Playback by Raymond Chandler (1958)
Playback is the final novel in Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe series that was completed before his death in 1959. Although this book is the last in a series, each of the books mostly stands alone so there’s no reason to warn you about spoilers. One thing that happens at the very end of the previous novel in the series, The Long Goodbye, does pop up a couple of times in the book so beware if you are or intend to read the books out of order (and by the way, the first book in the series is The Big Sleep, which I highly recommend). Now that the preliminaries are out of the way, onto the book itself.
The setting for Playback isn’t Los Angeles, but instead a small town south of the city, seemingly somewhere between Los Angeles and San Diego. One of the reasons the setting is important is because the law enforcement in Esmeralda bear little to no similarity to the corrupt Los Angeles Police Department that Marlowe has battled and contended with throughout the series. The first time we encounter the police, Marlowe obviously comes to the meeting with his jaded and negative prior experiences to inform his words and responses. And yet, Captain Alessandro is not like other police captains, and in fact there is a moment where a wealthy man attempts to use his wealth to demand that the captain do what he wants and accuses him of corruption; Captain Alessandro basically tells him that neither he nor his department is corrupt and sends the wealthy man away angry that his money did not buy him the influence he is used to receiving. In his interactions with Marlowe, while he doesn’t necessarily trust him completely, he does allow Marlowe to pursue his current investigation without the usual threats we have become accustomed to the LAPD issuing him in previous novels. As a result, one of the conventions of hardboiled detective fiction–rampant and unchecked corruption with law enforcement–is notably absent in Playback.
The case that sets the story in motion is an attorney, Clyde Umney, who hires Marlowe to follow a woman who is arriving in Los Angeles by train. Umney provides no other details, particularly the reason that he wants Marlowe to follow her and report her location back to him, and so at the beginning of the book, the woman herself is the mystery. Eventually Marlowe learns that her name is Betty Mayfield, and not long after she arrives in Los Angeles, she is approached by a man named Larry Mitchell. Through observation, Marlowe guesses that Mitchell is blackmailing Mayfield, but what exactly he has on her takes a while for Marlowe to learn, and although he approaches Betty many times and offers his help, she remains unwilling to tell him why she left the East or reveal her secrets. But as is the case with the genre, the mystery of Betty Mayfield only leads to a deeper mystery when he learns of a murder. Because it’s Marlowe, he feels compelled to investigate and get to the truth, even as Betty continues to refuse becoming his client while continuing to try to throw money at him. His actions and his pursuit of a murderer highlight Marlowe’s “knight complex” that has driven him throughout the series. He has no idea what Betty has done, but he believes she’s a woman who needs help and he intends to help, whether she’s willing to accept that help or not.
Like other books in this series (and The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye come immediately to mind) the murder victim is someone shown to be morally deficient and a person who preys upon others. Thus, there is no outrage on the victim’s behalf, and although Marlowe is motivated by a sense of right and wrong to solve the murder, he isn’t equally motivated to reveal the identity of the murder to the police. This is in contrast to a suicide that Marlowe discovers–he feels obligated, on a moral and legal level but also as a man trying to be decent human being in a world that so often seems to lack common decency, to inform the police of the man’s death, even though it may get him into trouble with the police. On the one hand, Marlowe continues to search for the murderer because he feels that in doing so he will protect his unwilling client, Betty, but because he will not allow him to stop until the case is closed. But, Marlowe moves further into that grey area between right and wrong when, after confronting the murderer, he returns to Los Angeles without telling Captain Alessandro his suspicions. In doing nothing, it is left to us as readers to determine if he walks away because he believes that perhaps justice has already been done, with one less predator in the world. Is it out of a sense of powerless? Or is he tired of the fight that never seems to be won? I don’t know the answer to the question, and perhaps neither does Marlowe.
The novel ends on what feels like a much more hopeful note than The Long Goodbye. After Marlowe returns from Esmeralda, he looks around at his house and expresses the sentiment that no matter where goes or what he does, these are the same walls he will always return to. In a way it’s comforting, but in another it has an edge of nihilism, suggesting that nothing he does matters. And yet early in the novel there’s a strong indication that those walls matter to him, or at least memories made within those walls. The way the novel ends leaves the impression that there’s a possibility for more memories to be made there. It also challenges the idea of Marlowe as an isolated loner, an aspect of the prototypical hardboiled detective. Don’t get me wrong–Marlowe is a long way from being assimilated back into society or even close to being surrounded by family and friends. There’s not even the hint that that kind of life awaits him, but there is hope that he’s not entirely alone. Again, a divergence from the traditional conventions of the hardboiled detective fiction novel, but given the fact that this is the final novel in the series–though not by design–leaves me with a feeling of satisfaction that the series on a note where Marlowe has something more to look forward to than the next case.
If I were reading this book through my literary lens, I would question how the novel was impacted by the events happening in Chandler’s life. There is the character of an old man in the book who contemplates verbally on several ideas, particularly that death will come for him soon and what his last days will be like, and a kind of relief that death is the one thing a person only has to experience once. I don’t know if he is a fictional reflection of Chandler’s mindset or offered as a looking glass into a possible version of Marlowe in the future.
Now that I have completed the series and can think of it as a whole, it is one that I would recommend to any reader who enjoys hardboiled detective fiction. Although Marlowe is a product of his time in that he views his world through the eyes of a mid-20th century white male (there is no getting around his misogynistic or racial stereotyping) his journey through the series and the development of character still fascinates this 21st century reader and makes me think.