Dan J. Marlowe is one of the giants of hard-boiled crime fiction; his 1962 novel, The Name of the Game is Death, is an all-time classic of the genre, as riveting as Donald Westlake’s debut Parker novel, The Hunter, published the same year. In that novel Marlowe introduced the sharpshooting heistman known by the alias “Earl Drake”, and Drake’s lover and partner in crime, a fiery six-foot redhead named Hazel.  Drake returned in a 1969 sequel called One Endless Hour, written with input from a convicted bank robber named Al Nussbaum who was impressed with Marlowe’s work. That novel tells how Drake got his face reconstructed after the hellish climax of Name of the Game–hence the series subtitle “The man with nobody’s face”.

Marlowe published a third Drake novel in 1969 called Operation Fireball, which began Drake’s transition from an independent hard-boiled criminal like Parker to a government-affiliated adventurer-spy more like the Jack Higgins protagonist Sean Dillon. As the novel opens, Drake is reuniting with Hazel, who he hasn’t seen since he got a new face early in the previous novel. There’s some drama at her ranch with some nasty local kids who are abusing Hazel’s father, but Drake punishes them rather violently and has to make a quick exit.

Back in San Diego, bored and looking for action, Drake is contacted by a criminal associate named Slater and a six foot four ex-navy Viking of a man named Karl Erikson, who tell Drake an exciting story. Apparently two million dollars sent by the U.S. government to the Batista regime in the last days before Castro’s revolution is still at large. The cash was hijacked by Cuban gangsters, and Slater, who was in on the heist, is the only man who knows where it is. Erikson is assembling a crew to go get the money and he invites Drake to be on the team. But the mission is a formidable one: to infiltrate paranoid, revolutionary Cuba, find the cash, and get off the island without getting killed or thrown into Castro’s prisons. Drake accepts, on the condition that Hazel is included on the team.

The novel builds slowly as the crew gathers in a hotel in Key West and prepares for the mission. Gear and weapons are purchased, boats are test-driven, shortwave radios are assembled and plans are made with Erikson’s military precision. Meanwhile, the lecherous Latin boat captain Chico Wilson is making aggressive overtures toward Hazel and Slater is being a reckless drunk, scheming to cross the rest of the team. But Erikson is a commanding presence and he manages to keep the motley crew in line.

In the final third of the novel the narrative finally kicks into overdrive, as Drake’s crew sails to Cuba posing as navy men aboard a U.S. destroyer, Slater finds himself in the brig, and they have to free Slater, get off the heavily guarded Guantanomo Bay base and into Cuban territory. This is where Marlowe really excels: fast, tense action, with flawed, desperate, violent men letting nothing stop them from making a big score. For me he’s right up there with Donald Westlake in this regard, and the international intrigue only adds to the excitement. Because Cuba in the 1960s was a very tense place, controlled by fanatical revolutionaries, its population highly paranoid following the failed CIA-sponsored “Bay of Pigs” invasion in 1961 and on the look out for foreign saboteurs. Marlowe does a great job of capturing the war-time feel of the mission, as the men have to move deep behind enemy lines to Havana and the location of the hidden cash. Once there, Drake takes the lead, using his talents as a thief to break into the facility and get to the loot. There’s a tense climactic scene as they try get off the island, their radio broken and unable to signal to their boatman to be picked up. Then there’s a final twist at the end, as Drake learns who Erikson really is and he doesn’t get what he bargained for from the mission.

After a slow opening, with a little too much time devoted to the setup of the mission, this book was riveting stuff. I questioned sometimes how four Americans, particularly a six foot four Viking, could move through paranoid Cuba without more problems, but Marlowe makes it fairly believable. While not an instant classic like The Name of the Game is Death, this was a great read. If you like the Parker series and the work of Jack Higgins, you should love this. I look forward to reading further installments of the Drake series.

Get a copy of Operation Fireball here.

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