Thursday, May 28, 2020

One Endless Death

"I wished I could have seen her face. It would have interested me to be able to read her expression. As far as I was concerned, Lucille Grimes was already dead. It was just a question of when, and how. In a way it was too bad. This was a really talented bitch."

Hard-boiled noir is an interesting subgenre. It's mostly remembered in the mainstream, if at all, for cheesy parodies that family sitcoms and cartoon used to do back in the 1990s. What it is remembered for is as a genre about hapless detectives in black and white 1930s settings having to find a killer among a cast of twelve or so shifty character archetypes. Plenty of fun is poked, but they hardly take the genre seriously.

The books on the other hand, suffer from the opposite image problem. Usually seen as debauched and politically incorrect, this filth doesn't offer much aside from mindless violence, casual sex, and hokey one dimensional villains. In other words, they are disposable, and you should be reading modern thrillers instead where all the unsavory bits are trimmed out!

Despite neither really being the case as to what the genre is that is what it is remembered for being. However, the hard-boiled style is capable of much more than a modern thriller is, or at least has shown itself to be, and the parodies are just that.

Take The Name of the Game is Death by mysterious author Dan J. Marlowe, for example. Written and released in 1962, this novel is sort of a bridge between the culture shift of the '50s and '60s, with the main character representing the more unsavory elements of the previous decade coming into full flower in the next. This is the story of a bankrobber's death, though not in the way you would expect it.

The nameless main character is introduced to us through a partially successful bank-robbery at the beginning of the story. One of his compatriots is killed during the escape, and he is wounded. The third man gets away with the money and is told to lay low until the heat dies down. While this chaos is occurring, our protagonist visits a doctor to have him patched up, then when he is bandaged, unceremoniously kills the man who helps him--this is all very important as to what happens later on. We are introduced to the bankrobber as what he is: a scumbag criminal. I don't mean anti-hero, either, he is just a bad person who does bad and selfish things.

But the third man goes radio silent after the job, and questions begin to form. What happened to him?

The bankrobber then takes the fake identity of "Chet Arnold" and investigates the matter. The snooping takes him to an small town where a pair of the shadier members of the community might have the answers "Chet" is looking for. Now he must go undercover as a normal businessman to learn the truth.

His quest isn't so simple. What follows is a story of life, death, and the border between, ending in the fires of Hell making their mark. By the end of the story we become invested in "Chet" and his journey, and Marlowe does this without having to excuse his bad behavior or use his past as crutch. We simply want to see what decisions this man will make, and if they will be the right ones. This is because he shows signs of being something more than hardened thug.

Normally, a main character doing something despicable in the opening chapter of your book is a great way to turn readers off. How can you get behind someone like that and root for their success when they do horrible things? Some readers even consider "Chet" to be an anti-hero, a bad guy we love and get behind because he attacks people worse than he is. The truth is that how bad he is isn't the point of the book--the title flat out tells you what the book is about. It's not about heroism, villainy, or grey areas-- it is about death and what causes and leads up to it. The bigger point and theme of the story is one of decay. Corpses rot, but living men can repent.

This balance is what makes The Name of the Game is Death a fascinating and intriguing read. Who is "Chet" really, and can he be something more?

On the way towards finding his ally, "Chet" reveals his past to us in a secondary narrative the explains his past in a way that ramps up with the main plot. Marlowe knows how to balance this two expertly and it leaves you with just enough questions that you don't feel like you know it all.

Normally it is frowned upon for authors to go into flashbacks because it takes away from the main plot, but our protagonist's past ends up tying into both his motivations and the warped way he twisted himself to be who he is now. It adds tremendously to the story, themes, and character's actions, despite it being a dead past that he puts no stock on. This is a smart aspect to add during the investigatory early bits of the book as it reminds you that "Chet" is no saint, but is on the road to being one of the damned. What will he find at the end of his journey?

These past sections are also an interesting window into the time period period of childhood, which would have been the '40s or '50s, showing a strange complacency adults of the time period had. Everyone wants to pretend nothing is wrong and just go along to get along, even at the cost of justice. It reveals a strange time where everyone just wanted to pretend the world was fine, and anything that got in the way of this false peace was the real enemy. We just want things to be normal, which means they just are. One can see how something like the hippie movement would have got its start here, but for "Chet" it just means that people are obstacles to go through.

"On the way home my father said tiredly that he hoped I'd realize some day it was necessary to live with people. He said a lot of other things. I felt sorry for him. He just couldn't stand up to a situation."

You see, the shrinks diagnosed "Chet" as being amoral, not caring about anything but himself and his goals. For a criminal like him, it is't too far off the mark. The beginning of the book paints this picture quite well. However, as we go deeper into the story we see that this isn't quite who he is, and the hints to that spark lie in his near-forgotten childhood.

As a boy he was given a kitten he named Fatima. This small cat was his pride and joy, very smart and friendly, and even learned to perform tricks. The two got along famously until he brought her to a pet show, and a fat kid used his dog to attack and kill her. Nothing really came of it--that's life, just move on, or so the adults try to say. "Chet" didn't get mad at the dog, since attacking cats is what they do, but instead he ended up chasing down and tormenting the fat kid for at least a year by relentlessly beating the tar out of him.

It's at this point we get a hint that what's wrong with "Chet" isn't that he's amoral, but that he has a sense of justice that he doesn't know how to use or temper. The fact that it was his kitten that was killed isn't what set him off: it was the fat kid's reaction to what he did that pushed him into his assaults.

It goes further than that. He was offered a replacement kitten, but refused to take it. His father warned him to drop it, but he refused to turn away. Everyone around him became scared of his tenacity, but he refused to quit. After this you might think he just hated this fat kid with an unnatural fire. However, that isn't the case.

