Angels & Demons - Raymond Chandler's Playback

playback raymond chandler
Playback is a 1958 novel by Raymond Chandler and the last featuring his famous and iconic private detective hero Philip Marlowe. Chandler died the following year and wrote Playback in the midst of battles with depression and drunkeness but the dark clouds of Chandler's last years don't infuse the pages here in the same way they did with The Little Sister. Playback is often a funny book with Marlowe given some amusingly absurdist lines that could have been written for Groucho Marx.
Chandler even seems to be playing with the conventions of his own genre - with no murder until the end and Marlowe actually siding with the person he was asked to trail against the mysterious forces that have hired him and those that encroach on his investgation. Marlowe remains an interesting, complex hero as our window into these stories. He's full of cynical bitterness but has a sense of honour and idealism. A loner and borderline alcoholic who does his best to make the world a slightly better place.
The story begins with a groggy Marlowe woken in his Los Angeles apartment at 6:30 am by the telephone ringing next to his bed. Not a great time to be telephoning Marlowe as he's usually only just gone to sleep at this hour and needs three cups of coffee and a shower before he feels awake and human. "Did you hear me? I said I was Clyde Umney, the lawyer." "Clyde Umney, the lawyer. I thought we had several of them," replies the deadpan Marlowe.
Umney asks Marlowe to trail a woman named Eleanor King from the train station to wherever she might be going. "I want one thing very clear. The girl is not to know she is being followed. This is very important. I am acting for a very influential firm of Washington attorneys. I expect a high degree of efficiency." Marlowe begins work on the case and discovers that Eleanor is heading for a hotel in a coastal town named Esmeralda. He decides to book into the same hotel but soon realises he is far from the only person trailing the woman. Why all the interest in Eleanor King? As usual in Marlowe's line of work, the case is about to become increasingly complicated and dangerous.
This is generally regarded to be perhaps the weakest of the Marlowe novels but despite its modest reputation I actually had quite a lot of fun with this one and found it to be more readable and interesting than I'd expected. It does have the faint whiff of a slightly unfinished work (only about 200 pages) and with the 1960s breathing down everyone's necks and technology laden heroes like Ian Fleming's James Bond now firmly established, Phillip Marlowe is starting to look like a dreadful anachronism but I think Chandler is aware of this and even has some fun with the notion that his hero is starting to step out of his own particular time and needs some sort of farewell. "Guns never settle anything. They are just a fast curtain to a bad second act," says the increasingly self-aware and postmodern Marlowe.
Marlowe even jokes to himself that private detectives will probably have cars equipped with radar and rocket launchers soon. He's still Tarzan on a big red scooter. The story was adapted from a (Marlowe free) unused screenplay Chandler had written and while it does have a cut and paste nature there are some memorable scenes and dialogue exchanges in the book. Chandler did pen The Blue Dahlia and work as a writer on Double Indemity and Strangers On A Train so any script he was involved in couldn't fail to have something smart to work from.
The screenplay was going to be set in Canada and while Marlowe doesn't go to Canada he is required to operate away from his familiar milieu of Los Angeles. The main reason for this is that Chandler had been living away from Los Angeles himself and was finding it more and more difficult to describe the city from memory. So Marlowe is sent out to the suburbs of another town and Chandler is able to use his knowledge of places like Palm Springs to describe his surroundings. "Like most small towns, Esmeralda had one main Street from which in both directions its commercial establishments flowed gently for a short block or so and then with hardly a change of mood became streets with houses where people lived. But unlike most small California towns it had no false fronts, no cheesy billboards, no drive-in hamburger joints, no cigar counters or pool-rooms, and no street corner toughs to hang around in front of them."
The cast of supporting characters works fairly well here because Marlowe is in the dark as much as the reader at the onset of his investigation and we have to work out who is who as much as he does. There are encounters with gangsters, police, other private detectives, lawyers, killers, and of course the "redhead" Marlowe is trailing and Umney's sassy secretary. The latter inspires some sharp and witty lines and thoughts from our long suffering hero.
One of the most famous passages in the book concerns a long philosophical conversation about love, death and religion Marlowe has with a gentleman named Henry Clarendon IV - a wealthy but lonely old man who lives out his final years in expensive hotels. Clarendon is essentially Chandler making a personal cameo in the novel and shares the author's cynical and romantic traits. "Very few things amuse a man of my age. A humming bird, the way a Strelitzia opens. Why at a certain point in its growth does the bud turn at right angles?"
Chandler's tangents and navel-gazing somehow feel more appropriate here than they might have done in earlier novels. In many ways the book is about the small encounters and interactions of Marlowe rather than some big central plot thread or villain. Marlowe seems to have his guard down more than usual as if he almost can't be bothered anymore. A wry amused disdain for the mean streets he's been inhabiting for far too long and the games he has to play. He seems to yearn for human contact and is perfectly willing to wisecrack even in the face of potential death. When a goon warns Marlowe that that the private detective should not get him annoyed under any circumstances, Marlowe's response is rather Bob Hope/Groucho Marx. "Fine. Let's get you annoyed. What do you do - bite your mustache?"
There is more romantic interest for Marlowe than usual although he's still just as likely to be koshed over the back of the head by a heavy than have something nice happen. Will the detective get a happy ending? You'll have to read the book to find out. Chandler is not quite on top form here but it's always quite cosy to slip back into this world and Marlowe's sarcastic narration, even in the simplest of situations. "A waiter came up and started to remove the place setting on the far side of the table. I told him to leave it, a friend might join me. I studied the menu, which was almost as large as the dining room. I could have used a flashlight to read it, if I had been curious. This was about the dimmest joint I was ever in. You could be sitting at the next table from your mother and not recognize her."
Playback is not the best example of this series and you really need to have read the other Marlowe novels to get the most out of it but if you like this sort of period crime fiction or just Raymond Chandler in general you should have a decent time with the book and enjoy this last Marlowe adventure.
- Jake

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