for the period, a hard boiled detective story was not supposed to be funny. Third, he committed suicide at age 40, supposedly after he had been diagnosed with cancer. Thus, his potential literary legacy was truncated. However, among his peers he was regarded as in a class with the best writers of the era, including Hammett and McDonald. He graduated from Stanford with a law degree, but never took the bar exam - choosing instead to pursue a career which he had already established by being published while still in college, usually being paid at the going rate of a penny a word. Hopefully, the advent of ebooks and specialized small presses will allow many more potential fans to enjoy his works and dog lovers will be irresistably drawn to Carstairs' collaborations with Doan.
This is the last of Davis' stories featuring the hardboiled detective DOAN and his Sidekick CARSTAIRS, a Great Dane the size of a Shetland Pony. It was published in 1946, and after greatly enjoying the few stories about the duo which were published before Davis' suicide, I feel a sense of loss that the duo's adventures were prematurely ended by Davis' death. Given the obviously boundless limits of Davis' imagination and his keen powers of observation regarding human frailties, the duo easily could have become a staple of the genre.
This story takes place on a college campus, where we first meet Melissa Gregory, an anthropolgy instructor at Breckenridge University. She soon has a confrontation Eric Trent, a meterologist who has just joined the faculty, and for whom Doan is acting as bodyguard. Why? You'll have to read the story to discover the answer. They and Melissa's fellow faculty member and boyfriend Frank Ames are the only four relatively normal individuals in a book populated with such characters as among others Professor Sly-Myrick (a refugee from the Gestapo), Heloise of Hollywood (who "radiated as much warmth as a diamond"), President T. Ballard Bestwyck, the Aldrich twins, Beulah Porter Cowys, Deputy Humphrey (no one is this dumb), Herbert "Big Tub" Tremaine, Bumbershoot Bennie, and Sebastian Rodriguez y Ruiz. In addition, Handsome Lover Boy got his name is integral to the plot. Many of these individuals are caricatures rather than characters, but it is all in fun - unless they happen to get killed as several do.
Davis' plot involves at least as much misdirection as in the earlier stories, but in this one it seemed almost incidental to his parody of campus life and the convoluted backstories of his characters. At first it was a letdown after reading the earlier stories which were structured more as detective procedurals, but after I realized it was simply a lighthearted episode of the adventures of Doan and Carstairs allowing Davis to poke fun at the culture of the period I was able to just smile and enjoy it.
A lot of the humor in this episode is much more slapstick than in the previous stories, at times could have sen this Carstairs being a model for Marmaduke as detective. Relative to the other books in the series, I found it difficult to rate this book, so depending on your interests you might rate it very differently than I did. My rating is composed of the following elements -
Humor - 5 stars
Carstairs (for dog lovers)- 5 star quality but not enough face time, he and Doan form a good team
Parody of Campus Politics - 5 stars
Weird Characters - 5 Stars
Plot - probably 4 stars if you like misdirection
Romance- an over the top 3 stars, no suspense here
Narrative - 3 stars
So, read this if you want to have fun for a couple of hours! And, of course, Carstairs is his usual superior self and he and Doan once again make an unstoppable duo.
Tucker Andersen 6/9/2010