Monday, June 24, 2013

A Resurrected Classic from Dan J. Marlowe

His name might be Roy Martin; it might be Earl Drake; it might be Chet Arnold, or it might be something else altogether. In the end, we never know and it doesn't really matter. What counts is the fact that he's a classic pulp fiction criminal--a bank robber in this particular case--in a book that's one of the best examples of the genre.

Martin/Drake/Arnold is the creation of Dan J. Marlowe, a writer who began his career relatively late in life and whose career ended all too soon in 1977, when he contracted a mysterious case of amnesia and was no longer able to write. For a brief span, though, from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s, he produced a number of pulp novels, some of which he wrote alone and others which he wrote with a co-author.

The Name of the Game Is Death is generally considered to be his best book, and it's a terrific read--a lean story, stripped to the bone that pulls you in from the opening page and races through to the startling conclusion. It starts with a bank robbery in Phoenix that goes bad, although "Martin" and one of his partners manage to escape with $178,000--a pretty good haul in 1962.

But three people are dead, including the third robber and a couple of bank guards. Worse, from Martin's perspective, is the fact that he's been shot in the arm and can't travel. With their plans shot all to hell, Martin will lay low and attempt to heal while his remaining partner, Bunny, takes the loot to a small town in Florida. Martin will catch up when he can and in the meantime, Bunny will occasionally send him money to live on care of General Delivery.

Briefly, things go as planned, but then one day, there's no envelope at General Delivery on the scheduled day, and none appears thereafter. Martin trusts his partner implicitly, which means that something has gone badly wrong in Florida.

Once recovered from his wound, Martin makes his way cross country to Florida where he becomes Chet Arnold, a tree surgeon. Having established himself in the community, he begins searching for Bunny and the missing loot. Inevitably in a book of this sort, he will have to contend with brutal, crooked cops; sexy, treacherous dames and a host of other obstacles. But what sets this book apart from so many others of its day and genre is the skill that Marlowe brings to the effort. The plot is compelling; there's plenty of action; the characters are fully realized, and you once you start the book, you can't put the damned thing down until you reach the climax.

It's very unfortunate that Marlowe's career was cut so tragically short, and because his career was relatively brief, he's largely faded from view. But crime fiction fans owe a huge debt of gratitude to Charles Kelly who has done a great deal to resurrect Marlowe's reputation.

Kelly has recently written an excellent biography of Marlowe, Gunshots in Another Room: The Forgotten Life of Dan J. Marlowe, and he has provided an introduction to a new edition of The Name of the Game Is Death which has just been re-released by Stark House in a double volume alone with another Marlowe classic, One Endless Hour. As a result of Kelly's efforts Dan J. Marlowe is enjoying another moment in the sun, and those who love classic hard-boiled pulp fiction will certainly want to find the new Stark House edition of these books.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Even More Big Sky Blues

Beginning with Big Sky Blues in 1988, Robert Sims Reid wrote five police procedurals set mostly in the fictional town of Rozette, Montana. The three books in the middle of the series featured a detective named Leo Banks and these novels were bookended by two featuring Ray Bartell, who first appeared as a patrolman in Big Sky Blues and then as a detective in Reid's last book, Wild Animals, which was published in 1996. All five are excellent books that sound completely authentic, due in part to the fact that Reid is a very good writer and also to the fact that he worked for many years as a police officer in Missoula, Montana, which often sounds a lot like Rozette.

When introduced in Big Sky Blues, Bartell was party to a tragic incident that followed him the rest of his career. One night while Bartell and his partner were on patrol, and while Bartell's partner was investigating a suspicious situation in an abandoned building, a troubled person got the drop on Bartell. Bartell believed he had convinced the man to give up his gun and surrender, but as the man was about to do so, Bartell's partner emerged from the building, saw the situation from a distance, and shot and killed the man.

The incident has haunted Bartell for years and caused some of his fellow officers to question his judgment. But over the course of twelve years, he has risen to the rank of detective and has proved his worth to the department.

Now, a major slimeball named Merle Puhl, who lives in Rozette, is running for the U.S. Senate from Montana. Another gasbag, who used to be the President of the United States, is coming to Rozette to campaign for Puhl. This means that the Rozette P.D. will be working in conjunction with the Secret Service and other federal agencies to insure the safety of the former president. Bartell is detailed to work with the Feds.

The candidate, and hence the Feds, are particularly worried about an alleged eco-terrorist named Henry Skelton, an ex-con who lives mostly in the woods and simply wants to be left alone. Skelton is suspected of blowing up a helicopter belonging to a logging company that is raping the nearby wilderness. While there's no proof that Skelton committed the crime, the campaign has identified him as a potential threat and Ray Bartell is supposed to check him out. His clear, but unspoken instructions, are to make sure that Skelton is neutralized until the visit of the ex-president is over.

Being a good cop and a decent human being as well, Bartell is troubled by the lack of any proof that Skelton is guilty of blowing of the helicopter or that he constitutes any sort of a threat to the candidate, his campaign, or the former president. He attempts to deal with the situation in a way that ensures the safety and the rights of all of the parties involved, Henry Skelton included. This suggests to some people that Bartell might be a bit too soft to be a "real" cop, which echoes the charge against him from the case twelve years earlier.

