Marlowe’s life behind the typewriter was as dramatic and exciting as any of the criminal kinds that passed through his pages. Born in 1914, he studied accounting in school, mysteriously avoided service in World War II, spent most of his 20s floating from odd job to odd job, and squandered most of his money gambling. “He’d traveled the fringes of society and came naturally to the hardboiled style,” explains biographer Kelly. Marlowe married at age 31, but was a widower by age 42. Hitting the bottle hard, he drifted, and wound up in New York City where he decided to plunge headfirst into the booming paperback industry.
Marlowe’s life took an unexpected turn with his seventh novel in just three years, The Name of the Game Is Death (Gold Medal, 1962). The most popular and critically acclaimed novel of his career up to that point, it won the author many new admirers, including an aspiring young novelist living in Philadelphia. Phone calls and letters were exchanged, nothing out of the ordinary. And then Marlowe, renting a room in a widow’s house in small town Harbor Beach, Michigan, received a visit from the FBI. That aspiring novelist, it turned out, was one of America’s Most Wanted: real life bank robber Al Nussbaum. Nussbaum was eventually caught and served jail time, but he and Marlowe continued to correspond, with Marlowe helping Nussbaum hone his prose, and eventually selling his stories to various magazines. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship: Marlowe shepherding Nussbaum’s career, Nussbaum feeding Marlowe information from his own criminal life.
Along with Frank Gruber’s memoir, The Pulp Jungle, and Paul S. Powers’s Pulp Writer: Twenty Years in the American Grub Street, Kelly’s Gunshots In Another Room is one of the few nonfiction books that offer a privileged, intimate look into the professional lives of mid-century popular fiction writers. The toil behind the craft, the anxiety of the industry, and the personal stories of fingers that kept the typewriter clanging long into the night. For anyone interested in the history of crime fiction, or the evolution and devolution of the paperback original industry, Gunshots In Another Room is an indispensable volume.
(This review was originally published February 10, 2013 in the Los Angeles Review of Books. It appears here in a slightly revised form.)