Needed a short-ish diversion to calm and gentle waters, something unchallenging with loveable characters being nice to each other and reached for this. Dan J. Marlowe continues Earl Drake’s story from ‘The Name Of The Game Is Death’ and it’s a wonder the pages don’t burst into flames. It’s not quite as stellar as ‘Name’ but this is still scorching stuff.
Previously on Earl Drake’s Crazy Life Of Crime we left our, um, hero badly burned and incarcerated in a prison hospital. Gruff, terse, unsentimental, prone to violence…yes, that’s just the wardens and Marlowe pointedly makes the majority of characters the misanthropic Drake encounters right dodgy types, with only Blind Tom meeting with his approval and he’s a man who lives with a crocodile called Cordelia. Recuperating from his burns, Drake apes monosyllabism while being sadistically abused by his captors and bribes a bent plastic surgeon to give him a top make-over. It’s a move that is decidedly similar to Donald Westlake’s ‘The Man With the Getaway Face’ which features a similarly taciturn professional but if you’ve watched any sixties telefantasy series – Man From U.N.C.L.E., for example – you’ll know plastic surgery was certainly part of the zeitgeist. Drake leaves a trail of bodies in his wake escaping from the hospital with dwindling finances the only serious – but very relatable – cloud on the horizon. His incessant plotting and seething as he sits in his hospital chair is quite delicious.
In ‘The Name Of The Game Is Death’ Drake was a terrifying force of nature, exuding agency from every pore and given enough of a back story to just put you on his side. It’s therefore a pity that cash flow problems here put Drake on the back foot. The two bank jobs he participates in during the second half of the novel are messy affairs, the first near-spontaneous and the second designed by Robert ‘The Schemer’ Frenz – an unseen owlish type who does all the research about a job for you, in return for 12.5% of the take – meaning Drake, unlike Westlake’s Parker, does not “own” events around him. It’s a glaring come down after the tornado that wreaks havoc across America in ‘Name’ but Marlowe throws enough fun curveballs into the mix to keep us reading. Drake as a lean, mean, wig-buying machine gets his end away with a saleswoman in a chapter which might almost be titled “This Never Happens” (“Come on. You need a little hairpiece therapy…”) and the two men Drake & Co have to coerce into ‘fessing up the bank vault combination number have families which are just a tad more dysfunctional than anticipated (“I want you to kill Rachel before you leave”). Drake is left in flux at the end of the novel but remains a compelling figure we – and by ‘we’ I mean ‘I’ – get to pursue through subsequent ‘Operations’.
Is this worth reading in 2018? By gum, yes. It’s a shot of whisky, taken down straight. Marlowe’s oeuvre has seen a digital reprint in the internet age but I really think this and ‘Name’ need a proper prestigious paper edition. Maybe now that the University of Chicago Press has finished republishing the entire Parker sequence they could see their way to giving that nice Mr Drake the day in the sun a favourite of Stephen King deserves. “I would have liked to finish him off, but I had a use for him alive”