As I mentioned when I started this blog, I’m a relative newcomer to crime/mystery fiction. Sure, I encountered the usual stuff growing up, Poe, Doyle, Christie, a bunch of short story anthologies. A little Hammett. Lots of old movies. But several years ago, more or less on a whim, I started reading the Parker novels, and when I ran out of those, I started on the Tobins, and when I ran out of those, I moved on to the books Westlake wrote under his real name.
And I began to be curious about his influences, and his contemporaries–about writers who were like him in some ways, who shared certain affinities, who covered some of the same ground. If he mentioned an author favorably, I tried to read works by that author. I also reasoned that if I really liked these particular books about a tough enigmatic armed robber, I might like other books about similar characters written by different authors. Sometimes I did. More often I didn’t. But I learned things, either way.
Thanks to bloggers like Trent at Violent World of Parker and Nick Jones at Existential Ennui, who were similarly interested, I began to selectively explore the rest of the crime/mystery field, a fathomless genre, most of which remains a cipher to me, and quite honestly much of which doesn’t seem worth the deciphering (as Sturgeon’s Law helpfully informs us, 90% of everything is crap). Ray Garraty, who has often posted here, was perhaps more helpful than anyone–as I helped him with his voracious book-collecting habit, often reading the books I ordered on his behalf, before dispatching them off to the general vicinity of the Urals. We helped each other, as fellow enthusiasts so often do.
I’m still very far from being any kind of expert on the mystery genre, and doubt I ever shall be. But I can honestly say I know more than most, for what that’s worth. And coming at the field from a somewhat unusual perspective, I may have sometimes picked up on things that more experienced eyes missed.
One of the crime authors I became interested in for a time was Dan J. Marlowe. And he is nothing if not interesting.
Marlowe was well into his 40’s when he became a professional writer, a very late start for anyone. His wife had died, and after living a seemingly staid Middle American lifestyle for most of his life, full of grey flannel suits and offices, he just decided to pursue his long-suppressed creative ambitions full tilt. He did not produce that many books, and most of his books are not that impressive–but a few of them became minor classics, and one achieved legendary cult status (though never a film adaptation, and at this point I doubt it ever will, unless Tarantino wants to do it).
Marlowe worked a lot with collaborators–two of whom were ex-military men, and those books mainly didn’t hold up that well. Another was Al Nussbaum, formerly one of the most notorious bank robbers of all time–that collaboration worked out somewhat better, turned into a decidedly odd friendship that has inspired a lot of head scratching in various quarters.
Still, his best books were invariably written solo. It seems a fairly safe bet to say that he didn’t have many good books in him, that his inspiration didn’t hold up over time, that his very late start negatively impacted his development as a writer. But he enjoyed the authorial life, and wanted to go on producing crime/espionage paperbacks (mainly for Gold Medal) and getting paid for it. The lifestyle agreed with him. And who can argue with that?
Then he developed amnesia in the Mid-70’s–no, seriously, I didn’t crib this from a daytime drama! He didn’t even remember writing his best book–he read it for the first time a second time, and didn’t remember a word of it. Unless he was faking it. Nobody knows for sure. For all we know, he somehow got hold of an unpublished manuscript by Donald Westlake, about an actor with amnesia, and decided to see how that would work in real life. I don’t believe that for one minute, of course. But it’s just one of a slew of odd coincidences we’ll be looking at here.
In spite of being anything but a handsome man, he reportedly had many passionate affairs with a variety of women, but again, it’s hard to know where reality ends and fiction begins. He also seems to have had a serious spanking fetish (giving, not receiving), that keeps turning up in his novels. Hey, as long as it’s consensual…
He was politically conservative, as were most crime fiction authors of the time (Westlake was, in the main, an exception to that rule), but never predictably so. The small town he was living in when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated was somewhat shocked when he contributed an Op Ed to the local paper, in which he compared the late civil rights leader to Hitler, and said King, who he believed had started out fighting for a just cause, had brought his murder on himself by resorting to extremist methods and radical politics. He meant this to be sympathetic, folks. And let’s not get too superior about past racial attitudes, given who one of our Presidential nominees is now.
Honestly, the most interesting book connected to him may not be The Name of the Game is Death–it may well be Charles Kelly’s Gunshots In Another Room, a recently released unauthorized biography of Marlowe (there was nobody left to authorize it). In spite of his relatively low status in the ranks of English letters, he’s a biographer’s wet dream. His life is a better story than most of his stories.
