Thursday, September 13, 2012

A New and and Questionable Observation About Raymond Chandler's PLAYBACK

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This isn't much of a literary theory, as literary theories go, but it is of interest.  Perhaps only to me.  And other Raymond Chandler enthusiasts.

In the past, I have favored you with a minor theory on Elmore Leonard's novels, which I presented here and followed up on here.  It was a nice little theory.  Won't revolutionize Leonard scholarship, but it was fun to be the first to point something out.

I think I've may have another one.

Raymond Chandler
Raymond Chandler, of course, is the author of the Philip Marlowe noir private eye novels -- the one's you've heard of are The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and Farewell, My Lovely, although many critics would add The Little Sister to the list of his best -- and widely recognized as one of America's finest writers.  He also wrote the screenplays for the Hitchcock classic "Strangers on a Train" and managed to make Fred MacMurray seem evil as he was manipulated by Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity" (before he was found out by Edward G. Robinson).   In recent years his work has been honored by republication by the Library of America.

His last novel is Playback.


It is set in the fictional California coastal town of Esmeralda, which he describes as follows:  

"Like most small towns, Esmeralda had one main Street from which in both directions its commercial establishments flowed gently for a short block or so and then with hardly a change of mood became streets with houses where people lived. But unlike most small California towns it had no false fronts, no cheesy billboards, no drive-in hamburger joints, no cigar counters or pool-rooms, and no street corner toughs to hang around in front of them. The stores on Grand Street were either old and narrow but not tawdry or else well modernized with plate glass and stainless steel fronts and neon lighting in clear crisp colors. Not everybody in Esmeralda was prosperous, not everybody was happy, not everybody drove a Cadillac, a Jaguar or a Riley, but the percentage of obviously prosperous living was very high, and the stores that sold luxury goods were as neat and expensive-looking as those in Beverly Hills and far less flashy. There was another small difference too. In Esmeralda what was old was also clean and sometimes quaint. In other small towns what is old is just shabby."


Esmeralda is universally taken to be a stand-in for La Jolla, where Chandler lived the last dozen years of his life.   This paragraph and other references in the novel could easily be taken for La Jolla in 2012, and this was probably also the case in 1958 when Playback was published.  I thought about linking to a couple of references to Esmeralda being La Jolla, but there are so many of them that there seems to be no doubt about this in the commentary on the novel.

The one thing I didn't find was any reference to Chandler saying that Esmeralda is based on La Jolla.


During my residence in the San Diego area, my favorite place to visit was Del Mar, the village bordering La Jolla on its north.   And my favorite place in Del Mar, next to the seaside park on a bluff overlooking the beach, was the Esmeralda Bookstore in the Del Mar Plaza.  It was named after Chandler's fictional village, and a snip of the foregoing quotation was reproduced on their bookmarks.  

Unfortunately, the shop closed some years ago in a dispute with the Plaza landlord.  I cannot find a copy of their logo online, but I have a T-shirt with the logo, which I also can't find, but I did find a copy of their bookmark, from which I have made this enlargement


showing an observant octopus appearing to shelter two contented dolphins, in turn protecting the precious printed word.

Anagrams are not a hobby of mine, I don't go out of my way to rearrange words or phrases to make other words and phrases – the Internet has pretty much made that pasttime superfluous anyway. and I'm not one of those "mystic spellers" who sees letters buzzing around the room during a spelling bee.   Pretty much, I read what's on the page and that's that.  But for some reason, as I was looking at the logo one day, I saw the transformation before me as clear as could be, the letters just seemed to fall out of the word:

E S M E R A L D A

D E L   M A R   S E A

I returned to the bookstore on a visit to tell the proprietors what I had discovered.  Perhaps they had noticed it too; perhaps that's how this Del Mar shop got its name.  But  the store had closed not long before.

So, was Esmeralda was a stand-in for Del Mar, rather than La Jolla?   Maybe.  The fictional Esmeralda seems to have a tonier business strip than Del Mar, the latter's consisting only of shops along the Pacific Coast Highway, and I suspect that difference was more pronounced in 1958.  La Jolla is where the commercial money is.  But in other respects, the description fits Del Mar somewhat better than it does La Jolla.  Perhaps it was a combination of the two.

So I've brought you all this way to say:  I dunno.

As I said, it's not much of a theory.

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3 comments:

  1. This is weird: about an hour after I posted this, I was reading a book called "Believing is seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography)" by Errol Morris. The first chapter of the book details his investigation of two photographs taken by a photographer named Fenton in 1855 of a scene from the Crimean War near Sebastopol. He was trying to figure out which of the two photographs, which show the same general area but have some differences not important to this anecdote, had been taken first. In one of the photographs, there is a rock on the side of the road that is missing in the other photograph. It is odd enough that Morris gave this rock a name. It passes into the realm of weirdness that he named it "Esmeralda."

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  2. Steve,

    As you probably know, Chandler often mashed locations together, and in general, hid, obfuscated and otherwise messed with locations. Esmeralda as La Jolla is probably no exception. It wouldn't surprise me if parts of Del Mar crept into the description of La Jolla/Esmeralda.

    BUT, Esmeralda is La Jolla. Take for example the ending two lines from the the end of Chapter 16 of Playback: "The guy might be poor," the waiter said tolerantly. "One of the choice things about this town is that the people who work here can't afford to live here."

    In a later chapter, Marlowe talks about Fred Pope who ran a hotel in Esmeralda. He goes on at length about the Hellwigs, and especially Miss Patricia Hellwig. Change the name to Ellen Browning Scripps and compare what the fiction Miss Hellwig did for Esmeralda, and what Ellen Browning Scripps did for La Jolla.

    No doubt about it, Esmeralda is La Jolla.

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  3. Shamus, thanks for checking in. I have no doubt that you are correct. I'm guessing that the descriptions both you and I have quoted were probably MORE like La Jolla in 1958. As my title suggests, I do recognize that my theory is questionable, and you're right -- Esmeralda is definitely portrayed as a ritzy joint, and it was probably even ritzier, compared to Del Mar, back then. Thanks again.

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