Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: A Centennial Celebration was published in 1988 on the 100th Anniversary of Chandler’s birth. The book collects more than twenty Marlowe short stories. While most of them are by newer authors, the book includes “The Pencil,” (1959) Raymond Chandler’s last completed Philip Marlowe story which (heretofore) has only been published in this collection.
To begin with, I’ll take a look at “The Pencil.” In it, a former mob figure asks Marlowe’s help in disappearing when threatened with being penciled out by mob hitmen. The story is good, astonishingly so. It was published in 1959 a year after Chandler wrote the awful Playback and it’s stunning to think the same author wrote both. The story isn’t quite the equal of, “Red Wind,” but stands up with the other Philip Marlowe stories published in Trouble is My Business.
“The Pencil” recaptures the feel of mean streets, fascinating characters, hard boiled dialogue, and a battle with the underworld that made Marlowe stories so good in the beginning. The story also brings back Anne Riordan from, Farewell, My Lovely who is a far more interesting character than Chandler’s insipid and vapid “love interests” of his 1950s novels. It even has Marlowe getting money out of the deal, so it’s a wonderful story and it’d be great if this story were added to future editions of Trouble is My Business so a wider world of Marlowe fans could enjoy this story.
So that’s the last 30 pages of the book. What about the twenty plus stories and 339 pages that proceeded it? The writers were all admirers of Chandler and all competent as modern mystery writers. Many of them made a good try. For the most part, their stories weren’t on par with the originals but they were fairly enjoyable.
However, some stand out, both for good and ill.
- “Saving Grace” by Joyce Harrington is one of the closest stories to Chandler stylistically. However, I don’t like the end. It brings in the idea of sex crimes against children and a Jerry Springeresque final confrontation that leaves a bad taste.
- “Malibu Tag Team” by Jonathan Valin captures a lot of the spirit of Farewell, My Lovely.
- “Sad Eyed Blonde” by Dick Lochte is a great take on Marlowe and the only pastiche that’s a sequel to a previous Chandler story. This story reintroduces characters from, “The Gold Fish” in a different sort of mystery. The end is pure hard boiled detective and is a great set-up.
- “Dealer’s Choice” by Sara Paretsky, creator of V I Warshawski, takes a superb turn that really captures Chandler’s cadences in a tale that deals with the Japanese internment.
- “Consultation in the Dark” by Frances Nevins, Jr. may not capture all of Chandler’s feel but it’s probably the second best story in the book behind, “The Pencil.” It’s a suspenseful tale when Marlowe is out of town, and a man comes to Marlowe asking for help. Marlowe’s reluctant but the man’s got a bomb tied to his chest.
- “In the Jungle of the Cities,” by Roger Simon is a dull tale that rejects private eye tales to talk about the House Un-American Activities Committee. This was written back when Simon was on the left, and he’s since moved right. Whether he’d write something more interesting and less political now that his politics have changed or write something that’s as dull only with a right wing slant is an interesting question, and indeed far more interesting than this story.
- “Star Bright” by John Lutz sees Marlowe involved in a search for and protection of a potential Hollywood starlet. It’s a compelling story that captures the essence of the character, and post-war Hollywood is a superb location for a Marlowe story.
- “Locker 246” by Robert Randisi is an interesting tale where Marlowe is manipulated into a trip to New York. Marlowe’s sense of honor is reliable, in fact it’s predictable which works to someone’s advantage in a tale of Marlowe’s brief but action-packed trip to the Big Apple.
- “Bitter Lemons” by Stuart Kaminsky creates a great Chandleresque character in Warren Hluska, a man who swore he’d never win a beauty contest but he actually did.
- “The Man Who Knew Dick Bong” by Robert Crais is one of those stories that left me with mixed feelings. It works fine as a private eye tale, just not as a Marlowe tale. It’s also the story in the book that uses the most swearing. To be fair, Chandler did include a dash of swearing in the rich, sweet language of his novels. Emphasis on “a dash.” Crais uses more in his twenty-two page short story than Chandler used in some novels and generally more severe. Given how creative Chandler was with language, Crais’s story was jarring for its repetitiveness. Still, the plot was interesting.
- “In the Line of Duty” by Jeremiah Healey is a story where I don’t think the author quite gets Marlowe’s sense of justice. Marlowe might go against established rules, but there’s always a reason. This story doesn’t capture how Marlowe thinks.
- “The Alibi” by Ed Gorman captures the tone of Marlowe from The Long Goodbye. The dour, world-weary shamus gets a request for help from one of his few friends on the force. Anyone expecting a happy ending hasn’t been paying attention.
- “Asia” finds Marlowe at a personal low in his life in 1958. However, an Asian woman gives him a chance to be a hero again. This is a great look at the Knight in Tarnished Armor. The actual case Marlowe gets into isn’t solved this story. In fact, it barely begins, but it’s a great character journey.
Each story is prefaced by a stylistic illustration and many of them are quite evocative of the era.
While this book is out of print, it is available cheaply (1 cent plus shipping on Amazon at the time of this writing.) That makes it a no-brainer for any fan of Marlowe or hard boiled detectives in general to pick up. “The Pencil” is a superb Chandler story and at least some of the rest of the stories in the book should catch the reader’s eye.
Rating: 3.75 out of 5.0
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