As I see it, he wrote exactly four books worth reading (unless you’re one of those people who just have to read everything, and I can certainly respect that).
The Name of the Game is Death (1962)
Never Live Twice (1964)
Four For The Money (1966)
The Vengeance Man (1966)
And if you want to get pure about it, just the first. He basically said all he had to say with that one. At his best, he had a weird sort of intensely detached immediacy that stands out from the crowd. Most of his writing is derivative hackwork–written purely to the market. But when he was fully engaged, he rose above the material he worked with.
Some would include Strongarm on that list I just typed. I found it mediocre. Tastes vary. One Endless Hour, the very belated sequel to The Name of the Game is Death, I don’t really consider to be a Marlowe novel. According to Kelly, Al Nussbaum, the aforementioned bank robber, came up with most of the story ideas for that book, probably helped quite a bit in writing it, and although it’s a gripping suspenseful read–that feels like it should have been a film by Russ Meyer, or possibly John Waters, with maybe a pinch of Edward D. Wood Jr.–it comes nowhere near the level of the first book. It’s mainly a Marlowe pastiche, even if Marlowe did all the actual writing.
Strange man. Strange life. And now I’m about to tell a strange story. That may just be in my head. It involves Donald Westlake. And, not coincidentally, the next Westlake novel I have to review here. So that’s why I’m doing this piece now, after putting it off for some time. I still don’t really know what to make of it. So I’ll put it out there, and you can decide for yourselves.
I don’t know if Westlake and Marlowe ever met, or even corresponded. Al Nussbaum and Westlake corresponded briefly while Nussbaum was in prison (part of their exchange can be read in The Getaway Car). He and Marlowe had other mutual acquaintances. And they were most definitely aware of each other.
Marlowe’s first five books were about a supremely rugged and muscular hotel bell captain named Johnny Killain, who doubled as a two-fisted private investigator, working out of New York. I’d call them more enjoyably terrible than terribly enjoying. Every hardboiled trope you can think of, and a few you haven’t (because nobody dares use them anymore). In spite of his modest station in life, Killain can beat any man in a fight, take any woman he wants to bed. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy that (Marlowe had a genuine knack for fight scenes and sex scenes), but reading the last Killain, Shake A Crooked Town (1961), I found my eyes rolling with some frequency.
I also found myself wondering at an odd coincidence–1961 was the year Donald Westlake’s Killing Time came out. That, you may remember, is about a private detective working in a small town in upstate New York, where Westlake grew up. The protagonist is short, chunky–physically a lot less impressive than Johnny Killain, and is in fact rather reminiscent of Hammett’s Continental Op–an everyman type.
The book is basically a variation on Red Harvest. It makes no pretense of being anything else. But Westlake has his own take on the idea. Very different from Hammett’s. It’s not his best work (it’s only his second novel under his own name), but it’s a far better book than Shake A Crooked Town–which is also set in a small corrupt town. In upstate New York. Where Marlowe never lived.
And even though both books are about the hero getting caught in the middle between rival factions vying for control of a small town (with radically different outcomes), it’s hard to see how one could have influenced the other. Marlowe’s novel was released very early that year, Westlake’s just months later. Westlake had far more direct experience with the setting than Marlowe (and boy does it show). They were both clearly reacting to Red Harvest. The stories aren’t really that similar, and the heroes aren’t similar at all.
(I rather suspect Marlowe got the idea for making his hero a bell captain from Jim Thompson, who had in 1956 published a short story entitled Bellhop, based on his colorful experiences working hotels in wild corrupt boom towns out west. Two-fisted bell captains were not something Marlowe just dreamed up out of thin air, and I suppose he might have met a few, but he was definitely reading a lot of Thompson, and probably everybody else writing this kind of crime fiction.)
Okay, so that’s a big bag of nothing. But then, of course, we move to 1962. When another strange coincidence occurs. Both men published paperback novels about an amoral armed robber going on a bloody campaign of vengeance against someone who heisted his heist and killed his comrades in crime. Both books are vivid gripping reads. The Hunter is unquestionably the superior book overall, more disciplined, better written, with a protagonist who has far more potential than Marlowe’s–but this was the one time in their overlapping careers that Marlowe could be said to have given Westlake a run for his money. He put everything he had into that one.
Both protagonists had an oddly irregular sex drive. Marlowe’s (who I won’t refer to as Earl Drake, because that name never appears in the first book, and I just don’t want to acknowledge the others as being about the same guy) can only seem to get it up right after he’s engaged in violence of some kind. This problem just went away completely in the later books, with no explanation.
