In Raymond Chandler’s final completed novel (Robert B. Parker finished Poodle Springs), Phillip Marlowe is hired by a lawyer to follow Betty Mayfield. He waits for her to show up on the Super Chief, a famous train that once serviced Southern California, and shadows her to San Diego, where he discovers she is being blackmailed. Marlowe questions who hired him and why, and the lawyer paying him is not sure himself. So Marlowe becomes involved directly with Mayfield and uncovers the doings in tony San Diego suburb Esmerelda.
This is one of the shortest Marlowe novels. It comes off as almost an epilogue to The Long Goodbye, widely considered the best of the series. Playback is often considered an afterthought. It’s certainly different. Marlowe is at his most cynical and at his most amorous. In quick succession, he beds his lawyer’s secretary, Mayfield herself, and a familiar face from an earlier episode.
It’s not the best of the series. That honor goes to The Long Goodbye, with strong arguments to be made for The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. However, it is much better than the choppy The High Window, which I didn’t like at all. As a novella rather than a novel, it works more as a postscript to The Long Goodbye, as mentioned earlier, with an ending clearly designed as a setup for Poodle Springs. Chandler died before the last novel could be completed. While Parker was a natural choice to finish it, it famously had many Parker conceits built into the latter chapters. Reading Playback, one has to wonder what the older, more world-weary Marlowe might have been like had his creator had a few more years to work with him.