Friday, June 28, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: OPERATION DEATHMAKER by Dan Marlowe

Ever heard of Dan Marlowe before? No? Well, that's not too surprising - very few people have, which is a real shame. However, it is possible you happened across the name inadvertently in Stephen King's 'The Colorado Kid.' Published by Hard Case Crime, the novella's a very minor and mostly forgettable effort from King, but it does have a couple of things going for it. One is the great cover by Glen Orbik - which incidentally has nothing to do with the actual story itself - while the other is the nice dedication from King at the beginning, which reads: "With admiration, for DAN J. MARLOWE, author of 'The Name Of The Game Is Death': Hardest of the hardboiled."

And he's right. 'The Name of the Game is Death' is one of the hardest-boiled crime thrillers I've ever come across, and believe me I've read quite a few. In it, an unnamed heist man - who sometimes goes under the alias of Chet Arnold, and sometimes Earl Drake - goes on a rampage as he attempts to track down the killers of his partner and recover the money owed him. To label the character as single-minded and ruthless would be a major understatement. He's more like a force of nature, cutting a violent swath through the landscape as he chases after the foolish people who've screwed him over. Reading it you just know it's all going to end in tears, which it ultimately does for pretty much everyone involved.

That book came out in 1962 (the same year Richard Stark's very similar Parker character was first introduced) and not only received a lot of respect from within the industry but sold in fairly good numbers too. Afterwards, Marlowe wrote a number of mostly excellent standalone crime thrillers (e.g. 'Strongarm,' 'Never Live Twice,' 'Four For The Money,' 'The Vengeance Man'), but none of them proved to be the breakthrough success he craved. Then in 1969 one of his buddies urged him to bring back the 'Name Of The Game Is Death' character for a sequel, and suggested this time Marlowe give him the permanent name of Earl Drake.

Marlowe accepted the challenge and quickly came up with a worthy follow-up called 'One Endless Hour,' in which Drake spends much of the novel recovering from the appalling burns he suffered at the end of the previous book. As a result, he not only becomes expert in the use of make-up (initially to cover up his numerous scars), but also assembles a collection of toupes with which he can disguise himself depending on the situation. The rest of the novel follows Drake as he attempts to set up a daring new bank heist to finance his new life.

I don't have any figures in front of me, but I'm guessing the book must have sold fairly well because it was at this point that Marlowe's publisher asked him to develop a whole series of books starring Drake. But the offer came with two very important conditions: 1) Drake would have to be toned down considerably from the near psychopath of the first two books, and 2) they wanted him turned into a secret agent type, since those were the kinds of books that were selling at the time. Perhaps against his better wishes Marlowe complied, quickly softening Drake's rougher edges and turning him into a very reluctant freelance undercover agent for the CIA. He even brought back Hazel, the big tough redhead Drake bedded in the first book, and turned her into his regular girlfriend.

And so a series was born. Over the following seven years Marlowe wrote a total of ten additional Drake novels, each one immediately recognizable by the word 'Operation' in the title. Also, to underline the ongoing series aspect and to provide the reading public with a memorable gimmick, Drake was now given the tagline: 'The Man with Nobody's Face.'

It's a very hit and miss series, it has to be said. The next two books ('Op. Fireball' and 'Op. Flashpoint') are both solid examples of their type - especially 'Flashpoint' which won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original - and feature a Drake who hasn't completely lost his rawness of old. But the four that came after those ('Op. Breakthrough,' 'Op. Drumfire,' 'Op. Checkmate,' & 'Op. Stranglehold') are mostly pretty forgettable potboilers, partly because the espionage plots simply aren't that interesting and partly because Drake's CIA superior, Erikson, starts taking center stage for some reason, and he's even less interesting. So in effect Drake almost becomes a supporting character in his own series, which is pretty weird to say the least. Especially when you consider the books are all written in first-person. Anyway, starting with book no. 9 ('Op. Whiplash'), Marlowe finally gained some control over the direction of the series and ditched the espionage elements entirely - along with the seriously dull Erikson - and allowed Drake to simple exist as himself again.

And this is where the series became fun again. That ninth volume is a satisfyingly rough and ready sequel to the original 'Name Of The Game', while the tenth and twelfth volumes ('Op. Hammerlock' & 'Op. Counterpunch'), with their interconnected Mexican-based revenge plots, work almost as a two-parter - and a pretty good one at that. But it's the eleventh Drake thriller, the standalone 'Operation Deathmaker,' that really stands out for me. Admittedly it's not as riveting as the first two Drake novels, but in my opinion it easily outshines all the other books in the series.

The whole story takes place over a 36-hour period, and like the rest of the series it's all told in first-person. We start with Drake as he drives Hazel's teenage niece, Melissa, to LA International Airport. She's been visiting for a few days and now has to head back east in time for the new college semester. But before they can even get to the terminal, two armed men assault them in the parking lot and one of them knocks Drake out with a gas bomb. Waking up to find Melissa gone, Drake speeds back to the motel and updates Hazel on the situation and then gets a call from the kidnappers who order him to drive to a specific pay phone for further instructions.

