Almost eighty years have passed since Philip Marlowe first appeared in Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel The Big Sleep, aged thirty-three and already world-weary. He had his final outing in Playback in 1958 and the following year Chandler died from alcoholism, having witnessed, to his chagrin, the increasingly slap-happy use of the noir fiction label. “There has been so much of this sort of thing,” he complained in 1944, “that if a character in a detective story says, “Yeah,” the author is automatically a [Dashiell] Hammett imitator.” Maybe so, but the hardboiled detective novel continued to proliferate, even beyond its American birthplace, with modern versions springing up across the globe from Scandinavia to Scotland, Japan to Nigeria. And Marlowe too has been regularly reincarnated. First Robert B. Parker and more recently John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black) were commissioned by the Chandler estate to revive the character and now Lawrence Osborne joins their ranks with Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Novel.
At first glance, it seems an unlikely pairing. Osborne’s style is polished, often sumptuous, and his settings usually exotic: the Moroccan desert in The Forgiven, for example, or the Cambodian jungle in Hunters in the Dark, each a far cry from the “mean streets” of Chandler’s Los Angeles. But consider this description from “The Forgiven” of a host awaiting a guest:
Richard was always interested to see that big, bristling, angry shape of a man barging through a doorway. He enjoyed the crassly honest insults David shot at people at dinner parties and the way he got drunk…The moneyed English buffoon is a particular species. It is much cruder than it lets on – it’s a Viking with silverware.
The sketch would surely have pleased Chandler and Only to Sleep is filled with such gems. But mimicry is not Osborne’s aim here. Only to Sleep may be his attempt “to inhabit the shade of Raymond Chandler, a writer I have idolized since I was a child” but it is also, triumphantly, much more than a tribute. The best of the Philip Marlowe recreations, this mesmerizing elegy is also one of Osborne’s finest suspense novels.
“I have tried to stay faithful to the bewilderingly dreamlike plots of Chandler,” Osborne writes in his author’s note, “because it has always seemed to me that they incarnate the qualities of both fairy tale and nightmare to which he aspired.” While Marlowe, in his view, “always possesses the curious and melancholy purpose of a knight-errant.” In a sly move, Osborne even gives him a sword, but one hidden in a cane that Marlowe needs now more than any weapon. In 1988, aged seventy-two and retired in Baja, California, he is sipping sangria when two strangers walk in, “offered to buy me an early dinner and bared the teeth of friendly hyenas who have done their killing for the day.” They work for Pacific Mutual Insurance and want him to track down a dead man. Donald Zinn’s widow – and policy beneficiary – says her husband died in a swimming accident in Mexico. Is she lying? Is Marlowe too old to find out? “I hadn’t worked in ten years and I had retired too late as it was,” he admits, “In those final days, I felt I had run out of courage rather than energy.”
Still, he takes the job and heads to the borderlands where “It was ninety-seven in the shade and there was no shade.” Such wisecracks are flicked as casually as cigarette butts in the typical noir novel. Philip Kerr, for example, in his great Bernie Gunther series, dispensed them incessantly. But Osborne’s use is restrained. Across the torpid, menacing landscape that he creates, quips flash intermittently like heat lightning: Marlowe, for example, describing the insurance company thugs, jokes “They’re sweet people when you get to know them” and Dolores Zinn says of her late husband, “Men marry waitresses all the time. They ought to.”
Ah, yes, Dolores. “She had the level interest in something new that a leopard has,” Marlowe observes of her gaze, “While it decides whether you can be killed or not, its eye is remarkably gentle and serene.”Moments later, as “she settled down like a snake, finding its spot in the sun,” Marlowe feels “the old rhythm of charm, the beginning of a dance in which I was no longer an adept partner.” So his wanderings begin, from the California desert to the mountains and badlands of Mexico, tracking Zinn and the money, asking for trouble and finding the truth or something like it, as elusive as Dolores herself. “For a moment I thought of following her,” Marlowe confesses in the final pages, “but I no longer knew what I would be following or why.” There is no tidy ending and no real hero. Instead, this elegant novel, taut with menace, concludes with two old men – one mourning his murdered son, the other his lost illusions – contemplating the empty desert. “We sat there for a long time,” Marlowe concludes, “declining to disturb the moment or to add a single word to what had already been left unsaid.”