Monday, August 19, 2019

The Name of the Game is Death / One Endless Hour by Dan J. Marlowe

Dan J. Marlowe.  The name alone brings an echo of the hardboiled—

“I’ll be leaving one of these days, and the day I do they’ll never forget it.” 

He wrote in the heyday of the paperback original.  His best work was published by Gold Medal, and his novels stand above most of his contemporaries as hard, uncompromising masterpieces of hardboiled crime and suspense. 

His life was as strange as his fiction: he is likely the plainest womanizer exported by Massachusetts; he gambled professionally for several years; he befriended, lived with, and co-wrote several short stories with the notorious bank robber Al Nussbaum; and late in life he developed memory loss and something called aphasia—“partial or total inability to write and understand words.”    

And all that is only the beginning.  Not to mention it was parroted from the introduction, written by Marlowe’s biographer Charles Kelly, to the new trade paperback double published by Stark House Press.  It features two of Marlowe’s best novels, which really, are two halves of a single story: The Name of the Game is Death (Gold Medal 1962), and One Endless Hour (Gold Medal 1969).

The novels tell the genesis story of Marlowe’s Earl Drake series character.  Drake is not a likable man.  He is a bank robber with a predilection for killing people.  He doesn’t kill simply to kill, but kill he does.  The Name of the Game is Death opens at the scene of a botched bank robbery with Drake shot in the escape.  He and his partner split up, and Drake finds a doctor and a dark place to hide until he is recuperated and the heat is off, which is when the story really begins.  His partner went missing with the money, and Drake is broke.  The rest of Name of the Game is Drake’s search for his partner, and the money, and One Endless Hour is the fallout.

The two novels merge into one complete and engrossing story, which is not to say either is dependent on the other; both are complete with beginning, middle, and end.  However the plot in One Endless Hour is built directly from Name of the Game.  In fact, the final chapter of Name of the Game is included, with a few adjustments as the Prologue to One Endless Hour. 

Name of the Game is the stronger of the two novels.  It includes an exposition of Drake’s childhood, explaining (without apologizing) for Drake’s seeming amoral character.  Its backstory emphasis and character development is reminiscent of John D. MacDonald, but only just.  Its prose is raw and hardboiled—

“I swear both his feet were off the ground when he fired at me.  The odds must have been sixty thousand to one, but he took me in the left upper arm.  It smashed me back against the car.  I steadied myself with a hand on the roof and put two a yard behind each other right through his belt buckle.  If they had their windows open they could have heard him across town.”

—and it is more thematically related to Jim Thompson than John D.

One Endless Hour is more of a straight caper novel.  It lacks Name of the Game’s character development, and backstory, but it flashes pure action.  And, if you consider the two novels as one story, it is the climactic resolution.  The differences in pacing and plotting act to strengthen the two novels’ impact rather than diminish it, and the new Stark House edition is the perfect way to experience the story arc.


Monday, August 12, 2019

Evolution (or maybe just changes)


      My magic as a writer—if I have any—happens in the second and third and fourth drafts. The first draft is a mad and passionate sprint. The characters and the story collide with unexpected results. What I thought would happen (before I wrote that first line) rarely does. The theme doesn’t change, but the way it plays out often will. As an example of how my cluttered writerly mind works, I dug up three different openings for my recent short story, “No Chips, No Bonus” published in the anthology Paul Bishop Presents… Pattern of Behavior, for comparison.
The first beginning is what I saw when the story played itself for me in a day dream. A hot and sweaty desert afternoon. The hero, in this case a guy named Jimmy Ford, being pulled into an isolated location by something not quite known—by the reader anyway. I wanted it mysterious and intriguing at once. And this is what I came up with:

The steering wheel vibrated in my hand as the sedan shimmied across the corrugated dirt road. I wiped sweat from my brow. A blackbird watched from a broken down fence as I concentrated on the rough path, steadily moving north between Lakeside’s yellow-brown slopes and the Grassy’s hump-backed silhouette.

I still like that opening and I think it did (overall) what I wanted it to do, but it pushed the story’s action too far away. So I changed it to this:

When the ochre stained hill came into view I eased the sedan left and drove down a mild depression—tires crunching through shattered rock—and stopped next to a small juniper stand. The engine ticked and groaned before settling into silence. The landscape’s emptiness an illusion. An Air Force bombing range fifteen miles north and west. A television relay station, antennas spiraling skyward, sitting on the Lakeside’s treeless ridgeline to the east. And farther still, the sullied shoreline marking the Great Salt Lake’s shallow waters.

And damn if I didn’t like that opening, too. But it played hell with the story’s pacing. It was still too slow and I wanted, like every short story writer, to capture the reader’s interest immediately. So I changed it to this (which is how the story was published): 

I was awakened by Bobby Helms singing Jingle Bell Rock. An ironic ringtone because it was July and the only jingling I’d heard in months was the simulated sound of coins cascading from slots that were programmed tighter than a billionaire’s wallet. 
“Ford? You awake?” Jenkins’ voice booming in my ear.
“Sure, I’m awake.” My eyes were still closed.
“We have a problem.” Jenkins was tense. A quaver of anticipation and fear and something else I couldn’t label whisked into a frothy hum I imagined his imported girls heard every time he unzipped his pants.

And damn if I don’t love this opening scene. It shows us something about Jimmy Ford. He listens to Christmas music in July (as a ringtone anyway), he hangs out in casinos, and Jimmy works for a guy, Jenkins, who he doesn’t much like.
Now if only I could make that happen in the first draft instead of the third or fourth or fifth.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

"Awake"

I have a brand new short story in an anthology that hit the street last week. The anthology is Paul Bishop Presents… Criminal Tendencies. There are ten crime stories from Paul Bishop, Eric Beetner, Richard Prosch, Michael A. Baron (and others), including my dark psychological tale “Awake”.

The development of “Awake” has a long and sordid history that spans across nearly two years and I think the end product is pretty good. The opening paragraph changed a handful of times (as did most everything else in the story), but here is the final version:

“The old man’s eyes were hot, but the back of his head was ice cold. The neglected kitchen—dirty dishes stacked in the sink; the counter littered with empty food packaging—disappeared as he focused on the tiny old-fashioned micro-cassette sitting on the cracked laminate kitchen table.”

I hope you enjoy it (if you choose the read it).