Underground Reading: Strongarm by Dan J. Marlowe
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Strongarm (1963) is a standalone vengeance thriller from author Dan Marlowe. Marlowe is best known for his Earl "The Man With No Face" Drake thrillers - a hard-boiled (if formulaic) 1970's series of action/espionage novels. More notably, Strongarm is sandwiched in between two of Marlowe's best - One Endless Hour (1962) and Never Live Twice (1964).
Strongarm has all the hallmarks of Marlowe's hard-hitting style. The narrative jumps around freely - beginning smack in the middle of the action, then incorporating reminiscent daydreaming to cover all the background.
In this case, we begin with a car crash.
Pete Karma, on a mission of revenge, is shadowing a mob courier - only to see the man crash into a second car. A mysterious briefcase (arm still attached) bounces to Karma's feet - he grabs it and runs.
From there, it gets messier.
Karma is an escaped convict. Serving time for a murder he didn't commit, Karma busts out and, while lying low, schemes of revenge. Just as everything finally clicks into place, he's sidetracked by the enigmatic suitcase - which, in proud MacGuffin fashion, is filled with cash and untranslatable documents. The inference is that they're stolen Russian secrets, but for all the detail we're given, it might as well be De Vermis Mysteriis.
Before long, Karma is the target of a national manhunt. He grabs his foxy ladyfriend, Lynn, and hits the road - chased by Eastern European goons, angry mobsters and cops of all sizes, shapes and descriptions. To add some unintentional comedy, Karma and Lynn pick up Lynn's niece - Augusta - who is a fun-loving package of uncontrollable appetites (in contrast to Lynn, who is the sort of 'brave-but-boring' good girl love interest).
The whole picture is just too much - culminating in a mob vs mob vs cop vs Commie shootout that's like the final 20 minutes of "True Romance". Marlowe's better works (mentioned above) are more tightly constructed - a few nasty twists and an atmosphere of violent tension. In Strongarm, the tension is there, but the twists are running in savannah-wide packs. In contrast to the goofiness the best moments are those 'day-to-day' scenes of life on the run - Pete and Lynn trying to get some sleep or buy clean clothes while being chased by half the country. The detail is terrific, it is the plot that leads the book astray.
Tube journeys: 2
More on Dan Marlowe: A must-read post from author Wallace Stroby on things that he's found in books... and the story of Marlowe's own stranger-than-fiction life from MysteryFile.