It is a brave author who takes another writer’s character and puts it through his or her fictional paces. Especially when that character is one of the best-loved protagonists in crime fiction: Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, the wisecracking, hard-drinking, tough private detective with a ready eye for the ladies, who gets down and dirty to get the job done, but somehow always remains one of the good guys. As Osborne writes in his author’s note: “To step into the mind of another writer is always a perilous assumption, but perhaps not as perilous as stepping into the mind of one of his characters.”
Chandler described Marlowe thus: “I see him always in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated.” Chandler’s best-known works featuring Marlowe, such as Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye, were set in Los Angeles during the 1940s and 1950s. His fans have nothing to fear in this latest Mexican outing.
Osborne does a fine job in giving Marlowe a fresh assignment in this evocative, melancholy homage. Only to Sleep opens in Baja California, the long, thin strip of Pacific Mexico that runs parallel to the mainland. It is 1988 and Marlowe is 72 and retired. He spends his days playing cards, drinking margaritas, watching the girls go by while the burning sun sinks red and low over the sea each evening, before returning home leaning on his silver-topped cane — which usefully conceals a blade of tempered Japanese steel.
Until one day when two men “dressed like undertakers” walk in to the terrace bar, baring “the teeth of friendly hyenas who have done their killing for the day”. The men are investigators for an insurance company. They have a mission for Marlowe: to investigate the death of a man called Donald Zinn, supposedly drowned while swimming, perhaps after a margarita too many. But is he really dead? His body — if it was his — was cremated quickly, too quickly. Zinn had left a trail of debts, bankrupt companies and a half-finished luxury property development. Most of all, he had left a pretty, beguiling and now very rich young widow.
Marlowe accepts the assignment, which sends him on a long, often dangerous journey through Mexico. Osborne, who has worked on the Mexican border as a reporter, knows this land well. He skilfully evokes the torpor of half-empty towns and villages, baking in the enervating heat. “On either side stood ochre churches with skulls and crossbones cemented into their façades . . . The dogs stirred as the bus swept past them, opening their jaws for a moment. As the agave farms petered out, the fields were charred, smoking, men beating the fires as they laboured across them.”
Osborne is the third novelist, after John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black) and Robert B Parker, to be asked to write a new Chandler novel. He was an apt choice. Osborne’s previous novels, such as Hunters in the Dark and The Ballad of a Small Player, combine many of the ingredients of a good Marlowe adventure: hustlers, alluring femme fatales, and large amounts of dirty money. Like Marlowe, Osborne knows his booze; The Wet and the Dry is a highly praised mix of drinking memoir and reportage. Marlowe himself favoured a gimlet, an equal mix of gin and Rose’s lime juice cordial.
The first part of Only to Sleep is a little slow paced. Osborne sometimes overplays Marlowe’s decrepitude, as he dodders around with his cane, his knees wobbly, his joints aching, his restless nights filled with the faces of long-dead cases, most of whom met a violent end. Yet when Marlowe has to fight for his life, he still remembers his moves, in a “ballet for which my muscles were trained by decades of burlesque violence”. Following Chekhov’s rule that a gun placed on the mantelpiece must be fired by the end of the play, Marlowe deploys his sword-stick with suitably bloody results. Osborne captures Chandler’s gift for description in this pen portrait of Nestor, an old fisherman who misses nothing: “There was a slow drawl to him, and a gleam of truth, that quality that cannot be faked by even the cleverest man.”
Only to Sleepis more than a detective story. It is also a meditation on ageing and how, even in the autumn of a man’s life, he still is driven to pit his skills and courage against dangerous adversaries. As Marlowe says: “You could call it the imperative to go out with full-tilt trumpets and gunshots instead of the quietly desperate sound of a hospital ventilator . . . I just wanted one last outing. Every man does.” Marlowe gets his wish. Mine is that this outing is not his last.
Adam LeBor is author of ‘District VIII’ (Head of Zeus)
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