At the same time, Hazel spots a junkie breaking into their car parked across the street and heads outside to confront him. She's only yards away when the junkie turns the ignition and the car explodes, seriously injuring Hazel in the process. Drake, aware that the bomb was meant for him and that his criminal background immediately puts him at the top of any suspect list, enlists the help of Valerie Cooper, another motel guest with whom they've become friendly, to take care of Hazel and the cops while he speeds off to the designated pay phone to await the kidnappers' next call.

And that's just the first chapter.

The rest of the book's perhaps not quite as frenetic as that opening, but Marlowe still manages to keep things bopping along at a rapid pace as we follow Drake's increasingly desperate efforts to get Melissa back in one piece. Like the others in the series, 'Operation Deathmaker' is only a brief read at 176 pages, and because of the first-person storytelling there are no real sub-plots to speak of. This means everything's stripped down to simple cause-and-effect, which works really well for stories like this one - where urgency is key.

But I think there are also a number of other reasons why 'Deathmaker' works so much better than the three mentioned above. For a start, it's great to see Drake working solo for the first time since 'The Name Of The Game...' and 'One Endless Hour.' Hazel's a strong character, but that's not always a good thing in a series such as this. After all, it is Drake's name on the cover, not Hazel's. In previous books her presence generally compromised his usual hard-boiled approach to solving problems, plus she often helped him get out of a number of rough scrapes which didn't exactly strengthen his character either. But with her now laid up in hospital, Drake is back to relying on his own wits and ingenuity to stay one step ahead of the cops and get Melissa back, and the result is a much more satisfying narrative than usual.

And that's another plus. Throughout much of the book, Drake has to once more immerse himself in his old criminal life to get what he wants. He simply doesn't have any other options. When the kidnappers give him a 24-hour deadline to get the $400,000 they want for Melissa, Drake knows the only way he can possibly accomplish it is by utilizing his old safe-cracking skills. Marlowe then treats the reader to a detailed account of Drake's planning and preparation of the job. First, he chooses his mark - a heavily protected brokerage firm with a lot of cash in the office safe - and gets a layout of the place, then he gets in touch with an old contact who can supply him with the necessary tools he'll need. Then comes the actual job, which Drake performs with his usual acumen and skill. It's all gripping stuff, with Marlowe portraying Drake as the self-sufficient professional criminal he used to be before Hazel entered his life.

And the villains are great, too. You really couldn't wish for a nastier bunch of sadists. And when Drake inevitably decides to turn investigator and dig out their identities himself, the reader's with him every step of the way, hoping they'll finally get some of the same treatment they've been handing out to others. (Hint: they do.) And the inclusion of the Valerie Cooper character also adds some nice sexual frisson to the plot, too - something that's been missing from the series since Hazel became a regular supporting character.

The book's not without its drawbacks, however. For one thing there's the Melissa character - who's kind of a cipher at best. We're barely introduced to her before she gets grabbed by the bad guys so we don't ever really get to know her, and we definitely don't know what she means to Drake or Hazel. In fact, if anything, Marlowe paints Drake as being fairly indifferent to her presence, which makes it all the more puzzling when he goes all out to get her back at any cost. Also, there are a few red flags along the way that should have raised Drake's suspicions regarding not only the kidnappers but Melissa's welfare, but he conveniently ignores them in order to keep the plot moving forward, which is a little lazy on Marlowe's part.

Although there are one or two other problems areas (including a totally unnecessary dream sequence - a personal hate of mine), on the whole this is still a really strong thriller from a great forgotten author, featuring an interesting anti-hero unafraid to do whatever it takes to get the job done. I also like how Marlowe ends this particular story, as it reminds me of the way Richard Stark finished his Parker novels. Abruptly. Without giving too much away, this one finishes with a very existential Drake musing to himself as he sits alone in a motel room:

     I sat down in a chair with my cleaned-and-oiled automatic in my lap and waited for the money to dry.
     When it did, I'd check out.
     Nothing should tie me to the Miramar, but it made sense to use another motel until I could spring Hazel.
     I didn't feel sleepy.
     I sat there, smoking an occasional cigarette, until it was time to pack and leave.

Now that's the way to end a story. No muss, no fuss.

Unfortunately, there was only one more Drake novel to come before the series came to an untimely end. This was probably due to sales, although Marlowe's serious health problems at the time may have also had something to do with it. But at least the series went out with a bang rather than a whimper.

Now for a long time the only way to read the series was to pick up old paperback copies from online secondhand stores, and some of those latter books could get quite pricey - probably due to lower print runs. But with the rising popularity of eBooks a large part of Marlowe's bibliography (including 'Operation Deathmaker' and most of the Drake series) has now become available again from Amazon - and often at vastly reduced prices. So now you've really got no excuse.

** For further reading, I cannot recommend highly enough Charles Kelly's superb biography: 'Gunshots in Another Room - The Forgotten Life of Dan J. Marlowe.' In what is clearly a labour of love, Kelly recounts an amazing life that was as bizarre as it was tragic, encompassing amnesia, bank robberies, gambling, and plenty more besides. In fact, it's the kind of story that could have come from within the pages of one of Marlowe's own books - proving the old adage that life can sometimes be stranger than fiction.

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