Playback – Raymond Chandler
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 (1958) 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, Chandler uses language with noir flair: “The subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket.” Chandler parodies snappy talk in PI 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 orientations 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 hints that this was written first as a film script and later fleshed out, probably with illness or no time or stress stamping their feet. Chandler was widowed and lonely, timeworn, unwell, alcoholic, and hard-pressed when he wrote this novel. I was reminded 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 for readers who like to read everything by an author. 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.