P is for … Polygamy and Poodle Springs

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter P. My third contribution this week is …

POODLE SPRINGS (1989) by Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker

Over at his estimable Classic Mystery blog the Puzzledoctor recently posted a review that combined the letter P and matrimony, which I thought was darn clever given the Royal Wedding hullabaloo over the past weekend. As a cheeky homage, let me counter (with apologies to the good doctor) with a brief overview of what might be termed a polygamous book (in many senses) …

At the time of his death in 1959 Raymond Chandler was working on a new novel featuring  Philip Marlowe, the immortal private eye he created twenty years earlier in The Big Sleep. Tentatively entitled ‘The Poodle Springs Story’, Chandler’s parody of Palm Springs, it sees Marlowe married off to Linda Loring, the wealthy socialite he first met in The Long Good-bye (1953) and who proposed to him at the end of Playback (1958), which I previously reviewed here. Chandler left some notes and four completed chapters of his new story after wrestling with it for months, unsure if marrying off Marlowe was a good idea or not. Eventually the material as it stood was published posthumously as an appendix to Raymond Chandler Speaking (1962), a collection of his correspondence.

Nearly thirty years later Robert B. Parker, the creator of Boston PI Spenser, at that time seen by many as the current heir-apparent to Chandler’s hardboiled mantle, was tasked with turning these scant 20 or so pages into a novel. These opening chapters remain unaltered and introduce Marlowe and Loring to their new home, their physical attraction to each other and the gulf in social standing that separates them, and the manager of the ‘Agony Club’, which runs illegal gambling just outside the city limits. and wants to hire Marlowe. Parker then takes over as Marlowe accepts the job of tracking down Les Valentine, another Poodle Springs resident and the kept husband of one of Linda’s friends. He is a regular gambler at the Club and his wife usually settles his tab, but this time she has refused – and Les, after leaving an IOU for $100,000, has gone missing.

One of the recurring problems in the private eye novel is finding a single plotline that is strong enough to sustain the entire narrative – some of the best examples of the genre in fact have usually had to use a couple and then work more or less successfully to unify the two.  In Chandler this is particularly noticeable in his early novels The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940) and The Lady in the Lake (1943)  all of which had plots, to use his word, that were ‘cannibalised’ from two short stories each (Lake also uses a section from a third) but it’s just as true of Ross Macdonald’s previously reviewed The Galton Case, published in 1958. Indeed, The Maltese Falcon (1930) is one of the few classics of the hardboiled genre that seems to manage to make do with just one main plot. Parker really comes up trumps here – when Marlowe discovers that ‘Les Valentine’ is actually Larry Victor, a bigamist dividing his time between two households and two wives. There’s a nice moment when Marlowe is caught by Victor burgling his office – Marlowe sits at the man’s desk and quips:

“Don’t be confused”, I said. “I am not you.”

By the use of this simple device of a bigamous marriage, of a man leading two lives simultaneously, one amongst the working class and the other amongst the local millionaire set, Parker finds a neat way juggle separate yet intertwined plots and simultaneously explore the deeper ramifications of the Marlowe-Loring union and in this way serves the thematic undertones of Chandler’s set-up. This is certainly the most successful aspect of the novel and proves to be particularly fertile ground in exploring the novel’s main theme – the contrast between Marlowe’s more sordid yet somehow more honourable existence and the dishonest businessmen, cynical politicians and well-heeled hypocrites that populate Linda’s world – what drives them together is a dissatisfaction with their own lives and the novel suggests that in meeting somewhere between the two a more profound synthesis may be found.

Parker’s main strengths lay in dialogue rather than plotting and his looser, leaner prose style suits this book in replicating the tone of late Chandler – indeed it is not too hard to guess whodunit and while some of the dialogue crackles, the descriptions of people and places lack most of Chandler’s characteristic zest, something that of course was said by most critics of his final novel, Playback, anyway. While one might have wished to have been given a Chandler nearer the top of his powers, what this does provide is a much more likely facsimile, if one accepts the nature of the exercise of course. And it has to be said that when Parker revisited classic Chandler in Perchance to Dream (1991), his sequel to The Big Sleep, the results were extremely disappointing suggesting perhaps that this was simply beyond his talents.

While Poodle Springs deals explicitly with bigamy both at a literal and metaphorical level, one might argue that it is also an example of a polygamous work if one thinks of it as a way of defining a book through its many different affiliations due to the unorthodox way the story was completed. This is not in an of itself that unknown, even in what we might loosely term the crime and detective story – after all, Charles Dickens The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) is probably to best example of a crime story which has been completed by others. Over the years there have several books by respected mystery writers which have been completed in one way or another by other hands – the final Albert Campion novel for instance, Cargo of Eagles, was published two years after Margery Allingham’s death in 1966 but still under her name even though a note makes it clear that it was largely the work of her husband, Philip Youngman Carter. More recently Jill Paton Walsh has been writing new novel featuring Dorothy l. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey – Thrones, Dominations (1998) was based on an incomplete novel by Sayers while A Presumption of Death (2003) was merely extrapolated from some of Sayer’s wartime short stories. This year came The Attenbury Emeralds (2011), which is a Wimsey prequel. In the case of Into the Night (1987) by Cornell Woolrich, this novel was found to have parts of the text missing and so Lawrence Block was called in to recreate the missing sections. In his afterword, Francis M. Nevins Jr explains exactly which lines, paragraphs and pages are in fact Block’s contributions, which makes for a fascinating reading experience.

Poodle Springs was itself filtered through another major writer when it was turned into a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, the great playwright. While the script languished unmade for several years, when it emerged from development hell in 1998 as a HBO TV-Movie many of the character names were altered (most notably Linda Loring who became ‘Laura Parker’) while the plot was both rendered more complex and less reliant on coincidence and also amplified by adding a political dimension reminiscent of the works of James Ellroy (and the 1974 film Chinatown) that were completely absent from Parker’s version of the story. In this instance then Stoppard became the next component in the polygamous tendrils enveloping this material.

Ironically, perhaps, it was announced just a few days ago that the two main series created by the late Robert B. Parker are to be continued by other hands – Ace Atkins will write new stories featuring the private eye Spenser while Michael Brandman, who has written or co-written all the excellent TV adaptations of the books starring Tom Selleck,
is to write new installments  of the Jesse Stone police procedurals. For the full story on these new books, click here.

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Crime Fiction Alphabet, Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, Raymond Chandler, Robert B. Parker, Ross Macdonald. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to P is for … Polygamy and Poodle Springs

  1. Bill Selnes says:

    I had hesitated to buy the book as I doubt successors to a deceased author finishing a book or continuing a series. I used to think a series ended with an author’s death. Now authors are reincarnated. I will be curious to see how Spenser is continued. He was reaching an age when action becomes limited for credibility.

  2. Hello Bill, thanks for reading, as always. I must admit I am not necessarily a big believer in continuing a series after the original author’s death either – in the case of POODLE SPRINGS I found myself perhaps more fascinated than engrossed by the different approaches taken by Parker and Stoppard – both valid, both different, bot enjoyable and both by definition not the real thing. It has one of Parker’s best plots, to my mind anyway. Conversely, I actually think the TV version of JESSE STONE principally written by Michael Brandman is in some ways superior to the original actually, especially with regards to the decision to keep the ex-wife permanently off-stage.

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