Thursday, May 1, 2008
Stephen Marlowe, Author, Obituary
This obituary of Stephen Marlowe was written by fellow author, and his long time friend, Graham Andrews.
From The London Times Online
April 30, 2008
Once described as America’s most prolific mystery writer who became known in the 1950s for his series featuring the dour Washington private eye, Chester Drum
Until Fawcett Publications of New York City and Greenwich, Connecticut, brought out the first Gold Medal novel in 1950, paperback companies had usually played safe with tried-and-tested reprints. Gold Medal discovered or developed such seminal American popular fiction authors as John D. MacDonald, Richard S. Prather, and Stephen Marlowe.
Stephen Marlowe was born Milton Lesser in Brooklyn, New York City in 1928. He graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1949, with a BA in philosophy. He would found the first Writer-in-Residence program there in 1974. An editorial job at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, 1949-50, was followed by US Army service, 1952-54, finishing as a corporal. He then spent the rest of his life as a full-time writer.
Some eighty science-fiction stories by Milton Lesser appeared between 1951 and 1958. “Do It Yourself” (Science Fiction Quarterly, November 1957) is a worthy example. Its hero, Robert A. McPeek, belongs to an outlawed union of itinerant handymen in post-Third World War America. Lesser wrote three novels for the juvenile market: Earthbound (1952), The Star Seekers (1953), and Stadium Beyond the Stars (1960). Recruit for Andromeda (1959) is his best adult science-fiction novel: “Once mankind gets out to the stars and begins to spread out across the galaxy, he’ll be immortal despite his best — make that worst — efforts to destroy himself,” he write in his Introduction.
After changing his name to Stephen Marlowe, in hommage to Raymond Chandler, he produced a quick succession of mystery novels: Catch the Brass Ring (1954), Turn Left for Murder, and Model for Murder (both 1955). Turn Left for Murder puts a young Second World War veteran firmly and unfairly on the gangland spot.
The Second Longest Night (1955), published by Gold Medal, brought us the globetrotting and very private eye Chester Drum. Nicknamed “Chet” by the favoured few, Drum is an erstwhile FBI agent, only somewhat less dour than Fox Mulder of The X-Files. But he’s usually got a lot to be dour about; not least having a home base in even-then unsavoury Washington, DC. But it forms an unusual background for mystery fiction and much of the action takes place in genuinely exotic Venezuela. It gained critical praise rarely accorded paperback originals, with The New York Times calling it “effectively and restrainedly told”.
Mecca for Murder followed in 1956, in which Chester Drum makes a professional pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. Next year saw the publication of Trouble is My Name, Murder is My Dish, Killers Are My Meat. Such Horror is My Hobby-type titles seldom matched the actual contents, but they sure made life easier for bookstore browsers. The marvellously mad Death is My Comrade (1960) doesn’t so much suspend disbelief as hang it out in the wind to dry.
In 1959, Marlowe collaborated with his fellow Gold Medal author Richard S. Prather (obituary, April 20, 2007) on Double in Trouble, which effectively teamed Chester Drum with Prather’s much more happy-go-lucky Hollywood private eye Shell Scott. It was one of the year’s best-selling mystery paperbacks. The last Chester Drum novel, Drum Beat — Marianne, appeared from Gold Medal in 1968. Drum Beat: The Chester Drum Casebook was published in 2003: it contained five short stories and one novel, Drum Beat — Dominique (1965).
Dead Man’s Tale (1961) was one of Marlowe’s most commercially successful novels, even if most of the money went to the by-lined Ellery Queen. The pseudonym Jason Ridgway was used to write four novels about the investigator Brian Guy in a frankly incredible Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! brand-name series, 1960-1966. But he would soon write more substantial thrillers like The Search for Bruno Heidler (1966), The Summit (1970), and The Man with No Shadow (1974). The Valkyrie Encounter (1978) is a radical take on the July Plot to assassinate Hitler.
Marlowe’s personal life had been disrupted in 1962 by divorce from his first wife, the psychologist Leigh Lang, whom he had married in 1950. Two years later, he entered into a second and happily life-long marriage with the Canadian writer-editor Ann Humbert. “I began to wander the world in earnest,” he once said. “Not, come to think of it, unlike Chet Drum.” He would spend most of the next few decades living in Switzerland, France, and Spain.
The Shining (1963) was his first historical novel, concerning the charismatic Athenian general, Alcibiades. Marlowe used the title long before Stephen King. Mary Renault or Rosemary Sutcliff couldn’t have done it better. Ten years later, he wrote the now better-known Colossus: A Novel about Goya and a world gone mad. “As good a novel about an artist as The Moon is Sixpence and The Horse’s Mouth and, in some ways, even better,” according to Stephen Longstreet.
Both these novels can be seen as dry runs for The Memoirs of Christopher Columbus (1987), which was “co-written” with Stephen Marlowe and became an international best-seller. In this book, Marlowe explained, “the name of the game is to determine where facts leave off and fancy begins.” For just one example: “Legend has it — are you ready? — that I, Christóbal Cólon, before sailing west across the Ocean Sea from the southern coast of Spain in 1492 stepped ashore on Claddagh Quay right here in Galway from my flagship Santa Maria to pray in the church of St. Nicholas of Myra for a safe voyage to America. I don’t have to tell you how many things are wrong with that legend!”
Marlowe played the same game in The Death and Life of Miguel de Cervantes (1991), but to ultimately more sombre effect. The title is chronologically exact. It is currently in the process of being filmed. He considered this to be his best novel. The Lighthouse at the End of the World (1995), however, showed his great admiration for Edgar Allan Poe. James (Deliverance) Dickey wrote the following dust-jacket endorsement: “In this extraordinary novel, Stephen Marlowe helps us to see the mysterious figure of Poe more clearly than ever before.” Lighthouse has also been optioned for filming.
The New York Times once called Stephen Marlowe the most prolific mystery writer in America, to which he responded: “Good Lord, I don’t want to be the most prolific anything; I would love to be the best.” His fifty-plus novels were translated into at least twenty foreign-language editions. Marlowe had just finished writing his autobiography (forthcoming from Stark House in 2009) and he had been working on a novel set in contemporary America.
Marlowe received France’s Prix Gutenberg du Livre in 1988 and the Life Achievement Award of the Private Eye Writers of America in 1997.
He is survived by his wife, Ann, and two daughters.
Stephen Marlowe, author, was born on August 7, 1928. He died after a long illness on February 22, 2008, aged 79
Graham Andrews tells me he has written an article on Marlowe and it will appear in the June Issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction.