(NB: This post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)
For Part 1, go here; for Part 2, go here.
The same year as the sophomore Earl Drake adventure, One Endless Hour, appeared, the third Drake outing also hit. And it was here that the template for the remainder of the series began to be established...
Published in paperback by Gold Medal in the States in 1969 (and by Coronet in the UK in 1974... although there was actually a British hardback edition published ahead of that; more on that in the final post in this series), Operation Fireball marked something of a departure for both Dan J. Marlowe and Earl Drake. Up to this point, Marlowe had been writing hard-boiled crime fiction – not just the two previous Drake novels, but many other standalone crime works besides (see Josef Hoffman's Mystery*File article "Playing with Fire"). But with Operation Fireball, the author changed direction, pitching his amoral career criminal antihero into what is essentially a spy thriller.
Once again picking up almost directly after the preceding novel – which ended with Drake out of pocket following another heist-gone-wrong and wondering whether he should look up his Amazonian, flame-haired flame from The Name of the Game is Death, Hazel Andrews – Operation Fireball opens with Drake driving towards Ely, Nevada, where Hazel is looking after her father's ranch. No sooner has he arrived and reacquainted himself with Hazel's ample delights, however, than Hazel's dad gets into a spot of bother with the local unruly teens. Being a dab hand with a firearm, Drake elects to settle the matter the old-fashioned way: he shoots them.
Contrary to appearances, this encounter with the teenagers is the first sign of a softening of Drake's character, although in truth it's a matter of degrees: the feral youths wind up with severe gunshot wounds but they do at least escape with their lives. Even so, Drake thinks it best if he lights out, and heads back to San Diego, where he spots a message to one of his aliases on a noticeboard in one of his old haunts, requesting he call a number. The independently wealthy Hazel had offered to support Drake, but since he's not the kind of guy who'd ever be happy as a kept man he follows up the message, and soon he's involved in a scheme to retrieve a cool two million in cash from, of all places, Havana.
Drake's contact is a loose associate named Slater, but the real brains behind the operation is a man Drake doesn't know: Karl Erikson. Tall, statuesque and blond, the mysterious Erikson is compared to a viking more than once – a military type with useful links to his former profession. It's Erikson who manages to smuggle Drake, Slater and a third man, Chico Wilson, onto a US navy vessel and from there to Guantanamo and Cuba – a perilous journey that's one of the best bits of the book – and it's Erikson whose knowledge of Castro's Communist regime (portrayed here in a pitiless manner by an obviously – some might say justly – unsympathetic Marlowe) and whose familiarity with military equipment and skill with a weapon saves the day more than once.
Indeed, though Drake may be reunited with Hazel in Operation Fireball – she provides the financial backing that makes the scheme viable, and even lends a hand operating the radio back in Florida – there's actually another love story at the heart of the novel: that of Drake and Erikson. Drake's narration regarding "the big man" frequently verges on the fawning, while his descriptions of Erikson's confident handling of tense situations at times becomes so gushing that you half expect the orchestra to swell and the two of them to fall into a passionate clinch. In fact, so supremely able is Erikson that Drake is effectively sidelined for much of the action, reduced to the role of ineffectual onlooker while Erikson kicks Commie ass.
That said, Operation Fireball is still a gripping read, certainly pacier than One Endless Hour. And though the plot is more outlandish than those of its two predecessors, as an action/spy thriller it works very well. The incursion into a nightmarish Cuba is fraught with danger, and only a half-baked reveal from Hazel and Erikson at the end of the novel lets the side down. But both of Drake's "love interests" would soon return, as the espionage elements introduced in Operation Fireball increasingly came to characterize the series as a whole – a turn of events that not every fan of Dan J. Marlowe was terribly pleased about...
For Part 4, go here.