Friday, March 10, 2006

Po-File: Stephen Marlowe

by Stephen Marlowe

The cover, though busy with type, is riveting: You see a road going to nowhere under a lowering sky, and you want to know what is at the end of it, but you somehow know you’ll never quite find out. Is this the story of my life, or just of the fifty-odd novels I’ve written so far in a career spanning—good Lord!—more than half a century?
The cover says:
Two Thrillers by Stephen Marlowe
and the double volume is a February 2006 publication of Stark House Press under the rubric Stark House Mystery Classics ($19.95). In the front matter you’re regaled with an ISBN number (1-933586-02-8) and other publishing impedimenta—and finally the key dates, 1958 and 1955.
Those are the years in which the two books were first published—a lifetime ago. I was in my twenties, and now in my seventies I’m delighted with this chance to look back at who I was then and why I wrote those two suspense novels, and not two other books, when I was young and eager and thought that I could write anything and dreamed that I would.
Now glued to my computer is a note to myself. I see it every time I sit at this desk. It says: “No one ever said it was easy, but: Write one page at a time, one scene at a time. And you will enjoy the writing more by making sure the scenes are scenes you like to write.”
This is the truest thing I know about writing fiction. Did I know it then, half a century ago? Did it matter when, being young, I believed I could do anything?
I grew up on the streets of Brooklyn during the Depression and the Second World War, and two things can be said about that place in those years. The streets were mostly mean streets, and Brooklyn was a place you might love in some perverse way—for the excitement, maybe—but still want to escape from. One of my writing idols, Irwin Shaw, made that escape about a decade before I did, and so did countless others. The world is, it sometimes seems, peopled with Brooklyn expats.
VIOLENCE IS MY BUSINESS is an early novel among the twenty I wrote about a footloose international private eye named Chet Drum. But of course it is more than that. A novel is more than what it seems to be, more than what even its author thinks it is, or it is nothing.
I lived through the McCarthy era—coincidentally brought vividly to life this year in the movie GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. Those were also the years of the Korean War, and I saw the virulent Senator McCarthy self-destruct by attacking the Army, in which I was then serving. Chet Drum as a private eye couldn’t fight this demagogue as Edward R. Murrow did in life and does in the film. Drum worked on a different level, in a more physically dangerous world, and his antagonist had to be of a different sort. So the villain of the piece was another private detective, as tough as Drum and far better connected in the Washington corridors of power, a henchman for lobbyists and McCarthyite politicians.
VIOLENCE IS MY BUSINESS has much to do with the patriotism of dissent and, while chiefly a story of noir suspense, it still has something to say about the abuses of power in a democracy.
TURN LEFT FOR MURDER stays much closer to home for the me-in-my-twenties who wrote it. The background is mean-street Brooklyn all the way. The seedy poolroom where the story opens is a poolroom I knew only too well, and the novel’s characters are based on its habitués. Brooklyn, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, supplied the contract killers employed by the national syndicate and collectively known as Murder Inc. How I managed to keep my nose clean in that milieu I’ll never know. The less lucky protoagonist of TURN LEFT was someone I knew intimately. He was who I almost was.
So, one background, one writer, two totally different noir novels. Chet Drum in his twenty cases—and particularly in VIOLENCE IS MY BUSINESS—is the me, the fictionally glamorized me, who escaped those mean streets, went to Washington as a private eye, and ultimately traveled the world, to pit himself against more deadly, yet more subtle, demons. Norm Fisher is the ordinary-guy me who managed to survive those mean streets on their own terms.
And the real me? I wandered away from that background, as Drum did, spent decades traveling the world, and returned Stateside. Writing one page at a time is still the only way I know, and it is glorious when the page comes easily. When it doesn’t, it is trouble, but not more trouble than it’s worth.
There are a couple more novels I want to write. And this opportunity Stark House Press gave me to look back at my early work strongly suggests that they will be as noir as I can make them. Noir is where I come from.


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What a coup, Ed, and what a wonderful and inspirational essay.

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