Jeopardy Is My Job; 20 “Chester Drum” titles by Stephen Marlowe

Found inside Drum Beat – Berlin, a list of thrillers by Stephen Marlowe starring international private-eye, or something, Chester Drum:

1. The Second Longest Night

Right away we wonder if we have found the right artist to take as an exemplar of title-giving. For wouldn’t the actually longest night be a more promising subject for a murder mystery? But no, because that would be Winter Solstice. A time not for murder but for druids singing ‘Hymn to Her’ or men just beginning their Christmas shopping. But it is not fair to quibble; as we shall see, TSLN was merely one of Marlowe’s apprentice efforts. It was with the next Chester Drum title that Marlowe began to find his voice:

2. Mecca for Murder.

Here Marlowe has used alliteration to suggest that Chester Drum uncovers some figurative capital for murder. Except that as Drum is an international PI it may be that this title has a triple meaning and this murder was actually in Mecca! But we get our first clue to the creative process underlying the Chester Drum titles with the next:

3. Trouble is My Name

No alliteration, but not bad. And when we recall the author’s name is Stephen Marlowe, we can only guess that he was subconsciously influenced in his title choice by Trouble Is My Business, Raymond Chandler’s classic collection of mystery stories starring Philip Marlowe. An artist might perform a life-time of ‘practice’ just to be ready to respond to hearing the chords of serendipity like this. We see that Marlowe (Stephen) has indeed found his ‘groove’ with his next title:

4. Murder Is My Dish

Marlowe (Stephen) has now use ‘Murder’ twice in four titles, but repetition too is practice. And if that’s the price to be paid for an artist finding his voice, it’s an investment that soon pays off with:

5. Killers Are My Meat.

Note how Marlowe (Stephen) is actually incorporating a second theme, this one food-based. It may be no coincidence that his protagonist has such a jazz-inspired name: ‘Drum (Chester)’. Then:

6. Violence is My Business

No food this time, but surely a conscious homage to Chandler and Marlowe (Philip). Marlowe (Stephen) can’t go so close to Chandler (Raymond) again (without resorting to Business is my Trouble), but he tacks near enough with a string of titles each better than the last — the glory years for the titles of Drum (Chester), starting with:

7. Terror is my Trade

Marlowe (Stephen) has been working like the magician who invites his audience to look closely and defies them to follow his craft, but with Terror is my trade listed right beneath Violence is my Business, we begin to see a hint to the formal beauty underlying his long music. HERE IS THE PATTERN:
[Ominous noun/s] + [“Is/Are My”] + [ordinary noun now rendered ominous].
Inspired by Marlowe (Philip), obviously, but the alliteration is entirely Marlowe (Stephen)’s — and we see how he takes care not to devalue it through overuse with the next title,

8. Homicide is my Game.

On the face of it ‘Homicide’ is the same as ‘Murder’, and ‘Game’ is another pursuit like ‘Business’, but game is also a knowing clue: Marlowe (Stephen) is not repeating himself; he is playing a game of jazz with these stories of Drum (Chester).

After reaching that almost post-modern ‘pivot’, Marlowe (Stephen) makes a pause. Reinforced by collaborator Richard S. Prather, he reaches for a new form that temporarily steps away from the — Is My — pattern that has served so well. No longer reaching back for ancient Anglo-Saxon alliteration, but still determined to avoid the modernist cliches of free verse and sound poetry, Marlowe (Stephen) and Prather (Richard) revivify the very act of rhyme with:

9. Double in Trouble

A stunt, perhaps, but one that demonstrates range. Then, refreshed, and keen to show that his allegiance to Marlowe (Philip) was never really threatened, Marlowe (Stephen) returns to the pattern that he has given so much life with work that taunts with this near-plagiarism:

10. Danger is my Line

Copying is his Forte! the reader exclaims — but that is wonder, not mockery; no more than ‘Danger is my Line’ itself. Soon after we read:

11. Death is my Comrade

A minor effort, perhaps, but surely a cold war fable, and one that looks ahead to Drum Beat — Berlin, where we began our journey. Then:

12. Peril is My Pay

And we must pause for a moment. We see the great blank — “Is My” — blank pattern again, and in another near-reflection of Marlowe (Philip), one as good as Violence is my Business, perhaps, but now paired with Marlowe (Stephen)’s other great gift, alliteration. And beyond that, criticism must fall silent, except to invite the audience to look, and look again. ‘PIMP’ (as we will call it to not make stale what is so fresh) is so good — perhaps the real peak of the Drum (Chester) titling oeuvre — that when we come to his next effort

13. Manhunt is my Mission

We wonder if the flower of the inspiration Marlowe (Stephen) found in the coincidence of Marlowe (Philip)’s name has begun to fade at last. When we see what follows:

14. Jeopardy is my Job

We feel that Marlowe (Stephen) has moved beyond homage and into sad pastiche. It is a relief to find the next title, almost certainly the last before the volume we hold, is simply, perfectly,

15. Francesca.

Subsequent to the sublime Francesca and (and DBB!), the dark, body-scented duvet of history seems have been drawn over the repose of Drum (Chester), and we wonder if this really was the end. But again we must pay attention to the muse of serendipity: for after typing “Chester Drum Marlowe” — purely by chance! — into an internet search bar, we find that Marlowe (Stephen)’s titling had a entire 2nd act, one that, fittingly, seems to have been inspired by the title of the very book we hold:

16. Drum beat: Berlin.

17. Drum beat: Dominique

18. Drum beat: Madrid

19. Drum beat: Erica

Not the immortal work of blank-is-my-blank, still we detect an insistent rhythm: a beating drum of ‘Drum Beat’ titles about the different ‘beats’ of our detective Drum.

At this distance we can only speculate that the overall meaning (mean-ing) of these titles is a reference to the protagonist — Drum (Chester) — and either the cities where his adventures take place or the names of women with whom he becomes involved.

So when, at last, we find:

20. Drum beat: Marianne

We recall that in Drum beat – Berlin we meet a former ‘lover’ of Drum (Chester)’s named — Marianne. Perhaps it is the same Marianne! Join me for one moment in setting down the prop-quality replica phaser-and-tricorder set of criticism and indulge instead in the homely game of ‘pretend’, and hope that it is so.

It would be a proper end for Chester (Drum) and a fitting reward for the gifts given us by Marlowe (Stephen).

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