First US edition
|Genre||Mystery, Crime novel|
|Publisher||Houghton Mifflin (US)
Hamish Hamilton (UK)
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||208 pp (hardback edition)|
|Preceded by||The Long Goodbye|
|Followed by||Poodle Springs|
This novel puts Marlowe in the position of turning against his client and taking up the cause of the subject he is hired to investigate, an attractive woman on the run who he goes to bed with. We are at the beginning of 1952 (some 18 months after the parting of Marlowe and Linda Loring in The Long Goodbye).
An unknown client hires Marlowe (via intermediaries) to follow a woman traveling under the name Eleanor King (whose real name is Betty Mayfield). Marlowe traces Mayfield to the small coastal resort town of Esmeralda in California, where he is given the runaround by practically everyone.
During her train ride west, Mayfield was recognized by a man who then seeks to blackmail her, for reasons disclosed at the end of the novel. While Marlowe is poking around Esmeralda, the blackmailer is found dead on Mayfield's hotel room balcony. She panics and calls Marlowe for help.
Marlowe encounters a variety of characters with dubious motivations, including a taciturn lawyer and his smart secretary (with whom Marlowe had a sexual encounter), a 'retired' gangster, overconfident would-be tough guys of varying morals, a hired killer (whose wrists Marlowe smashes), decent police officers, an affectingly desperate example of the American immigrant underclass of the 1950s. Marlowe also had a striking encounter in a hotel lobby with a reflective elderly gentleman, Henry Clarendon IV, which gives rise to an extended philosophical conversation.
Marlowe learns that Betty Mayfield had been married to the son of Henry Cumberland, a big shot in a small North Carolina town. The son, Lee Cumberland, had suffered a broken neck during the Second World War and, though mobile and not paralyzed, for safety he regularly wore a neck brace. One day there was a quarrel between them, and later, the husband was found dead, with Mayfield re-fixing the neck brace on his body. The case drew widespread newspaper publicity (which is why the blackmailer recognized Mayfield on the train), and due to Cumberland's influence on the jury, the jury found Mayfield guilty of murder. But the jury's verdict was set aside by the judge, who saw more than a reasonable doubt and rejected the jury verdict as tainted. Cumberland vowed to hound Mayfield wherever she went, which is why she fled to Esmeralda; Cumberland was presumably behind Marlowe being hired in the first place. Cumberland arrives in Esmeralda to hound Mayfield in person, but with the help of the local police captain, Marlowe scares off Cumberland. (In the British edition of the novel, and the screenplay version by Chandler, see below, Cumberland's name is Kinsolving).
Mayfield decides to marry a local criminal-turned-respectable, who has taken a romantic interest in her. Marlowe lets her go ahead but has a frank talk with the ex-criminal, who obviously hasn't quite mended his ways, as he was behind the killing of the blackmailer.
At the book's conclusion, Marlowe is rewarded by providence when an old flame (Linda Loring from the previous novel, The Long Goodbye), gets back in touch.
Source of the novel
The novel was reworked by Chandler from a rejected screenplay by the same name he had written some years before. Thought by some to be superior to this book (generally considered to be the weakest of the seven Marlowe novels, perhaps due to its less complex plot and 'pat' resolution), the script has been published independently posthumously.
The opening lines of the second chapter served as inspiration for Jonathan Lethem's science fiction/detective novel Gun, with Occasional Music: "There was nothing to it. The Super Chief was on time, as it almost always is, and the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket."
Playback is the only Marlowe novel that Chandler completed that is set somewhere other than Los Angeles. It's set in a town called Esmeralda, which is a made-up name for La Jolla, where Chandler lived his last few years. Poodle Springs, which Chandler did not finish, is set in Palm Springs.
Of all Chandler's novels, Playback is the only one never to have been filmed.
In 2011, Playback was adapted for radio by BBC Radio Four as part of a season of Chandler adaptations. Marlowe was played by Toby Stephens.