“What’s My Game?”
The innings number nine,
In this favorite game of mine,
Three bases and home plate,
A pitcher who’s top-rate
That was the beginning of a very long poem Dan J. Marlowe helped me with for an elementary-school assignment. I guess the more correct description would be that I was helping him. I’m sure the poem received an A grade. Those lines have stuck in my head all these years later; the rest of them I’ve long forgotten. I’d give anything to locate the whole original work, but it seems to have ended up in the same unknown graveyard as my large baseball card collection from that time.
Dan was my father’s close friend; they’d grown up together and been childhood schoolmates. When I was a boy, he stayed with us at our home in Woburn, Massachusetts. I knew he was a writer and I saw him pounding away on his typewriter daily. I had no way of knowing, though, that at the time he was helping me with “What’s My Game?” he was also working on what he hoped would be his breakout novel, The Name of the Game Is Death (1962).
I remember that when I inquired about what kind of books Dan wrote, I was always answered--by both Dan and my father--with the generic term mysteries. The subject was then quickly dropped. This was probably in deference to my mother who, although she liked Dan, was an Irish-Catholic schoolteacher. She was a big reader and encouraged me in that same direction during my earliest years. I’m sure now, though, that she considered Dan’s work to be overly violent and racy. And for the time, maybe it was. I was too young then to find any of his work on my own; that would come in the future--and what a pleasant surprise it would be.
I found out in later years, that Dan had come to Woburn to escape the distractions he apparently encountered while living in New York City, of which there may have been many. He must have made a good decision, because the book he eventually produced there is one of the finest hard-boiled crime novels ever written.
The Name of the Game Is Death is the story of a bloody bank robbery in Phoenix, Arizona, and its aftermath. The tale is told in the first-person by a professional bank robber and killer with more than one name. I’ll use the handle “Chet Arnold” here. During the robbery, the youngest of the three robbers is killed. Arnold himself is badly wounded. The last of the trio is Bunny, a huge mute.
They’ve made a good haul, though--$178,000. Arnold realizes that he has to hole-up locally to recuperate from his bullet wound. He trusts Bunny and sends him on to Florida, as they’d planned, with the money. Bunny is assigned the task of mailing Arnold dough every week. But after the first few deliveries, the payments suddenly stop.
Arnold suspects a rip-off, but not by Bunny. He trusts the mute implicitly. As soon as he is well enough, he sets off for Florida on a cross-country ride that you just know can’t end well for anyone at the other end, anyone who’s taken his money.
Through the fate of victims Arnold encounters during his long trip, and flashbacks showing the particulars of his violent youth, the reader learns just how dangerous this man is. When Arnold arrives in Florida, he uses his other skill as a tree surgeon (of all things) as a front to conceal his real reason for showing up there.
Arnold isn’t completely devoid of decent qualities. He has a love of animals. Also, he has a strong sense of loyalty to those very few people he gets close to. In addition to his criminal accomplice, Bunny, he forms positive relationships in Florida with a local deputy sheriff/real-estate agent, Jed (yes, he named that character after me), and Hazel, a kindhearted bar owner. Arnold is a good man to have as a friend; otherwise, not so good.
Chet Arnold is a cold-blooded killer, and in Florida many folks find this out in the worst possible ways, as he searches for his dough and his friend Bunny. The bodies stack up. Still, the multidimensional Arnold remains a sympathetic character, because many of his victims seem deserving of violence. There are no innocent ones here.
The problematic sexual side of Arnold’s character is also explored in this novel, and it’s fascinating. However, that side of Arnold’s character may have been watered down in revised editions. So, if possible, read the original or an exact reprint of it.
What makes The Name of the Game Is Death stand out so far above other crime novels of its day is the skill Dan Marlowe brought to his typewriter. His plot, characterizations, and story depth are fantastic. There isn’t a slow page in the whole damn book. It’s a great read. And for any wannabe hard-boiled crime writer--this is the work you want to tear apart and dissect. Figure out how the hell the man did it.
To say anything more about Marlowe’s novel (and there are lots of good things I could say) might spoil the reader’s future enjoyment of the work. Let’s just end here with the dedication Stephen King included in his 2005 crime novel, The Colorado Kid:
With admiration, for Dan J. Marlowe, author of The Name of the Game Is Death: Hardest of the Hardboiled.To learn much more about Marlowe, I recommend you pick up the 2012 biography Gunshots in Another Room: The Forgotten Life of Dan J. Marlowe, by journalist Charles Kelly.
READ MORE: “Playing With Fire: Dan J. Marlowe, Al Nussbaum, and Earl Drake,” by Josef Hoffmann (Mystery*File); “Mystery Man: Dan J. Marlowe,” by Charles Kelly (Allan Guthrie’s Noir Originals); “Whodrewit? Doorway to Death, by Dan Marlowe,” by J. Kingston Pierce (Killer Covers).