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...Osborne does a fine job in giving Marlowe a fresh assignment in this evocative, melancholy homage...Only to Sleep is 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.
Readers expecting a familiar Marlowe may be disappointed by this book. The narrator’s voice is engaging but it misses the mark. The snappy exchanges we anticipate are sown too thinly. Marlowe’s motivation is unclear, inconsistent and unconvincing; and the bitter cynicism about LA and it’s inhabitants is deliberately absent.
But these omissions are not fatal and, when recognised for what it is — a gripping, elegantly written crime story about age and decline — Only to Sleep stands up with the best of them. Of course it’s unlike anything Chandler would have written — he had different concerns — but with its blend of mystery and humanity it’s exactly the sort of novel he would have been pleased to inspire.
Only To Sleep is almost an unqualified success... Osborne often captures Marlowe’s voice. But he often yanks us out of the plot with a reminder that he’s an English writer merely mimicking Chandler, with regular use of idioms such as ‘petrol’.
Right from the off, page six actually, he captures Chandler’s mix of wit and world-weariness...His quest takes place against a vividly described backdrop of izote flowers and shaving-brush trees. Sustained by tequila and cactus ice-cream, Marlowe, an “inoffensive fossil”, once again proves more than a match for the bad guys.
Osborne is the third writer to channel Chandler. In 1989 Robert B Parker completed the unfinished Poodle Springs, and in 2014 John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, produced the clever pastiche, The Black-Eyed Blonde. Only To Sleep is better than both. Indeed, it feels like the real thing.
The best P.I. stories build slowly and keep the stakes relatively small. Osborne, who worked as a reporter along the border in the early 1990s, knows Mexico well and he passes that knowledge along to Marlowe. The former private investigator quickly establishes that the dead man on the beach might not have been Donald Zinn, but some poor patsy with Zinn’s ID. The game is afoot, with just the right amount of reversals and double-crosses. If certain moments seem illogical — well, that too is part of the Chandler oeuvre.
The book’s greatest suspense centers on Osborne’s fealty to Chandler’s Marlowe...I believe Chandler simply fell back on those flourishes too often, resulting in a low winning percentage. Osborne does it slightly better, although I would still prune a few. (Dolores’s eyes are also likened to “the shiftiness of a vagrant, the ever-moving pupil that reminds you of an apple bobbing in dirty water.” Man, that’s one hard-boiled Halloween party.)
But this is a quibble with a novel that exceeded my expectations, a gripe as petty as —
Naw, I’m still not going to risk it.