Names are very important in this story, as "Chet" does not even remember the fat kid's name anymore. It wasn't a personal grudge, he didn't even hate him. This was just something he had to do. It's not explicitly stated, but part of the reason for this, as revealed later, is that his problem is more than he never second guesses himself or wonders if he made a bad call--he has a sense something must be done, and he does it. This is why he is nameless, since he lost his identity long ago by cutting off his roots for being weak and useless.

"Chet" actually didn't have a bad childhood, at all. He highlights a handful of events that were out of the ordinary to explain why he is on the path he is on, but he is deliberately painting only part of the picture. You can tell by the fringes that he was an otherwise normal kid. He lived in family that was almost all women aside from his henpecked father who refused to ever fix any problems and would rather keep his head covered. "Chet" then has a realization that his father is "weak" and leaves town, never to return. He develops a distrust in others, thinking he has to do everything himself. But a man isn't an island, and he ends up decaying to be the person we see at the start of the story.

Despite any injustice he might have faced, he never sought help, never bothered with relationships, and never tried to understand people. This is why people would rightly assume he is amoral, that is, until we get deeper into the story. He chose to be this way, which means he can chose to go in the other direction.

But will he?

"Chet" is on the road to Hell, and he knows it. He lost countless criminal partners over the years and he knows it's only a matter of time before Justice catches up to him. This is why his stay in this small town while looking for his missing partner is a revelation to him as a character. It reveal a whole new side of him.

While undercover, "Chet" begins to click into the small town. He makes friends, courts a lady, rescues a dog he names Kaiser, and gets into a repertoire with the townsfolk. For a long time we are never sure if this is just an act, as he is a really good actor, but the narration reveals all as it goes on. By the conclusion of the story he does suffer from regret and ends up making a good decision that an amoral man would never take. He still has to pay for all the evil he has done, but redemption is possible. The only question left at the end is whether he will use his chance, or throw it away.

That is the point of the book. We can choose life or we can choose death, either way it is up to us. You'll have no one else to blame when the reaper comes knocking on your door.

The Name of the Game is Death ends up being a hard-boiled journey of the difference between the dead and the living. The townspeople are good, and they help "Chet" out of the muck to reveal him as someone who could be much more than he is. He could be alive like they are. He could get a job, settle down, and finally have some peace.

But his broken worldview, his greed, and the shackles of the past threaten to continually drag him to his death. He has an advantage over his enemies due to his buried and rusted conscience, but it is still up to him to make the call at the end of the day. Will he finally become "Chet Arnold", or will he shed what remains of his humanity and become a forgotten husk, rotting in the shadows? The name of the game is death, but will he win?

That is up to him.

“I’ll be leaving one of these days, and the day I do they’ll never forget it.”

This book is regularly considered a classic in crime fiction circles, and is by far Dan J. Marlowe's most popular work. It was so popular he ended up writing sequels which eventually spun out into being a series of spy yarns. Around half of his books star this character, which goes to show how popular it was. However, despite this, Marlowe never made a splash in the mainstream. His books were never adapted for film or television, and he remains obscure outside of his genre. In fact, if it wasn't for my fellow pulp fans I never would have found and read it myself.

One read of this book and one would have to question his lack of popularity. It reminds me a lot of Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, only with a character on the border between life and death instead of on the losing side of good and evil. That isn't light praise--Marlowe was that good. This is what it is a crime that this book isn't as known as it should be.

However, part of the reason for his obscurity might have been because he suffered a stroke in the late '70s which left him with amnesia and the inability to write. The 26 detective and adventure books he wrote over his fruitful period as a writer had all more or less gone forgotten, despite the high praise they received. He tried to reclaim his writing, and did put out an adventure book, but he never returned to his former heights. Though I suppose the 1980s were the decade that men's adventure and hard-boiled detective genres had begun to give away as it was.

Nonetheless, it doesn't excuse readers now. Dan J. Marlowe was one heck of a writer, and The Name of the Game is Death is a fantastic book. It goes without saying that this one comes highly recommended and should be in any pulp reader's library. If you haven't read it, you need to get on it right now.

The most common way to find it today is in a bundle with the sequel book One Endless Hour, though they are both pulp length stories so the package is still smaller than a typical modern thriller. Either way, do give it a go and take the chance. You won't be disappointed.

“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 … “Which is it going to be?" His eyes darted wildly in all directions. Take the bullet," I said. "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.”


  1. Noir as a literary genre is an undiscovered country for me, since I haven't read a single book in it. There is no particular reason for this, but I guess I have a prejudice against it being boring - just grim things happening to grim people. But I have to say, this sounds interesting. I like the trope of a bad man getting a second chance until his sinful past catches up to him.

    Would you recommend reading some widely known noir-classics like Chandler or Ellroy? Their works have been translated to finnish, which I prefer to read in (I can read well in english but I think I should start from translations).

    1. I would say Chandler and anything that ran in Black Mask magazine would be your best bet. As the decades go on the genre has tendency to glorify the debauched instead of lamenting it. It's a reason I'm not big on most neo noir.

  2. By the way, have you heard the new Midnight song? They are releasing an album in july and dropped a single recently. I mean, the sax is back!

    1. This sounds WAY better than Kids. Thank you for sharing. I'm definitely interested in this one now.

  3. I've liked the little noir I've read/watched. If you know the "A Series of Unfortunate Events" children's series that author has a fantastic short children's noir series written as Lemony Snicket, "All the Wrong Questions", that I really loved. And Hammett is always worth the time. I may give this a shot.

    1. It's a good one. Noir is a bit hard to recommend because it can get rather bleak, though I find the best ones have at least a little light to them. There has to be something at the end of the tunnel.