After reading the first two Earl Drake books by Dan Marlowe, I thought I’d keep with them and read the next volumes in the series, made a bit easier by Prologue Books providing a reader review copy of the fourth volume, Flashpoint (also titled Operation Flashpoint). Well, one thing lead to another and some other books took preference, but I’ve held off on this one long enough, so I’m skipping book three to read number four. (I also went a little crazy with Prologue Books’ June sale, where all but a few of their books were $0.99 for Kindle, and bought all of their Dan Marlowe novels.)
Dan Marlowe hadn’t considered writing sequels for The Name of the Game is Death, but it had reached a wide audience and sold well. His publishers at Gold Medal weren’t the only ones pressuring him to write sequels; Marlowe started corresponding with Al Nussbaum, one of the FBI’s most wanted, and it was Nussbaum who recommended the protagonist’s name change to Earl Drake. (Nussbaum helped add more elements and technical detail to the series.) After two straightforward crime/heist novels, Earl Drake gets suckered into working for the government and became a secret agent. Talk about a career change.
Jet-setting off to Las Vegas on a chartered plane that’s more like a flying casino, ex-professional crook Earl Drake finds out the hard way that his flight’s the target of Middle Eastern terrorists. In the process, he loses $75,000 of his girlfriend Hazel’s money, and is the only person able to identify the terrorists. Good thing Drake was roped into working as an independent contractor for the U.S. government (in the previous book, Operation Fireball), because those government spies want Drake back into the game. Thus, a reluctant Drake joins up to track down an international terror plot working behind-the-scenes at the U.N. in New York. With the aid of two professional spies and a bevy of beauties, Drake’s sucked into a plot that’s greater and more insidious than the terror and drug-trafficking it seems to be.
To be honest, it’s weird seeing Drake transitioning into the role of secret agent. He’s still as cynical as he ever was, and ruthless too, a killing machine; though he’s not as cold and inhumane, not as angry at the world. (Case in point, his rough attempts to take the juvenile runaway Chryssie under wing to salvage her from a drug-addled waste of a life.) In part, that’s due to the fact that this was written seven years after the original; you could also argue that Drake shacking up again with Hazel could mellow him some. Drake himself mentions feeling out-of-place, having to follow someone else’s rules and work as a team player, which is partly why the series works: he has the skills to do the job from his criminal background, but he’s also a fish out of water.
We also have Dan Marlowe penning some rather kinky sex. There’s not one but two femme fatales in the book: Chryssie, a seventeen-year-old runaway with a drug problem, and Talia, a Turkish diplomat liaison with a drug problem. It must be the ’70s, where all the drugs and sex make the novel gritty like sandpaper. To cap it off, the secretive spy agency Darke’s working for has its headquarters in a Manhattan high-rise, next to—as it turns out—a studio filming hardcore pornography under the guise of a paper company. Marlowe was never one to shy away from sex or brutal violence in his earlier books, which are some of the most hardboiled crime novels of their era. Flashpoint is a part of the same darker and grittier trend in crime-mystery fiction that gave us Donald Westlake’s Parker, another amoral criminal protagonist.
Again, it’s not that Earl Drake is a completely bad guy, he’s just the kind of person you never want to get on the wrong side of. It’s more that the world is even darker and worse than Drake is, where you root for the anti-hero who’s torturing and blowing away people who make him look like a saint. Drake put a lot of effort into helping Chryssie, longshot though it is, and when it looks like bad fates will befall the two women he makes an effort to look after their safety. He begrudgingly goes deeper and deeper into espionage, even infiltrating the terrorists’ team. The original two Drake books—particularly The Name of the Game is Death—painted a bleak picture of the world, critical of humanity and authority; in this one, it’s mellowed along with Drake, but it’s still there. This world is a gritty, unsafe place to live in, and you have to be as cynical and strong as Drake to survive.
Flashpoint isn’t as hardboiled or as tight-knit as the original Earl Drake books, The Name of the Game is Death and One Endless Hour. It’s also of an odd transition, taking our ultra-violent anti-hero from the crime shelves and into the realm of spy fiction. But, overall, it works; we still have a heist to deal with, only this time Drake’s infiltrated it and is working for the other side. It works very well all things considered, and despite a slow center, the action really picks up around 3/4ths of the way in and snowballs from one rapid-fire set-piece to the next.
Again, I think the first two Drake books are some of the best Gold Medal ever published, but this one won an Edgar Award for a reason: it’s a really cool read with plenty of interesting elements. Fans of the series—and of Parker-style fiction—should look into it. Smart, fast-paced, and entertaining, it earns my recommendation.