Thursday, March 18, 2021

Earl Drake #5: Operation Breakthrough by Dan J. Marlowe

Dan J. Marlowe is correctly regarded as paperback royalty.  "The Name of the Game is Death" and "One Endless Hour" are stone cold classics (they work best as one bigger-novel) that are hard touch. In them we are introduced to Earl Drake (under a different name) a hard-case criminal who gives Richard Stark's Parker a run for his money. To top it off Marlowe's got a run in the 60's for Gold Medal with a great string of standalone hardboiled work that are nearly all great. Marlowe's real-life story is a paperback novel too full of amnesia, spanking women, local politics, bank robbers, death and drink. I'm not going to get into that too much, as there's much better places that delve into Marlowe's world. What I find interesting is that Marlowe seemed to work with a co-author a lot of the time. Apparently credited co-author on "The Raven is a Blood Red Bird" William C. Odell ( a Colonel in the U.S. Airforce) worked with him on the early Drake books at least, as his entry on the U.S. Naval Institute website credits him as wining a Edgar award that was surely the award the Drake novel "Flashpoint" won. Some online sources cite Fletcher Flora as the co-author to the stand-alone "Vengeance Man" as well. Then there's his noted working with convicted bank robber-turned-writer Al Nussbaum. I get the vibe that Marlowe played things fast and loose in life. I need to track down Charles Kelly's "Gunshots in Another Room: The Forgotten Life of Dan J. Marlowe" and maybe all my questions will be answered.  

So, maybe Fawcett Gold Medal wanted another spy series to go with the adventures of their other series espionage characters and for some reason thought the cold-blood bank robber Chet Arnold, er, Earl Drake would be a good fit. Or maybe Marlowe just wanted to write about spies as he had done before in some of his stand-alone work and wanted to ride the wave of the good vibes from "The Name of the Game is Death." Who knows. Either way Drake became a freelance spy working under a shadowy Government man named Karl Erikson. This era of the Drake books is often kinda dismissed in comparison to his early work which is a shame. The first Marlowe book I read was one of the last Drake novels and it certainly turned me onto Marlowe's writing. The 70's were a weird time for Gold Medal, the emphasis had definitely shifted from standalone's to series work, probably trying to get all that "Executioner" money. There were ongoing series entries in stable series like Matt Helm, Sam Durrell and Joe Gall, plus upstart series like Daniel Da Cruz's Jock Sargent books. I won't even get into the "The Godfather" knockoffs they stuffed the spinner racks with. So, where does Earl Drake land? For my money he's the best Gold Medal spy of the 70's. Sure they're not up there with Marlowe's earlier glory but they are certainly strong works of Men's Adventure. 

"Operation Breakthrough" starts off with a slam-bang heist, barrels through a "man on the run" story, then spy shenanigan's to a break out yarn. Earl Drake is a slick lead character with a nice man-of-a-thousand-faces-gimmick. He's stuiably tough and dangerous with his .38, but he's still a bit of a fish out of water when it comes to spying. This gives him a realistic-vibe, not making him a perfect superman, plus a bitchin' girlfriend names Hazel who's cool under pressure. Marlowe tosses full characters down on the page with ease and short work, all the side-characters seem real or real in a pulp way anyway. There's a continuing story going on here too; you probably need to read the early ones in order; as there's a lot references to past escapades.  If I remember correctly the later books are pretty stand-alone. This is really no-frills top-shelf Men's Adventure. 

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