The Wrong Marlowe

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Charles Kelly, Dan J. Marlowe




The Wrong Marlowe by Charles Kelly

Let’s say it’s 1978 and you are Dan J. Marlowe, once one of the hottest suspense novelists of your day

March 10th, 2012 reset - +

Click here to purchase Gunshots in Another Room: The Forgotten Life of  Dan J. Marlowe

 

“You don't deserve it, but I’ll give you a choice,” I said. “I was going to leave you out here, with the heat and the mosquitoes and the bugs and the snakes and the alligators. You’ll never make it in. I doubt if I could myself.” His whole face was wet as he stared at me. “You won’t go easy if you stay, so I’ll give you the choice. Stay, or take one dead center from this.” I waved the little handgun … “You’ll go out of your mind out here in twelve hours.” His chest was heaving as he tried to pump air through his constricted throat. “Take the bullet.”

—  from The Name of the Game is Death (1962)

 

HOLLYWOOD IS FOR THE YOUNG AND TOUGH, a place where you must be beautiful simply to survive, let alone prosper. God help you if you’re homely, aging, and physically beaten. Double that if you’ve lost the creative skills you’ve counted on, and forgotten much of your life and all the people you’ve known. Double that again if you’re a writer. Let’s say it’s 1978 and you are Dan J. Marlowe, once one of the hottest suspense novelists of your day, author of such hard-boiled Fawcett Gold Medal paperbacks as The Name of the Game is Death, The Vengeance Man, Never Live Twice, and the Operation books, featuring a bank robber turned international agent. It’s 1978, yes, and the market for that kind of book has evaporated. You’re 64 years old, suffering from amnesia, glaucoma, and the consequences of a stroke. It’s painful for you even to lift your hands high enough to type.

Though you’re chubby and unathletic and wear dark, horn-rimmed glasses, in the past you’ve been hell with the ladies. Now those ladies are ghosts to you. You’ve spent more than 15 years living in Harbor Beach, Michigan, a picturesque, isolated town on the shore of Lake Huron. You made a good living, served on the city council, partied with the Rotary Club. And you found time to indulge in your own secret sexual quirkiness. Now you’re broke and short of options. So you’re moving to the City of Fallen Angels to share an apartment with a former bank robber. To try to put your writing life back together, maybe even get movies made from your books.

You’re a Hollywood Untouchable because you’re a lousy money-maker, and you’ll stay that way. People hear your name and confuse you with Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective, or with your mystery-writing contemporary, Stephen Marlowe. You’re the wrong Marlowe, in the wrong time, the wrong place. So what are the chances you’ll be remembered with fondness? What are the odds that nearly four decades later, megastar horror writer Stephen King will honor your talent by dedicating a novel to you? Well, you’ve always been a gambler — a professional one for seven years. You’ve played long shots and won. Maybe you’ll do it again.

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On the day they sentenced Olly Barnes to fifteen years, I quit the human race. I never went back to my job and I’ve never done a legitimate day’s work since.

—  from The Name of the Game is Death
 

The story of Dan Marlowe and the eight years he spent in Los Angeles — from 1978 until his death in 1986 — is one of the most counterintuitive in Hollywood history. But Marlowe’s life always ran against the grain. Born in 1914 in Lowell, Massachusetts, he got an accounting certificate from a Boston school in 1934, then hit the road for seven years, making a living by betting on horses and playing poker. Eventually, he became the office manager of a tobacco company in Washington D.C. But in 1956, when he was 43, his wife of 11 years suddenly died. At loose ends, drinking too much, he grabbed for the lifeline of fiction writing.

Marlowe moved to New York, joined a novel-writing workshop, and became a full-time writer in 1958. Shortly afterwards, he published his first two novels, Doorway to Death and Killer with a Key. The hard-boiled style was flying high in those days, and Marlowe’s books fed the fever. These were Avon Original paperbacks in the tough-guy, beautiful-dame style, featuring Johnny Killain, a muscle-bound war vet who solves mysteries while working as a bellhop in a New York hotel. Then, after five Killain novels and a book called Backfire, he produced his masterpiece.

