Playback by Raymond Chandler (1958)

He stuck a pill in his kisser and lit it with a Ronson.

After purging himself by writing at great length about alcoholics with a grudge against the modern world in The Long Goodbye, Chandler’s final novel is his shortest and most focused. I’d read that it was his weakest and nearly didn’t read it, but I’m glad I did.

Plot

The events take place over just a few days in the small Californian coastal resort of Esmeralda, based on La Jolla where Chandler spent his final years (the only one of the novels set outside Los Angeles). Marlowe is hired by a big-time LA lawyer to tail a woman arriving on a train from out East. He doesn’t know why and has to find out what the job is as he’s doing it, with the usual interruptions from blackmailers, local hoods, small-time crooks, a rival PI and, as always, the cops. (‘Perhaps if I had a rest and my brain cleared, I might have some faint idea of what I was doing.’ Ch 17)

The attitude is the same abrasive tough guy – given a choice Marlowe will always insult and antagonise whoever he’s talking to – everyone is crooked and two-faced, especially the broads, the cops are brutal and the crooks are brutaller.

I guess what critics mean when they disparage the book is that a lot of the verbal fireworks of the earlier books have gone – there are almost none of the smart-ass similes which set The Big Sleep alight – but that is symptomatic of the way the style is briefer, more pragmatic and focused. It is a lean novel, and this has its own enjoyment, although a lot of the energy missing from the narration has gone into the dialogue, which is as tight and edgy as ever.

And – despite all the guns and fights and blackmail and corruption – what I see as the essentially comic nature of Chandler’s work is close to the surface.

Tough guy

  • I caught Mitchell on the side of the neck. His mouth yapped. He hit me somewhere, but it wasn’t important. Mine was the better punch, but it didn’t win the wrist watch because at that moment an army mule kicked me square in the back of the brain. (Ch 5)
  • He looked durable. Most fat men do. (Ch 6)
  • The men wore white tuxedos and the girls wore bright eyes, ruby lips, and tennis muscles. (Ch 8)
  • He looked tough asking that. I tried to look tough not answering it. (Ch 17)

Almost all the characters call each other tough (‘Tough guy, huh?’, ‘So Mr Tough Guy’, He wasn’t as tough as he looked, ‘Don’t get so goddam tough’, I was a real tough boy tonight, etc etc). In fact most of them aren’t and Marlowe, above all, exists in this contradictory space where he tells us he’s tough, he talks ironic wisecracking tough, he’s rude and aggressive, especially to the cops when he really doesn’t need to be. And yet we know he is Sir Galahad, an essentially pure man with a clean conscience.

‘How can such a hard man be so gentle?’ she asked wonderingly. (Ch 25)

That’s the paradoxical effect of reading all Chandler’s novels. they seem like they’re dealing with human corruption, violence, evil – and yet the vibrancy of the style and the supreme confidence of the manner leave you feeling invigorated and clean.

Eyes

In earlier posts I’ve written in detail about Chandler’s awareness of eyes, as the characters constantly probe and size each other up, and about the wonderful phrases he creates for even the simplest looks. In this last novel his ‘eye-awareness’ is still prominent – eyes and looks and stares and glances are described on every page – but the astonishing verbal inventiveness of the earliest novels has vanished like morning mist:

  • She leaned back and relaxed. Her eyes stayed watchful. (Ch 5)
  • His colour was high and his eyes too bright. (Ch 5)
  • He looked at her. He looked at Mitchell. He took his cigarette holder out of his mouth and looked at that. (Ch 8)
  • She looked at him. He looked at her. (Ch 8)
  • We stared hard into each other’s eyes. It didn’t mean a thing. (Ch 9)
  • I didn’t say anything. I watched her eyes. (Ch 10)
  • He looked me over. His eyes were wise eyes. (Ch 15)
  • He wore glasses, had a skin the colour of cold oatmeal and hollow, tired eyes. (Ch 17)
  • I stood up. We gave each other those looks. I went out. (Ch 24)
  • He stared at me with cool, blank eyes. (Ch 26)

Locations

The same precision of observation that I’ve pointed out in an earlier post on Chandler’s descriptions of rooms and interiors, just used less often.

