A review of Playback by Raymond Chandler
I never considered Raymond Chandler to be a prophet, but midway though the last century he called out the contemporary book publishing and selling culture. Look at this line from his essay titled The Simple Art of Murder:
“Jane Austen’s chronicles of highly inhibited people…seem real enough psychologically. There is plenty of that kind of social and emotional hypocrisy around today. Add to it a liberal dose of intellectual pretentiousness and you get the tone of the book page in your daily paper and the earnest and fatuous atmosphere breathed by discussion groups in little clubs. These are the people who make best sellers, which are given promotional jobs based on a sort of indirect snob appeal, carefully escorted by the trained seals of the critical fraternity, and lovingly tended and watered by certain much too powerful pressure groups whose business is selling books, although they would like you to think they are fostering culture.”
A bitter critique for 1950; a brilliant and exact denunciation for 2019.
Perhaps the publishing industry was like this back then, it certainly is now, and sadly the dirty fingers of selling out to a market have invaded even the independent publishing houses. As I often say, nobody would dare publish Beckett today.
At any rate, this in part is the reason Chandler’s book Playback will never ever be made into a decent movie. The film powers that be will reduce his story to some banal pat tri-part narrative structure and will populate the characters with vacuous but name recognition actors who will play their roles with over-groomed self interest. The project will be a smashed egg on a linoleum floor before the frying pan is even warm. But, toadies that they are, the critics will produce the correct form of review and audiences with pedestrian criticality will dutifully attend. And then the thing, whatever it is it certainly won’t be great film, will fade like most movies today into the dusty tin vaults of the lackluster. But, they’ll say, we made some money on it.
Chandler is great at what he does. No he doesn’t “write like an angel” as the Literary Review said on my book jacket’s blurb, but he writes with panache and assuredness. Typical to Chandler, the book is about some people who hired Marlowe for a job but he doesn’t want to do it, or they don’t want him to do it, or a third party doesn’t want him to do it, or it’s all the other way around. One never tries too hard with puzzle pieces that may or may not be part of this exact puzzle. So we understand going in, the story is never the real story, or the whole story, or just the story, which is exactly Chandler’s strength as a novelist. It’s a voice of one or two a sharp whiskies, before one gets too sloppy.
Marlowe never accepts money for work he doesn’t do and he doesn’t allow himself to be hired until he’s sure the job is on the up and up.
This in a nutshell indicates two interesting themes that trace through the novel. The first is Marlowe’s hardcore disdain for the rich who think laws don’t apply to them, who try to ruin everything and everyone around them for their own gain. Whoopsie that theme won’t play well in little-ole capitalist ‘Hollyworm.’
The second theme reflects the climate the USA had been through just before the book was published, namely America’s obsession with ferreting out communists. Over nearly forty years, The Overman Committee turned into the Fish Committee that became the McCormack-Dickstein Committee that became the Dies Committee that became the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the latter first chaired by Democrat Edward Hart, and then chaired by Democrat Francis Walter. They all worked studiously to shift their targets at will, from German threats, to communists, to members of the American Civil Liberties Union, to foreign subversives, to the Japanese, to the Federal Theatre Project, and back to communists in the film industry. Does all of this sound eerily familiar, like we’re describing American investigations in 2017–2019? I’m just pointing out the general modus operandi never really changes.
In Playback, main characters are pressured by motives of dimly illuminated power figures, each a precursor of The X-Files Cigarette Smoking Man. Everyone wants to know the truth that may be somewhere but not available to Marlowe. As readers, we may end up with a glass trimmed with a lipstick stain but we won’t get plot resolution. The better we know this going in the more we’ll enjoy the ride. As Marlowe says, “I liked it….It did things to my subconscious.” Chandler’s work strikes me less for a noir plot and more for his articulating a specific almost absurdist space.
It may be true that when reading Chandler, my drink glasses are never glassy enough. My ice is never icy enough. Shaving never means as much and I always feel I care too much about life. “There would always be the little oddness to be noticed and there would always be someone to notice it.” Chandler notices these things, although nowhere close to the perspicuity of Tolstoy or Durrell. Let’s just say he gets the job done with efficiency. As such, description is frequently a cart for humor as in these examples:
“Her eyes were open and quizzical. I studied them one at a time because I was too close to see them together. They seemed well matched.”
“The plat du jour is meat loaf.” the waiter said nastily.”
“Me and you could get along,” Goble said indifferently, “if you had any brains.
And if you had any manners and were six inches taller and had a different face and another name and didn’t act as if you thought you could lick your weight in frog spawn.”
“‘Shootings?’ I looked at him with wonder. ‘Good God, what sort of people do that?’”
Strangely, once we leave the hard-boiled crowd, the writer I find most similar to Chandler is Sam Shepard in his later short stories. For example, check out Four Days that includes the vignette about a man who gets trapped in a Cracker Barrel men’s room dying to the hell of Shania Twain songs. Maybe you’ll see how I find similarities.
There is also a nice little thought experiment introduced half way through the novel. Would you help dispose of an already dead body for the reward of a life in Rio with a beautiful redhead, the ability to forever lounge in pjs and to play with long lascivious hair while the butler sets out Wedgewood? Nobody would know except for the two of you. I won’t reveal Marlowe’s answer but I’m sure it wouldn’t satisfy today’s producers or publishers. Here I’ll grant some crime writing readership with kudos in that they don’t always expect everything tied up with the neat little feels-oh-so-good pabulum that stinks up most movies produced today.
Playback was Chandlers last completed novel. I get the title, but to speak to it means giving away too much of the plot. Don’t accept the negative hype around Playback. This novel is as good as any of his others. Late in the book, old man Clarendon asks, “What strange deity made such a complicated world when presumably he could have made a simple one?” Chandler. Raymond Chandler whose personal life may have been an absolute mess but whose books, like this one, is a wonderful bemused and realist reflection on the ennui that pervades both detective work and American life.