Here's the setup: Philip Marlowe, L.A.'s most famous fictional gumshoe, has finally tied the knot--with the beautiful heiress Linda Loring, last seen at the end of Raymond Chandler's "Playback" in 1958 phoning Marlowe from Paris to say that she wants to marry him.
The new Mrs. Marlowe is head-over-high-heels in love with the hard-boiled detective; the feeling is mutual.
Marlowe closes up his seedy office above Hollywood Boulevard, leaving L.A.'s gritty mean streets for the money-lined drives of the Springs where Linda has rented a house "for the season," complete with a man servant to keep the gimlet glasses full.
But Marlowe's not the kind of guy who can loll around the pool during the day, attend cocktail parties with the swells at night and live off his wife's dough. So he opens a new office above a filling station and waits for business. It doesn't take long: The owner of a desert nightclub known to permit gambling hires Marlowe to locate a high roller named Les Valentine who's skipped town without paying his $100,000 marker.
And that's where Raymond Chandler left off in an unfinished manuscript written two years before the celebrated mystery writer died in La Jolla in 1959 at age 70.
Four chapters: Twenty-nine pages and only the germ of an idea for a Philip Marlowe mystery that Chandler referred to simply as "The Poodle Springs Story."
That was enough for Robert B. Parker, the best-selling author of 17 Spencer PI mysteries.
The Boston-based writer was contacted a year ago by the literary agent for the Chandler estate and was asked if he would complete Chandler's unfinished mystery novel.
Parker wasted no time in accepting.
"I didn't have any second thoughts about it," Parker said. "Some of it's ego. I knew someone would do it and I wanted it to be me because I didn't want them to screw it up. And I was a great Chandler admirer and I had read all of his books and had done a doctoral dissertation on him. So I had no hesitation about it."
The result is "Poodle Springs" (Putnam; $18.95) by Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker. (Chandler created the tongue-in-cheek pseudonym for Palm Springs because, he wrote, "every third elegant creature you see has at least one poodle.")
By all early accounts, Parker, 57, has not only pulled off what would seem to be an intimidating literary assignment but has done so brilliantly.
Glowed mystery writer Ed McBain in his rave New York Times review last Sunday: "That Mr. Parker pulls off the stunt is a tribute to his enormous skill. . . . At his very best, Mr. Parker sounds more like Chandler than Chandler himself--but with an edge the master had begun to lose in the waning days of his life."
Although he's aware the book is generating favorable reviews, don't expect Parker, who was in Los Angeles for two days last week as part of a five-city publicity tour, to read them.
Both his literary agent and Joan, his wife of 33 years, read his reviews "and keep track, so I sort of know what the reaction is," Parker said. "But it doesn't do me any good to read them. The bad reviews make 7me feel bad; the good reviews don't make me feel that great. . . . (Reviews) make you worry about things you shouldn't. I'm doing the best I can."
After spending one morning doing three hours worth of separate, 10-minute interviews with television reporters around the country via satellite and doing a newspaper interview in the afternoon, Parker was driven to Orange County where he had a book-signing at Book Carnival, the mystery book shop in Orange.
The former Northeastern University English professor arrived in Orange early for another interview, pulling into a restaurant parking lot not far from the bookstore in true Southern California style: a black convertible Porsche driven by his publicist. Laughed Parker: "I mean this guy drives up in a suit and a Porsche and I get out with him: Which do you think is the writer? Who's the slob with him?"
Casually dressed in a red and navy Windbreaker with a thin gold chain around his neck, the affable Parker settled into a booth. A beefy man with short-cropped hair and a mustache--he tones his bulk with jogging and weightlifting--Parker ordered a bowl of bean soup. Unlike the heavy-drinking Chandler in his prime, Parker sipped a glass of ice water. ("I have drunk more in my life than I do now, but I don't have any difficulty with it. I essentially don't really drink.")
Parker explained that once the deal was made for him to write the first new Philip Marlowe detective novel in 31 years, he went right to work. Three months later he was finished, having pulled off a literary feat of international importance in the same amount of time it takes him to write one of his Spencer novels.
"Well," Parker said waiting for his soup to cool, "that's about what it takes me to write a book. I write five pages a day and I write five days a week and the book's about 300 pages, so you get about 60 writing days, which usually works out to about three months."