  • There are almost too many offices like Clyde Umney’s office. It was panelled in squares of combed plywood set at right angles one to the other to make a checker-board effect. The lighting was indirect, the carpeting wall to wall, the furniture blonde, the chairs comfortable, and the fees probably exorbitant. (Ch 11)

For me that ‘probably’ weakens the whole sentence. One way to describe it is that in his last few novels Chandler becomes more measure and reasonable, balancing or questioning his own judgement. But it was the absence of doubt, the complete confidence in his own perceptions, which made the earlier novels so thrilling.

Similes

The smart-ass similes, the single most striking element of his style which dominated the first few books, have almost completely disappeared by this last one. These are pretty much the only ones in the book.

  • There was nothing to it. The [train] was on time, as it almost always is, and the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket. (Ch 2)
  • ‘The walls here as as thin as a hoofer’s wallet.’ (Ch 5)
  • I wouldn’t say she looked exactly wistful, but neither did she look as hard to get as a controlling interest in General Motors. (Ch 11)

Comedy

On the other hand, a couple of sequences or lines in this novel made me laugh out loud, something none of the others had done, hence my suggestion that, despite serious or even tragic incidents elsewhere in the book, on the whole this seemed to me to bring out Chandler’s essentially comic nature.

When I entered Miss Vermilyea was just fixing herself for a hard day’s work by touching up her platinum blonde coiffure. I thought she looked a little the worse for wear. She put away her hand mirror and fed herself a cigarette.
‘Well, well, Mr Hard Guy in person. To what may we attribute this honour?’
‘Umney’s expecting me.’
‘Mister Umney to you, buster.’
‘Boydie-boy to you, sister.’
She got raging in an instant. ‘Don’t call me “sister”, you cheap gumshoe!’
‘Then don’t call me buster, you very expensive secretary. What are you doing tonight? And don’t tell me you’re going out with four sailors again.’
The skin around her eyes turned whiter. Her hand crisped into a claw around a paperweight. She just didn’t heave it at me. ‘You son of a bitch!’ she said somewhat pointedly. Then she flipped a switch on her talk box and said to the voice: ‘Mr Marlowe is here, Mr Umney.’
Then she leaned back and gave me the look. ‘I’ve got friends who could cut you down so small you’d need a step-ladder to put your shoes on.’
‘Somebody did a lot of hard work on that one,’ I said. ‘But hard work’s no substitute for talent.’
Suddenly we both burst out laughing. (Ch 11)

Happy Ending

And, astonishingly, there is a happy ending! Chandler sets us up to expect the opposite with some ‘down these mean streets a man must go’, 1950s existentialism, as our hero returns, exhausted and jaded to his poor man’s apartment:

 I climbed the long flight of redwood steps and unlocked my door. Everything was the same. The room was stuffy and dull and impersonal as it always was. I opened a couple of windows and mixed a drink in the kitchen. I sat down on the couch and stared at the wall. Wherever I went, whatever I did, this is what I would come back to. A blank wall in a meaningless room in a meaningless house. (Ch 28)

When, to my absolute amazement, the phone rings and it is Linda Loring from the previous novel, The Long Goodbye, a millionaire’s daughter who he had a thing for but who left him to go to Paris. And here she is, phoning from Paris and saying she loves him and can’t live without him, and she agrees to catch the next flight to LA to be with him. Marlowe is going to live happily ever after!!

I reached for my drink. I looked around the empty room – which was no longer empty. There was a voice in it, and a tall, slim, lovely woman. There was a dark head on the pillow in the bedroom. There was that soft, gentle perfume of a woman who presses herself tight against you, whose lips are soft and yielding, whose eyes are half-blind… The telephone started to ring again. I hardly heard it.

The air was full of music.

 Who’d have guessed! At its most basic a tragedy has a happy ending and a comedy has a happy ending, no matter what’s gone before, and this astonishing turnup on the last few pages of Playback not only ends the book on a comedic and positive note, it sheds its light back over the whole series, highlighting the ironic, witty humour and confirming my sense that Chandler was a kind of mid-century, American Oscar Wilde.

Related links

Pulp book cover for Playback

Pulp book cover for Playback

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