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Playback by Raymond Chandler

What can I say? Chandler is Chandler — he does the thing he does, and he does it well, but I’m not sure I feel like reading the remaining novel in the volume, The Long Good-bye, right now.

Apparently, a lot of people see this as the least of Chandler’s novels, something of a denouement to his career, and I’ll admit the novel seems a bit shorter and simpler than some of his others.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a read. Chandler maintains, here, his ability to empathize with characters, while depicting the world they live in (and even his narrator) as brutally unempathetic. (The drug-addicted doorman, a mixed-race fellow down on his luck, is presented in such a way that one feels sympathy for him, even though Philip Marlowe doesn’t seem to have the time to spare for it.) Likewise, he retains a singular eye for character detail, and one of the things I find remarkable is how well he manages to render individual characters — primarily through dialog — so that each one has a unique voice; and, what’s more, the harshness of some of the dialog shines through somehow even though it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that would come off as harsh today. (When Marlowe tells someone, over the phone, “Go kiss a duck,” I’m not sure whether there’s an implicit rhyme, and Marlowe’s just being unreliable enough to get past censors but hinting at what he really said, or what… but it comes off as crude and harsh somehow all the same.)

The story is notable mainly for being set in a town called Esmerelda (though it is patterned off La Jolla, where Chandler lived later in life), rather than Los Angeles, where most of his novels took place. It has more of the small-town feel than anything else I’ve read by the man, though at this point I should probably own up to only having read a few of his novels: The Big Sleep (long ago) and The High Window (last year).

Funnily enough, though, I find myself torn by the fact I have one more Marlowe novel sitting on my shelf: part of me wants to dive right in, while the rest of me would rather take a break and get back to it later. I think I’ll go with the latter, mainly because I don’t want to gobble up everything by the man in one shot…

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