Created by Norbert Davis
“He was short and a little on the plump side, and he had a chubby, pink face and a smile as innocent and appealing as a baby’s. He looked like a very nice, pleasant sort of person, and on rare occasions he was.”
— we meet Doan in The Mouse in the Mountain
If you must go down those mean streets, walk softly, but walk a big dog…
Perenially broke DOAN is a chubby little man cursed with corn-yellow hair–he doesn’t exactly look like he’s going to set the world on fire. His clothes are frequently rumpled (he tends to sleep in them) and he’s been known to drink a prodigious amount of alcohol, though he claims that “contrary to the laws of science and nature… (I’ve) had never had a hangover in his life.” He does, however, have some whopping memory lapses.
Doan plays the harmless height-challenged, pudgy man to the hilt (even he admits he can be as “cute as a bug’s ear”), but he is actually a tough, hardened and sometimes even nasty operative for the Severn Detective Agency in Bay City, which is somewhere just east of the Rockies. According to his boss, J.S. Toggery, the diminuitive dick is “the most dangerous little devil I’ve ever seen, and he’s all the worse because of that half-witted manner of his. You never suspect what he’s up to until it’s too late.”
He’s a con artist supreme, using his seemingly harmless appearance to cheat and scam his way through life. And just in case that fails, he carries a .38 Police Positive in his waistband. When he’s not detecting, you can usually find Doan drinking somewhere, often at The Glasgow Limited bar on Turk Street, and occasionally, playing cards.
In fact it was at one of those card games that Doan won (if won is the word) CARSTAIRS. It was the start of a beautiful friendship. Although Doan’s been trying to get rid of the fawn-coloured brute ever since.
While there have plenty of dogs in mystery fiction, there’s never been one quite like Carstairs. He’s not just any Great Dane–he’s so big that Doan only half-jokingly figures he really ought to be considered another species. He’s definitely in charge, despite Doan’s best efforts. He’s one serious mutt, eschewing baby talk and belly rubs, to keep an eye on Doan, growling whenever Doan has a drink. His official, American Kennel Club monicker is Dougal’s Laird Carstairs, and he’s descended from a long line of champion show dogs, and he’s never “been able to reconcile himself to having such a low person for a master. Although occasionally he does stoop to help Doan on a case. It’s fortunate, then, that as a sleuth Carstairs rarely barks up the wrong tree.
Sadly, Doan and Carstairs appeared in just a few stories, and three novels, all snappy, hard-boiled treats, and at least one of them, 1943’s The Mouse in the Mountain, which takes the mismatched pair down to Mexico during WWII, ranks as one of the funniest detective novels of all time, a true classic. Theoretically, the duo are there to convince a missing fugitive that he would do well to just stay put, but the case is soon complicated by various murders, assorted villains, and a horrific earthquake that cuts a remote mountain village away from the rest of Mexico.
Doan and Carstair were the creation of relatively prolific pulpster Norbert Davis, whose “fatal flaw” was, according to Jack Adrain, in Hard-Boiled, “a sense of humour…that was ultimately responsible for keeping him from being published more frequently.” Even now, a lot of people just “don’t get” Davis’ whacky blend of hard-boiled humour.
Definitely their loss.
- “This will probably strike you as highly improbable if you know your Hollywood, but the lobby of the Orna Apartment Hotel, off Rossmore south of Melrose, is done in very nice taste.”
— the beginning of Sally’s in the Alley
- “Each of (the Doan and Carstairs stories) is fast-paced, occasionally lyrical in a hard-edged way, and often quite funny. Davis, in fact, was one of the few writers to successfully blend the so-called hard-boiled story with farcical humor.”
— Bill Pronzini (1001 Midnights)
- “Holocaust House” (1940, Argosy; two-part serial) | Kindle it!
- “Cry Murder!” (1944, Flynn’s Detective Fiction) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Mouse in the Mountain (1943; aka”Dead Little Rich Girl,” “Rendezvous With Fear”) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Sally’s in The Alley (1943) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Oh, Murderer Mine (1946) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Doan & Carstairs: Their Complete Cases (2016) | Buy this book
- Going to the Dogs
The Great Mutts of Detective Fiction