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REVIEW OF ONLY TO SLEEP

ONLY TO SLEEP: A PHILIP MARLOWE NOVEL

Lawrence Osborne

7/24/2018

Hogarth

 

“…there are some of us who can dream backward to the splendid years. There is an occasional glimpse of the old times here, and maybe it’s the last glimpse we’ll ever enjoy,” (2) reminisces the erstwhile private eye Philip Marlowe in Lawrence Osborne’s ONLY TO SLEEP. And look back we must—if only to acknowledge:  the Philip Marlowe of Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) and his renowned works THE BIG SLEEP (1939) and FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1940) is no more. Look anew we also should: Marlowe is now in the capable hands of British author Lawrence Osborne and the “here” is not the Los Angeles between World Wars but the Baja, California of 1988. 

Seventy-two years old, Baja’s Marlowe is better at daydreaming than gumshoeing. And we join his reverie, back and forth: from the 1940s to the 80s, with Osborne’s deftly drawn evocations of both eras soothing and welcome. No easy thing to do as homage fiction can slide so into cringe-worthy impersonations. It is doubly difficult as Osborne chose not to paint Marlowe in prime stride, lurking around Wilshire Boulevard in the dusk or venturing out to starlit San Berdoo, but as a septuagenarian shamus: “The young looked at me the way you would a piece of cardboard tossed down a street on the wind. Wreckage with eyes and a pulse.” (206)

Maturity notwithstanding, Marlowe has the wisdom to accept infirmity (“The butler helped me up the gangplank, my legs feeling the stress.” 50) and the pluck to endeavor beyond it. He takes the plunge in the form of a suspected million-dollar fraud case presented by a duo “dressed like undertakers,” who “need someone inconspicuous.” Marlowe’s resolve is as steady as his cognizance sober: this is it, my final lap, the inside stretch: “You know that it will be the last time you ride out of the gates fully armed and that makes you more curious than you have ever been.” (10)

And, in Marlowe’s case, more vulnerable—and afraid.

A shikomizue or silver-tipped cane outfitted with a custom Japanese blade.

Armed not with a .45 but with opera glasses and a shikomizue or silver-tipped cane outfitted with a custom Japanese blade, Marlowe travels into North-Central Mexico and layered peril. The journey is replete with challenges from pulp stereotypes: loud money and the foibles of the idle rich, the diabolical art of the con, the cheap insolence and cheaper violence from criminal subordinates, and, of course, the femme fatale (truly, in this case.) 

Still, Osborne’s novel defies cliché, his protagonist is, at times, equally pathetic and determined, his locales exotic but menacing, his malefactors more limited than capable. This provides the curiously unique in Mystery fiction. For Marlowe is a knight errand of the tarnished armor variety (“my honor was sometimes a sentimental garb to cover other things”) and his response to the complexity of the situation often merits more to ponder than applaud. But, all told, the book is to be highly recommended. 

Though the reader can easily picture Marlowe hanging up the fedora for good, the audience demands an encore. “Count me as one of those who know that life is unbearable not because it’s a tragedy but because it’s a romance, yesteryear’s,” our preferred private eye muses near the novel’s end. 

Let’s hope Osborne continues to carry the torch. 

Tim Weldon teaches philosophy at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, IL.