Monday, April 26, 2010

Whodrewit? Doorway to Death, by Dan Marlowe

This is the debut of what I expect to be--alas--a series of posts having to do with exceptional book covers for which I can find no illustrator credit. The jacket from this 1959 Avon paperback-original edition of Doorway to Death, the first novel by accountant-turned-writer Dan J. Marlowe, is one of the better specimens of what might be called “come-on covers.” The blonde portrayed is clearly not wearing a stitch of clothing, other than what appear to be high-heeled shows. But the shadows are strategically arranged to prevent any intimate anatomy from showing. It’s a masterpiece of suggestion, not only because of the shapely miss herself, but because of the red and orange hues--hints at passion’s fire--that surround her. This novel must have been a real breath-stopper for men browsing the paperback spinner racks of yore. I only wish I could ascribe the artwork to somebody in particular.

Better known is the book’s author. Dan James Marlowe was reportedly born in Lowell, Massachusetts, back in 1914. According to an excellent article by Arizona reporter Charles Kelly, Marlowe’s “mother died when he was young and he was raised by two aunts. After graduating from the Bentley School of Accounting and Finance, he worked as a county club assistant manager and a timekeeper. For twelve years, he was the office and credit manager for a tobacco wholesaler and during this time was also ... a professional gambler.” After his wife perished from pancreatitis in 1956, though, Marlowe--at age 43--ditched his life in Washington, D.C., relocated to New York City, and took up full-time writing.

“Marlowe had always loved stories,” explains Josef Hoffman in a terrific present-tense profile carried years ago by Mystery*File.
He gives a lot of thought to the stories he himself now wants to tell, making drafts of scenes, dialogues and characters. Then he begins to write. He even attends writing courses in the nearby YMCA. One day, literary agent James Reach comes to give a talk to the class. Dan Marlowe attracts his attention. The two become friends. Reach sends Marlowe’s first manuscript to various publishers. In the meantime, Marlowe is already writing a sequel. He has nothing else to do. Both novels, Doorway to Death and Killer with a Key are published by Avon in 1959, just two years after Marlowe had decided to devote himself to writing.

Whereas most writers produce for years in vain before having a work published, Marlowe is successful in his new life right from the start. Before the very eyes of his reading public he acquires and perfects his craft.
His first five novels, published between 1959 and 1961, featured Johnny Killain, whom Hoffman describes as “a night porter, bouncer, and part-time detective in [New York City’s Hotel Duarte]. ... Killain is a character very typical of the ‘hard-boiled detective story’: of massive physique, aggressive, cool, reckless, a survivor. He is bubbling with sarcastic wit and, of course, is a great man for the women.” In Doorway to Death, Killian must deal with what the product description at Amazon terms “a schoolmarm from a small western town” who, after taking up residence in the Duarte’s Room 1109, “left her morals at home, stripped off the drab veneer and became an armful of seething hell.” Further complicating this tale, it seems that “The ‘salesman’ in 1938 peddled death on the side--until he turned up cold ... very cold ... on a hook in the hotel icebox. Johnny had the keys to all the doors--to lust, love, greed ... and murder!”

(Personally, they had me at “an armful of seething hell.”)

However, Marlowe didn’t ensure his writing success until the publication, in 1962, of The Name of the Game Is Death, which introduced killer, bank robber, and definitive “anti-hero” Earl Drake. To quote from a post I wrote some years ago for my main blog, The Rap Sheet:
Bill Pronzini has said that Name of the Game is “about as good as original paperback writing can get.” It was that same gangster story-cum-detective yarn that brought Marlowe to the attention Al Nussbaum, an early 1960s bank robber serving a 40-year stint in federal stir. Explains Hoffmann: “[Nussbaum] was so impressed by the book that he got in touch with the author through the publishers. After his arrest he wrote to Marlowe from jail. Marlowe then visited Nussbaum, got to know him, and wrote about him. This resulted in a life-long friendship.” According to Mike Ashley’s The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction (2002), “in a succession of letters, [Nussbaum gave Marlowe] the inside dope on safe-cracking, ballistics, alarm systems--the works. Thereafter, [Marlowe’s] books became so authentic that he had to dumb them down rather than be charged with writing a do-it-yourself bank-robbing guide.” The Endless Hour (1969), which reintroduced Drake--after having undergone cosmetic surgery, and now pitting himself against the Mafia (Ashley calls him “an honorable villain, if there is such a thing”)--clearly demonstrates the influence of this newly gained criminal knowledge. In Flashpoint (1970), which won an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original, Drake becomes an undercover agent for the U.S. government, a job he then held through eight more books--until author Marlowe suffered a major stroke in 1969 that “damaged his memory. He no longer knew who he was, where he lived, what he had done before, etc.,” writes Hoffmann. “All of his personal memory was gone.” However, Marlowe’s “writing and language abilities ... were still intact,” and allowed him to continue penning short stories, if not longer novels--with Nussbaum’s assistance.
Marlowe had moved to Harbor Beach, Michigan (on Lake Huron, north of Detroit), at the height of his crime-fiction-writing career. But following his mysterious memory loss, he took up residence in Los Angeles, California, with the paroled Nussbaum. “He wrote a number of very short novels, many sports-oriented, meant for an audience of young people or of adults trying to learn to read,” recalls Hoffman. “And he completed one more novel, a 1982 generic action-adventure called Guerilla Games, written under the name Gar Wilson as part of the Phoenix Force series published by Gold Eagle.” By the early 1980s, Marlowe had split with Nussbaum and found a small apartment of his own in the San Fernando Valley district of Tarzana. He died of heart failure in August 1986.

There have been several efforts made since his death to bring Dan J. Marlowe’s fictional visions to the silver screen; yet they’ve all fallen through. Several of his books, including Doorway to Death, have been brought back into print by Black Mask and Stark House Press, but for the most part, Marlowe “hovers in obscurity,” as Charles Kelly wrote.

At least Marlowe’s identity is known, though--which is more than I can say about the artist who created the jacket illustration topping this post. If anyone can say for sure who deserves credit for that 1959 Avon paperback, please tell me in the Comments section below.

READ MORE:Dan J. Marlowe on Writing,” by Gonzalo B
(Sweet Home Alabama); “A Review by Noel Nickol: Dan J. Marlowe, The Vengeance Man” (Mystery*File); “The Wrong Marlowe,” by Charles Kelly (Los Angeles Review of Books); and in February 2012, Nick Jones of the Existential Ennui blog, filed a five-post series about Dan J. Marlowe and his protagonist Earl Drake that’s well worth reading (see Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V).

A MYSTERY NO LONGER: As blogger “Snidely Whiplash” points out here, the fall 2010 launch of Rebecca Kalin’s Web tribute to her father, artist Victor Kalin (1919-1991), finally answered the question of who was responsible for Doorway to Death’s cover illustration. I’ve written about some of Kalin’s other fine artistry here.


Snidely Whiplash said...

What a piece, the Twilight Zone doorway with reinforcing diagonals even extending into the figure; the artist loves drama and has the nerve to pull it off. Tip of the fedora to this one.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

I should note, as well, that the cover shown above from The Name of the Game Is Death was painted by Barye Phillips. More on that novel here: