Poodle Springs, or more accurately, The Poodle Springs Story, is Raymond Chandler's last, unfinished book about private detective Philip Marlowe — abandoned per force majeure when Chandler died. Subsequently the incomplete story was finished and published under the shorter title by the famed wine critic Robert Parker, wait, no, I mean by some schmuck crime hack named Robert B. Parker. It's possible that the wine guy would have done a better job. At least he and Chandler have the sauce in common. The other Parker's mug shot on the back cover of the book is a bit more dignified than Wine Parker's would have been, though.
Starting with the outside, as is natural, the cheesy Eighties cover art is so cheesy and Eighties that it's somehow perfect, despite looking completely retarded next to the original covers or a still of Bogart. Nothing about it makes sense, but somehow the whole makes plenty of it. I can't understand this; it's almost disturbing, a bit. But there it is. (Stranger still is the cover of Perchance to Dream, Parker's subsequent sequel, which I have not read, to The Big Sleep: there, Vivian Sternwood is clearly drawn as Bacall, but for some reason, Marlowe doesn't look at all like Bogart. What the hell?)
Oh, and before we go further, about that title: »The Poodle Springs Story« is an obvious placeholder title, and Chandler would almost certainly have given the book some good title along the lines of the preceding ones instead if he'd finished it, but it's possible that he would have left the titular town with that name: he had an odd habit of changing the names of the towns and other areas surrounding Los Angeles — most prominently, Santa Monica becomes Bay City — and Poodle Springs is very obviously a lightly-masked Palm Springs, complete with a reference in Chandler's part of the book to the inordinate numbers of palms around.
On the other hand, it's a goofy fucking name. They weren't normally goofy.
* * *
The four first chapters of Poodle Springs were written by Chandler; I bought the book because I wanted to read these, the last little bit of Chandler I had left. They're as good as he usually is, and give the sense that he's rebounded from the dip of Playback. By the second page of Chapter 5, you know you're in Bat Country. The front inside flap blurb claims Parker was »[Chandler's] most gifted disciple« — I guess it had to say that, but if that was how it was, I'd hate to see the others. He doesn't appear to have even attempted Chandler's dialogue cadence, which is obvious not just from reading it, but even from looking at the page. When a Chandler character speaks, the norm is for one piece of dialogue to be 2-3 lines on the page; if there's a short remark, it's followed by a longer one. Parker's first dialogue is assorted choppy bits: »There?« »Yeah.« »When?« »Now.« This is an exaggeration, but by a lot less than I'd like. Sometimes, in the descriptions, one gets a sense of déjà vṻ; at first I thought he must have traced bits of descriptive prose from Chandler's other novels, changing them around enough to fit their new subjects but not more; subsequently I started finding whole chunks of prose lifted bodily out of the novels in which they belonged and inserted verbatim. This suggests to me that he couldn't hit the notes any other way, which is understandable of course, since Chandler's style is unique and splendid, but far less excusable in someone trying to finish his work than it is in the general public.
Let's go back to Chandler, though, and expand on those first few pages before the master laid down his pen. When I say they give the sense of a rebound, I don't just mean the prose, which was still good in Playback; I mean that there's a kind of bounce in the material like he knew where he was going with this, even though there's far too little of it for the rest of us to figure it out. Playback suffers mainly in this respect, in my opinion; much of the writing itself is as good as ever, and it's not like The Big Sleep or The High Window were consistently punchy, anyhow. The plot, on the other hand, is as flat as last week's soda water; it not only mostly lacks the drastic turns and switchbacks which Chandler famously referred to in saying that »if someone finds one of my books in the gutter with the covers torn off and the first and last chapters missing, I want them to still be able to enjoy reading it«, the usual big twist of the dénouement is wholly absent. Nor, somehow, does Playback ever give a sense that any of this will be forthcoming. It just isn't taut. In Poodle Springs, even in what little there is of it, the danger of a repeat of this sort of thing seems to have been averted, and Chandler, ironically, conveys a sense of loping agile and strong though these four short chapters — but then, he always did in passages he drank himself half to death over, so who knows.