In spite of the criticism, Bartell treads carefully between the Feds, his local bosses, the slimy pols and Henry Skelton himself. Inevitably, problems will result and the result is an engaging tale of a good man trying to do the right thing in a world that appears not to be much interested in the right thing.

Robert Sims Reid has created a cast of memorable characters and put them into motion in a setting and a story that has the considerable ring of truth. One can't help but empathize with a number of these characters, even though their interests and objectives don't always coincide. But, of course, that's the way the world often works in real life.

Sadly, after completing this book, Reid apparently did not ever write another. When asked in 2002 whether there might ever be another novel featuring Leo Banks or Ray Bartell, Reid demurred and suggested that the books were a lot of fun to write but that they didn't pay all that well. That was a tragedy on at least two levels: As good as these books are, and as much critical acclaim as they received, Robert Sims Reid is another of those authors who deserved much wider recognition and much greater financial success than he may have enjoyed. It's also a loss for anyone who loves crime fiction, because as much fun as these books might have been to write, they're even more fun--and more rewarding--to read.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Dan J. Marlowe: A Writer's Life Vividly Rendered

In this compelling biography, Charles Kelly chronicles the life of Dan J. Marlowe, a suspense writer whose career spanned the 1960s and '70's, but whose reputation has largely faded into oblivion in the years since.

As Kelly makes clear, this is largely unfair because in his heyday, Marlowe was a prolific writer who churned out a large body of work, published both under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms. Best known for his classic pulp novel, The Name of the Game Is Death, Marlowe also wrote a large number of short stories for a variety of magazines as well as a number of hard- and soft-core "adult" novels.

Marlowe became a writer somewhat late in life after supporting himself as a bookkeeper and professional gambler. But with the publication of Doorway to Death in 1959, he hit the ground running, and never looked back.

Marlowe's wife, Evelyn, had died in 1956, and after that he lived for a number of years in Harbor Beach, Michigan. A man of seeming contradictions, he was a hard-boiled writer of pulp novels that were brimming with sex and violence, and whose favorite sexual fetish involved spanking women with large bottoms. At the same time, though, he was also a conservative Republican who joined the Rotary Club and served on the city council.

He also formed a close friendship with Al Nussbaum, a bank robber who had once appeared on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. After Nussbaum wrote him a fan letter, Marlowe began visiting Nussbaum while Nussbaum was still in prison and was later instrumental in helping Nussbaum win parole. Later the two men would live together in Los Angeles, while Nussbaum pursued his own career as a mystery writer.

Tragically, while still near the peak of his career in 1977, Marlowe suddenly developed amnesia, perhaps induced by a stroke, and lost the memory of much of his past life. Shortly thereafter, he moved to L.A. with Nussbaum, who introduced Marlowe to several other L.A. area writers and attempted to jumpstart his career.

Sadly, it was not to be. Although Marlowe continued to work on small projects, because of his health problems, he was unable to put in the long sessions at the typewriter that were necessary to sustain the level of work he had produced before being stricken. He was able to publish only one more book before he died of a heart attack in 1986.

Kelly renders this story vividly and, in the process, he reveals not only the life of a writer who deserves to be better-remembered, but also a great deal about the life of many writers during this period who, like Marlowe, were enormously productive but who never broke through on a larger stage and who thus usually lived close to the edge financially. Like many of his contemporaries, Marlowe was always hoping to write the "big" book that would win him a larger reputation and greater financial success. Sadly, he was unable to do so, but now, thanks to Charles Kelly, he may finally get the recognition he continues to deserve.

Monday, June 10, 2013

No Safe Harbor

This is another excellent psychological crime novel from Tana French. In this case the book features another member of the Dublin Murder Squad, Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, who first appeared in a minor role in French's last book, Faithful Place.

Kennedy has the best solve rate on the squad. He's the star, and thus when a particularly brutal homicide occurs, Mick is assigned to the case. He's also teamed with a new young partner, Richie Curran, and, in addition to catching a killer, he's expected to show Richie the ropes and make a real detective out of him.

The case itself is a stomach-turner: a young family has been attacked; the father and two children are dead, and the mother is in intensive care, barely clinging to life. The scene is as desolate as can be imagined: a new seaside housing estate outside of Dublin named Brianstown that was only partially completed when the recession hit Ireland with full force and brought development to a screeching halt.

Mick and Richie arrive on the scene, out in the middle of nowhere, to find a scattered group of luxury houses, half of which sit unfinished and only a few of which are occupied. The victims, the Spain family, had been among the first to move in, enticed by the glossy brochures that promised a beautiful, luxurious lifestyle by the sea.

It didn't quite turn out that way, and the Spains are victims of the economic collapse twice over. They're trapped is this failing housing development and Pat Spain, the husband, father and sole breadwinner in the family, has lost his job in the downturn. Things have been very rough and getting worse for the Spains over the last several months, and the evidence initially suggests that Pat Spain may have gone over the edge, killed his children and attempted to murder his wife before taking his own life.

