Playback (Raymond Chandler)

‘Playback’, Chandler’s final completed novel, this is a haunting follow-up to ‘The Long Goodbye’. The prose sweeps me away with its speed and economy, and in this novel, more than any of Chandler’s others, I feel Marlowe’s humanity. In this last time around, Marlowe gets railroaded into a job tailing a well–endowed redhead, which quickly turns into a muddled mystery involving blackmail, murder, gangsters, and a crappy tourist-trap town.

Marlowe is his usual (though somewhat more distant than usual) self: he makes some great observations, sizes up scumbags in record time, does an awkward, self-loathing job at flirting, and beats the shit out of a guy with a tire iron. And yet, while reading this book I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness despite how slight this outing felt because this was it for me. The last Marlowe novel. Marlowe is tired, and his sense of reality is breaking down. An example: he beds Miss Vermilyea, his client’s secretary, then leaves her house wondering if anything happened. He calls after her down the hallway she just walked down and gets no response.

He looks back at her house as he gets into a cab and it’s completely dark. Vermilyea is never seen again – never mentioned again – even when Marlowe visits her employer’s office. It’s like the long years of dealing with shadowy figures cloaked by shadowy organizations has finally taken its toll. He’s spent his life chasing after phantoms, and with nothing to grasp onto he’s finally ready to quit. ‘The Long Goodbye’ was his breaking point, and Marlowe, now shattered, is failing to mend himself. He’s lost his oldest colleague, his best friend and the love of his life. He is truly alone, and it shows. But we also see Marlowe encountering respect from unexpected quarters, advice and assistance from the habitually overlooked.

We see him showing sympathy and tenderness which is also unexpected. I think most of the backlash to this novel centers around its general apathy towards hardboiled conventions. There are few mean streets for Marlowe to walk down, no femme fatales for him to resist; there’s remarkably little corruption in Esmeralda, and Marlowe ends up almost being a footnote for his total contribution to the mystery’s resolution. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a fault of the novel. I loved every page and the poignancy of the last chapter is really surprising. Hard-bitten private detective or not, in the last few chapters of the book Chandler lets us see this man’s soul and his yearning. This is a tortured story, always sharp and succinct, interspersed with plenty of tongue-in-cheek humour, all 166 pages of it.

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