“Strongarm” is an early stand-alone novel from esteemed crime-noir author Dan J. Marlowe (1917-1986). From 1959 until 1961, Marlowe wrote a five-book series starring hotel detective Johnny Killain. Marlowe's first stand-alone, “Backfire”, was released by Berkley in 1961. In 1962, the author penned his magnum opus with “The Name of the Game is Death”, the first of a long-running series of action-adventure novels starring heist extraordinaire Earl Drake. 1963's “Strongarm” is the second stand-alone entry in Marlowe's impressive bibliography. Written on the heels of his masterpiece, does “Strongarm” possess the same level of quality?
In Earl Drake fashion, Marlowe presents an unnamed protagonist using the alias Pete Karma. Pete graduated from Ohio State and served his father during a successful political run that colored by some minor affiliations with the mob. After his father died, Pete served in the Korean War, fighting in the Chosin Reservoir as a U.S. Marine. After his discharge, Pete joined his father's successor, Charlie Risko, in a crime-ridden political reign. This is where things really turn sour.
As an assumed enforcer, Pete is asked to rough up a labor representative suspected of conspiring with the press exposing mob interference in local politics. After a journalist is found murdered in a hotel, Risko arranges for Pete to take the fall. Sentenced to a 15-year prison sentence for a crime he didn't commit, Pete begins making plans to escape. After two and a half years behind bars, Pete alligns with Risko's rival kingpin in Tony Falcaro. Together, Falcaro and Pete escape prison with a promise from Falcaro's gang that they will always be there for Pete if he needs any future favors. This would prove to be an important commitment.
Pete goes to work in Chicago as a bartender, carefully avoiding attention while planning his vengeance on Risko, his attorney Foley and a henchman named Joe Williams. However, Marlowe really throws a wrench in the gears and switches the narrative with a surprising plot twist. While trailing Williams, Pete witnesses a fiery car crash. Among the wreckage is an arm handcuffed to a briefcase containing foreign documents and $750,000 in cash. Is Pete now the target of a number of warring factions?
Very few crime novels of this era can match Marlowe's influential caper novel. However, like most of the author's stand-alone works, his ability and talent certainly stands out even in a crowded room of his contemporaries. I would speculate that Marlowe recycled some of this novel's elements in future works. This novel's Gussie character resembles the 70s spunky flower child Chryssie from “Operation Flashpoint” (1970). The recruitment of various Falcaro mobsters is reminiscent of Earl Drake's alliance with anti-Castro factions in “Operation Fireball” (1969). Pete's ability to remove a lower dental plate reflects the disguise Drake would use with his hairpiece. In fact, the very idea of an unnamed protagonist serving time in a mental hospital can be found in both “In the Name of the Game is Death” (1962) and it's sequel, “One Endless Hour” (1969). It's safe to assume “Strongarm” had a lot of influence on the Earl Drake novels.
In terms of early Marlowe work, “Strongarm”, along with 1966's “Four for the Money,” are mandatory reads for crime-noir fans. The more I delve, collect and read 1960s crime novels, authors like Dan J. Marlowe and John D. MacDonald certainly appear to be the cream of the crop. Do yourself a favor and buy, download or borrow this book. It's a real treasure.
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