‘You can be called to a last effort, a final heroic statement….’ – Only To Sleep by Lawrence Osborne

September 14, 2018 at 3:02 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  The year is 1988. Philip Marlowe is living in (theoretically) comfortable retirement in Baja, California. For recreation, he goes to the La Fonda Hotel. These words in jacket copy evoke the tenor of his life at this juncture:

‘Sipping margaritas, playing cards, his silver-tipped cane at the ready.’

Wait a minute – Philip Marlowe with a cane? Never fear: canes can conceal useful devices. (One thinks, for instance, of the famous silver-tipped cane of Hercule Poirot.)

For Marlowe, all is in a condition of calm stasis, until:

….two men from the Pacific Mutual insurance company walked into the terrace bar of La Fonda Hotel. They were dressed like undertakers and had sauntered down from the main road above the hotel, finding me seated alone with my pitcher of sangria and my silver-tipped cane as if they had known I would  be there unaccompanied within sight of my home on the Baja cliffs. They knew which house it was, too, because their eyes rose to take it in, and they smiled with the small contempt of company men.

Turns out that these two men find themselves in need of a private investigator. A wealthy Californian, Donald Zinn, has died suddenly while in Mexico. Zinn’s life was insured for a hefty sum. The folks at Pacific Mutual, however, are uneasy about the precise circumstances of his death. Could Marlowe look into the matter  for them?

They lay out the case before him, photographs included. He agrees to take it on. One of his first moves will be to interview Zinn’s widow, Dolores Araya. “‘Seeing the wife is always the fun part’,” he announces cavalierly. But of course it proves to be quite otherwise. The comely Dolores is the named beneficiary of Zinn’s life insurance policy. She is also the requisite femme fatale in the case, so emblematic of the noir genre. (I’m reminded of one of my favorite of Raymond Chandler’s literary locutions: “She looked tall and her hair was the color of a brush fire seen through a dust cloud.” (from “The King in Yellow”)

Almost all of the action in Only To Sleep takes place in Mexico, as Marlowe follows lead after lead, in his quest for the truth about Donald Zinn’s death. Meanwhile, something within him has been revived:

I bought a sugared churro and wandered about at the edge of this hidden world, feeling young for the first time in years. It happens like  that, and sometimes in a single moment. You are no longer seventy-two years old. The ocotillos bloomed red, their flowers like still paper cups, and the mesquites were filled with gracklings, as if they were the first signs of new life: an old man in a  ragged cowboy hat blinked at them and wondered if he had a year left after all. A year, maybe even two.

And yet, during his first encounter with Dolores:  “Her gaze went straight to the heart of my fog-bound decrepitude.”

It soon becomes obvious that she’s at the dead center of a very clever deception. Knowing this is one thing; proving it is quite another.

A beautiful fraud is like the merging of two elements that combine to make something fat more formidable than the merely beautiful and the merely fraudulent.

Meanwhile, other people, both Mexican nationals and expatriate Americans,  become involved in the investigation. It gets complicated, but never too complicated to  follow. There’s plenty of action, and yet the pace of the novel seemed slow at times, almost stately. There was plenty of space for description of the exotic setting, and for the rueful ruminations of the superannuated detective.

Toward the novel’s conclusion, Marlowe finds himself alone in the midst of a riotous street carnival:

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. The wounded animal dragging itself back to a tree it knows, a patch of shade where it can die in peace.

But of course he does not die. and nor does he succumb to sentiments quite as bathetic as this again. In fact, the ending confers a kind of benediction; Marlowe acknowledges the fact that he has indeed experienced his last hurrah and made a god job of it into the bargain.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
“Ulysses” Alfred, Lord Tennyson
**********************

Lawrence Osborne was asked by the estate of Raymond Chandler to write a novel featuring Chandler’s most famous creation, Philip Marlowe. Two other writers have been so honored: Robert B. Parker (Poodle Springs, which Wikipedia calls a “post-mortem collaboration since Chandler had already written the first four chapters, and Perchance to Dream) and John Banville writing as Benjamin Black (The Black-Eyed Blonde).

In his author’s notes, Osborne admits to feeling  both honored and challenged by “stepping into the mind” of one of crime fiction’s most iconic creations. In my reading of Only To Sleep, I get the sense  that he made some deliberate decision with regard to style. Very little if any hard-boiled slang, not much in the way of snarky one liners. But some very effective use of figurative language – similes and the like.

The autumnal atmosphere hangs heavily over the story. Marlowe is well aware that his strength and his reflexes are no longer those of a younger man. Most poignantly, the desire evoked by a beautiful women has not been tamped down, but the impulse to act on that desire has been muted. The need not to appear overweening or foolish is powerful.

Many are the images that film and television have given us of Philip Marlowe.

Dick Powell

 

 

Robert Mitchum

Elliot Gould

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

In all of these iterations, Marlowe appears to be in his late thirties or early forties. (A letter written by Chandler in 1951 gives his detective’s age as thirty-eight.) As I was reading, I found myself in need of a mental image of Philip Marlowe as he would have looked in his early seventies. I wanted a visage that might look like Ulysses in the poem quoted above: weathered but resolute. Here’s what I came up with at length, with apologies to Clint Eastwood:

Philip Marlowe at 72? Maybe…

3 Comments

  1. Angie Boyter said,

    Your review is a work of art!

  2. Frank of US bookclub said,

    Nice to know that someone is still channeling Raymond Chandler. For me I mostly enjoyed the humor in his stories.
    Frank

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks for leaving a reply, Frank. I appreciate it!

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