Pat Novak for Hire is set on the San Francisco, California waterfront and depicts the city as a dark, rough place where the main goal is survival. Pat Novak is not a detective by trade. He owns a boat shop on Pier 19 where he rents out boats and does odd jobs to make money.
Each episode of the program, particularly the Jack Webb episodes, follows the same basic formula. A foghorn sounds and Novak's footsteps are heard walking down the pier. He pauses and begins with the line "Sure, I'm Pat Novak . . . for hire". The foghorn repeats and leads to the intro theme, during which Pat gives a monologue about the waterfront and his job renting boats. Pat narrates the story as well as acting in it. Cynical, he throws off lines such as "about as smart as teaching a cooking class to a group of cannibals". He then introduces the trouble in which he finds himself this week. Typically, a person unknown to Pat asks him to do an unusual or risky job. Pat reluctantly accepts and finds himself in hot water in the form of an unexplained dead body. Police Inspector Hellman (played by Raymond Burr) arrives on the scene and pins the murder on Novak. With only circumstantial evidence to go on, Hellman promises to haul Novak in the next day for the crime. The rapid, staccato dialogue between Webb & Burr is classic. Pat uses the time to try to solve the case. He looks up his friend Jocko Madigan (played by Tudor Owen), a drunken ex-doctor typically found at some local watering hole, to help him solve the case. As Pat asks Jocko for his help, Jocko launches a winded, often hilarious, brilliantly witty philosophical diatribe until Novak blankly asks "Are you done?", to which Jocko dejectedly replies " Yes". Jocko and Pat unravel the case and Hellman makes the arrest. Finally, we hear the foghorn and Novak's footsteps on the pier again before Novak spells out the details of the case for us. At the end, Novak informs us that "Hellman asked only one question", which Pat answers with a clever retort. The dialogue is rife with similes found in pulp fiction.