The Name of the Game is Death, published by Fawcett in 1962, featured a hard-as-nails bank robber who tracks down his partner’s killers and disposes of them with savage justice. (“I shot her in the throat, three times. ‘Tell your story in hell, if you can get anyone to listen,’ I told her … I stepped over her. I had work to do.”) The New York Times’s legendary critic Anthony Boucher called the book “tensely plotted, forcefully written, and extraordinarily effective.”

At least one real bank robber, Al “Bumpy” Nussbaum, thought so too. On the run in Philadelphia from a New York heist in which a guard had been killed, Nussbaum, a creative criminal, had developed a yen for the writing life. He read Game, liked it, and called Marlowe — using a false name — to get some tips on literary craft. After FBI agents bagged Nussbaum, they told Marlowe the identity of his caller. Marlowe, interested in Nussbaum and looking for publicity, befriended the bad guy.

It’s easy to see what intrigued the writer. According to his FBI file, Nussbaum once said, “Crime has always been a combination game and livelihood to me … I can’t say which held my interest more, the fun or the money, but I enjoyed playing the game.” When Nussbaum went to prison for 15 years, Marlowe coached him in writing. And Nussbaum became a prolific producer of short stories and book reviews. Sometimes Marlowe used his own name to sell the stuff, then passed the money along to Nussbaum.

That friendship was just part of the pulp saga of Marlowe’s life, one that played out below his high-energy, pool-shooting, hard-drinking, womanizing surface. He was a gregarious member of the Mystery Writers of America, very active in judging for MWA awards. And, although he never wrote a big, breakout hardcover novel, he was a hot ticket in the world of the paperback thriller. In 1967, Boucher called him one of the country’s top writers of original softcover suspense, numbering him with such authors as John D. MacDonald, Brett Halliday, Donald Hamilton, Richard Stark, and Edward Aarons.

¤

She had no bra on under the robe, and the nipples of her large breasts winked up at me like two ripe strawberries. I did what seemed to come naturally, and that brought her to life; she fell over backward to get away from my hands. That took care of the robe. Beneath it she had on only panties and the stockings, and between them was an expanse of white thigh that dried the roof of my mouth.

— from Never Live Twice (1964)

But there was a hidden aspect to Marlowe’s life at odds with his MWA socializing, his Republican Party activities, and his service on the Harbor Beach city council. For one thing, he cloaked the fact that he co-wrote many of his novels — including the popular Operation series — with a modest World War II flying hero, Air Force Col. William C. Odell. Both names appeared on their 1967 novel, The Raven is a Blood-Red Bird, but never again thereafter would Odell be credited on any of the dozen novels he worked on with Marlowe. Marlowe “fronted” all those books, using his more-marketable name. He even accepted an Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1971, for Operation Flashpoint, without publicly acknowledging Odell’s hefty contribution.

Marlowe also masked the parts of his life that were steamy and weird. He once reviewed a literary novel he called “pure filth” and said it was so skanky he dared not tell the readers its title (research reveals it was Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn). Despite that affected primness, he wrote a series of porno books, including The Young Librarian, under pseudonyms such as “Rod Waleman.” He also had a spanking fetish: One girlfriend said he swatted her rump during sex, his hard-boiled paperbacks include many scenes of bottom-slapping, and in 1977, he wrote to England to order an erotic 8-millimeter schoolgirl-discipline film called Home Late from School.

¤

“ … I suspect retrograde amnesia.”

“You said it yourself, Jessie — you’re not a psychiatrist. What’s this retrograde business?”

“Roughly, it means it’s happened before.” Her brown eyes were locked on mine. “I think you had a traumatic experience some time ago that blanked you out on your personal life to that point.”

— from Never Live Twice

 

Marlowe’s double life became a half-life on June 6, 1977. A girlfriend called him at his apartment in Harbor Beach. He was speaking gibberish, and she called for help. Doctors discovered he’d been overtaken by amnesia. Marlowe could recall a few details about U.S. presidents: that was it. Suddenly, his old friends were strangers. He took notes on them, trying to figure out who they were. His books, too, had disappeared from his remembered past. Given The Name of the Game is Death to read, he critiqued it as if he’d never seen it before.

