Mystery Man: Dan J. Marlowe

by Charles Kelly

Dan J MarloweThe dedication of author Stephen King's recent novel The Colorado Kid, published by Hard Case Crime, reads: "With admiration, for DAN J. MARLOWE, author of The Name of the Game is Death: Hardest of the hardboiled." Who was Marlowe? True fans of the hardboiled genre know the answer. In the 1960s and 1970s, Marlowe was a paperback king churning out Fawcett Gold Medal books. Several of his works, such as The Name of the Game is Death, One Endless Hour and The Vengeance Man, are classics of the form. He's been compared to another tough-minded master who worked the same territory: Jim Thompson. Unlike Thompson, however, whose work and life have been given their due in recent years by movie makers and biographers, Marlowe has remained an underground cult favorite—revered by fans of the hard-boiled genre, but little known to the public at large. And even those who love his prose know little about the man. Some readers do know that Marlowe befriended bank robber Al Nussbaum, helped him learn to write while Nussbaum was in prison, worked to get him paroled and collaborated with him on a number of short stories.

Name of the Gmae is DeathBut most references to Marlowe in books, magazines and on the web are scanty, and some are flawed by inaccuracies. The year of his death, 1986, is sometimes given as 1985 or 1987. At least one account says he used Nussbaum's expertise in criminality in writing The Name of the Game is Death, though he didn't meet Nussbaum until after that book was published. Other writers say that, after Marlowe suffered a stroke late in life, Nussbaum cared for him until Marlowe died. That's only a half-truth.

Marlowe remains an enigma to many readers. This was underlined in 1999 by a correspondent to Rara-Avis, a website mailing list devoted to the study of hard-boiled and noir fiction. "Does anybody know what happened to Dan J. Marlowe?" the correspondent wrote. "I seem to recall hearing he lost his memory at some point, stopped writing and, when he read his own novels he couldn't remember them, but thought they weren't bad."

To some degree, Marlowe remains a mystery. But my research into his life has been quite revealing. Marlowe is a fascinating study—a businessman and city official who also, according to his own account, had been a professional gambler. A Rotarian whose novels often captured sociopathic personalities. An unathletic sports fan who wrote convincingly from the viewpoint of the he-man. A crossword-puzzle junkie, a hard drinker, a lover of the theater who disliked movies, a reserved and not-conventionally-attractive man who still managed to be a womanizer. And, late in life, an amnesiac—though some questioned the nature of that condition.

Born in 1914 in Lowell, Mass., Marlowe lost his mother early and was raised by two maiden aunts. He attended St. Charles Parochial School in Woburn, Mass., and Bulkeley High School in New London, Conn, then received an accounting certificate from Bentley School of Accounting and Finance in Boston in 1934. From then until 1941, he was the assistant manager of two country clubs in Connecticut, but lost his job when the advent of gas rationing in World War II severely damaged business at the clubs. For the next four years, he worked for hourly pay as a night timekeeper at United Aircraft Corp. in Stratford, Conn., leaving after an argument with the night supervisor. In 1945, Marlowe took a job as an office manager and credit manager for Washington Tobacco Co. in Washington, D.C., and worked there for the next 12 years. During some period (probably in the late 1930s and early 1940s), Marlowe spent seven years as a professional gambler, betting on the horses and playing poker. Or so he said on a Los Angeles-based TV talk show not long before he died. Exactly how he combined his gambling with whatever job or jobs he might have had at the time, he didn't explain on the talk show. What he did say was that during his professional gambling period "(I) met a lot of different people and had a lot of background experiences that all became grist for the writing mill."