Westlake’s heister (or rather, Stark’s) has no interest in sex while he’s working, then a very intense interest after the job is done, which lasts a few months, then fades away entirely until after his next job. I’ve explained in an earlier piece where I think Westlake got the idea for that (see Genealogy of a Hunter).
Marlowe’s idea, according to Kelly, may have come from the fact that he had a problem with his foreskin that sometimes made intercourse very painful for him (you know, there are downsides to having a biographer, even one as capable and devoted as Mr. Kelly, but thankfully the dead don’t embarrass easily).
Really, the crucial difference is that Marlowe’s guy has a sort of resigned tolerance to what he regards as a problem he and the women in his life have to put up with. While Parker doesn’t give a damn, has no problem at all with his cyclical drives. Everybody else has a problem, not him. It’s not a disability. It’s how he is. If you don’t feel like having sex, why should that bother you? When his cycle changes, later in the series, we’re given believable explanations for that. Marlowe wasn’t that good at developing his characters over a series of books. Westlake was as good at writing series fiction as anyone ever has been, or ever will be.
But yet again–hard to see how either of these books could have influenced the other. They came out too close together, and they were being written right around the same time. So again. Coincidence. But starting to get weird. And you know what Freud said.
And one thing I’d like to know–Westlake wrote The Hunter specifically for the Gold Medal imprint–where The Name of the Game is Death was published. Gold Medal rejected Westlake’s novel. Because it was too hardcore for them? Much as I think The Hunter is a better book, Marlowe’s protagonist (who calls himself Chet Arnold for most of the book, though we’re quite sure that’s not his real name), makes even Parker seem gentlemanly by comparison.
Parker mutilates his dead wife’s corpse after she kills herself (at his urging), so she won’t be identified right away (this being the same wife that shot him earlier in the book, but who claims to still love him). Marlowe’s Chet rapes a woman more or less to see that look on her face (no erectile dysfunction there), then later shoots her several times in a rage. He has his reasons, she’s not a good person, she did terrible things, but you see what I mean about a movie adaptation being a challenge.
No, in all probability, they rejected Westlake’s novel because they already had their sociopathic armed robber book for the year, and didn’t feel like the market needed another one. There were never a whole lot of books in this vein, even at the peak of the era of lurid paperbacks–it was a very specialized sub-genre, and the bad guys almost always died in the end. Westlake seems to have gone to Dell after that, and they also turned him down. And then to Pocket Books, where Bucklin Moon told him to rewrite the ending so Parker got away with everything, and then write a bunch more books about him.
Gold Medal might have asked for more books about Marlowe’s robber (who didn’t get away with anything, but was still alive at the end, if not very happy)–except Marlowe’s book was apparently was too hardcore for even the Gold Medal readership. Not a big seller for them. The Hunter seems to have done much better for Pocket. As it well deserved to, but that’s got nothing to do with book sales, as anyone who has perused the best seller lists knows full well.
Skipping ahead to 1969, Marlowe, who had hit a bit of a slump, had been persuaded by Nussbaum and others to do a sequel to The Name of the Game is Death, and as already mentioned, it’s at least as much Nussbaum’s book as Marlowe’s, and it’s not nearly as good (though it sure ain’t dull). Reception to this one was apparently more enthusiastic, though–the first book had acquired a reputation by then, and the market was more permissive (thanks in part to the Parker novels).
So Gold Medal wanted a third book, stat–it was published the same year as the second, 1969. But they wanted the protagonist, now calling himself Earl Drake (a name Nussbaum came up with) to stop robbing banks. They asked Marlowe to change the genre–from hardboiled crime fiction to spy thriller.
According to Joseph Hoffmann’s well-known article on Marlowe, Gold Medal made this request because they were now publishing the Parker novels, and once again, they felt like one ultra-violent armed robber was enough, and this time Marlowe was the odd man out. Irony abounds in this story, as you see.
However, Marlowe never said anything about this (if he had, I would have at least one instance of him referring directly to Donald Westlake). His story was that they wanted Drake to get dragooned into secret agent work because they were publishing John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee private eye series, which had started in 1964.
Charles Kelly found this very hard to swallow, and so do I. Drake and McGee have nothing in common except a propensity for gunplay, and gunplay was the raison d’etre of every other book Gold Medal ever published. Drake became more like McGee by turning secret agent, not less. So why didn’t Marlowe just say they didn’t want another heister on the payroll? What’s going on here?
