Today I re-read Raymond Chandler’s *Playback*. Here are a few sort of desultory thoughts.
*Playback* is not widely regarded as Chandler’s best effort, but I believe it is much better than it is given credit for being. It has relatively few characters and the plot, such as it is, is thin, involves little mystery. Phillip Marlow’s main problem in the book is one created by simple ignorance (and not by duplicity or double-identity or any other typical device), and the only real mystery concerns the possible disappearance of the body of a possible murder victim.
The book was the last Chandler finished. He began work on *Poodle Springs* but only finished a few chapters–around 31 pages, I think. But here’s the thing: by the standards of the genre that Chandler himself did much to set, *Playback* seems too uncrowded, too uncomplicated, to count for much. The book also seems to violate a central tenet of Chandler’s fictional world, namely the way in which the detective is supposed to somehow remain fundamentally untouched by the story, above and outside it. But in *Playback*, Marlowe is very much touched by the story, is very much inside it. The novel lingers on various encounters that Marlowe has–a series of oblique but increasingly clear encounters with the woman he has been hired to follow, a couple of encounters with the secretary of the lawyer who hires him, and encounters with various of the disenfranchised people who live in or are visiting Esmerelda, California, where most of the action of the book takes place.
It is clear that the book is less a detective novel, less a Phillip Marlowe novel per se, than it is an elegy for the genre, an elegy for Phillip Marlowe. Chandler allows Marlowe to become part of the story, and the book ends with Marlowe tacitly accepting a telephonic marriage proposal from Linda Loring (a character from *The Long Goodbye*). –But in Chandler’s fictional world, the detective is not supposed to get the girl, much less be gotten by the girl. And so the marriage itself seems to be the way in which Marlowe gets retired. He goes out in a blaze of glory, but not in a blaze of bullets–he goes out in a blaze of romance. The final paragraphs are Chandler poetry. Marlowe’s proposal phone call ends, and then:
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 hair 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, who eyes are half-blind…The air was full of music.
The novel begins and ends with telephone calls. Throughout it, Marlowe keeps trying to make human connections, and many of the connections fail, fizzle, short-circuit. Marlowe sleeps with each of the two women featured in the novel, Betty Mayfield (the woman he is hired to follow) and Miss Vermilyea, the secretary of the man who hires him to follow Mayfield. Each of those nights ends in regretful sadness–and although the reasons for that sadness are not exactly the same, there is a crucial overlap.
In each case the woman seems moved by what happens between them, as does Marlowe, but in neither case does their night with Marlowe result in a permanent connection. The main reason for that is, despite his sleeping with each of the two women, and despite his own view that he has not been faithful to Linda Loring, Marlowe is in love with Loring–and keeping faith with her in his own way. When Vermilyea arrives at Marlowe’s house, he finds that he cannot sleep with her there, despite that being what both expected.
“Why not here?”
“I guess this will make you walk out on me. I had a dream here once, a year and a half ago. There’s still a shred of it around. I’d like it to stay in charge.”…
“Let’s go,” she said quietly. “And let’s leave the memory in charge. I only wish I had one worth remembering.”
With that, they leave for her place, where the expected happens. That happening is recorded in one of the finest chapters (Ch 13) Chandler ever wrote. It is heartbreaking in its way, ending with these haunted paragraphs, and featuring the now-highly charged word ‘dream’.
She disappeared. I got up and put my clothes on and listened before I went out. I heard nothing. I called out, but there was no answer. When I reached the sidewalk in front of the house the taxi was just pulling up. I looked back. The house seemed completely dark.
No one lived there. It was all a dream. Except that someone had called the taxi. I got into it and was driven home.
In the following chapter, Marlowe is once again back at the hotel he had been staying at in Esmeralda. He ends up in conversation with Jack and Lucille, who work there, and whose romance Marlowe has observed, and, in his own way, furthered. Lucille is wearing a small diamond engagement ring. Jack says that he was ashamed to give it to her. Lucille holds up her hand, waves it around so that the small diamond will glint:
“I hate it, ” she said. “I hate it like I hate the sunshine and the summer and the bright stars and the full moon. That’s how I hate it.”
Jack and Lucille’s happy commitment strikes Marlowe hard, especially after his time with Miss Vermilyea.
I picked up the key and my suitcase and left them. A little more of that and I’d be falling in love with myself. I might even give myself a small unpretentious diamond ring.
Marlowe is in love, but not with himself–with his dream girl, Linda Loring. But Marlowe doesn’t realize this clearly. He does know that encounters that might have left him untouched in the past are now striking deeps chords in him. He has been close to ending up where Vermilyea has ended up, so dreamless as to seem to be herself a dream. But Marlowe turns out though to be a resilient dreamer, capable of remembering his dream. Marlowe is both a hard man and a gentle man. When Betty Mayfield expresses her surprise that he can be both, Marlowe responds:
“If I wasn’t hard, I wouldn’t be alive. If I couldn’t ever be gentle, I wouldn’t deserve to be alive.”
And it is the gentle Marlowe that is most often on display in *Playback*, and it is clearly Chandler’s intention to display him. That is why the emphasis is on connection, encounter–on character (and characters), instead of on plot. The man Marlowe is on display more than the detective, even as both make their exit. *Playback* is, to borrow one of the book’s own most lovely lines, Phillip Marlowe walking softly, going away.