Now as for this Parker party, he apparently wrote 40 novels in a series of his own about an operative named Spenser — not Tracy Spenser, God willing, but bad enough as it is — and he reads like it. Chandler does not read like a 40-novel man. He had to fight for every scrap, like Ravel, the struggle pushed him into a bottle over and over, and he left us with seven novels, a number of short stories of many of which the first four novels were fix-ups, and this fragment. Like wine in a frost year, what little we got is all strong, rich and concentrated. (Strange to reflect that O'Brian, who got up to 20 novels and a scrap, not counting his work outside the Aubrey-Maturin series, should not read like a hack at all; we were lucky there, I suppose, but one isn't lucky all the time. Some people seem to be, but that kind of luck necessarily carried them far away from the rest of us.) Perhaps Parker was tormented by the same difficulties, I know nothing about it or him, but he conveys the impression of a man who's being paid by the hour. Perhaps I'm too harsh? I mean it. Maybe Parker read for Parker, without an inescapable, constant comparison which can only end poorly for him, a comparison to a giant of the craft on his home turf, is eminently enjoyable? I wouldn't know. I've never read any of his »own« work, and this book didn't incite me to make the attempt.
Then again, he did name his other Marlowe novel Perchance To Dream. Chandler would never have allowed himself that kind of cack-handed, pretentious Shakespeare reference. It takes real brio to kill a novel in the title.
* * *
Having come to this point, I find I've written a great deal about this book without saying anything at all about the plot. That's because there isn't any in the good part, and what there is in the long part largely isn't worth discussing. Oddly enough, in its rudiments the plot could actually work as the backbone of a real Chandler novel — there are, of course, various missteps and little flubs, but the basic structure is there, with the right kinds of twists, reveals and so on; it's pretty easy to imagine how Chandler would have handled these same figures and incidents competently, and I found myself wondering if Chandler hadn't left a plot summary behind which Parker was able to work from, but this appears not to have been the case at all (rather the opposite: supposedly Chandler left absolutely no clue at all behind about where the plot was meant to go, it was all in his head), and so now I'm wondering instead if this was what Parker was hired for: his ability to produce a credible noir detective plot.
Nevertheless, the execution of this outline is purely dire on every level. Sloppy, untight, careless, numerous other adjectives of this ilk which Chandler would no doubt chastise me for stacking on each other... As an example, one of the strangest things about Parker's portion of the book is that, although by the chronology of the series it can't possibly be set later than early 1954 and the most probable year is 1953, it appears to take place in the 1980s. References to air conditioning abound; 1980s-style model agencies exist; there's a car lighter in Marlowe's Oldsmobile. Now, I don't know for sure that air conditioning and car lighters didn't exist in the year 1953, I honestly didn't check before inflicting this paragraph on you, but I do know for sure that neither is ever mentioned in any of the real Marlowe novels, including the four chapters by Chandler which open this book. The fact is that one gets a distinct impression that Parker was phoning it in, which strikes me as some sort of unspeakable sacrilege but which apparently struck Robert B. Parker as totally reasonable since he had his own career of
getting blasted out of his skull on incredibly expensive BordNO NO NO that's the other guy, I mean writing his own detective stories that he presumably cared more about? At any rate one hopes he did. I know that I am now wilfully repeating myself, but I don't think it's really possible to overstate how much craftsmanship Parker didn't put into this novel. It's gruesome to witness.
I don't regret buying this book; it has four chapters of real Chandler in it, and that's hail and farewell to Philip Marlowe. But the rest of the book is a fucking insult: to the reader and, worse, to Chandler. If you're a Marlowe completist, you have to buy this book: but I can't possibly recommend you read Parker's vast majority part of it. If you can get the four chapters without the rest (I think the Library of America Chandler set might have them), get that instead. This book is a hackjob, if not butchery.