Sunday, May 31, 2009

Black Lizard Lounge #2: THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH

The second installment of my ongoing occasional look back at some vintage Black Lizard paperbacks from the late 1980s and early '90s:



ORIGINAL PUBLICATION: Fawcett Gold Medal, 1962

THE STORY: Amoral professional criminal infiltrates small-town America, finds it rotten to the core.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The good stuff, 100 proof

I first read this novel about ten years ago and enjoyed it. Reading it again, I think it's some sort of twisted masterpiece. Written in first person, it's the story of a ruthless professional heister who travels cross-country to a rural Florida town to investigate the disappearance of a former partner, who was holding the mutual proceeds from a Phoenix bank robbery. Once there, he runs afoul of a crooked cop, a larcenous postal employee and other out-of-town criminals on the trail of the money.

The book begins in media res during that bank job, with bullets flying. The getaway driver is killed and the nameless narrator - who uses the aliases of "Chet Arnold" and "Roy Martin" in the course of the book - dispassionately guns down two bank guards before taking a bullet himself. He and the surviving bandit split up, the partner taking the money to squirrel away while the narrator hides out and recovers from his injuries. When the partner drops off the radar - and the monthly packages of cash stop arriving - the narrator heads east to find out what happened and try to recover what's left of the money.

A lot has been written about Dan J. Marlowe, so I won't go into much of it here. Suffice it to say that TNOTGID is about as hard-boiled as they come. While on his trek east, the narrator reflects on his past life and abusive childhood, the injustices done to him by bullies and brutal cops, and how it all forged a bitter rage and alienation that can't help but explode when triggered. But he loves animals, if not people, and even adopts an injured dog after he sees it intentionally run over on a Florida street. He also has a casual relationship with a big-framed barmaid, and forges a friendship with a local real estate salesman, all in hopes of getting to the bottom of what happened to the partner and the cash.

TNOTGID does bear similarities to Donald E. Westlake's THE HUNTER, the first of the "Richard Stark"/Parker books, published that same year, though it lacks the forceful focus of that novel. Instead, it gives us an almost textbook study of an anti-social, misanthropic outlaw who kills without compunction and has a mean-on for the world that can't be slaked. It does meander a bit midway, with passages devoted to horse racing discussions, the specifics and tools of tree surgery and the narrator's fondness for women with large bottoms. But the ending is a genuine surprise, with the narrator's anger and determination only fueled by the catastrophic events that overtake him.

Marlowe's nameless narrator returned in 1969's ONE ENDLESS HOUR, in which he was rechristened Earl Drake "The Man With Nobody's Face." In this new incarnation, he became an international adventurer and secret agent and the hero of 11 more Fawcett Gold Medal titles. These new books (and slightly revised versions of the first two) were reconfigured to fit in with the mens adventure series boom of the '70s. Although one of them, 1970's FLASHPOINT (later reprinted as OPERATION FLASHPOINT) won an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original, most were far removed in tone and content from TNOTGID, and the books were clearly running out of steam by the time of the last one, 1976's OPERATION COUNTERPUNCH. Marlowe died in 1986. One of his final novels was 1982's GUERILLA GAMES - an installment in the Executioner spin-off series PHOENIX FORCE - written under the house name "Gar Wilson."

Though Marlowe did water down his signature character to make him more palatable (and marketable) in later books, Arnold/Martin/Drake is at his full sociopathic glory in THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH. In contrast to the barking dogs of most pulp paperback crime fiction of its era, this book is a wolf howl in the night.

Next time at the Black Lizard Lounge: W.L. Heath's VIOLENT SATURDAY


pattinase (abbott) said...

One I've been meaning to read forever.

wstroby said...

It's a pretty quick read. I'm guessing 50K words or less. The Black Lizard edition is only 136 pages.

Pericles said...

An outstanding book, but I think his VENGEANCE MAN is just a trifle better. Not that you can go wrong with either.

wstroby said...

More on Dan J. Marlowe this Sunday.

wstroby said...

And I'll be getting to THE VENGEANCE MAN down the road.