When Raymond Chandler, the godfather of hard-boiled detective fiction, passed away in 1959, he left behind 4 chapters of an unfinished novel featuring his best-loved character Philip Marlowe. They lay untouched for another 30 years before author Robert B. Parker, best known for the Spenser series of detective novels, completed the story as Poodle Springs in 1989. Although Chandler’s contribution amounts to only 23 pages, they set the scene for a very different Philip Marlowe story; but can Parker live up to the great man’s legacy? Let’s see, shall we.
Poodle Springs begins with Philip Marlowe having married, if not exactly settled down. His wife Linda is a wealthy heiress, who has difficulty coming to terms with her husband’s insistence on continuing his job as a private detective. They have a great relationship and they quite clearly love each other, but she’d much rather he either submit to a life of luxury as a kept man or accept a job as an executive for one of her daddy’s companies. Marlowe resists all offers of this sort; to him, his detective business is his freedom, the only thing that he knows he can do and the only thing that he truly wants to do.
Marlowe is hired by a casino-owner named Lipschultz to track down an itinerant gambler who has welched on some IOUs. The gambler, Les Valentine, is a photographer married to another rich heiress who is an acquaintance of Marlowe’s wife. Valentine tells his wife that he works doing publicity shots for the movie studios, but it doesn’t take Marlowe long to find out that he actually makes a much more seedy living peddling nudie photos of would-be actresses. Not only that, but Valentine is a bigamist; he has another wife near the beach and goes by the name of Larry Victor. A failed actress is trying to blackmail Valentine/Victor and when she turns up dead in his office, things start to change gear towards the sinister.
When Lipschultz also winds up dead, Marlowe has to struggle with the possibility that Valentine/Victor, who is an effete but likeable character, might actually be the murderer. The cops certainly seem to think so, including Marlowe’s old sparring partner Bernie Ohls, but it all seems a bit too pat and the fact that Lipschultz’s employer was the same Mr Blackstone who is the millionaire father of the richer of Valentine’s two wives strikes Marlowe as an unlikely coincidence.
Robert B. Parker does an excellent job of finishing what Raymond Chandler had started. Nobody really knows quite where the story was going, so the fact that he manages to make it flow seamlessly on is quite an achievement. It’s a very different Philip Marlowe story, and would have been even if Chandler had finished it himself; the quick-paced dialogue between Marlowe and Linda, established by Chandler in the early chapters, is reminiscent of Nick and Nora Charles in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man books, but Linda doesn’t take an active part in the story. The sub-plot of the awkward disintegration of Marlowe and Linda’s marriage lends an interesting new dynamic to the story. Domestic drama was never really a part of the previous Philip Marlowe books.
But then there’s a lot in this book which is different from what has come before. The action moves away from the seedy backstreets of Los Angeles to the wealthy suburbs and someone in Marlowe’s line of business is mistrusted even more. The previous books always had a wealthy character or family hiring Marlowe, but now he’s one of them, having married into money (though not for money). In fact, the usual formula is reversed; instead of being hired by a wealthy person which leads him into a seedy underworld, he’s hired by a seedy underworld character, which leads him back to the wealthy families. I found the eventual reveal of the murderer to be a surprise, even though it had kind of been staring me in the face all along.
In the canon of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, Poodle Springs is not of the standard of The Big Sleep or Farewell, My Lovely, but I’d say that it is certainly getting to be as good as Playback, Chandler’s last complete novel. Let’s be honest, it’s a thankless task taking on the mantle of someone who was No.1 in their field; if you stray too far from their style, you will be accused of failing to capture their essence, but if you write too much in their style, critics will call it a caricature. It’s a delicate balancing act and one which Parker pulls off with absolute perfectionism. There are one or two moments where there is a pointed effort to add a Chandler-esque quip, but these do not come across as crass or contrived. The reappearance of Bernie Ohls could have been an affectation, but it’s written in such a way that it makes perfect sense.
I’m a big fan of Raymond Chandler, but he wrote so few books that it’s frustrating. Having an extra Philip Marlowe story, and knowing that Chandler had at least some part in it, is a wonderful bonus. I enjoyed Poodle Springs a lot; it’s a worthy tribute to Raymond Chandler and it brings Philip Marlowe’s story to a satisfactory conclusion. It’s not exactly a happy ending, but it’s as close to a happy ending as you’re ever going to get in Marlowe’s world.
This edition of ‘Poodle Springs’ by Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker was published by The Berkley Publishing Group (2010)