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It was lonely in that damn motel room. When I’m on the road, I usually have a dog with me. Animals I like. People I learned a long time ago to do without.

I’m always blown away when I find out one of the novels I picked up years ago was written by someone famous and respected in their field; in this case I bought Dan J. Marlowe’s first novel Doorway to Death for its lurid come-hither cover without realizing he is one of the Gold Medal greats. Marlowe is a fascinating character himself: a young widower turned doughy womanizer who wrote such hardboiled and authentic stories that he attracted the attention of convicted bank robber and former FBI most-wanted Al Nussbaum, and ended up helping Nussbaum both earn parole and start his own writing career. Late in his life, Marlowe would suffer an acute amnesia attack, wiping away his memory—but not his ability to write. And man, could he write; Marlowe’s retained a reputation as a master of the fast-paced hardboiled novel, to the point where Steven King dedicated his Hard Case novel The Colorado Kid to “Dan Marlowe….hardest of the hard-boiled.”

A disclaimer: the great folks at Stark House Press were nice enough to send me an Advance Reading Copy for their upcoming Dan Marlowe double, featuring The Name of the Game is Death and One Endless Hour. You can pick it up yourself for $19.95 at the end of this March.

Gold Medal s1184 - 1962.

Gold Medal s1184 – 1962 – artist unknown. Drake traps and eliminates one of his adversaries in a phone booth.

How can a bank heist go so right and so wrong at the same time? When the robbers make off with $178,000 in cash, but when violent mastermind Earl Drake takes a bullet while escaping. Drake holes up in a local motel to recuperate, sending his mute partner Bunny off to Florida with instructions to wire him his share of the loot. After a few weeks, the money flow stops. And that’s a bad sign for whoever interrupted the cash flow, because it put Drake hot on their trail. Gearing up, Drake heads out to the small Florida town of Hudson, looking for Bunny, the money, and whoever’s getting in his way.

I should start by saying that Earl Drake is not his real name, nor is it even used in the novel; the protagonist spends most of the novel going by Chet Anderson, but that’s not his real name either. For this book his true name remains unknown, though he would later take the name Earl Drake in his dozen-long book series, becoming a secret agent in later years. But I’ll continue to call him Drake, because that’s the name he’ll eventually wear, and this makes it easier for continuity’s sake.

Coronet - 1973?

Coronet – 1973 – artist unknown. A great montage: Kaiser the injured dog, Hazel the Amazon redhead, airboat chases, and the sullen antagonist Sheriff Blaze.

In the first few chapters, Earl Drake is little more than a brutal sociopath with a cunning tactical mind—Anthony Boucher describe him as “a completely callous and amoral criminal”—as he kills without compassion or remorse, staying his hand only because his internal cost/benefit analysis tells him that killing would interrupt his primary goal. His character undergoes some fascinating development; he’s got a strong affinity for animals, caring more for them than he does humans. And his time in the small Florida town of Hudson softens him, humanizes him… at least for his outward appearance, so he doesn’t attract unwanted attention. The early chapters alternate between Drake recuperating and driving to Florida and Drake’s childhood, a complex tangle exposing a bright but violent boy failed by the system.

Drake remains brutal throughout the novel, a dark and complex killer. He’s reflective of a change in crime literature, moving toward darker and more violent anti-hero protagonists. But he’s also a sympathetic character in his own right; he makes friends with the local realtor/deputy sheriff Jed, and Hazel, the red-headed Amazon cowgirl who owns the local dive-bar. He nurses an injured dog back to health. At the same time, he coldly murders a trio of men tailing him for the money, and abuses a man-hungry babe who tried to set up Drake’s beating and murder. Despite his sociopathic actions, I root for the man because almost everyone he encounters is a swindler or a hypocrite already abusing the system—see Drake’s flashbacks, tracking his criminal growth as vengeance to right wrongs:

The black headline said Olly Barnes had been sentenced to fifteen years… That day I quit the human race. I never went back to my job. The only legitimate work I’ve done since has always been with an illegitimate purpose in mind. If that was the way it was, I’d play it as it lay.

If they’re abusing the system, says Drake, I’ll live outside of it to get back at them. He’s a complex and dark character living in a bleak, emotionless world.

Dan Marlowe didn’t just excel, he knocked it out of the park. I see why critics call The Name of the Game is Death Marlowe’s masterpiece; his writing hits hard and fast, unrelenting and brutal at the beginning and end, a subtle slow-burn through the middle sections. An eye for detail and a complex anti-hero protagonist set Marlowe apart from most other crime fiction I’ve read. This is a real stellar read, if you’ve got the guts for it—Drake is cold and sociopathic, but his motives and character are sympathetic in their own twisted way. I found this novel a tense and exciting read, definitely recommended.