Monday, February 17, 2014

Vintage Mystery #36

I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2014. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written before 1960 and be from the mystery category.

I read this for N-6: Mystery set in the US

Playback – Raymond Chandler, 1958
Critics, readers and profs regard Raymond Chandler as the co- founder of hard-boiled detective fiction, along with James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett. This final novel starring Phillip Marlowe, one of the world's most famous fictional PI’s, has its strengths. However, its weaknesses make me warn novices to read The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye, The High Window or Farewell My Lovely if they want to read Chandler for the first time.

One strong point in Playback is an evocative feeling for place (tawdry Southern California). As usual, Chander uses language with flair: “The subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket.” Chandler parodies snappy talk in noir novels and directs well-aimed smacks at the Mickey Spillane School of Hard Knocks and Violent Socks.

Some interest is generated by tangents. A beautiful receptionist demonstrates her broad-minded views of the relations between the sexes in a couple of hot chapters. I’m not complaining too hard but the “good parts” don’t advance the plot or reveal more about our hero Marlowe. One geezer gives a monologue about the filthy rich and another codger goes on about love, death, and god-concepts. We duffers into stoic philosophical systems may wonder if these characters are stand-ins for Chandler. But, to repeat myself like old jossers will, the monologues don’t advance the plot or deepen characterization.

Even tolerant readers who don’t hold whodunnits to the same literary standards as novels may be disappointed. The weak mystery doesn’t provide narrative interest. The reveal is easy to figure out, given the small cast of characters. The lack of plot obviously shows that this was written first as a film script and later fleshed out, probably under pressure of illness or time or stress. Chandler was widowed and lonely, timeworn, ill, alcoholic, and hard-pressed when he wrote this novel. The flaws reminded me of Erle Stanley Gardner’s last novel, All Grass isn't Green (1970), written when he was 80 and battling what folks used to call “The Big C.”

So, Playback is only for readers who like to read everything by an author. I’m glad I read Playback, because it made me respect Chandler more than I had previously. I hadn’t read him since I was in my twenties (in the 1970s). With the snottiness of youth, I had dismissed him as not as serious as Ross Macdonald and rather pretentious and not reliable at tying up loose ends (who killed the chauffer in The Big Sleep?). I was wrong. I mean, even at near the end of his career, at less than his best, Chandler was still very much aware of language, getting the right words the right places. And he was still creatively experimenting with technique. He was still thinking hard about somber themes. I have to respect a writer with so much grit, so much soul.

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