Lawrence Osborne succeeds as author of Philip Marlowe novel
“Only to Sleep: a Philip Marlow Novel” (Hogarth), by Lawrence Osborne
As only the third author ever authorized by Raymond Chandler’s estate to write a Philip Marlowe novel, Lawrence Osborne declares, in his postscript to “Only to Sleep,” that the task was “perilous.”
He’s got that right. After all, even crime fiction legend Robert B. Parker wasn’t up to it, producing two Marlowe novels that are best forgotten.
But Osborne succeeds brilliantly, largely by sidestepping the temptation to mimic Chandler’s idiosyncratic style and by making no attempt to recreate the swaggering private detective who outsmarted cops and mobsters in the celebrated author’s seven novels and numerous short stories set in Los Angeles in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
Instead, Osborne imagines a melancholy, 72-year-old Marlowe living out his final years in solitude in a Baja Mexico fishing village in the 1980s. Gone is the gumshoe who taunted cops with wisecracks, manhandled gangsters and bedded debutantes. Osborne’s Marlowe is too world-weary, and too lame, for that sort of thing, and he no longer turns a pretty girl’s head.
Osborne also wisely avoids setting his story in Los Angeles, knowing that the city it had become by the 1980s scarcely resembled the mean streets that Marlowe once famously stalked.
The new tale opens when two insurance investigators track down Marlowe in Mexico. Their company had paid off on a huge life insurance policy, but they now think the supposed victim of a Mexico boating accident may be alive. Could Marlowe, with his knowledge of the country, lend a hand?
Marlowe agrees, relishing the chance to get back into the game one last time. He sets off in pursuit, dragging his bum leg the length and breadth of Mexico, the author vividly portraying its mountain roads, desert villages, squalid slums and ostentatious villas.
Osborne stays true to Chandler’s vision in two respects: He uses a lot of similes, and the plot of “Only to Sleep” (the title an echo of Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”) captures the dreamlike quality of the original Marlowe novels.
In the end, after surviving a stabbing, a beating and evenings of heavy drinking, Osborne’s Marlowe tracks down his quarry. Then, just as Chandler’s Marlowe would have, he settles the affair to no one’s satisfaction but his own.
Bruce DeSilva, winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, is the author of the Mulligan crime novels including “The Dread Line.”