The story is even more confusing when you consider that The Sour Lemon Score, the last Gold Medal Parker, came out that same year, 1969. But negotiations probably took place the year before that. Gold Medal was never on the best of terms with Westlake, though he gave them four great books. If Marlowe had held out a little longer, maybe his criminal protagonist could have remained his old independent sociopathic self (not that he was ever what you’d call a goody-goody).
But my own feeling is that Marlowe didn’t have another book like Name of the Game in him by then, and it was probably easier for him to just crank out a bunch of formulaic espionage potboilers–not to mention more lucrative. But again–coincidence? And again–I don’t know. Wherever one writer was, the other seemingly had to be somewhere else. And if either of them ever said one word about this parallel track they were on for around a decade, I’m not aware of it.
I should also mention that One Endless Hour, the long-delayed sequel to The Name of the Game is Death (a book that Marlowe never originally intended to have a sequel) begins with the protagonist getting plastic surgery to change his appearance after he was badly burned in the previous book. The Man With the Getaway Face, the brilliant and quickly penned sequel to The Hunter (a book that Westlake never originally intended to have a sequel) had, six years previously, begun with Parker getting plastic surgery to alter his appearance, so that he could avoid the retribution of his enemies from the first book. Though that’s not so much a coincidence as a necessary development stemming from the endings of the two earlier books, and of course David Goodis had beaten both of them to the punch there with Dark Passage.
When Gold Medal turned Chet Arnold into Earl Drake, and made him the improbable hero of a long-running spy series, they promoted him as “Drake–The Man With Nobody’s Face.” Which probably isn’t coincidental (or terribly coherent), but I don’t think Marlowe came up with that ad copy, any more than he came up with the name Earl Drake.
Now let me go back a bit, to 1963, when Westlake published The Score, one of the best of the Parker novels (honestly, one of the best novels I’ve ever read–I try to avoid fanboy gushing here, but it’s an amazing little book). The premise is that a disgraced police captain of a small western mining town, who was fired for corruption, has proposed to Parker and some of his associates that they plunder all of the town’s assets in one night. He doesn’t share his motives with them.
The premise of Marlowe’s Shake A Crooked Town is that Carl Thompson, the disgraced police chief of a small upstate New York burg who was fired for corruption (by equally corrupt cronies) comes to Killain, knowing his reputation for toughness, asking Killain to help him get his job back and throw these other bums in that sewn-up town out (for a fee, naturally). There’s no heist, Thompson is murdered before they ever get back to his hometown, no indication he wanted to burn the whole place to the ground–his wife and kid are there.
Oh, and I should mention Killain is clearly about to take Thompson’s attractive French widow to bed as the story ends. He knew her as an attractive tomboy (I believe the French would say ‘gamine’) when they fought together in the French Resistance many years before. This is after he repeatedly beds the luscious town librarian, having previously bedded his longtime steady girlfriend in Manhattan. Plus a cute redheaded sixteen year old at the boarding house he’s staying at throws herself at him, but he turns her down flat, telling her to come back and see him in two years. You see what I mean about the rolling eyes thing.
And this is a minor minor thing, but the big fight scene in Marlowe’s book comes when Killain tangles with a hulking brute named Jigger Kratz (and pulverizes him, I shouldn’t need to mention). I would hope no parent would ever willingly name a child Jigger–maybe it’s a nickname. I’ve only come across the name Jigger in one other book–Who Stole Sasson Manoon?, by Donald E. Westlake. And in that book it’s the name of a cute young redhead who wants to be an actress. You may remember I wondered in my review of that book where the hell Westlake got that name from.
Okay, I don’t believe these similarities are coincidence. I think Westlake read Marlowe’s book, saw a useful plot component in a very bad novel, lifted it, remodeled it, and vastly improved upon it.
And one more thing–Westlake’s book ends with Parker going to bed with a woman who was sleeping with the disgraced police chief who lied to him and tried to use him, and ended up dead. It does add a nice little ring of masculine triumph to the ending, doesn’t it? But it’s so damned well written, my eyes never rolled even once.
Moving on to 1966, Marlowe produced Four For The Money, a sort of anti-heist novel. The narrator/protagonist is Slick, a young hustler, not the violent type, who has just been released from jail. While there, he got roped into a scheme concocted by Blackie, a hardened repeat offender, who is in the heavy, as Alan Grofield might put it. There’s two other members of the string Blackie recruited in prison. They’re all due to be released, and since Slick gets out first, he’s got to go to Desert City Nevada, a fictional gambling town, midway between Vegas and Reno in size.
