Saturday, September 22, 2012


What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Playback (Houghton-Mifflin, 1958).

Playback was the last, and the least-regarded, of Raymond Chandler's seven novels about Philip Marlowe. Actually, I think it's better than its reputation, and better than The Little Sister, although the wafer-thin plot threatens to evaporate at least twice. This is a book that I read only two years ago, yet it seemed fresh and unfamiliar to me. There's a straightforward tail job and just two deaths, one of which is a suicide that turns out to be unrelated to Marlowe's case, but Chandler's command of language is so great that even something as comparatively simple as this - his previous novels were full of twists and confusing turns - is a real treat to follow.

But two things stuck out to me and invited comment this time around. One of my favorite of the novels is The Lady in the Lake, and that's despite a brutally ugly scene set in Bay City where the local cops - corrupt as sin, as is everything in Bay City - force Marlowe to drink in order to craft their bogus DUI charge. I don't know why this scene bothered me so much - Marlowe meets his share of crooked cops throughout the books, with The Long Goodbye's Captain Gregorius a really startling example - but that depiction of complete and unjustified nastiness and abuse of power from the police really did get under my skin. I think that the department full of decent policemen in Playback honestly goes a long way toward making up for that, and I like the humble way that Marlowe thanks them for being good to him.

The other thing has to be the amazing charged flirtation and eventual bedroom scene between Marlowe and his platinum blonde antagonist in his client's employ. Miss Vermilyea - what a name! - start off with the sexual tension at about a 9.9 and it escalates from there. The four pages set in her home are certainly erotic, but they're also just about the bleakest depiction of a tryst I've ever come across. Vermilyea knows that they crested too soon, and ends it instantly, hating it, hating herself, and turning him out to await a taxi, knowing that they'll never see each other again. It's so terminal, and her house so dark, that Marlowe questions whether he'd imagined the whole thing, until the taxi arrives. It's just too dark for words.

I also wanted to share that I suppose I'm like a lot of people in that I visualize a "cast" in the roles of the characters in a novel. Naturally, I had Humphrey Bogart as my Marlowe as I read the stories this time through. But after The Little Sister, I read that James Garner had played the role in a 1969 feature film that kind of adapted that book, but with Bruce Lee. I then reread The Long Goodbye with Garner in the lead, and with 1983-model David Bowie as Terry Lennox. You know, it's stunningly easy on the reader to hear this remarkable narration and language being read by Garner. Scarlet Johannson as Vermilyea, of course. Well, it's my movie. Recommended.

No comments: