Created by Norbert Davis
“John Collins was playing the Beale Street Blues and playing it soft and sad because that was the way he felt. The notes dripped through the dimness of the room like molasses and provided an appropriate accompaniment to his thoughts. He had a hangover.”
— the intro to “Don’t You Cry for Me”
JOHN COLLINS wasn’t one of Norbert Davis‘ better known detectives–not that Max Latin or Doan (of Doan and Carstairs) are exactly household names.
But Collins did manage to appear in three Black Mask stories between May 1942 and May 1943, which is only two stories short of the Latin “series,” and like Latin, he wasn’t exactly a private eye, although he certainly did a lot of private eye stuff.
Collins claims to be simply a Hollywood piano player who drinks too much, but he earned a good rep as a finder of missing persons, during a stint overseas as a Sergeant in Military Intelligence just before the war, who had his share of “run-ins with the ghoulish Gestapo in the beer halls of Europe.”
But he’s put that all behind him in his first appearance in “Don’t You Cry for Me” (May 1942)–or at least until Della Martin from South Dakota knocks on his door, and asks him to help her find her daughter, Myra. Who has not only gone missing, but claims that Collins was a friend of hers.
Collins doesn’t know Myra from a hole in the ground, but he agrees to help. And so we’re off, as we follow the ivory-tickling dick through some of the seedier parts of Hollywood and Santa Monica–all abandoned movie studios and dilapidated boarding houses, and watch him tangle with German refugees on the run from the Nazis, fist-happy cops, would-be Turks, identity switcheroos, and, naturally, a killer or two.
It’s all crazy characters, cheeky asides, some great stylistic flourishes and a typically convoluted plot “as fantastic as any Hitler pipe-dream,” as Davis himself might (and does) put it. Collins is simply a great character–he may deny he’s any sort of detective, private or otherwise, and that he’s just waiting for the Army to call him up (World War II is being waged, remember), but he’s no half-sloshed, foppish musician playing by himself in his apartment. He’s a big brute of a guy (at one point he bends a coin in half) who knows his way around, and displays a Marlowe-sized heart.
It’s a shame Davis only wrote a handful of stories about him.
- “It was cold in the apartment and dark in the corners where the light didn’t reach. Mrs. Martin’s dreary, sad little story had left an ugly chill echo behind it. It was nothing you could touch, nothing you could see, but it was there. It was black and twisted and wickedly mirthful, and John Collins didn’t like even the thought of it.”
— “Don’t You Cry for Me”
- “Don’t You Cry for Me” (May 1942, Black Mask)
- “Beat Me Daddy” (November 1942, Black Mask)
- “Name Your Poison” (May 1943, , Black Mask)
- A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis’ “Don’t You Cry for Me”
Bob Byrne lifts the lid and gives us a good look at the works (August 2020, Blackgate)