Milton Lesser (better known as Stephen Marlowe, 1928-2008) authored over 20 stand-alone novels including a number of respected science-fiction stories. After authoring his first full-length crime-noir novel, 1954's Catch the Brass Ring, Marlowe went on to create his most notable literary work. Beginning with 1955's Fawcett Gold Medal paperback The Second Longest Night, Marlowe launched a 20-book series of hardboiled crime novels starring Washington, DC private-eye Chester Drum. Marlowe's collaboration with Richard Prather created a paperback sensation called Double in Trouble. It was a unique pairing of two bestselling literary characters – Prather's Shell Scott and Marlowe's Drum. My only experience with the character is the series debut.
The Second Longest Night introduces Drum as a 30-year old divorcee working in Washington, D.C. as a private-eye. In the opening pages, readers learn that Drum was married to Deidre Hartswell, the daughter of a U.S. Senator. The two became disenchanted with each other and became divorced shortly after their wedding. Six-months after the divorce, Deidre was found dead in a bathtub. Her death was ruled as a suicide but her father has doubts. He hires Drum to investigate her death and if there was any foul play.
In the book's first-half narrative, Drum connects Deidre to the Communist Party and a lover named Francisco del Rey. After one of Drum's informants is murdered by del Rey, the book's locale changes from snowy Washington DC to the hot, humid jungles of Venezuela. The author takes an odd storytelling angle by pairing Drum with Deidre's twin-sister Lydia and her husband Ralph. Together, the three visit del Rey where Drum begins to connect a lucrative oil contract with the Hartswell family. But just as things seem to wrap up, the action globetrots to a mountain range in Northern California as Drum, Lydia and Ralph ascend the slopes to determine Deidre's mysterious death.
Stepping into the novel, I had just assumed it would be a localized story with Drum's procedural investigation conducted in the urban areas of Washington DC. After researching the series for this review, I discovered that most of the Drum novels are international mysteries featuring espionage and intrigue. In fact, the series' last five installments apparently read more like James Bond than the stereotypical private-eye whodunit. This Drum debut was surprisingly more adventurous that I had anticipated, evidenced by the character's battles in and around a remote river basin. While not physically domineering, Drum's quick responses are some of his best weapons. Drum isn't intentionally written as humorous character, but the character's lashing, verbal responses are sarcastic and border on being patronizing. As a fan of Robert Parker's Spencer, I found this character trait appealing.
The Second Longest Night isn't the perfect hardboiled crime novel, but it definitely showcased Marlowe's skill-set as a successful storyteller. I imagine like many authors, the quantity eventually led to quality. I'd be mildly curious to read mid-series entries like Violence is my Business (1958) or Peril is my Pay (1960) to judge how well the series developed. With international espionage, communist plots and crooked politicians, I'm not in a huge rush to read more of Chester Drum's exploits. I much prefer small-town crime-noir, domestic disputes or more urban, localized private-eye novels. I'll continue pursuing Frank Kane's Johnny Liddell, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer and Dan Marlowe's Johnny Killain novels before devoting more time to Stephen Marlowe.
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