Stephen Marlowe: Crime and thriller writer

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The Independent Online

The American novelist Milton Lesser cut his writing teeth on 1950s science fiction, both for adults and "young adults", before reinventing himself as – then legally changing his name to – Stephen Marlowe and turning his typewriter towards the rather better-paying world of the fictional hard-boiled private investigator.

He later changed course again, producing a number of superior tales of espionage and international intrigue, before making one final transformation into a highly skilled and successful writer of fictional biographies, for one of which, The Memoirs of Christopher Columbus (1987), he was awarded one of France's most prestigious literary prizes, the Prix Gutenberg du Livre, in 1988.

In his early career, Marlowe turned out – in just a dozen years – 20 thrillers featuring his tough, trouble-shooting shamus Chester (Chet) Drum, mainly paperback originals for the market-leader Fawcett Gold Medal Books. There, under the legendary editor Bill Lengel, he rubbed shoulders on the nation's news-stands with some of the finest noir writers of the day, including David Goodis, Charles Williams and John D. MacDonald. He also collaborated with Gold Medal's chief writer of screwball-comedy private-eye tales, Richard S. Prather, in a novel, Double In Trouble (1959), which pitted Drum against Prather's pixilated private investigator Shell Scott.

Although the Drum novels were often brash and violent, Marlowe was far more indebted to Raymond Chandler than Mickey Spillane. He also had an impish sense of humour.

From Chandler's celebrated private eye Philip Marlowe he swiped half of his new name, and then managed to extract two titles – Trouble Is My Name (1957) and Violence Is My Business (1958) – from Chandler's famous short-story collection Trouble Is My Business (1950). Under one of his later pseudonyms, Jason Ridgway, he cleverly conflated the titles of two enormously successful contemporary classics, Sondheim and Bernstein's Broadway hit West Side Story and the novelist Evan Hunter's Blackboard Jungle (1954), into West Side Jungle (1958), a tale of "juvie delinquency" on Manhattan's streets. He also manipulated the title of the classic Humphrey Bogart movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) into The Treasure of the Cosa Nostra (1966), a Mafia caper thriller.

Throughout his career Marlowe continually demonstrated a catholicity of range and subject matter. While still pounding out Chet Drum paperbacks with vivid titles like Peril Is My Pay (1960) and Jeopardy Is My Job (1962), he was at the same time joining the long line of fellow hacks (like Jack Vance and Ed Hoch) ghost-writing for Ellery Queen (Dead Man's Tale, 1961), and producing superior science fiction for juveniles (Spacemen, Go Home, as Milton Lesser, 1961) as well as a Disney travelogue: Walt Disney's Strange Animals of Australia (1963).

Born Milton Lesser in Brooklyn, New York, in 1928, Marlowe later moved to Virginia, where he graduated with a BA in Philosophy from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg in 1949. He had already evinced an interest in science fiction, for a while running his own SF fanzine, Cepheid. Prior to serving in the US army at the tail-end of the Korean war (and ending up a corporal), Marlowe did a stint at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency where he not only picked up useful tips on marketing fiction but networked with editors and would-be writers like Evan Hunter (later to transform himself into the bestselling Ed McBain) who also worked there.

Both Marlowe and Hunter, as well as other young SF guns such as the anthropologist Chad Oliver, Arthur C. Clarke and Poul Anderson, were able to launch their writing careers in hardback style by contributing to the publisher John C. Winston's "Adventures in Science Fiction" series: superior SF tales for young adults. As Milton Lesser, Marlowe wrote two novels in quick succession, Earthbound (1952: a young cadet, unjustly expelled from Solar Academy, tangles with space pirates) and The Star Seekers (1953: a massive spaceship journeys to Alpha Centauri).

He began selling fiction to Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures, both edited by Howard Browne (another Chandler devotee who also wrote SF and fantasy), and may have contributed to Browne's magazines under the Ivan Jorgensen house-name. He certainly became Adam Chase with his friend Paul Fairman, turning out at least one space-opera serial, "Quest of the Golden Ape", for Amazing as a collaborative job (hardbacked for the library trade as The Golden Ape under the Chase pseudonym in 1959).

By this time Marlowe had already written three hard-hitting stand-alone crime dramas for Ace Books, including the excellent Catch the Brass Ring (1954), and was well into his Chet Drum series for Gold Medal. The worldwide settings of the later Drum stories reflected their author's own peripatetic life. For long periods Marlowe lived in Spain, France and Switzerland before returning to the States and initiating a writer-in-residence programme at his old college, William and Mary, in Virginia.

His return to hardback, and less frantic production, began with The Search for Bruno Heidler (1966), a gripping suspenser which features the pursuit of a notorious war criminal. With The Valkyrie Encounter (1978) he added to the vast collection of "secret histories of the Second World War" punched out by popular writers throughout the 1970s ("What if the Gestapo knew all about the 1944 bomb plot against Hitler?").

Colossus (1972) was the first of Marlowe's "fictional biographies", about the painter Goya. It was followed by the award-winning Memoirs of Christopher Columbus (copies of the British edition of which, published by Jonathan Cape, filled an entire window in Hatchard's in Piccadilly), The Death and Life of Miguel de Cervantes (1991) and The Lighthouse at the End of the World (1995) about Edgar Allan Poe.

Stephen Marlowe gained a lifetime achievement award from the Private Eye Writers of America in 1997, and was on the board of directors of the Mystery Writers of America.

Jack Adrian

Milton Lesser (Stephen Marlowe), writer: born New York 7 August 1928; married 1950 Leigh Lang (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1962), 1964 Ann Humbert; died Williamsburg, Virginia 22 February 2008.