Physicians thought the amnesia was psychosomatic, brought on by stress and money troubles, but there were hints of physical problems too. Before his brain emptied out, Marlowe had been laid low by crushing migraines, and there was evidence he’d had similar problems during his youth. In time, Marlowe would tell people the memory loss resulted from a stroke, and the symptoms he described (weakness on his left side, for instance) seemed to bear that out.

In any case, his creative-writing ability vanished, and his life fast-reversed 20 years. He was trapped in a noir plot eerily similar to that of Never Live Twice, the 1964 Marlowe thriller in which amnesia blanks out the mind of government operative Jackrabbit Smith, who has to fight his way back to his old life, blasting bad guys and spanking a woman psychologist along the way.

Marlowe realized the problem better than anyone. Not only had he forgotten much of his life, he feared he’d been tagged as a head case. The Detroit News reported he was being treated in a psychiatric unit at Detroit’s Ford Hospital. “Having been branded crazy, and by extension, unreliable, I will find no publishers willing to deal with me as formerly,” he wrote to an attorney. “There is a possibility I will never be able to sell again under my own name since any editor is entitled to ask himself, ‘Did this nut sell the same thing somewhere else?’”

He abandoned even the hope of writing under a false name. He took an office manager job for a Detroit furniture business, settling in to spend the rest of his life freezing his ass off, adding up rows of numbers, and checking inventory. But the weirdness wasn’t quite done with him. Al Nussbaum, robber and rogue, was on parole in L.A. He’d cobbled together a career writing stories for Alfred Hitchcock’s, Ellery Queen’s, and Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazines, churning out youth-oriented tales for an educational publisher, and hatching TV stories and scripts. Nussbaum appreciated what Marlowe had done for him, wanted to return the favor, and came up with a con game to make it happen.

¤

I came out of the woods when I figured I had the prison smell off me. Inside, I’d made plenty of contacts. I could pick and choose. I’d made up my mind I was going to do things my way.

— from One Endless Hour (1969)

 

Out of the blue, Marlowe got a letter from Francis Arbeiter, editorial director of Bowmar, an educational publisher in Los Angeles, offering him an editor’s job. Marlowe checked with Nussbaum. Nussbaum said he’d worked with Arbeiter and believed he could be trusted. Move to L.A., Nussbaum urged. You can live with me and if the thing with Arbeiter doesn’t work out, we’ll still find gigs for you. This was fiction at work. According to Mel Cebulash, Bowmar publisher at the time, no one named “Francis Arbeiter” worked at the firm. Nussbaum, who had freelanced youth books for Cebulash, had asked the publisher to offer Marlowe a job. Cebulash declined, so Nussbaum snagged some Bowmar stationery, and sent Marlowe the Arbeiter letter.

In L.A., the charade continued. “Arbeiter” (apparently a Nussbaum confederate) met with Marlowe, then disappeared because of a supposed nervous breakdown. Nussbaum handed off Marlowe to Cebulash, who — still not suspecting what had happened — contracted with Marlowe to write easy-reading books similar to those Nussbaum was producing.

The odd couple of Marlowe and Nussbaum got along well for several years, despite a contrast in styles: Marlowe, reserved; Nussbaum, opinionated and glorying in stories of his criminal past. They got a cat, encouraged each other in their writing efforts, and took in free movies with passes gleaned from Nussbaum’s writing-related connections. Marlowe and Nussbaum also were active in the Southern California Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America and the (ironically named) “Pink Tea” group, whose members saw themselves as two-fisted writers and drinkers. Marlowe’s lack of memory still troubled him. He worried about meeting people he’d known in his past life and not recognizing them, fretted about reproducing plots or even stretches of writing he’d written before. But he hammered out easy-reading books and an occasional mystery-magazine story, and eventually published, as “Gar Wilson,” one more full-length novel, Guerilla Games, for the Phoenix Force action series spun out of Don Pendleton’s hot-selling Executioner books.

It wasn’t a return to Marlowe’s best work, but it showed his core skills were still intact. Mark Howell, an editor for Gold Eagle, which published Guerilla Games, said Marlowe captured the spirit of the series (“Live large, stay hard”) and turned in a manuscript that required little editing. “I also recall that Dan’s manuscript was unusually persuasive as a story of tension and violence,” Howell said. “In some of the earlier ghosted books, we had to tighten the torque a bit, but Dan’s style was quite sophisticated in its starkness, a fragile clarity.”