In addition to his other occupations, Marlowe also said he'd been an insurance agent, a bartender, a public relations man, an advertising agent, a bookkeeper, an accountant, and a traveling salesman for a pharmaceutical firm. Accounts of how he became a writer differ, but his career as an author—one way or another—was triggered by the sudden death of his wife—a secretary—from acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis in 1956. Her death shocked Marlowe. He walked out of his home in suburban Washington, D.C., and never went back. Never much of a drinker prior to this time, he began to indulge heavily as time went on. Marlowe had been interested in trying to write for a living while his wife was still alive. After his wife's death (or so he told one person), he moved to New York to run the office of a jewelry importer and, in April 1957, started his first mystery novel. His work improved with the help of instruction he got in a New York University evening Novel Workshop group, and he became a fulltime writer in February 1958. Ten months later, he sold his first two novels.

Doorway to DeathMarlowe's first published novel was Doorway to Death, issued by Avon Publications, Inc., in New York and Digit Books in London in 1959. His hero, Johnny Killain, is a bell captain in a New York hotel who solves murders. Four more Killain books, and a novel called Backfire were to follow before Marlowe's masterpiece, The Name of the Game is Death, was published by Fawcett in New York in 1962. Just where Marlowe was living while he was writing this novel isn't clear. Probably in New York. But in late 1961 or early 1962, he moved to Harbor Beach, Michigan, a small town on the shore of Lake Huron north of Detroit. An elderly woman living in a beautiful, faux-rustic home in a lakeshore area run by a well-off group called the Harbor Beach Resort Association had advertised for a live-in companion who was a writer. Apparently, she had intended the winning applicant to be a woman, but when Marlowe showed up, she accepted him, and he lived in her home for several years. In Harbor Beach, Marlowe quickly fit in, becoming an active member of the Rotary Club, a friend of local insurance-agency owner Gordon Gempel, and a frequent patron of Smalley's Bar and Grill downtown. There, he spent his evening hours at "the longest bar in Huron County" periodically lifting a single finger to order another Seven and Seven (Seagram's 7 Crown whiskey and 7-Up), playing pool ("Hell of a shot!" he'd exclaim whenever an opponent sank a ball), and talking sports and politics. Gempel, who had introduced Marlowe to the Rotary Club and who became Marlowe's best friend in Harbor Beach, said Marlowe was a sharp poker player and a fascinating conversationalist. "He was always interesting, never ran out of interesting things to talk about," said Gempel.

During the 15 years he spent in Harbor Beach, Marlowe continued to churn out fine hard-boiled novels. With the exception of The Name of the Game is Death, he wrote all his best work there. Strongarm was published in 1963, Never Live Twice in 1964, The Vengeance Man in 1966, One Endless Hour in 1969. During this period, Marlowe's sociopathic bank robber, who uses the false names Roy Martin and Chet Arnold in The Name of the Game is Death, took the name Earl Drake in that book's sequel, One Endless Hour, and—under the influence of Marlowe's editors—became a series character as an international spy and adventurer in a series of "Operation" novels (Operation Fireball, Operation Checkmate, Operation Whiplash, etc.). Drake was billed as "The Man With Nobody's Face" because Arnold , whose face was horribly damaged by a fire at the end of The Name of the Game is Death, had his features reconstructed through plastic surgery in One Endless Hour.

Starting in 1962, Marlowe's books benefited from the criminal expertise of Al Nussbaum, a prolific bank robber, gunrunner, locksmith and pilot who worked with a violent partner—Bobby "One-Eye" Wilcoxson. While on the run from the law in July 1962, Nussbaum—without revealing his true name or his illegal occupation—called Marlowe in Harbor Beach to praise The Name of the Game is Death and to get advice on writing that would help Nussbaum launch his own writing career. Within a week, Nussbaum followed up with a letter, which Marlowe answered. After Nussbaum was caught, Marlowe befriended him, visited him in prison and—more than a decade later--helped him get paroled. In an article included in the book, I, Witness, published in 1978 by the Mystery Writers of America, Marlowe said of Nussbaum, "I haven't written a word for years about weapons and ballistics that he hasn't vetted for me. Ditto with locks and bolts and their manipulation. Ditto with safes, vaults and alarm systems. It's not every writer who is fortunate enough to get his technical information from the horse's mouth."