His job is to set things up so that the gang can blend in once everybody else arrives, and look around for an easy target to hit. When they do that, it quickly becomes apparent there are no easy targets to hit. But Blackie, who spends a lot of time cleaning his little Mauser handgun, is obsessed with this job, and makes it clear that if his increasingly cold-footed colleagues pull out on him, he’ll just pull jobs on his own. They know he’ll get caught and lead the law right to them. They’re all ex-cons, and they roomed together in the joint. If Blackie goes down, they all do.
Here’s the kicker–they don’t really want to pull the job anymore. Slick managed to buy a motel in town, to serve as a front for their operation, and it turned out to be a very lucrative business. He met a nice girl (really nice, a short stacked brunette, who sounds an awful lot like the girls Jim Thompson protagonists keep getting hung up on, only not crazy).
Slick wants to settle down with this girl. They’re all enjoying the straight life now, him and the other two guys in the string–they never want to go back to prison, and they don’t need one last big score. But they have to pull the job so Blackie will go away and leave them alone. Then they pull the job, and turns out Blackie always intended to kill them and take it all for himself. You want to know what happens then, read the book. One of Marlowe’s best, as I said.
It’s a bit reminiscent of The Score–gang tries to plunder a town out in the desert–but not very. I’ve no doubt Marlowe read Westlake’s book, but he’d have also read Lionel White’s The Big Caper, published in 1955. That’s probably an influence on both of the later books, but much more on Marlowe’s than Westlake’s (White’s book has the same idea of a scary master criminal forcing people who want to go straight to pull a job with him, and there’s a romantic subplot, and etc). I’ve read all three, and White’s is the weakest of the bunch. Having an idea first is not the same thing as doing it best.
So I would hope those of you who have read the next book in the queue, which is Drowned Hopes, already know what I’m getting at here. There’s a character in that book named Tom Jimson. People have assumed that’s an homage to Jim Thompson (as well as a certain noxious weed). Westlake was adapting a Jim Thompson novel to the screen right around the same time he was working on that book, so no doubt it is a humorous anagrammatic tip of the hat. But I also think it’s a cunning head fake. He points in one direction while his eyes go another. Tom Jimson was inspired in part by Blackie from Four For The Money.
See, there’s no Jim Thompson novel that ends that way. Thompson didn’t really write much about heisters–not his area. Yeah, The Getaway, but it’s not very similar at all. And honestly, Tom Jimson is a much better scarier funnier character than Marlowe’s Blackie, but he’s got that same dogged single-mindedness, the same touching devotion to guns, the same general lack of regard for human life, that same nasty little one-track mind (and Westlake knew all about one-track minds, well before he ever read Marlowe’s book, so I’m not saying Tom is all Blackie–there’s lots more there, and we’ll talk about it).
Westlake once again seeing a good idea (this time in a pretty decent book) and making away with it. I can’t know this, but I see what I see. I just don’t know what it means. I don’t know what any of this means. I can just sort of fumble around in the dark, with insufficient information to go on, knowing there’s something there, but unable to make any kind of sense out of it.
Westlake and Marlowe had to be aware of each other, from the early 60’s onwards. They undoubtedly kept up with each others’ work to some extent. They knew their paths kept crossing and recrossing in the incestuous little branch of the mystery genre each was so well known for. Many of the coincidences I’ve listed here are coincidences, nothing more–but they’re coincidences Westlake in particular would have noted with interest. Because Westlake didn’t believe in coincidences any more than Freud did. “A realist is someone who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood. It isn’t.”
So they borrowed ideas from each other, and from other writers, and they each did their own thing with them, and they co-existed, occupying the same space, without ever directly encountering each other, or perhaps understanding each other. Such different men, writing such similar stories, in such variant ways. If Westlake had started writing in his 40’s, and Marlowe in his 20’s, maybe their positions in the genre would be reversed. Again–I don’t know. I do know Marlowe died a few years before Westlake started work on Drowned Hopes.
Anyway, I thought it was worth mentioning. What do you think?
I think I’m going to take a break for the holiday weekend, and then tackle one of Westlake’s longest novels–definitely his longest series novel. The Dortmunder Epic par excellence. Very long, and very densely packed with both story and trenchant social observation. I swore I would not make this a four-parter. And I won’t. I’m a man of my word. But you know me. I’m sneaky. I find loopholes. I make mental reservations.
See, my feeling is that this book is actually four books in one volume. So I’m going to write four separate book reviews. That’s not at all the same thing as writing a four part review of one book. Oh look, now you’re rolling your eyes. Well, go ahead and roll ’em.