Raymond Chandler delivers his usual, one-of-a-kind, cool-guy style in his final novel Playback. Here Philip Marloww, whom I always think of as Humphrey Bogart, is hired to tail a red head who arrives on the Super Chief from D.C. As usual, Marlow gets tangled up with this bomb shell and beaten up by thugs who’re tailing her too.
Great passages include:
On the dance floor half a dozen couples were throwing themselves around with the reckless abandon of a night watchman with arthritis. Most of them were dancing cheek to cheek, if dancing is the word (p. 44).
Do you believe in God, young man?”
It was a long way around, but it seemed I had to travel it. “If you mean an omniscient and omnipotent God who intended everything exactly the way it is, no.”
“But you should, Mr. Marlowe. It is a great comfort. We all come to it in the end because we have to die and become dust. Perhaps for the individual that is all, perhaps not. There are grave difficulties about the afterlife. I don’t think I should really enjoy a heaven in which I shared lodgings with a Congo pygmy or a Chinese coolie or a Levantine rug peddler or even a Hollywood producer. I’m a snob, I suppose, and the remark is in bad taste. Nor can I imagine a heaven presided over by a benevolent character in a long white beard locally known as God. These are foolish conceptions of very immature minds. But you may not question a man’s religious beliefs however idiotic they may be. Of course I have no right to assume that I shall go to heaven. Sounds rather dull, as a matter of fact. On the other hand how can I imagine a hell in which a baby that died before baptism occupies the same degraded position as a hired killer or a Nazi death-camp commandant or a member of the Politburo? How strange it is that man’s finest aspirations, dirty little animal that he is, his finest actions also, his great and unselfish heroism, his constant daily courage in a harsh world-how strange that these things should be so much finer than his fate on this earth. That has to be somehow made reasonable. Don’t tell me that honor is merely a chemical reaction or that a man who deliberately gives his life for another is merely following a behavior pattern. Is God happy with the poisoned cat dying alone in convulsions behind the billboard? Is God happy that life is cruel and that only the fittest survive? The fittest for what? Oh no, far from it. If God were omnipotent and omniscient in any literal sense, he wouldn’t have bothered to make the universe at all. There is no success where there is no possibility of failure, no art without the resistance of the medium. Is it blasphemy to suggest that God has his bad days when nothing goes right, and that God’s days are very, very long?”
“You’re a wise man, Mr. Clarendon. You said something about reversing the pattern.”
He smiled faintly. “You thought I had lost the place in the overlong book of my words. No sir, I had not. A woman like Mrs. West almost always ends up marrying a series of pseudo-elegant fortune hunters, tango dancers with handsome sideburns, skiing instructors with beautiful blond muscles, faded French and Italian aristocrats, shoddy princelings from the Middle East, each worse than the one before. She might even in her extremity marry a man like Mitchell. If she married me, she would marry an old bore, but at least she would marry a gentleman” (p. 112-113).
The town’s full of Hellwigs, some with other names, but all of the family one way or another. Some are rich and some work. I guess Miss Hellwig works harder than most. She’s eighty-six now, but tough as a mule. She don’t chew tobacco, drink, smoke, swear or use no make-up. She give the town the hospital, a private school, a library, an art center, public tennis courts, and God knows what else. And she still gets driven in a thirty-year-old Rolls-Royce that’s about as noisy as a Swiss watch. The mayor here is two jumps from a Hellwig, both downhill. I guess she built the municipal center too, and sold it to the city for a dollar. She’s some woman. Of course we got Jews here now, but let me tell you something. A Jew is supposed to give you a sharp deal and steal your nose, if you ain’t careful. That’s all bunk. A Jew enjoys trading; he likes business, but he’s only tough on the surface. Underneath a Jewish businessman is usually real nice to deal with. He’s human. If you want cold-blooded skinning, we got a bunch of people in this town now that will cut you down to the bone and add a service charge. They’ll take your last dollar from you between your teeth and look at you like you stole it from them” (p. 129).
Every page sings with style, but the plot is nothing to write home about and fizzles out by the end. In a writer with less style, I’d be disappointed, but Chandler is more about style that detecting. His villains and victims are all cut from the same cloth so it’s no surprise when justice isn’t served and life just moves on.