Only To Sleep by Lawrence Osborne

Reviewed by Basil Ransome Davies

A short walk from my ergonomic study chair is my Chandler bookshelf. It includes some Philip Marlowe fiction not by Chandler: Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, A Celebration, a story anthology put out by Bloomsbury in 1989, and Robert B. Parker’s hypothetical completion job on an abortive Chandler fragment, its working title shortened to Poodle Springs, published a year later. A number of established authors, including John Banville as ‘Benjamin Black’, have done their best; there is only one Chandler.

The usual approach is retro-fiction, recreating a past vibe. But this is not the only way. When Robert Altman directed a masterly updated, revisionist The Long Goodbye (1973) he gave it a more satisfying dénouement than Chandler’s novel, but one which Chandler, whose cardinal value was ‘redemption’, could never have written: Marlowe as the cold-blooded executioner of a treacherous friend. Ingeniously, Only to Sleep updates Marlowe another way, by ageing him.

Here he is, in his early seventies and the late 1980s, well retired and living in Mexico with a housekeeper (who is just that and no more, the reader infers, given scattered references to the narrator’s erectile dysfunction). He drinks, he gambles, he hangs out with other old-timers. He has twinges of arthritis and walks with a cane that sheathes a custom-forged samurai sword. He has nostalgic memories of Paris; who knew? What exactly became of his marriage to Linda Loring we don’t know either, but anyone who has read the desperately implausible four chapters of The Poodle Springs Story in which Chandler struggles to imagine Marlowe as the spouse of a wealthy woman will not have expected it to last. Mexico, so often pictured as a lawless, insanitary hell in US crime fiction, is not the worst of worlds for a retired private eye, but it feels like god’s waiting room. So what could restore Marlowe to a more active, virile existence?

Answer: he is visited by two insurance suits from the US who are investigating the suspicious death by drowning of a wealthy American and have been told that Marlow is ‘the best that money can’t buy’. All the same, if adventure is the siren song the money is an appealing lure, a hint that Saint Philip in old age may no longer be a moral paragon. What he is once more is a private eye on a case, his professional instincts reactivated. The narrative structure is familiar: a crime, a pursuit or investigation, the reading of clues, the identification of suspects, the nailing of a killer – though with no expectation that a fallen cosmos has been regenerated. A righteous hero will always be needed

All of this taking placing before the Digital Age when giant corporations started raining mobile phones, PCs and internet access on millions of avidly willing consumers worldwide, Marlowe has to proceed traditionally – by travel, legwork, face-to-face questioning and hotel overnights. Osborne doesn’t fail to salute Chandler by including some of his familiar character types and situations – an aura of death and corruption around corporate wealth and its cultural nexus, a dodgy medic, a woman who is Not What She Seems. There is even a direct encounter with physical violence in which, though he is painfully scathed, Marlowe’s Japanese sword comes to his rescue, a foreign phallic weapon balancing out his libido deficit. That’s about as far as the thick-ear action goes, while as befits the detective genre much happens off-page in a plot as convoluted as any of those Chandler repeatedly sweated over.

Stylistically, Osborne plays it cool. The ‘signature’ florid tropes and sometimes sententious worldly asides of Philip Marlowe’s idiolect can be a trap for Chandler’s posthumous pasticheurs. Some have fallen in only to prove that Chandler does it better; Osborne wisely sidesteps it by faintly echoing rather than aiming to emulate the sharp wit, choosing instead the slightly fatigued, laconic expressions of a man too old to waste words: ‘his moods were quick as those of an English sky’, ‘my honor was sometimes a sentimental garb to cover other things’. Marlowe has become a man who ‘never thought that retirement would be so sad’ and though he has a kind of success in this case I feel that the term ‘thriller’ is almost a misnomer.  The overall tone is elegiac, and Marlowe’s journeyings ‘in search of a hidden truth’ (Chandler’s equation for the PI’s task) are marked by a sensitive response to the natural environment, recalling The Lady in the Lake, the 1943 novel that takes Marlowe away from the neuroses, brutality and corruption of the big city to where he meets more open-hearted people and can even name the flowers.

The fact is that Marlowe may be hard-boiled but he’s also soft-centred and vulnerably humane, the Everton mint of private eyes. In this case the story arrives at an ending that leaves Marlowe about where he started, drinking Japanese whisky as he watches ‘a desert twister that rose up and moved against the light like something seen by Ezekiel’ in an epiphanic silence. It accords with the author’s chosen epigraph, that we are on earth ‘only to dream… only to sleep’. One senses that Marlowe is nearly ready for the big sleep that cures all troubles. This book is a just tribute to a great writer and an absorbing read in itself. I recommend it particularly to my fellow septuagenarians.

Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Lawrence Osborne, Only to Sleep, (Hogarth: New York & London, 2018). 978-1781090572, 243 pp., hardback.

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