Before reaching the highest echelon with his 'Earl Drake' series of the 60s and 70s, Marlowe began his career with another series – 'Johnny Killain'. The series and author debut, “Doorway to Death”, was released by Avon in 1957. It was followed by four more titles over the course of a two year period, all starring hotel strongman/detective Johnny Killain.
Killain works the night shift at the Hotel Duarte in New York City. We learn about halfway through the book that Killain worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the early version of what we now call the CIA. Along with the hotel's owner, Willie Martin, the two scoured Europe in WWII working various espionage and wartime assignments. Later, the two joined a Partisan group working in France, Italy and Spain. After, Willie retired and invested in the Hotel Duarte and hired Killain to be the strongman of the place as a favor for pulling his ass out of the fire on missions. Aside from that, Marlowe really doesn't provide many other details about Killain or his past.
With muscles, good looks and a sense of mystery...the man rarely sleeps alone. His main squeeze is the hotel's switchboard operator, Sally. She's a loveable, innocent character who apparently lives to serve Killain at the hotel. Frequently she's behind the calls, listening for details and danger and reporting it to Killain. While not as strong or cunning, in some ways she's the predecessor for Earl Drake's love interest Hazel. This relationship is imperative because Killain can't be everywhere at once, and even the most valiant hero needs an ally.
The narrative explores criminal activity that is encroaching on the hotel. In one remarkable scene, Killain is confronted in an elevator by two pimps wanting to run goods through the business. They strong-arm Killain into a close quarters fight in the cab. He dumps them in an alleyway, only to receive more threats and violence. After being blindsided by a couple of enforcers, Killain begins to unravel who's behind the intrusion and how the hotel's owner and guests factor into the deal. While Killain is disposing of the threats and refusing the bribes, the police offer a deal – join their cause and work as an informant. Killain refuses, but soon finds assistance from Lieutenant Dameron, a character that I hope will return in future books.
With corpses in the kitchen and freezer, Killain eventually goes from bouncer to detective, prowling around hallways and rooms, staking out various suspects and piecing together clues to determine what sort of transaction is going down. It's this part of the narrative where the book excels. The action is sparse but really well written. It doesn't reach the heights of the 'Earl Drake' books, but most will agree this series is inferior to those books. The cast of characters are diverse and aren't all together needy or reliant on Killain. The character, coupled with Sally, is very enjoyable and provides just enough mystery to keep it intriguing.
“Doorway to Death” is a compelling story brought to life by a true master of the genre. I continue to be in awe of Marlowe.