But it soon becomes apparent that there's a lot more going on here than may have initially appeared, and some very strange, seemingly inexplicable things have been going on recently in the life of this family. It's a very unsettling case, especially for Mick Kennedy, who has his own memories of this setting by the sea.

Back before the developers bought the property and renamed it Brianstown, the place was known as Broken Harbor, and Mick's family spent a couple of weeks there every summer until a tragedy struck the family. The repercussions of that event are still reverberating through Kennedy's life as he tackles this current tragic case, and the combination of the two incidents may be enough to overwhelm even the superstar of the Dublin Murder Squad.

French has created here another cast of unforgettable characters, both among the family members who are the victims of the crime and the detectives who must attempt to solve it. For all his confidence, Mick Kennedy is a deeply troubled man and French will push him to the very limit. Beyond the case itself, this book also vividly conveys the havoc unleashed by the economic collapse and the consequences it produced for so many innocent victims.

One thinks of a harbor as a place of refuge, as a place where you can breathe a deep sigh of relief as you arrive home safely from a long journey. Sadly though, this Broken Harbor is anything but a place of refuge, and the people who find themselves there are anything but safe.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Donald Lam Reports Back for Duty

First published in 1944, this is another of Erle Stanley Gardner's Donald Lam and Bertha Cool detective novels, which Gardner wrote under the name of A. A. Fair.

At this point, of course, World War II was raging and as a virile young specimen, Donald could hardly fail to do his part. So he left the agency in the hand of his partner, Bertha, and joined the Navy. This was very convenient for the Navy, but very inconvenient for a crime fiction author whose lead character was thus unavailable for duty.

Gardner (or Fair) resolved the problem by sending Lam to the South Seas, where he was attacked not by the Japanese but by a tropical bug that left him too debilitated to continue in the service. He's been mustered out for health reasons and so returns to duty at the detective agency, where he will carry on, albeit in a weakened condition.

By the time Donald returns, the agency has fallen on hard times. He was the brains of the outfit and without him around, the clients have been few and far between. But practically the moment Donald steps through the door, a new case falls into their lap. A young woman wants the firm to investigate the background of her boss's new wife. It seems simple enough, but naturally, it won't be simple at all.

Donald discovers the target at the Rimley Rendezvous, a cocktail lounge where bored women meet men on the prowl. The target is with a man who is not her new husband, and the management, recognizing Donald, boots him out. Donald calls Bertha, describes the man the target was with and tells Bertha to tail him when he leaves the club.

The tail job will lead to an auto accident, which will be followed shortly by an axe murder. Naturally, there's a cigarette girl with great legs who's involved in this up to her eyebrows and perhaps beyond and, as is usual in one of these books, the plot gets increasingly convoluted as one page follows the next.

Reading these books, I've often wondered how Gardner ever managed to keep the plots straight in his own mind, or if he even bothered to try; God knows, it's virtually impossible for the reader to follow them. In the end, of course, Donald will tease out the solution to the whole mess as he always does and just in the nick of time. These stories often don't make a lot of sense, but it's always fun to watch Donald in action and to return, however briefly, to a much simpler day and age in the crime fiction business.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Horror in the Heartland

Sheriff's deputy Billy Lafitte sounds like a guy who might have stepped straight out of one of Jim Thompson's darker novels. (As though he had any light ones.)

Lafitte was a policeman in Gulfport, Mississippi, but because of his antics in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he was booted off the force. His wife divorced him and took custody of their two kids, but Billy's now ex-brother-in-law, the sheriff of Yellow Medicine County in rural Minnesota, takes pity on Billy and hires him on as a deputy.

One might think that given a second chance and anxious to redeem himself in the eyes of his wife and children, Billy might straighten up and fly right. He chooses not to do so, and once in the frozen tundra, he reverts to the sort of conduct that got him kicked out of Mississippi. For example, he soon corrals the local meth cookers and dealers and, rather than shutting them down, effectively puts them under his thumb.

He also falls hard for a young girl named Drew, the lead singer of a local psychobilly band called Elvis Antichrist. Lafitte basically coerces Drew into having sex with him once but then falls hard for the girl and can't bring himself to force himself on her again; he'll only have her if she genuinely wants him.

That's not likely, since Drew is madly in love with a guy who's even a bigger loser than Lafitte. The love of her life is a small-time meth dealer and when he gets into trouble, Drew asks Billy to help the kid out. Billy agrees to do so in his own inimitable way and soon finds that he's stepped into a hornets' nest that seems to grow bigger by the moment, involving a snarky and ambitious federal agent and a group of bad-ass Malaysian terrorists who have targeted the American Heartland. Needless to say, the excrement hits the fan in a big way.

This is a very compelling book that immediately grabs the reader by the throat and then squeezes harder and harder until the climax. It's not a delicate little read; rather it's deliciously dark, nasty, brutal, gory and twisted. Just when you think Smith has reached a line that can't be crossed, he leaps over it and rushes full speed ahead.(Did I mention that the book was really gory?)

Cozy, it's not. But readers who like their crime fiction really, really dark will find that Yellow Medicine is the perfect prescription.