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.
The Long Goodbye
It’s a toss-up between The Big Sleep and this book as to which is the best of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels. I lean toward The Long Goodbye. It’s the most coherent of the Marlowes and the most personal. Chandler’s trademark similes are a touch more nuanced here, and many of the themes are drawn from Chandler’s life.
Marlowe befriends Terry Lennox, a World War II vet who crawled into a bottle and hasn’t had a compelling reason to leave. He divorces and remarries a woman who seems more interested in bedding as many men as she can than building a life with Lennox. One day, Lennox asks Marlowe to drive him to Mexico, no questions asked. Marlowe knows something bad has happened but makes Lennox keep it to himself. It results in three days in jail for his trouble after Lennox’s wife turns up brutally murdered.
Not long afterward, Marlowe tries (and fails miserably) to turn down a job looking after alcoholic writer Roger Wade. Wade has a habit of blacking out and wandering off, often ending up at the ranch of a quack doctor who is happy to supply a “cure” for enough money. Eventually, the Wade’s domestic situation explodes in Marlowe’s face, and he finds himself disillusioned and disgusted. Normally, Marlowe lets his cases roll off of him. They change him, but in The Lady in the Lake and The Little Sister, he takes it in stride. As The Long Goodbye ends, he’s seriously considering packing it in and running off with an almost-divorcee.
Chandler wrote this during a period of deep depression. His wife was dying, and Chandler attempted suicide at least twice during this time. Lennox, Wade, and even police detective Bernie Ohls become surrogates for Chandler, which makes Marlowe something of a therapist for his creator. The result is a rather complex novel that runs much deeper than the earlier Marlowes. It’s too bad he died before finishing Poodle Springs. We’ll never know if he would have evolved parallel to Ross MacDonald.
The Little Sister
A girl with the unlikely name of Orfamay Quest comes to Philip Marlowe’s office wanting him to find her brother Orrin. Marlowe’s rate is forty dollars a day plus expenses. He does it for twenty because the girl is nice, just off the bus from Manhattan. Kansas, not New York.
Marlowe doesn’t find Orrin. He finds Orrin’s old apartment, a guy with a bad toupee, and a dead building manager who apparently sold – and used quite a bit of – marijuana. The guy with the bad toupee invites him to meet at a hotel to explain what he’s up to. Only Marlowe arrives to find Hollywood starlet Mavis Weld leaving and the bald guy with an ice pick in his neck. Soon, Marlowe is tied up in the politics of the Hollywood movie business and subjected to the constant come ons of Dolores Gonzales, West’s friend. He almost takes her up on it.
This book is full of loathing for the movie industry. It was written after Raymond Chandler worked with Billy Wilder on the screenplay for Double Indemnity. He rather vocally complained about the experience. This book, however, is not Chandler’s best Marlowe. It’s better than the shaky The High Window, but not as solid as The Lady in the Lake. Of course, they can’t all be The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, or The Long Goodbye. Still, it’s not bad. This one is probably the book Robert B. Parker referred back to when he wrote The Godwulf Manuscript. Marlowe’s snappy patter is almost dead-on Spenser before the cliches set in.