Book review: “Playback” by Raymond Chandler

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Book review: “Playback” by Raymond Chandler

Two-thirds of the way through Raymond Chandler’s novel Playback, Philip Marlowe is having a conversation with Henry Clarendon IV, an aged, wealthy man who spends his days sitting in a hotel lobby, watching the other guests and anyone else who happens by.

He gives Marlowe some helpful information for the case — or is it cases? — he’s working on, and a bit more.

“Do you believe in God, young man?”

Marlowe says, if he’s talking about an omniscient, omnipotent God, well, no.

“But you should, Mr. Marlowe.  It is a great comfort. We all come to it in the end because we have to die and become dust.  Perhaps for the individual that is all, perhaps not. There are grave difficulties about the afterlife.  I don’t think I should really enjoy a heaven in which I shared lodgings with a Congo pygmy or a Chinese coolie or a Levantine rug peddler or even a Hollywood producer.”

Clarendon goes on, talking about his difficulty with envisioning a God in a long white beard and a heaven that sounds pretty dull.

“On the other hand how can I imagine a hell in which a baby that died before baptism occupies the same degraded position as a hired killer or a Nazi death-camp commandant or a member of the Politburo?  How strange it is that man’s finest aspirations, dirty little animal that he is, his finest actions also, his great and unselfish heroism, his constant daily courage in a harsh world — how strange that these things should be so much finer than his fate on this earth.”

And he goes on and on, and finally ends his monologue:

“Is it blasphemy to suggest that God has his bad days when nothing goes right, and that God’s days are very, very long?”

“You’d hate to be me”

Playback, Chandler’s last novel, was published in July, 1958, just nine months before his death. Expanded from a rejected screenplay, it is considered the weakest of his seven Philip Marlowe novels.

No question, the novel is more than a bit out of kilter.  The plot, more coherent than some of Chandler’s, marches along, getting from point A to point B to point C, but it lacks tautness.  Marlowe himself seems confused but not really strained, more tired than anything.

And then there are these characters like Clarendon who seem to drop from the sky onto the novel’s pages, do a bit of a turn and then wander off stage.

These include Ceferino Chang, the pot-smoking garage attendant who tells Marlowe:

“I’m part Chinese, part Hawaiian, part Filipino, and part nigger.  You’d hate to be me.”

Later, Marlowe thinks about the attendant and says to himself:

“He was a queer duck, the attendant, very queer.  Kind of interesting, though.  And kind of sad, too.  One of the sad, one of the lost.”

Later still, Chang meets a bad end as a Spanish-speaking parrot watches.

“And add a service charge”

Another is Fred Pope who runs a small hotel and does a three-page riff on the fictional town of Esmeralda (a stand-in for LaJolla when Chandler lived) that concludes:

“If you want cold-blooded skinning, we got a bunch of people in this town now that will cut you down to the bone and add a service charge.  They’ll take your last dollar from you between your teeth and look at you like you stole it from them.”

“One of the choice things”

Others include Henry Cumberland, the biggest big wheel in his North Carolina town, who demands that the Esmeralda police do something about a woman acquitted of murder; Captain Alessandro, an upright, professional Esmeralda cop who gives Cumberland the bum’s rush; and a hard-shell legal secretary, Helen Vermilyea, who has a running word battle with Marlowe until they get up close and personal.

And, of course, Jack on the front desk and Lucille on the phone board who are so in love their eyes glisten to look at each other and are saving every penny to get married. They’re sweet.

There’s also a fat private investigator from Kansas City who’s in over his head, and a blowhard attorney, and a waiter who, upon getting stiffed by a customer, says philosophically to Marlowe:

“The guy might be poor.  One of the choice things about this town is that the people who work here can’t afford to live here.”

“Nothing, as usual”

None of these people are the two principals in the plot who, truth be told, are fairly dopey in rich-people’s-problems ways.

Even so, there is enough material in Playback that a more energetic Chandler could have used to fashion a decent or probably very good novel.

My sense is that he, like Marlowe, was tired.  His wife of 30 years had died in 1954, and, in his final years, Chandler was lonely and suffering many health problems, including alcoholism.

Playback comes across to me as a writer emptying out his random stuff onto the page.  Even with its clear plot, the novel feels chaotic.  There is an existential aimlessness to the book.

Through Henry Clarendon, Chandler is looking at the question of God.  Through Fred Pope, he’s looking at the reality of his real-life town.

Through Marlowe, he’s looking at himself, as when the detective returns to his house:

“Back on Yucca Avenue I stuck the Olds in the garage and poked at the mailbox.  Nothing, as usual.”

“Wherever I went, whatever I did”

He turns to the house.

“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 saw down on the couch and stared at the wall.  Wherever I went, whatever I did, this was what I would come back to.  A blank wall in a meaningless room in a meaningless house.”

Make no mistake.  That’s the end of the novel, even though Chandler stapled on a couple sweetly unlikely happy-ending pages.

This messy, messy novel is about “a blank wall in a meaningless room in a meaningless house.”

I like it for its messiness.  I like it for its muddle.  I’m glad Chandler found it in himself to write it.

Patrick T. Reardon

8.19.19

2 Comments

  1. Floyd Sullivan says:

    Read this one many many years ago when I read every Chandler I could get my hands on, and I recall being disappointed. Maybe I should read it again as an old guy with a different perspective. Thanks for the insightful review, Pat.

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