The Name of the Game is Death

Tags:  crime-fiction,

This book is a classic among fans of hard-boiled crime fiction. Stephen King called it the hardest of the hard-boiled, and I have to agree with him on that. The plotting is relentless and so is the main character. I’ve never seen a character who so purely embodies animosity and determination.

The Name of the Game is Death by Dan J. Marlowe

The story opens with Earl Drake and his partner Bunny robbing a bank in Arizona. Things go awry halfway through the job, and Earl shoots several guards before getting shot himself. To make things worse, their getaway driver loses his nerve just as they’re exiting, and he winds up taking a bullet too.

But Earl is a pro and has an iron nerve. He manages a clean getaway and sends Bunny off to Florida with most of the cash. They plan to meet up later, after Earl gets medical treatment and recovers from his gunshot wound. In the meantime, Bunny mails an envelope of cash every now and then to keep Earl afloat.

Until one day the cash stops coming and Earl knows something has happened to Bunny. Time to go to Florida and investigate.

As a kid, Earl developed a deep hatred of bullies and of authority. He also developed an ability to patiently endure the most savage of beatings while coolly plotting his revenge. When three thugs take turns beating the crap out of him in an alley, he warns them that if they don’t kill him, he will track them down and kill them. And he does, patiently and methodically.

The cop who beats him blind in a jail cell suffers the same fate, as does the cop who railroads his friend into a long prison sentence on false charges.

On the long drive from Arizona to Florida, Earl picks up a new license and a new name. He shows up in the small town of Hudson as Chet Arnold, picks up work pruning trees and takes his time sussing out info about his partner, Bunny. He knows that Bunny, a deaf mute, likes to keep his distance from the general public. He knows Bunny would likely choose an isolated house in the swamps east of town, where no one would likely bother him, so he starts his search there.

As he begins his search, a nosy, violent sheriff’s deputy named Blaze Franklin begins to stalk him. Franklin doesn’t like strangers, or most other people for that matter, and he can’t think of any legitimate reason for a stranger to be poking around the swamps.

Franklin is used to bullying people, and even killing men who show an interest in his girlfriend, Lucille. He expects to give Chet Arnold (Earl) the same treatment. Good luck with that…

As Chet/Earl continues his search for Bunny, his troubles mount. Not only does the local deputy have it out for him, but so do a number of his former criminal associates. They read about the bank robbery, they know how much money was taken (a lot), and the recognized it as the work of a seasoned pro. Now they know that pro is searching the swamps of Florida, and there can be only one reason why.

I won’t give away the plot, except to say that Chet/Earl soon learns why Bunny’s money stopped coming and who was taking it. This is where the book really heats up.

In any crime novel, there’s only so much that can happen. Car chases, shootouts, fights, betrayals. What sets a good book apart from a mediocre one is the telling of the story. This is where Dan Marlowe truly excels. He has an excellent character in Earl, a terse, sharp-eyed narrator who thinks four steps ahead of his enemies and has no fear of anything. The plot never slackens. There are twists in almost every chapter, and Marlowe’s ability to describe action is superb. This book definitely earned its reputation.

Being as much a lover of the genre as I am, I was surprised when I first heard of Marlowe a few years ago that I hadn’t heard of him before. I learned of him after reading Rook, Stephen G. Eoannou’s excellent biography of real-life bank robber Albert Frederick Nussbaum. The actual bank robbery that opens Eoannou’s book is almost a mirror of the one that opens Marlowe’s novel.

Nussbaum was so impressed by the realism of Marlowe’s novel, the two became friends and eventually roommates. After leaving prison, Nussbaum himself became a crime writer.

Marlowe’s Name of the Game is currently published in a single volume with the sequel, One Endless Hour. Without giving anything away, I’ll say the first book ends with a bang that sets up the second. I can’t wait to read part two.

One Endless Hour

Seven years after The Name of the Game is Death, Marlowe followed up with the sequel, One Endless Hour. Chet Arnold, now going by his original name, Earl Drake, is in the prison ward of a Florida state hospital, recovering from third degree burns and pretending to be catatonic to avoid trial.

As the slow days pass, he figures out how to use the greed and sadism or corrupt warden Spider Kern to aid in his escape. I’ll skip the details and say his escape succeeds. I’ll skip the events that go down in Hudson as Earl tries to recover his stolen bank loot.

When things go wrong, Earl goes back into the business of robbing banks, first in Washington, DC and then in Philadelphia. He finds himself trying to carry out an overly complicated plan with some less-than-reliable partners. You can see this one going wrong from a mile away, though the way it goes wrong involves some unexpected twists.

This follow-up is nowhere near as good as the first installment. Much of what made the first book so good was its unrelenting action and the fearlessness and relentlessness of the main character. All that’s gone in book two. Drake is tentative and unsure, while the action halts for long periods of debate.

The plotting is weak too. While the main caper is too far-fetched for any sensible person to attempt, a number of key incidents leading up to it are just too convenient to ring true.

The follow-up is worth a read, but doesn’t have the same bang as the original.