Raymond Chandler is an almost sacred figure to Crimeziners everywhere. But many have not read his final works, Playback and
Poodle Springs. ‘Disappointing’ is a word commonly used when these books are reviewed. But given a little historical context both books make fascinating reading.
Chandler’s first professional work, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot”, was published in Black Mask magazine in 1933 he was 45. His first novel The Big Sleep was published in 1939. By 1943, Chandler began working for Paramount, consorting over the next years, with both Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock. In 1946 the same year that Humphrey Bogart starred as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Chandler moved away from Los Angeles to La Jolla, California, [pronounced Lahoyer] It is there that he wrote his final works.
The genesis for Playback & Poodle Springs starts with Chandler’s 1953 novel The Long Goodbye, for it is here Marlowe meets feisty sexpot Linda Loring, daughter of irascible moneybags Harlan Potter. Chandler considered [Edgar Award winning] The Long Goodbye, his best book. He wrote it whilst his wife Cissy was terminally ill. In 1954 Cissy, aged 84 [who was 18 years older than Chandler] died of fibrosis of the lungs—A tragic personal milestone that marked a dramatic decline in Chandler’s creative prowess.
Chandler was 70 when Playback, a story of murder, blackmail and revenge was published in 1958. The book started life as an original screenplay written for Universal some 10 years earlier. Chandler famously cannibalized many of his novels from short stories he wrote for Black Mask and other pulp magazines. But Playback was never a classic pulp story, which is perhaps why it failed to make it onto the big screen. Stylistically, Playback differs widely from Chandler’s other novels, the language is blander and less ambitious and the location—the fictional coastal town of Esmeralda [A thinly disguised La Jolla] is a very long way from the dirty boulevards of downtown L.A.
During the 30’s and 40’s, when Chandler wrote his classic works, America’s twin obsessions were the glamour of Hollywood and the demonic underside of that dream—the world of gangsters and organized crime. It is no accident that Philip Marlowe the fast-talking, hard-drinking private eye from Hollywood Boulevard epitomized the spirit of the age.
By contrast Playback has a curiously old fashioned—even Victorian edge to it.[Born in 1888, Chandler was a Victorian] In a country that had just been through two world wars, the Korean war and such horrific abuses as the MK ultra LSD experiments. The central premise of Playback seems oddly quaint. Would a man really pursue someone “to the ends of the earth” to seek revenge? Perhaps they would, but the way it is served up here it vibes like a handlebar moustaches at dawn dueling match, with a less than climactic third act.
In his early books Chandler clearly identifies with, and channels his wry humor through Marlowe. But, in the Long Goodbye—there is a curious divergence. In a personal and literary crossroads, three characters now emerge. Marlowe observes two variants of Chandler’s personality—Drunken author Roger Wade, a writer on the ropes and war scarred alcoholic Terry Lennox, a man who like Chandler had lived much of his life on the edge and spent a good deal of time in England. Perhaps, like Dickens Chandler was examining the ghosts of the past—Lennox, Present—Marlowe and future—Wade?
Unfortunately for Chandler, the prophecy of doom came true. Whilst he was writing The Long Goodbye his wife died and he finally became the kind of breaks-off alcoholic he long feared he would become. With age, booze and ill-health creeping up on him. Chandler must, in a similar way to his character Roger Wade, have sensed that his creativity was in steep decline.
In his booze addled desperation to regain creative inspiration, it must have been tempting for Chandler to imagine that he could shoot a jolt of life into the flat-lining screenplay for Playback, by turning it into a novel. He was quite wrong however. Whilst it must have seemed natural to use the story-arc skills he picked up in Hollywood and send Marlowe to a quiet little coastal town where “a dog could lay down in the road to sleep” This was most emphatically not what readers wanted. They wanted fast talking Hollywood gangsters and whiskey-soaked histrionics. Perhaps Chandler feared a descent into self-parody? Perhaps he believed readers would understand the personal transition he had made from the Hollywood fast lane, to the quiet suburbs of La Jolla?
Sadly, if Chandler still imagined himself as Marlowe, the public didn’t. Ever since The Big Sleep in 1946, the name and image of Humphrey Bogart was now synonymous with Phillip Marlowe.
Meanwhile, writers like Ross MacDonald had moved into Chandler’s territory and bloodthirsty pulp sensationalist Mickey Spillane had distilled the hardboiled genre, transforming it into a money-spinning formula for the modern age.
Raymond Chandler died in 1959, leaving behind four rather insipid chapters of a book he named Poodle Springs. In 1988—the hundred-year anniversary of Chandler’s birth, the Chandler estate hired American crime writing legend Robert B. Parker to complete the book. In the last chapter of Playback feisty little rich girl Linda Loring rings from Paris to propose marriage to Marlowe, a narrative anomaly that gongs louder than the untimely plunge of Sherlock Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls.
The snidely titled Poodle Springs—a reference to the wealthy and pampered desert town of Palm Springs, where many Angeleno’s choose to retire, starts with Marlowe and Loring setting up home. The first chapters, exclusively written by Chandler, are entirely devoid of the wit and drama we expect. Worse, the ‘marital bliss’ of the Marlowe household seems unnatural and phony, leaving our hero gasping like the proverbial fish out of water.
Luckily, Parker, who devoted part of his doctoral dissertation to the study of Chandler, leaps into the drivers seat after chapter four and begins ripping through the narrative gears.
Marlowe is quickly hired to find a gambler who skipped town, leaving a $100,000 debt. Marlowe finds the man’s rich, neglected wife, and is quickly back in Los Angeles where he discovers the missing gambler has a history as a seedy photographer and blackmailer. The labyrinthine plot is typically Chandleresque in construction, containing a heady mix of blackmail, betrayal and murderous intrigue. There is even an ingenious double identity plot sewn lovingly into the story line, which must surely be a jocular tip of the hat to Chandler’s involvement in the legendary screenplay for Double Indemnity.
It is a testament to Parker’s skill as a writer that he transformed the unpromising start of Poodle Springs into a novel of such stature. Fans of Parker’s Spenser series will be perhaps less surprised, as Spenser is unquestionably cut from the same cloth as Marlowe. Parker is a man who knows plot. He also did an admirable job inserting the kind of one-liners of which Chandler would be proud. But to the discerning reader, Parker’s work lacks the lyricism of the original. Chandler was so much more than a gag-man. He worked his audience like a music hall comedian, juxtaposing tragedy and pathos with complex sentence and paragraph structures—such as tricolon, laundry-list payoff gags and acerbic one-liners. He was also the master of the philosophical digression and he knew how to mix this formula up in a way that many have imitated, but few [including Parker] have succeeded in replicating.
So there we have it Crimeziners, Playback is strictly for completists only and Poodle Springs is an admirable effort that falls short on style and the noir milieu of the original Marlowe stories. And if we learn anything we must remember, “Guns never settle anything they are just a fast curtain to a bad second act.” And whilst we insist that all Crimeziners [unlike Chandler] drink responsibly, we remind you also that, “A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow.”
In 1991 Robert B. Parker followed up Poodle Springs with a sequel to The Big Sleep, which went by the grandly Shakespearean title, “Perchance to Dream”.