Monday, June 7, 2021


Published in the early sixties, Dan J. Marlowe’s novels The Name of the Game is Death and One Endless Hour are among the toughest examples of the hardboiled genre ever written. Both novels are blisteringly paced with noir-tinged muscular prose and featuring an amoral, unapologetic, criminal who wouldn’t know a sentiment if it attacked him with a baseball bat. They are perfect examples of why Fawcett’s Gold Medal paperback original imprint is so revered. 

"You don't deserve it, but I’ll give you a choice,” I said. “I was going to leave you out here, with the heat and the mosquitoes and the bugs and the snakes and the alligators. You’ll never make it in. I doubt if I could myself.” His whole face was wet as he stared at me. “You won’t go easy if you stay, so I’ll give you the choice. Stay, or take one dead center from this.” I waved the little handgun … “You’ll go out of your mind out here in twelve hours.” His chest was heaving as he tried to pump air through his constricted throat. “Take the bullet.” — From The Name of the Game is Death (1962)

Marlowe’s anti-hero was originally named, Chet Arnold. When Gold Medal asked Marlowe to turn The Name of the Game is Death into a series, Marlowe needed to tweak some issues raised in the first book so the character's adventures could continue in a logical (or at least fictionally logical) manner. In the sequel, One Endless Hour, Marlowe resolves the quandary by putting good ‘ol Chet under the plastic surgeon’s knife and and giving him a cool new nameEarl Drake.

There were also other problems involved in transforming the standalone novel into a series. The biggest was the ongoing challenge of making each new villain more reprehensible than the renegade, sociopathic, felon who was the nominal hero of the violence filled tales. 

"Two guys with guts and a go-to-hell-with-you-Jack regard for consequences have about three chances in ten of pulling off a big, well-planned smash-and-grab.  If one of them can shoot like me, the odds are a damn sight better."

Despite being awkwardly labeled as the Man With Nobody's Face series, the books continued to be well written, retaining Marlowe’s callous, misanthropic narrative voice. However, this became an uphill battle when Gold Medal encouraged Marlowe to soften Drake’s granite hardness by turning him into a Matt Helm secret agent clone to cash in on the Bond frenzy sweeping the nation. Despite this change, Marlowe’s signature theme of justice through revenge prevailed.

Earl Drake's adventures continued to grow in popularity, especially after the fourth book in the series, Operation Flashpoint, won The Mystery Writers of America's prestigious Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.

"I shot her in the throat, three times. ‘Tell your story in hell, if you can get anyone to listen,’ I told her. I stepped over her. I had work to do."

Marlowe earned his literary chops writing two-fisted tough guy novels for Gold Medal and other paperback original publishers. But the Drake books brought him financial success, critical acclaim, and notoriety. The last sobriquet came via his long term friendship and mentoring of convicted bank robber and former member of the FBI's Most Wanted list, Albert F. Nussbaum. 

Al “Bumpy” Nussbaum had gone on the lam after participating in a New York bank heist in which a guard had been killed. While attempting to lie low, the wanted felon read a copy of The Name of the Game is Death. The book resonated with Nussbaum, who had his own literary aspirations. Using a false name, Nussbaum called Marlowe asking for writing advise. It wasn’t until the FBI eventually arrested Nussbaum, that Marlowe learned who his fan boy caller really was. 

Intrigued, Marlowe began to correspond with the incarcerated Nussbaum. In return for writing advise, Nussbaum provided Marlowe with the inside dirt on how real criminals operate. This gave Marlowe’s further books an authenticity that brought them almost to the level of Richard Stark’s seminal series about the professional crook Parker. 

The story of Dan Marlowe, however, goes far deeper than his associating with an incarcerated criminal. In 1958, a middle-aged and grieving recent widow, Marlowe abandoned his business career and joined a novel writing workshop in New York. The lessons took and Avon snapped up Marlowe’s first five novels, all featuring the hardboiled Johnny Killain, a tough guy war vet working as a bellhop in New York who keeps getting dragged into a mix of danger and dames. During this time, Marlowe also published, Backfire, a standalone thriller.

With these craft learning efforts out of the way, Marlowe dug down to write The Name of the Game is Death, which would remain his claim to fame and recognition despite an arm length list of further books. 

The Drake books, all titles after One Endless Hour starting with the tag Operation (Flashpoint, Checkmate, Hammerlock, Death Maker, Stranglehold, etc.), became solid sellers along with a number of the other standalone novels Marlowe cranked out.

The acclaim for these books brought Marlowe into the highest regard of The Mystery Writers of America fraternity and other social organizations. He became active in Republican politics. And, despite his less than manly appearance, he became an alcohol fueled womanizer. He was the toast of the New York mystery genre scene.

In 1978, as the market for the style of books he wrote evaporated, the sixty-four year old Marlowe moved to Hollywood to take on the movie business. Sharing an apartment with Nussbaum, the now paroled bank robber, Marlowe ran into the brick wall of Hollywood’s legendary disinterest in anyone or anything who wasn’t young, beautiful, and hip. He also began to be betrayed by his mind as loss of memory, glaucoma, and the ravages of a stroke even made typing difficult.

Even his name worked against him, as Marlowe was often confused with Raymond Chandler’s iconic creation, or with the more successful writer, Stephen Marlowe. Hollywood wanted nothing to do with the aging, infirmed, forgetful Dan Marlowe. The cold machine of the movie business didn’t care how popular his books once were, blanking Marlowe at every attempted entry.

While Nussbaum was in prison, Marlowe had sold some of Nussbaum’s short stories under his own name, channeling the profits back to the incarcerated felon. Now, the tables had turned as Nussbaum was beginning to have more publishing success than the fading Marlowe.

According to Kelley, the 1967 novel The Raven is a Blood-Red Bird was the only time Marlowe and Odell were both acknowledged in the copyrightNever again thereafter would Odell be credited on any of the dozen novels he worked on with Marlowe. Marlowe fronted all those books, using his more-marketable name. He even accepted an Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1971, for Operation Flashpoint, without publicly acknowledging Odell’s hefty contribution.

Kelley also exposed Marlowe’s strange sexual fetishes, including  spanking, and the fact Marlowe wrote a number of pornographic novels under a pseudonym—despite his public condemnation of such pure filth.

During the eight years Marlowe lived in Hollywood, often with or under the care of Nussbaum, his life deteriorated around him until his death in 1986. Plagued by amnesia, debilitating migraines, and the after effects of a stroke, his ability to write deserted him. 

As Kelley describes it; Marlowe was trapped in a noir plot eerily similar to that of Never Live Twice, his 1964 thriller in which amnesia blanks out the mind of government operative Jackrabbit Smith, who has to fight his way back to his old life, blasting bad guys and spanking a woman psychologist along the way.

The further decent of Marlowe’s tragic latter days is covered meticulously in the pages of Charles Kelley’s fascinating in-depth biography. It is well worth reading, especially for hardboiled aficionados of the Gold Medal writers, of which Marlowe was a stellar representative. 

Despite Marlowe’s complex ethical and sexual behaviors, there is no denying the brilliance of The Name of the Game is Death and One Endless Hour. Both books will remain the standard against which all other hardboiled fiction must be judged.

•The Name of the Game is Death (1962)
•One Endless Hour (1968)
•Operation Fireball (1969)
•Flashpoint (1970)
•Operation Breakthrough (1971)
•Operation Drumfire (1972) 
•Operation Checkmate (1972) 
•Operation Stranglehold (1973)
•Operation Whiplash (1973)
•Operation Hammerlock (1974) 
•Operation Deathmaker (1975)
•Operation Counterpunch (1976)

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