Written by Lawrence Osborne – Writing a Philip Marlowe novel must be one of the most intimidating jobs in crime fiction. There are few characters who share the sardonic Californian private eye’s iconic status within the genre. Perhaps that’s why, in an era when so many fictional characters are reimagined, rebooted or otherwise revitalised for public consumption, so few authors have been prepared to risk the scrutiny revisiting Raymond Chandler’s creation will bring.
Robert B Parker posthumously completed Poodle Springs, and then wrote a sequel to The Big Sleep, Perchance to Dream. More recently, John Banville, in his crime fiction guise as Benjamin Black, wrote a follow-up to The Long Goodbye, The Black-Eyed Blonde. Both writers chose to set their novels contemporaneously with Chandler’s.
Lawrence Osborne has taken a different tack. Only to Sleep is set in 1988 when Marlowe is 72. Marlowe lives in the Mexican desert with his maid and a stray dog, and spends his days at the La Fonda Hotel and Bar drinking margaritas. He is approached by two men from the Pacific Mutual insurance company. An American policy holder, a developer called Donald Zinn, has died in a swimming accident in Caleta de Campos, Mexico. Though the authorities have cleared the death of suspicious circumstances, the insurance company isn’t satisfied. Zinn carried considerable debt for one thing, and for another, wasn’t known to undertake any reckless activities. Conscious of the years slipping by, and beset by a need to feel useful, Marlowe agrees to investigate.
Marlowe travels across the border to meet with Zinn’s widow, Dolores Araya at one of their hotel developments. She is a beautiful Mexican woman, many years younger than Zinn, whom she met while waitressing in a club south of the border. She is selling up their properties to return to Mexico, and her insistence that their business debts, running to millions of dollars, were only a temporary misfortune raises Marlowe’s suspicions.
The choice of Lawrence Osborne to continue the Marlowe story is an interesting one. He is a writer known for literary fiction rather than crime, and accordingly he is strong on mood, description and theme, but weaker on plot. There is a repeated sense of intrusion – of the investigator invading the widow’s life, of the American in Mexico and of an old man finding himself out of place in the modern world. Osborne remains true to Marlowe’s introspective nature, giving an elegiac feel as he reflects on his past and the briefer time he has in front of him.
Marlowe flies to Mazatlán, the scene of Zinn’s demise and a place that he has fond memories of. But times change and the place he knew many years ago has been sanitised somewhat. It has been refurbished for tourists and its original colour and vibrancy are diminished. Marlowe’s prior acquaintances, the local police and friends of Zinn all warn him off the case at the same time as suggesting there is nothing to investigate. Marlowe is faced with the choice of ending a cursory investigation in an unsatisfactory manner or taking a closer look at Dolores since he cannot decide if Zinn’s death was truly an accident, or murder, or possibly even faked.
The plot is slight. With the protagonist now in his 70s there is necessarily little action, and so this aspect does not drive the book. If you’re looking for more traditional genre fare, this may disappoint. The main concern is that something is missing in this portrayal of Marlowe; it feels as if you could be reading about any retired private investigator. The decision to set the novel 30 years after the previous stories might suit the author’s thematic interests but removes links to the originals.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars