Dick Webster is a fictional detective in a series of nine novels by Daniel Silverman (1893-1939) between 1928 and 1939. Initially successful, the Dick Webster Mysteries have come to be known as classics of the genre and are even becoming recognized as modern literary classics (although this remains a point of heated debate in academia) . They are said to epitomize the difference between European and American mysteries, with the comparison usually drawn between Webster and Inspector Watson.
Daniel Silverman was born the middle of five children (and the only son) in Sault St. Marie, Ontario in 1893. His father, a supervisor at a paper mill, moved the family to Savannah, Jacobia in 1898, when Daniel was five. The young man retained a romantic nostalgia for the city of his birth well into adulthood.
Of all the Silverman children, it was Daniel who seemed the most intellectual and won a partial scholarship in 1911. He eventually settled for a degree in Journalism and a minor in English. At first he had great difficulty making a living after graduation in 1916, which forced him to join the Continental Army in 1917. Rather than seeing any action, however, young Silverman was a clerk in New Amsterdam. He was one of the lucky few to contract and survive the Influenza of 1918, but his health was never again the same. Borrowing money from his surviving siblings (he lost a sister, a niece and a nephew to the flu) he established himself as a public school teacher of English in New Amsterdam. Barely making ends meet, he did manage to have a few poems published.
Then, in 1928 he wrote “Cover My Face,” the first Dick Webster mystery story. It was published by Smoking Barrel Press, which specialized in inexpensive ‘pulp’ fiction. The novel proved one of the company’s top sellers, and in fact began the tradition that Dick Webster mysteries remained in print. Silverman received a minor share of the profits from this but did manage to (barely) avoid declaring bankruptcy. Subsequent books in the series sold increasingly well, allowing the author to quit his teaching job in 1933. In 1935 he moved back to his boyhood home in Sault Ste. Marie. The experience was evidently disappointing to him and led to a bout of depression.
Evidence suggests that sometime between GW1 and the publication of “Cover My Face” Silverman had a failed love affair which affected him deeply. Certainly he began to drink in the 1920s, which was something he had rarely done before. Despite Prohibition, his drinking grew steadily until his death.
By 1936 he had also become a prolific correspondent via letters with over a dozen fans, some of whom went on to have distinguished careers. In the last years of his life, he started to gain weight at a steady pace. When he died of a heart attack in July, 1939 he was classified as “medically obese.” Although estranged (to various degrees) from his sisters, in part because he took so long to pay them back loans, he left his estate to be shared by them equally. Over the years this was enough to make all three of his surviving siblings and their families quite comfortable.
Daniel Silverman completed almost nine novels (the last, Jury of One, was uncompleted at his death) centering around his famous creation. The first set certain patterns for the whole series:
- At least one major mystery in each novel remained unsolved. In Cover My Face, for example, the title is based on the last words of a murder victim. Yet despite numerous, often contradictory clues, the meaning of those words is never discovered. Likewise in “Pretty Dead Girls” the identity of an illegitimate child’s mother is never known.
- Dick Webster himself has a love interest, but for some reason the relationship is doomed. Usually there are multiple reasons, but in many ways it seems as if fate itself was decreeing Webster to be alone (or that Silverman was).
- Each book has an air of corruption, not only financial but moral and sometimes physical. The stench of the paper mill in The House of Noah is one example, hand in hand with the secretive mill owners and their secrets. In Murder For Sale, Webster finds a body in an advanced state of decomposition, which foreshadows the chain of evil deeds by so-called ‘respectable’ citizens that led to it ending up there.
- Webster is sooner or later intellectually challenged to defend his own sense of personal honor, even at the cost of damage to innocent lives, including his own. Yet Webster never really answers these challenges or questions. He simply is what he is, and seems just self-aware enough to almost wish it were otherwise.
- Webster is also totally wrong in at least one major assumption in each book. Many fans note Silverman’s cleverness in always managing to surprise the reader about this, even after they’ve learned to expect it.
Central to all the novels was Dick Webster himself—very nearly the polar opposite of his chief “rival” Inspector Watson. Unlike Watson, Webster is not polite but brusque. He is not nor has he ever been a policeman. One can hardly imagine Watson having a love life, whereas Webster’s is complex, messy and blatantly sexual. Inspector Watson has a partner, while Dick Webster acts alone. Yet intriguingly, they also have much in common. Both are by nature stoics—although in Webster’s case there is the hint this is the result of some trauma. Both are also brilliant minds, albeit of totally different styles. Each is physically formidable in his own way, Webster largely because he “fights dirty.” And each is in his own way morally incorruptible.
Each also has a nemesis, but in Webster’s case it is a rival detective in the same agency (North American Detectives Inc.), an older and totally amoral man named Goldberg (we never learn his first name). He appears in five of the novels—Murder For Sale, Pretty Dead Girls, Night is Waiting, Severed Vein, and Jury of One. Goldberg, as is shown time and again, is totally without honor. His word is worthless. Goldberg's mere existence, much less his success (he eventually heads the N.A.D. Inc) , is something of a torment for Webster. The last novel seemed to have Webster planning to kill Goldberg, but even Silverman’s surviving notes do not make it clear whether this is what he actually planned.
One conceit of the novels is that the narrator character is listed as the author. Silverman preferred to remain anonymous behind the moniker he created.
The novels in which Dick Webster appears are:
- Cover My Face (1928)
- The House of Noah (1929)
- Murder for Sale (1931)
- Fear of High Places (1932)
- Pretty Dead Girls (1934)
- Night is Waiting (1935)
- Good, Evil and Ordinary (1936)
- Severed Vein (1938)
- Jury of One (1940)
The last novel was left uncompleted at Silverman's death, and was finished by a ghost writer. Many fans feel the resulting end was unsatisfying. Many attempts to finish Jury of One have been attempted.
Among fans of mystery novels, some maintain that all such entries in the genre fall under the heading of “Pre-Webster” and “Ante-Webster.” While Dick Webster was not the first tough-guy detective, he was clearly the earliest one to achieve fame. Even the worst critics of the books agree they are written with far greater skill than most of their contemporaries.
None of the Dick Webster novels have ever been out of print. All continue to sell very well, and numerous film adaptations have been made (with varying degrees of loyalty to the source material). Cover My Face has been filmed seventeen times, in five different languages (English, French, Castillian, Russian and Brithenig). Some critics have pointed out that one indicator of any national character is to note whether which fictional detective is more popular: Inspector Watson or Dick Webster?
Certainly the Dick Webster mysteries have defined the genre of the “gumshoe” detective, as opposed to the “cerebral problem-solver.” And Dick Webster himself is only slightly less famous that Inspector Watson (interestingly, Daniel Silverman himself was a fan of Sir Uther Conan Doyle and even wrote him a fan letter as a child).
Beginning in the late 1980s, academics in France, Louisianne, New Francy and in the NAL all began touting the belief that Daniel Silverman was more than simply an above average story-teller but a genuine artist worthy of serious study. This school of thought, which is not without its (sometimes very loud) detractors, holds that Silverman was a populiser of art in the same vein as Gwilim Trammelpila. Some even go so far as to call him the “quintessential American writer of the XXth century.”