Over at My Reader’s Block Bev has started (and in fact already completed!) a year-long challenge for 2011 – to read a pre-determined number of classic detective stories of a pre-1960 vintage. There are several challenge levels to commit to and one can of course change as it progresses – I will attempt to read 16+ eligible books before the year is out. So, 2 down and at least 14 more to go with Raymond Chandler’s Playback (1958).
The detective’s end
“Guns never settle anything. They are just a fast curtain to a bad second act.”
Some detectives get go out in a blaze of glory like Poirot in Agatha Christie’s near-posthumous Curtain or Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse in The Remorseful Day; more often than not though the law of diminishing returns has set in long before their final farewell. Certainly one wouldn’t want to remember Lord Peter Wimsey only through Busman’s Honeymoon or Albert Campion in The Mind Readers or John Dickson Carr for The Hungry Goblin, to name just a few. Christie it should be noted employed a particularly ingenious solution to try to bypass this problem as the novel had in fact been written over 30 years earlier – certainly, if one compares it with the final books she completed, such as Elephants Can Remember (the actual final Poirot book) or Postern of Fate, the contrast is very stark indeed so as to make one even more grateful for her foresight.
Playback (1958), Raymond Chandler’s final completed novel, is generally agreed to be the least of his works, with its slender plot and small cast of characters; but on the other hand this works to its advantage in the broadcast medium as discussed in the review of the recent BBC radio version over at Audio Aficionado. In fact the novel had its roots in an original screenplay of the same name written between 1947 and 1948 but never produced as the studio that paid handsomely for it (to the tune of $4,000 a week) was then in the process of merging with another due to financial difficulties. The script, which would not have featured Marlowe and was set in Canada, is rated by Chandler’s biographer Frank MacShane as being better than The Blue Dahlia (1946), Chandler’s only original screenplay to make it into production. Those interested and curious enough to make their own minds up can read the complete screenplay, dated 1949, over at the Daily Script website.
Philip Marlowe originally began his adventures some twenty years earlier with The Big Sleep, first published in 1939. Over the next 15 years there would be five more: Farewell, My Lovely (1940); The High Window (1942); The Lady in the Lake (1943); The Little Sister (1949); climaxing with his longest and most ambitious work of all, The Long Good-Bye (1953), which also introduced Linda Loring as a potential love interest for Marlowe. By the time Chandler was working on the Marlowe version of Playback his wife Cissy had died and his own health was highly precarious. That the novel was completed at all is probably one of the most important things about it though it wouldn’t prove to prove to be his last work in the novel form. At the time of his death Chandler was in fact tentatively working on Poodle Springs, a new Marlowe novel that would have seen him married off to Loring, a wealthy socialite, and predictably having problems fitting in. Only four brief chapter were finished but 30 years later Robert B. Parker completed it with commendable fidelity (which is more than can be said for Parker’s Perchance to Dream (1991), a poor and frankly unnecessary sequel to The Big Sleep).
Playback is the story of a young woman trapped by events in her past (hence the title) and hounded by a series of predatory men – in its basic simplicity it has something of the feel of a chivalric ballad, with a lady in distress pursued by the fates and saved by a shopworn Galahad. Marlowe is engaged by a lawyer to tail a woman after she arrives in LA – with little to go on he follows her to the little coastal town of Esmeralda where it soon becomes apparent that she is being pursued by a particularly unpleasant blackmailer and stalked by another private eye, one that his employer doesn’t seem to know about. Before long a powerful gangster enters the picture and a balcony death seems to follow the pattern of a similar occurrence in the girl’s past.
The novel is full of the lingering descriptions of people and places that one expects from Chandler, as well as his snappy similes (‘The subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket’) and snappy dialogue, and yet the tone feels quite different from the previous Marlowe novels – not least for its apparent divagations away from the central plot to focus on various seemingly irrelevant encounters. In many ways though this is the beauty of a book which finds our hero older and wearier but also powered by the desire to connect with those around him. This is both sexual – in the shape of a mournful one night stand with the wonderfully named Miss Helen Vermilyea and a smooch with the story’s apparent damsel in distress, Betty Mayfield – but also more social in a series of long verbal encounters with a succession of elderly men. The most important of these is probably the book’s highlight, the long dialogue about love, death and religion with Henry Clarendom IV, a courtly gentleman who is ‘a long way from feeble and a long way from dim’. These apparent digressions are what gives this book both its colour and its piquancy – and its true distinction. Even if the plotting is less firm than before, the characterisation less detailed and the dialogue less polished, this remains a work by a serious writer of consummate skill, one still engaged in creatively exploring the world and the people around him.
It’s the end for Philip Marlowe and a happy one.