“With admiration, for Dan J. Marlowe, author of The Name of the Game is Death: Hardest of the hardboiled.”
This unexpected shout out comes from Stephen King, in the pages of his Hard Case Crime novel The Colorado Kid.
I have to echo King’s sentiments. The Name of the Game is Death is indeed hard-boiled heaven. It features an antihero you root for even though you know he’d take your head off if you got in his way, some purely evil characters whose heads you hope the antihero will take off, other, more likable people, raw sex, retribution, suspense…
Originally published in 1962 as a Fawcett Gold Medal title, reprinted by Black Lizard in ’88 and due to be brought back out (as a 2-for-1, with another Dan J. Marlowe title) by Stark House Press this year, TNOTGID is a bank heist story, a road novel, a revenge tale, and much more. It starts in Phoenix, where a three-man team of crooks pulls a bank job. One of them is killed in the getaway attempt, one flees to a small town in Florida with most of the take, and the other—the main character and narrator—roams for a while. It’s when the roaming guy (much more on him shortly) realizes that something has gone awry with his partner at his hideaway in Florida, that the real action starts. The narrator travels to that town, and insinuates himself in the local culture there, as a means of finding out what has happened to his partner (and their stash of money).
At the center of all is this narrator, whom we’ll call Earl Drake even though that’s only one of the aliases the man uses in the book. We’ll call him Drake because, for the author Marlowe, that character name stuck when he went on to pen a series with Drake (“the man with nobody’s face”) as the protagonist. The most obvious literary comparison to Drake is Richard Stark’s (Donald Westlake’s) Parker character. Both men are (mostly) antisocial career criminals who go about their illegal and often violent affairs with a steel-cold lack of sentimentality. Both sets of novels are told in the kind of clipped, raw, no-nonsense language and tone that fans of noir crave.
What adds some depth to Marlowe’s Drake, in the novel under discussion, is the complexity of his character. His different personal dimensions are exhibited by some revealing flashback scenes, and in the fact that he forms bonds with people (as well as domestic animals) even when he is capable of savagely murdering or otherwise visiting great harm upon others, without suffering any pangs of regret later. The looks back at Drake’s boyhood years are especially vivid, and telling. When his pet cat is abused by one of his adolescent peers, Drake dedicates himself to tormenting that kid, mostly via unrelenting physical abuse, and this brings him some trouble with law enforcement personnel—trouble that will turn out to be a permanent state of affairs.
In the present parts of TNOTGID, this theme of Drake loving animals even when he doesn’t care for most humans, is revisited when he picks up a stray dog along the way and assumes ownership of the hound. As Drake so succinctly sums things up in the novel, before encountering the dog:
It was lonely in that damn motel room. When I’m on the road, I usually have a dog with me. Animals I like. People I learned a long time ago to do without.
Classic hard-boiled passage though that is, the truth is that Drake doesn’t quite do without people. And this is what gives him, and this story, much of its richness. We learn, through another of the story’s memory passages, that it was a disheartening experience involving a friend, that turned Drake mean in a final way. A very young man just out on his own for the first time, Drake was working as a gas jockey when he became pals with a regular customer who liked to hang around the station and chew the fat with him. When this man was accused of, and then was bullied into confessing to, a heinous crime, and was put behind bars, it cut Drake to his soul and deepened his already thick hatred of cops, while making him permanently ready to distrust all people, whether they hold badges or not. Another striking passage from the book, about this episode:
The black headline said Olly Barnes had been sentenced to fifteen years… That day I quit the human race. I never went back to my job. The only legitimate work I’ve done since has always been with an illegitimate purpose in mind. If that was the way it was, I’d play it as it lay.
Drake, hard-hearted man that he is, forms more human connections in the present in this tale. In the Florida town, he becomes drinking buddies with a good-natured local; and against his own will he forms a romantic relationship with the tough-as-nails-but-pure-of-heart redhead who runs a local bar, and whose raw good looks and irresistible personality bring out the loving animal stowed away in Drake’s black heart. But lest anyone start to think these human bonds (as well as the connection he forms with the stray dog he picks up in the town) mean that Drake has gone all soft, there are his encounters with other people to be considered. Those who get in his way, or who make the mistake of trying to get their hands on the bank loot or otherwise cross him (he gets into an especially intense battle with an evil local cop and the bastard’s cold-hearted female accomplice), tend to meet the cruelest of fates. When Drake wants to visit some payback on a foe, he takes pleasure in meting out his vengeance in the most savage and brutal way he can imagine. And feels no pain of guilt or shame afterwards.
I won’t go any deeper into the plot elements of The Name of The Game is Death, for fear of ruining things for someone who has yet to experience the novel. And I won’t attempt a biographical overview of author Marlowe, because that’s already been done so well by Charles Kelly, on Allan Guthrie’s excellent e-zine Noir Originals.
In closing, I’ll suffice to say again how much I agree with Stephen King’s words about Marlowe and this book. Yes, The Name of the Game is Death is the hardest (or at least among the hardest) of the hard-boiled. It’s also more than that.
Finally, for no good reason and utterly out of context, another passage from the book that strikes me as vintage noir:
I found the old woman’s place with no trouble. I recognized the partly rusted-away iron fence around the scruffy, postage stamp-sized front yard. The last time I was here, Ed Morris had been with me. Ed had been pushing up daisies for quite a while now. He’d never learned to keep his mouth shut in a strange bar.
Brian Greene’s short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in 17 different publications since 2008. He writes regularly for Shindig!, a U.K.-based music magazine with worldwide distribution. Greene lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, and their cat Rita Lee.