The name Dan J. Marlowe won’t (or at least, shouldn’t) be unfamiliar to noir fiction enthusiasts. Marlowe’s hard-hitting 1962 classic The Name of the Game is Death is far from his only gripping, edgy crime novel, but it’s his best, and is a landmark title within the genre. Even Stephen King has gone on record to praise that book.
What’s less familiar, even in noir circles, is about the no less gripping story of Marlowe’s life. But now that’s been taken care of, thanks to Charles Kelly’s new biography, Gunshots in Another Room: The Forgotten Life of Dan J. Marlowe. Kelly is a tireless researcher and a crack hand at writing—not surprising for a longtime newspaper reporter and novelist in his own right. His painstaking biographical work reveals a most complicated and contradictory man: a “nice guy” whom people generally liked, yet whom many felt they could never quite trust; a conservative businessman fascinated by the criminal milieu; a chameleon equally comfortable among decorated military officers and career cons; an avid reader who was an anti-intellectual; a soft-spoken guy who wrote convincingly about the hardest of the hardboiled; a well-mannered gentleman who had a spanking fetish.
Asked what it was about Marlowe that made him want to tell his life story, Kelly explains:
To me, Dan Marlowe was a fine hardboiled writer whose work dropped from sight through no fault of his own. The quality of his best books qualifies him for a special place in the hardboiled canon, as Stephen King’s admiration of his writing attests. But, beyond that, I considered him a wonderful subject for a biography because his life mirrored his art. Noir themes abound in his life: amnesia, his taste for gambling, his friendship with a bank robber, the sexual inclinations that he hid from his closest friends, his use of false identities to market his pornographic works. The personal lives of many writers are rather dull. Marlowe’s life certainly wasn’t.
Pulling from a voluminous array of sources, including Marlowe’s written correspondence with friends and publishing professionals, his newspaper columns and magazine articles, and, of course, passages from his many novels, Kelly offers a vivid depiction of Marlowe the writer, while at the same time giving us our first tantalizing glimpse of the man behind the books. He also provides a balanced appraisal of Marlowe’s literary output.
One of the most interesting aspects of the biography is the information on Al Nussbaum, a bank robber-turned-writer, who was a personal friend and professional associate of Marlowe’s. Nussbaum comes off as a charismatic guy whose own life is so intriguing that you want Kelly to write a companion volume focusing squarely on him; as it stands, there is a fascinating mini-bio of Nussbaum contained in the pages of Gunshots. Kelly’s chronicle of Nussbaum’s life of crime reads like a thriller. Nussbaum, who at one time posed as a professional writer just so he could have a front to put up to his neighbors and acquaintances, later became a writing partner of Marlowe’s. He offered his friend key insights into the crook’s life, which allowed the author to portray that realm with greater credibility.
Kelly’s biography puts Marlowe in his deserved place, alongside Jim Thompson, Chester Himes, David Goodis, et al: an ace writer of noir fiction who struggled professionally and had his share of personal demons to contend with. You don’t have to be a noir fiction buff to get something from the book, but if you are, it’s a cinch that you’ll want to snatch up a copy.
A literary biography should do (at least these) three things: 1. Reveal aspects of the writer’s psyche; 2. Point to places where what the author lived and what he or she wrote intersected (if they did); 3. And, most importantly, leave the reader with a yen to plow through some of the author’s own books. Kelly’s biography of Marlowe is successful when judged by all three criteria, particularly the last—I kept having to put the book down to go online and search out used copies of some of the Marlowe titles I hadn’t yet read and that Kelly makes sound like must-haves.
I’ll close with some comments—and encouraging words—from Kelly on the experience of researching, writing, and publishing this book:
Doing a full-length biography requires a huge investment of time and effort. I was lured into this project early on when I came up with two ‘treasure troves’ of documents on Marlowe. Those were the personal papers preserved by Marlowe’s friend Gordon Gempel (including Marlowe’s medical and financial records), and the letters and documents accumulated by the writer’s friend James Batson. I turned up all that material in two months while working on an article about Marlowe for Noir Originals in 2007. At that point, I had so much information, there was no way I was not going to turn it into a biography. Also, there was no way I was going to allow it to go unpublished. A New York agent represented the book for several years, but wasn’t able to place it with a traditional publisher. At that point, I decided to self-publish, and I’m glad I did. The reaction from hardboiled fans and bloggers has been quite gratifying.
For more information about Kelly and his biography of Marlowe, go to hardboiledjournalist.com.
For an appreciation of Marlowe’s The Name of the Game is Death, see Lost Classics of Noir: The Name of the Game is Death by Dan J. Marlowe.
Charles Kelly. Gunshots in Another Room: The Forgotten Life of Dan J. Marlowe. Asclepian Imprints Ltd., 2012.
Paperback. $19.95. Ebook. $4.99.
Authored by Brian Greene.