Man with collar turned up like a spy, smoking a cigarette

Marathon Man- Is it Safe?

“I don’t know what you mean. I can’t tell you something’s safe or not, unless I know specifically what you’re talking about.” Babe

Marathon Man by William Goldman

William Goldman spent his writing career exploring the manifold avenues of story telling from Spies and nazis, to Princesses and Brides. The hard boiled genre that reflects the era of the 1970s with a kick, to the fairy-tale dream worlds that plum mythological depths in The Princess Bride, published in 1973 as a novel. Later to be scripted for a 1987 Hollywood movie that wasn’t a straight hit, but gained its legs as time went by.

Marathon Man, as both book and film, became an instant success based on its powerful characterizations of nasty villain, Szell, bearing down on a wimpish university student, Babe, who hates conflict.

Goldman had been writing for twenty years before he finally wrote his successful novel, “Marathon Man”. A thriller set in New York. A Nazi dentist, Szell, who knows how to use his screaming dentist’s drill to get the information needed before making his move on the hidden stash of war time diamonds.

Goldman’s second novel, “Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow”, was submitted to Knopf Publishing in 1957. Knopf hated every inch of the novel, William Goldman loved it. He didn’t understand their reaction.

“Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow”, was rejected everywhere he tried to find interest. He was told that he should work on his ability to write characters.

Goldman plugged on through the trail of rejection, picking up good advice along the way, and finally the book was published by Doubleday, who also didn’t like the novel, but they thought it might pick up few bucks if they pushed it onto the books racks.

William Goldman was a hard working novelist. He rented a small room in the Upper East Side of New York City, a place where he could go and work, just like an office job. He commented that having a place go to in the mornings helped him separate his home life from writing life. The work got done. His room was a chair, table and his typewriter. The only other furniture was a coffee pot in the corner.

It was in this room that his second and most successful book was written in the short span of a summer. It was 1973, New York, exciting times in a big city, and William Goldman was young, ambitious, and full of energy.

He’d already experienced a few setbacks as a novelist looking for a publisher, but that wasn’t a reason to stop writing.

He had a rule, that he would write his novels in 10 weeks. First drafts, for sure. Sometimes they were done, and only needed a little tweak here and there. The truth is, that some of his novels didn’t see the light of day and sat waiting at the bottom of a drawer, hoping for a shot of inspiration to bring them up to the glorious typewriter once again.

Not so with Marathon Man.

Marathon Man was an idea that he’d been knocking around in his mind for sometime. The idea that to write a thriller, and be published and known as a thriller writer, was a big turn on for him.

Politics, recent wars, and the scandalous days of President Richard Nixon all fresh in people’s memories made the 1970s prime time for both thriller writers and Hollywood.

Goldman says that for him, when an idea strikes him he only has a certain amount time to get down to work and finish the novel. If he spends too much time on it, or let’s it simmer, it’ll fizzle out and the magic in the idea is gone. It’s dead in the water.

Goldman, a fast worker and a slow thinker, spent a lot of time pondering his Marathon Man. Walking around New York, thinking, and allowing strange ideas for scenarios to drift in and out of his head, seems to have been one of his away-from-the-typewriter hobbies.

He’d originally wanted the nazi antagonist, Szell, to be an intellectual, a doctor, and to have a damned good reason to come to New York. In the story, we discover that Szell lives in Argentina. He has built his own little hide out in the jungle, and protects himself and his work from the rest of the World. Now, he must come to New York and collect a stash of diamonds that he stole during the war.

Goldman decided that Szell would need heart surgery. The idea popped up when he read about Josef Mengele, the nazi doctor known as The Angel of Death, who needed heart surgery and had heard about a new technique being pioneered in Cleveland. That was a damned good reason for anybody to visit New York’s best doctors and hospital, and so the fictional Szell, seeking medical surgery, would be compelled to walk the streets of New York City — and become vulnerable to his old enemies.

A short time later, Goldman chastised himself for his stupidity. How could a monsterous, nazi doctor, hell bent on harming anyone who stood in his way, be frightening if he was in fact a frail old man in need of medical help?

He changed the character, and Szell quickly became a sadistic dentist. A villain who enjoyed the pain of others and the power that his dentist’s drill wielded over his helpless victims.

Every antagonist needs a strong protagonist, enter Babe, the easy believing, insecure young man, studying at New York University. Babe’s character lives in a world where he seldom questions the facts. He believes his older brother to be a successful businessman who works abroad, makes a lot of money, and gets a lot of social attention. The cracks start to appear when early on in the story we understand, but Babe doesn’t, his brother is no simple businessman, he’s a spy. “Doc” the brother, arrives back in New York when he gets wind that the old nazi Szell is travelling to the city to collect a package of hidden diamonds. This is no spoiler, just the cleverly written set up that William Goldman finally nailed down as his storyline.

Diamonds, not heart operations. Sadistic dentists, and spies.

He said that as he wrote, he had his solid framework of ideas, characters that fit, scenarios and backgrounds, and the twist that Babe didn’t really know who his brother “Doc” was.

Babe also had a toothache. You can imagine the connections, but I’ll let you enjoy the marvellous thrill of William Goldman’s tale of sudden realizations, turn arounds, and betrayals between three characters, for yourself.

As Goldman continued to write, he sat in his room on the Upper East Side, and typed out the words, “is it safe?”. These words, a simple question presented to Babe as he sat in the dentist’s chair, soon became a part of the everyday banter between fans and readers.

If you read the book, you’ll understand how sinister this question is.

Never has such a short and simple question carried so much fear and dread as this little question. “Is it safe?”.

The 1970s is far away now, the book, Marathon Man, is still on the bookshelves of many a reader. Walk into a book store and ask for a copy, and you’ll probably be led to the “Goldman” section and shown, that it is still safe. An everlasting thrill that is not easily forgotten. Marathon Man.

Berlin Notes — Writing about the Creative Art of Living

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