¤

The lean mouth, abrupt facial angles, and the frostily pale eyes all contributed to a hardbitten ensemble.

— from Doorway to Death (1959)

 

Guerilla Games was published in 1982, the same year Marlowe moved out of Nussbaum’s apartment. Relations between Marlowe and Nussbaum remained amicable; Cebulash thought Marlowe just wanted independence. But it’s possible, too, that Marlowe was worried that Nussbaum wasn’t finished with his life of crime. The authorities certainly thought that, according to his FBI file. In August 1979, when Nussbaum and Marlowe were living in Tarzana, California, federal agents suspected Nussbaum of wiretapping and trying to blackmail a Lebanese resident alien in Redondo Beach that they had under surveillance. That matter went nowhere. In December 1982, the cops homed in on Nussbaum again, suspecting he’d extorted $31,500 from a bank in Peoria, Illinois. Investigators pegged him as the man who threatened a bank official and forced the official to cop bank money and drop it off near a Wendy’s restaurant. Again, investigators couldn’t come up with solid evidence. Nussbaum wasn’t arrested.

Nussbaum never lost his taste for the fast shuffle, even when Marlowe was involved. The bank robber even tried a left-handed attempt to gain a claim on posterity. Nussbaum intercepted a letter asking Marlowe to update the list of his books and short stories for 20th Century Crime and Mystery Writers. Nussbaum, pretending to be Marlowe, wrote back and added a number of stories actually written by Nussbaum, some under the pen name Albert Avellano. “Dan was furious,” said Robert Ragan, the executor of Marlowe’s estate, “but eventually he said ‘I’ve got to admire the guy in a way. He knew he’d never be profiled in a reference book and he wanted to get those stories credited to someone in a reference book.’”

Not long after he and Marlowe split up, Nussbaum moved to Buffalo, New York. Marlowe continued to plug away at the writing trade in L.A. and to battle his physical problems, which included glaucoma, the lingering effects of his stroke, and heart malfunction. He still did easy-reading books for Cebulash, with whom he occasionally hit the races at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Despite his amnesia, he hadn’t forgotten how to handicap races, and he corralled his share of winners. In time, even the amnesia eased. In 1985, he started telling friends his memory was returning.

It was too late to make much difference, however. On July 23, 1986, Marlowe wrote Cebulash that his latest medical checkup had revealed a spot on his lung. “So the boys at the clinic will come up with a miracle drug which will take care of all this bullshit and I’ll be calling you to say I’m bubbling with ideas again,” Marlowe wrote. “Till then it’s waltz time.” A month later, Marlowe didn’t answer the door at his neat one-bedroom apartment on Reseda Boulevard. When the management went in, they found him dead of a heart attack. He was sitting in his chair, a book close to hand. No one remembers the title. Per his own instructions, Marlowe’s body was taken back east to be buried next to his wife in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Stratford, Connecticut.

 ¤

Marlowe hadn’t written much for years by the time he died, but he had already written books good enough to captivate future generations of hard-boiled aficionados. In dedicating his 2005 novel The Colorado Kid to Marlowe, Stephen King called him “hardest of the hard-boiled.” Over the years, writers and filmmakers have shown interest in adapting some of Marlowe’s books into movies. Late 2011 and early 2012 have seen the hint of a Marlowe revival. Ed Brubaker, creator of the celebrated graphic novel series Criminal, became intrigued by Marlowe’s personal tragedies — particularly the death of his wife and his amnesia — and ran an essay about him in his comic Fatale. Stark House Press in Eureka, California, contracted to reissue print versions of The Name of the Game is Death and One Endless Hour. Marlowe’s estate has released Name, Hour, and The Vengeance Man (now called Vengeance Man) as ebooks, and F+W Media has plans to reissue more than a dozen others.

Marlowe’s personal Hollywood adventure ended as so many do: with dreams vaporized, meetings cancelled, hopes snuffed out. But his spirit survived, and his books may still find a home on the screen. Many of them serve up hellacious movie material — bawdy, raw, and unrelenting. The story isn’t over.

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Click here to purchase Gunshots in Another Room: The Forgotten Life of  Dan J. Marlowe

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