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.

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