I've always liked how Marlowe gets hungry and other simple things that are left out of many detective novels. He's tough but human as he describes to his female client. "If I wasn't hard, I wouldn't be alive. If I couldn't ever be gentle, I wouldn't deserve to be alive."
I have no idea whether Marlowe's life is an accurate portrayal of a Los Angeles Private Eye during the 1930-1950s. You have to figure that their lives were a lot less exciting than Philip Marlowe's. And maybe that alone makes this novel a little underrated. Its scant plot is probably more in order with what would really happen to a PI. We're pre-conditioned to every detective case being about a series of murders.
I do know that Marlowe's experiences, tactics and observations make these books a fun journey. He wrote so very few during his years that even the calmer ones like Playback are worth the time spent.
No, it isn't the best of his novels-- not by a long shot.
Yes, it is still worth the time that it takes to read.
Playback is an afterword to a great series. It's a little bit sadder, a little bit more cynical. Marlowe (like Chandler himself?) is going through the motions and none of what used to interest him is quite as compelling. He's seen a vision of how it all ends and can't stay quite as focused on the plot.
In the book, Marlowe agrees to enjoy the charms of the lovely Miss Vermilyea, but not unless she agrees to go somewhere besides his apartment. He'd fallen in love with someone there, and isn't sure that her charms will live up to the comparison.
He says: "I had a dream here once, a year and a half ago. There's still a shred of it left."
As a reader, you may have the same feeling about this book. It's a lovely moment, but not to be compared to the real thing.
But still, a lovely moment.
"Playback" has all of these elements but, unfortunately, in far lesser quantities than in Chandler's other Philip Marlowe books. In "Playback" Marlowe is assigned to follow this woman without knowing why and to report back on what he finds out about her. All the typical plot devices are there, but the results are far less than scintillating and are sometimes rather dull. If I were to pick out, however, my favorite part of the book it would be Marlowe's conversation with an elderly and infirm man who is staying at a hotel where Marlowe is holed up. Their discussion about the belief in God is incredibly sharp and extremely relevant to a man of Marlowe's profession.
All in all, despite its shortcomings, "Playback," while not top Chandler, is still Philip Marlowe and that can never be bad.