ONLY TO SLEEP
By Lawrence Osborne
256 pages. Hogarth.
Published July 24, 2018
Two years ago Bangkok based author Lawrence Osborne was put in an enviable and unenviable position. Osborne was given the opportunity to say yes or no to becoming the third author to write an authorized Philip Marlowe detective novel, other than Raymond Chandler. Chandler completed seven novels in the well-known series starting with The Big Sleep published in 1939 and ending with Playback in 1958. An unfinished manuscript of Poodle Springs at the time of Chandler’s death was found. It was completed by Robert B. Parker and published thirty years later. Parker would go on to pen the first approved sequel of a Marlowe novel, Perchance to Dream, published in 1991. Benjamin Black was next handed the baton or stick of lit dynamite. The Black-Eyed Blonde was published in 2014. The Black-Eyed Blonde by Black, better known as Booker Prize winning author John Banville was met with critically mixed reviews and disappointing sales.
Thus a series of choices resulted in the birth of Only To Sleep. The Chandler estate had to decide if another sequel was legacy worthy. Lawrence Osborne had to decide, as he writes in the Author’s Note, whether to venture into the perilous position of stepping into the mind of not only another writer but one of his characters. Osborne had the luxury of taking his time making that decision. During that period he made three additional choices: Marlowe would be 72 years old, the setting would be south of the Southern California border, and the year is 1988. After that he wrote the first twenty pages. Then and only then did he say yes to the project.
Can you imagine a Marlowe novel written in the Amazon age not being panned? I can’t. So if you are looking for book reviews that trash Only to Sleep they are out there in spades and some of them are entertaining. But before you opt to do that I recommend that you read the reviews of Only to Sleep written by Osborne’s peers. Laura Lippman’s review in The New York Times is particularly good. Of the people actually capable of writing a Marlowe novel none I have seen have been critical in a mean-spirited way. Quite the contrary. That tells me something. After all, we live in mean-spirited times. Please note: I hated Lady in the Lake by Chander. One of the worst crime novels with one of the clumsiest plots I have ever read. Mr Chandler did a great job of describing bricks and mortar though. 2 1/2 Stars.
I feel better now.
There are enough Chandler-like sentences in Only to Sleep to keep most purists happy, “It was ninety-seven in the shade and there was no shade.” “He moved like a sloth in linen.” Or “She seemed dressed for a date in the middle of nowhere.” Original thoughts but as one question in the tale goes, “What was wrong with cliches anyway? They serve their purpose.” However, it is the Osborne sentences that kept me turning the page even when peppered with food, drink, and regional language, specialties of the writer. This is, as the author admits in a published interview, more of an Osborne novel than a Chandler one. If that’s a bad thing it remains an unsolved mystery to me.
What Only to Sleep gives you that other Marlowe novels do not is an elderly, silver-tipped cane-toting protagonist and a seventy-one year old primary antagonist. The latter is said to be, “The most generous man in the world” and he’s a mean son-of-a-bitch too. Let the games begin. And they do, with a vengeance. The spirit of Marlowe past has not been a retaliatory figure merely for the sake of retaliation but that’s what we get on more than one occasion. Osborne takes detours from Marlowe’s (or is it Chandler’s?) psyche with confidence. There is no man with a gun entering through a door at any time. There are no guns or bullets at all. The cane we are introduced to has been used by Marlowe since he broke his foot in 1977. A Japanese “sleeping blade” made by a master smith in Tokyo is tucked inside the elegant walking stick. Marlowe is “Out of the combat zone now.” But that has to do with his voluntary surrender on the battlefield of love. The only sexy thing he sleeps with nowadays is his cane. There are no sex scenes of Marlowe with a much younger woman in this story – another good call for the times – but jealousy rears its head plenty. Marlowe is old, after all, not dead. We know or at least we think we know that the jewel-steel blade will replace the Colt Detective Special at some point. But when? There is no sorrow for the reader when a good writer takes his time and Osborne does. A slow simmer gets you to hard-boiled after all. Eventually, the predator in Marlowe is reawakened. His Big Sleep will have to wait.
Mexico and San Diego (headquarters of Pacific Mutual insurance) were old haunts for the author during the 1980s when he was an investigative reporter for a San Diego newspaper and he uses that knowledge well. Mexico and Baja, California are the shining stars here, not the Golden State or Bay City. A bull fight with opera glasses replaces the bar fights and smashed beer bottles of decades gone by. There is a grieving widow to be found, close to forty years younger than her said to have drowned husband. It is here that Osborne’s time as an expatriate must have been called upon. “We all need something in this world. We all come from places where we can’t get them.” That line could be placed in many an Osborne novel and it works perfectly well in this one.
All the characters in Only to Sleep are interesting, if not vital. Just as importantly, there were not too many to track. Likewise for the dead bodies. Kill Bill this is not. My favorite moment comes from a misfire by Marlowe using his now fashionable weapon of choice. His days of placing a perfectly symmetrical bullet-hole in a perp’s head are over and he knows it. Marlowe has changed since he was thirty or fifty. Why would he not? You may or may not like the changes but recognizing them and hearing his musings on aging should be part of the fun in this read. After all, “You get so tired of the people you already know.” I read Only to Sleep in three sittings, when it could easily be read in two. Mainly to prolong the enjoyment. As Topper the mystery man who calmly spins tops says, “Likes and dislikes are for little boys.” This is a good book to be read by men and women who can give it the non-grudging admiration it deserves.
A paragraph caught my eye around the midway point in Only to Sleep:
“So we are forced to read the puzzling code that other men devise for us. I resented it. Who wouldn’t?”
Lawrence Osborne has succeeded in doing just that. He has taken a puzzle left to him by a legendary writer. In fact he read the code that his peers Parker and Black wrote as well. There may have been times when he felt forced to do so. It’s not the typical research an accomplished author is required to do. But in the end when he looks back on Only to Sleep I doubt that he resented it. Why would he?
This book review as well as an unpublished interview with the author, Lawrence Osborne will appear as part of my second book of non-fiction stories, literature reviews, and interviews titled Different Drummers. To be published by Frog in the Mirror Press in October, 2018.