zen-master-marlowe1The voice on the telephone seemed to be sharp and peremptory, but I didn’t hear too well what it said—partly because I was only half awake and partly because I was holding the receiver upside down. I fumbled it around and grunted.

So begins Raymond Chandler’s Playback, the last of the great Philip Marlowe mystery novels. On his final case, Marlowe meets a tough redhead and follows her from the Super Chief all the way to the California coast to solve a case of money, and murder. But what case is Marlowe really on?

By the time of Playback, Marlowe has seen his share of what the world can do. Concentration camps, slaughter, atomic bombs, people being killed for pennies. Out of all this, Marlowe comes, cigarette lit, leaving some all-night diner where the apple pie tasted so-so. He has a notable detachment, and often dislike, for everyone and everything. So how are we to understand his tremendous determination to solve whatever case is brought to him? It’s true he has to make a living, which he constantly reminds everyone of. But something else seems to be fueling him. Something beyond cash and self-preservation.

Often he goes for days and nights on end without sleep. An average night scene with Marlowe has him walking alone through the dark, trying to find waking clues among slumbering bodies. One night, Marlowe says: “The Mexican parked himself in a chair and went back to sleep before I had taken six steps.” Everybody was sleepy but Marlowe. He works around the clock, and doesn’t even collect.

Marlowe doesn’t always move quite so cleanly through the night. People get a kick out of punching him in the face, and vice versa. Also, he enjoys the company of a woman from time to time. It’s regular for him to kiss the murder suspect, if the murder suspect has wry, red lips.

Her lips opened with a sardonic twist to them. It was a cool evening, maybe even cold down by the water. But it wasn’t cold where I was.

Marlowe’s ability to kiss killers and hang with thieves often gives him the inside edge on a case. He trusts no one, including himself. This quality of negative equanimity makes cheaters fair and liars honest. No one is on the level, so everyone is on the level. The guy who’s your friend might as well be your enemy, because everything changes. Here we have Marlowe, after getting hit on the head by a bottle:

What rattled and thumped was a knotted towel full of melting ice cubes. Somebody who loved me very much had put them on the back of my head. Somebody who loved me less had bashed me in the back of my skull. It could have been the same person. People have moods.

Unlike many other depression-era heroes, Marlowe is not the decent guy whose ethics have been worn thin by hard times. Rather, he is someone who no longer lives ethically or not ethically. His last battle was the war. There are no opponents for him to beat now. He is just as dead as he is alive, and he knows it. He doesn’t get riled up by foreclosing bankers or greedy businessmen, like so many other Tom Joads. No, Marlowe is all business. That is not to say he is a statue or stone Buddha. He is not. His knack for not getting personally involved only serves to increase his flexibility and intimacy with all that he encounters. Marlowe has no stake invested in outcomes and therefore is free to let clues and answers arise as they may. In bars, motels, elevators—he is free. Free to go straight on the superhighway with ninety-nine curves.

The character of Marlowe was conceived by Chandler during war years, when hard-boiled detective stories were almost always written as subversive meditations on home-front distresses. After America “won” the war, the genre became even more cynical, dark, and uneasy. For the postwar detective, innocence was a distant memory, and fate was just a foot bound to trip you. Most of these private eyes riddled their solid pessimism with shots of sentimentalism and mawkishness, late at night, when no one was looking. But Marlowe never gets glassy-eyed over his greatest generation and what’s become of it. He never goes looking for his high school sweetheart or asks the taxi driver to turn on the radio.

The violence of life and proof of man’s limitless scope of evil has left Marlowe with a boundless sense of space, knowing that the road he goes down now may either fall off suddenly or go on forever. There is nowhere to go and nothing to do. Whatever’s coming is coming. Avoidance just creates more isolation and dread. Here he describes the redhead he’s following, at the train station:

She could go anywhere she liked but there would always be a dick to meet the train if it meant enough to the big, important people back in Washington. There would always be a Larry Mitchell or a reporter with a good memory. There would always be the little oddness to be noticed and there would always be somebody to notice it. You can’t run away from yourself.

If some dicks were biding their time with action and guns, waiting for the Apocalypse, Marlowe was already breathing in post-atomic destruction and then lighting a cigarette, too. For him, the world had already been blown up and what was left was scattered all-night movie houses, train yards, and apartments with no paintings. To Marlowe, everyone, rich or poor, was vagrant and rootless. Cast away into separate worlds on the same street by a bad dream shared by too many people.

As I went along the side towards Polton’s Lane, that handsome residential street, the parrot inside the shack heard me and screeched:
Quien es? Quien es?
Who is it? Nobody, friend. Just a footfall in the night.
I walked softly, going away.

Like a Zen Peacemaker, Marlowe doesn’t so much try to change things as bear witness to them. His very presence alone is enough. He doesn’t pretend to know what’s really going on, and he doesn’t try to. He just goes into the shadows with a cool, unflinching eye and then reports back to technicolor offices with a calm, even voice. Worlds are brought closer together by his placid demeanor. Through his travels he is both ridiculed for his depravity and lauded for his perceptions. His response is always the same: The striking of a match.

At the end of Playback, Marlowe has uncovered the case and returned to his impersonal room in Los Angeles. An old lover calls and says, breathlessly, “I’ll come. Hold me in your arms. Hold me close in your arms. I don’t want to own you. Nobody ever will. I just want to love you.”

Marlowe replies, “I’ll be here. I always am.” ▼


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