Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2018 September 05 • Wednesday

A couple of months ago on Cape Cod I picked up one of Dan J. Marlowe's "Drake" novels and was so taken with the opening paragraph that I anticipated paying some attention to Marlowe in the near future. I had read a few of his books back in the 1990s and didn't remember much about them.

The place to start seemed to be a return to the origin of the Drake series, The Name of the Game Is Death, which had been reprinted as part of Vintage's Black Lizard line and is thus fairly easy to find.

Conveniently enough I found a used copy on Cape Cod when I was there again a few weeks ago.

The Vintage edition has a terrible cover. It could be improved tremendously simply by removing the photograph and not replacing it with anything.

The original Gold Medal cover is quite nice, as Gold Medal covers tend to be. It also depicts a scene from the book.

After reading it again, I was extremely impressed. It's pretty much a perfect hardboiled crime novel, following a professional criminal as he improvises in the aftermath of a bank robbery gone wrong, while cutting back to his childhood and young adult years so we see where he came from and some of the events that formed him.

He kills without remorse. He does pretty much everything without remorse. As a child he encountered cruelty and corruption and abuse of power and in each case hit back at it as hard as he could and suffered massive pain and abuse in retaliation.

All of that just made him harder.

He loves animals, though, and they love him. The defining moment of his early life concerned a kitten and in the adult thread of his story, a dog plays a major role. (He's about to murder the person who hurt the dog but stops himself because it's too risky a move in the game he's playing.)

A quick trip to Wikipedia shows that Marlowe had an interesting life which included a friendship with an actual bank robber, which presumably informed some of the details in this book, such as the main character's having got useful information from subscribing to "Banking, the Journal of the American Banking Association".

There was a time when the most common advice parents gave to their children was to have both a skill and a trade. The protagonist of The Name of the Game Is Death indeed has both, his skill being robbing banks and shooting guns—he's an ace shot—and his trade being, unexpectedly, tree surgeon.

It's another nice detail, the kind of thing that really animates a book like this. After his one and only time in jail, Drake, as he's not called in this book but will be called in subsequent ones, worked in a lumber camp in the Pacific Northwest. "The work damn near killed me at first, but I grew to like it. When I came out of there I could handle a crosscut saw and a double-bitted axe with the best of them, and I could do things with a handgun people pay admission to see."

And this man likes guns better than anything, better than sex or money or gambling, all things he spends a lot of time with. It's his real turn-on but he's also an artist and a craftsman, not an addict or thrill-crazed trigger-puller.

It's a crime novel, a mystery, a vicious coming of age story, a delivery system for action, violence, sex and sadism. And also a story of someone who gives up on justice after colliding with cruelty and corruption, yet who retains some compassion, particularly for the true innocent creatures of the animal world. It has everything!

The first line is "From the back seat of the Olds I could see the kid's cotton gloves flash white on the steering wheel as he swung off Van Buren onto Central Avenue".