Fatal FrailsThough Marlowe publicly acknowledged Nussbaum's help with his books, he downplayed the fact that he co-wrote short stories with Nussbaum. And he was even more circumspect about a much more significant collaborator—retired Air Force Col. William C. Odell. Marlowe and Odell formed a writing relationship in 1964 and shared credits on the 1967 novel The Raven is a Blood Red Bird. Thereafter, they decided only Marlowe's name would appear on the books they produced together because Marlowe's name was far more marketable. However, Marlowe and Odell worked closely on more than a dozen novels, with Odell contributing much of the research, plotting and writing.

As Marlowe continued to churn out paperback adventures, he was also getting more involved in his local community. As a Rotarian, Marlowe helped the club with such activities as an exchange-student program. With the help of Gempel, a leader in the local Republican Party, Marlowe was elected to the City Council of Harbor Beach, taking office on Jan. 3, 1967. He served until May 4, 1970, when he resigned. Why he resigned isn't clear. Possibly because public service was interfering with research for his novels. He traveled a great deal, and around the time of his resignation, he moved to San Francisco for a year.

On his trips, he frequently attracted girlfriends, said Gempel, though Marlowe didn't look like a matinee idol. The author stood a little over 5-foot-9, weighed 165 pounds, and looked rather rotund, with chubby cheeks and thinning dark hair often swept straight back. Though not prepossessing, he had lively eyes, a ready smile, boundless energy, and the ability for humorous self-deprecation. "I'm far more a story-teller than I am a literary man," Marlowe wrote in a column for the Harbor Beach Times shortly after he joined the City Council. "My agent says I'm the living proof that stories don't care who writes them. He also says I'm the most impatient man he ever knew, and it's true I'd rather knock you down than walk around you. All my life I've been in a hurry."

Whatever the source of his magnetism, Marlowe attracted women from all over the country—St. Louis, Kansas City, Los Angeles—and some of them visited Harbor Beach, Gempel said. Letters to Marlowe indicate he likely had other romances on the road. His books, for their time, contain plenty of sex—at times, flavored by kinkiness. But Marlowe wasn't a simple testosterone athlete. In some ways, he was quite reserved, said a former girlfriend—a hand-holder who wrote poetry.

It was one of Marlowe's girlfriends who phoned him from out of state on the morning of June 6, 1977. She reached him at his apartment in Harbor Beach, on the second floor of a brick home at 123 North First Street. When Marlowe spoke to her, she couldn't make any sense of what he was saying. She got off the phone with him and called Harbor Beach City Hall. People there responded quickly. Gempel even remembered that someone sounded the fire alarm.

Marlowe was taken to the local hospital, where he was diagnosed with memory loss, then to hospitals in Saginaw and Detroit. What had happened to Marlowe was never exactly clear. Three days before the incident, he had returned from a research trip in the swamps of Florida —in Big Cypress and Everglades National Park —and had told Gempel he had been suffering from severe headaches for a week. Marlowe thought he might have been infected by an insect bite, and his doctor in Harbor Beach at first speculated that he'd contracted malaria. That, apparently, was quickly ruled out. In fact, a Saginaw physician decided the correct diagnosis for Marlowe was "neurosis possible psychosis-depressive." To complicate matters, Marlowe told the doctors he'd been taking insulin for diabetes for two years, but when they ran lab tests, they found no diabetes. The one thing that appeared certain was that he was suffering from memory loss and aphasia (partial or total inability to write and understand words). His ability to communicate and write letters returned quickly, but—except for general information about recent presidents of the United States—Marlowe seemed to have lost his memory for past events. Later, Marlowe would say he suffered a stroke, but doctors were uncertain. In fact, shortly before his release from the Detroit hospital, some members of the medical staff still speculated that his problem was psychological. "Group Therapy had been telling me already that I should look for other alternatives to writing to make a living, again for the time being, this because some of the staff seem to feel that the writing is one of the root causes of the problem," Marlowe wrote to Gempel in an undated letter.

