Dan J. Marlowe’s The Name of the Game Is Death (later renamed Operation Overkill) is a very dark 1962 crime novel with one of the more memorable anti-heroes in the genre.
The first person narrator (who has so many aliases he probably doesn’t know his real name himself) is a bank robber. He considers himself to be a pretty good bank robber but the book opens with a holdup which is not exactly a shining example of the art of bank robbery. He has recruited an expert wheelman and brought him all the way from St Louis but the driver bungles things badly and gets himself shot. He also gets our protagonist shot.
The two survivors, the narrator and a huge mute named Bunny, decide to split up and meet later in Florida. Despite the bungling they did manage to get away with a sizeable haul - no less than $178,000, an enormous sum in 1962.
Our hero goes to ground for a while, to allow his bullet wound to heal and to let the heat die down. There’s a lot of heat, since he killed two guards during the robbery. Bunny had taken the swag and was supposed to mail him some money on regular basis. The money suddenly stops arriving, and he gets a telegram from his partner-in-crime, only the telegram tell him Bunny will telephone him. Given that Bunny has no vocal cords that seems a bit unlikely so he realises the telegram is a fake, it’s a trap, and obviously something real bad has happened to Bunny.
So he sets off to the town where they were supposed to rendezvous. He goes undercover for a while so he can suss things out and perhaps pick up a lead on poor Bunny’s fate. Fortunately our expert bank robber has another useful skill that enables him to blend in to a small town - he’s a tree surgeon. Surprisingly, he’s apparently a very good tree surgeon, so good he could easily make a very decent living that way. But the criminal mind isn’t noted for logic so he prefers to stick to his main occupation of robbing banks.
Slowly he puts the pieces of the puzzle together and discovers the answer to the mystery of his missing accomplice. And he kills a few more people.
We get several extended flashbacks that fill in some of our narrator’s backstory. He’s very fond of animals. He hates cops. And he likes killing people. In fact guns and violence are not just a major turn-on for him, they’re the only way he can get sexually turned on. He’s a guy who has some serious issues.
During the 50s crime fiction had started to focus more and more on not just anti-heroes but violent crazy anti-heroes such as the protagonist in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. It was the beginning of a trend that would gather momentum with each passing decade. It’s not a trend that I have a great deal of sympathy with. Vicious killers don’t necessarily make fascinating central characters. Dubious explanations of how they came to be brutal killers, especially explanations that rely on childhood traumas, are something I find even less fascinating. So The Name of the Game Is Death is a representative of a sub-genre I’m not overly enthusiastic about.
Nonetheless Marlowe tells his tale with a certain amount of flair and energy and as these sorts of crime novels go this is definitely well executed.