Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Earl Drake #01 - The Name of the Game is Death

Dan J. Marlowe was cursed with the wrong last name. Many in the genre, including myself, confused the author with Stephen Marlowe and Chandler's own iconic character Philip Marlowe. It's unfair, but some of the burden falls on the fan/reader's own ignorance. I fall into that category every time. Marlowe was an odd bird, with a lifespan that's rather peculiar and complex. Born in 1914, he was an accountant and avid gambler, validating his inclusion of poker and horses in his work as influences through experience. His wife died in 1956 and things drastically changed from there.

His love for writing and booze were support mechanisms that provoked his move to New York to write full-time. After five books about hotel detective Johnny Killian, Marlowe would go on to write the influential masterstroke - “The Name of the Game is Death”. It's an influential caper novel firmly entrenched under the much broader crime genre umbrella. Megaseller Stephen King dedicated his own noir work, “The Colorado Kid”, to Marlowe deeming him the “hardest of the hard-boiled”. The book is worthy of King's praise.

In the hard-boiled tradition of the first person narrative, we are introduced to the man with no name. Later, as the series continued (and arguably declined), the character is referred to as Earl Drake. In this book he uses an alias of Chet Arnold, fundamentally a loner who does bank jobs for a living. The story opens with Arnold and his mute partner Bunny knocking over a Phoenix bank. The hired driver panics and is fatally shot while Arnold takes one in the shoulder in an escape with Bunny. Most of the bag goes to Bunny, along with instructions for his partner to drive to Florida's gulf coast, find a small town and mail a thousand in hundreds to him. Once Arnold (at this point going by Roy Martin) heals, they will meet up. That plan goes to Hell in a handbag.


After one week of cabbage by mail, a letter arrives from Bunny saying he is in trouble and for Arnold to lay low until things clear up. The kicker – Bunny says he will call Arnold. Bunny is mute. After healing up, the novel then converts from recovery to road trip, encompassing Arnold's drive from Arizona to Hudson, Florida. It's this road venture that allows Marlowe to explain Arnold's past – equally as absorbing and intriguing as Bunny and the missing cash. We learn Arnold is 100% a loner, dedicated to solo strength and perseverance. His childhood is a suburban oddity, from a dead pet to knocking over convenience stores. Arnold did five years of hots and a cot, and swore he would never go back. 

The book then moves to a bit of a slow, but entertaining burn as Arnold acclimates himself with the tiny town and has a fling with the lovable and fiery barkeep Hazel. There's a side-story on an underground illegal supplier from Alabama, while the story unfolds on Bunny's whereabouts and the missing $200K. The finale doesn't disappoint and has Arnold hammer back, pedal down in a whirlwind of headlights and gunfire. The book's ending defiantly pronounces Arnold's journey is far from over. 

Again, it's Marlowe's masterpiece, a tour-de-force that showcases everything we love and cherish in the crime and caper epic. Arnold/Drake is the perfect anti-hero – methodical, calculating, ruthless but altogether lovable - from across town. The supporting cast of Hazel, corrupt deputy Blaze, the luscious Lucille and the spunky youngster Jed enhance the story with small town charm. It's this tease that puts Arnold teetering ever so close to the brink of normalcy.  The novel's sequel is “One Endless Hour” before Drake and Marlowe take the series and character into the spy genre. Both “The Name of the Game is Death” and “One Endless Hour” have been reprinted as an omnibus through Stark House Press. 

Kudos to author Paul Bishop for writing a terrific piece on Marlowe here.