Gempel, who became Marlowe's legal guardian while the writer was apparently unable to handle his own affairs because of amnesia, wondered at times if Marlowe's loss of memory was authentic. In Gempel's mind, Marlowe's amnesia didn't always appear to be consistent: he remembered some things—such as cities he'd visited in the past—and not others. Marlowe had been under financial pressure at the time of the incident. His writing income at the time was tiny, and he had taken out several loans. And he apparently had done extensive research on amnesia for the novel Never Live Twice, in which the main character, Jackrabbit Smith, suffers from the condition. Other friends, family members and acquaintances of Marlowe, however, are convinced the amnesia was real. In fact, his nephew, Don Marlowe, remembers the writer visiting family members in the Washington , D.C. , area and going through photo albums in an effort to recapture memories from the past. And letters Marlowe wrote long after the incident confirm he was still struggling with memory loss.

Once Marlowe left the Detroit hospital, he did take a non-writing job: as a bookkeeper for an office design and supply firm in Detroit. By this time Al Nussbaum was out of prison on parole, living in Los Angeles and making his living as a writer for mystery magazines and television. He invited Marlowe to come and live with him there, and Marlowe did so. In March 1978, Nussbaum came to Harbor Beach with Marlowe. They packed up Marlowe's belongings and hit the road.

In Los Angeles , Marlowe and Nussbaum at first got along well, collaborating on stories, attending movies together, helping each other out. Marlowe continued to try to recapture his memories and his writing ability, and did so, to some degree. He wrote a number of very short novels, many sports-oriented, meant for an audience of young people or of adults trying to learn to read. And he completed one more novel, a 1982 generic action-adventure called Guerilla Games, written under the name Gar Wilson as part of the Phoenix Force series published by Gold Eagle. Also in 1982, Marlowe moved to his own apartment, dissolving the living arrangement with Nussbaum, who eventually moved out of LA and back to upstate New York . It may have been too difficult for Marlowe, who was basically a reserved person, to continue to live with the feisty, opinionated Nussbaum. So said Los Angeles resident Bob Ragan, who met Marlowe in the early 1980s when Ragan was managing Scene of the Crime bookstore in the Los Angeles area and later became executor of Marlowe's estate. According to Ragan, Marlowe was living alone in a small apartment in Tarzana when he died of heart failure in August 1986. Based on arrangements he'd made before his death, his body was transported back to the East Coast, and he was buried in Stratford, Conn., next to his wife.

Over the years, writers and film makers have shown interest in translating some of Marlowe's books into movies, but none of those efforts has come to fruition. Los Angeles novelist Hugh Gross has written scripts for The Name of the Game is Death and Marlowe's novel Four For the Money, and still holds the movie rights to those books. Several times, he says, it appeared both would be made into movies, but financing or distribution efforts, or both, fell through. Gross also holds first refusal rights on One Endless Hour, and character rights to Earl Drake. Never Live Twice was optioned in 1995 by Niki Marvin, producer of the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, based on Stephen King's 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. But—again—financing fell through and the option was not renewed.

For now, Dan J. Marlowe's stories delight mostly those dedicated readers who haunt the dusty stacks of second-hand bookstores, looking for writers who know how to run a hard spine of action through the plot of a thriller. Marlowe hovers in obscurity. But he won't be there forever. As his toughest protagonist says in the last lines of The Name of the Game is Death:

That's all I need—a gun.
I'm not staying here.
I'll be leaving one of these days, and the day I do they'll never forget it.

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Copyright © 2007 Charles Kelly

Read an extract from Charles's debut novel Pay Here

CHARLES KELLY, a veteran reporter for The Arizona Republic, is doing research for a biography of Dan J. Marlowe. Kelly's first novel, Pay Here, will be published soon by PointBlank Press.
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