Review: Only to Sleep by Lawrence Osborne

9781781090589.jpgRaise a glass to Lawrence Osborne, who dares to do something different with Philip Marlowe. Only to Sleep is a brilliant transfer of Raymond Chandler’s seminal PI to the late 1980s, and is a welcome and worthwhile addition to the lore.

In my review of The Black Eyed Blonde — John Banville’s 2014 impressionistic and unessential perpetuation of Marlowe’s story — I questioned the purpose of prolonging Chandler’s legacy through elementary investigations. Banville’s book was fine, but it wasn’t memorable. It was just another hardboiled mystery with — oh, hey! — Philip Marlowe as its protagonist. I couldn’t help but wonder: what’s the point? 

So I was naturally wary of Lawrence Osborne’s Philip Marlowe novel. Until I learned of its premise. Set in 1988, a retired Marlowe is living in Baja California when he’s approached by two insurance men who want Marlowe to look into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Donald Zinn. Bad luck and trouble have always followed Marlowe like a shadow; you’d think by now he would’ve learned to say no. But thank goodness he doesn’t.

Only to Sleep is touched with Chandler’s linguistic flourishes, and is  the best non-Chandler Marlowe caper that’s been written, no question. Beyond the central mystery — which itself is enthralling, if not a tad perfunctory — the real joy here is Osborne’s exploration of an older, slower Marlowe, whose wit is as peerless as ever, but who lacks the physicality that made ‘dames’ swoon and his adversaries tremble.

Without a deeply-rooted love of Chandler’s work and a long-time obsession with Marlowe, however, I do wonder how ‘uneducated’ readers will respond to Osborne’s novel. Not that it can’t be enjoyed as a standalone, but its context makes it truly distinctive.

ISBN: 9781781090589
Format: Paperback
Pages: 272
Imprint: Hogarth
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 6-Sep-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

9780141037592It’s been 77 years since Knopf published The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler’s first novel. We’re still feeling the repercussions today, and really, still awaiting his successor. Chandler is that rare literary breed: unsurpassed. And, possibly, unsurpassable.

When a dying millionaire hires Philip Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two daughters, things get complicated – fast. And while Marlowe’s profession is known for its impediments, these are the kinds of complications a person in any walk of life wants to avoid: kidnapping, pornography, murder. It’s a case any other private eye would walk away from. But not Marlowe. And not because of any chivalrous streak that exists somewhere inside of him. No, quite simply, he has bills to pay, and this is the one job he’s good at. As he puts it: “I’m selling what I have to sell to make a living.”

I’ve got my issues with The Big Sleep, despite its ranking as one of my all-time favourites. For a short novel, it’s too convoluted, and in my opinion, many of its elements are contrived. But stylistically, it’s brilliant. Perfect noir, touched with linguistic flourishes contemporary authors constantly seek to emulate, but never manage. It’s the kind of novel that can be read a thousand times, and its enjoyment never fades. So, for another year or so, The Big Sleep is shelved. But it’s always close to hand.

ISBN: 9780141037592
Format: Paperback (181mm x 111mm x mm)
Pages: 272
Imprint: Penguin Books Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 1-Sep-2008
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

Black EyedIn 2008, Booker Prize-winning author John Banville told an interviewer “I took the pseudonym [of Benjamin Black] to indicate that the venture was not an elaborate, post-modernist, literary joke. It is straightforward. I simply discovered I had this facility for cheap fiction.”

Cheap fiction? Huh.

I prefer Raymond Chandler’s view: “Nor is it any part of my thesis to maintain that [the detective story] is a vital and significant form of art. There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that.”

You tell him, Ray.

I try my very best to separate authors from their creations. That’s the purpose of storytelling, after all: to explore alternate personalities and perspectives. A story about an inherently racist protagonist does not mean its writer shares those views. A character that spouts political ideologies in stark contrast of my own isn’t indicative the author feels the same. And if the author does, well, the astute ones shroud their true beliefs, and don’t allow external stimuli to influence their work, or their readers’ opinions of it.

After hearing Banville’s public degradation of my beloved genre, I stayed away from his Benjamin Black novels, despite favorable reviews. This is a crowded genre: I don’t need much of an excuse to overlook an author’s work. But when Banville was appointed by Raymond Chandler’s estate to write a new Philip Marlowe novel, I knew I’d break my promise. I’m still unsure why. Contemporary attempts to reinvigorate legendary characters have had mixed results in my mind. I enjoyed, but never loved, the John Gardner and Raymond Benson James Bond novels; appreciated Jeffery Deaver’s effort; and thought William Boyd’s recent SOLO was laudable, but lacked the panache of Fleming’s prose and plotting. Same goes for the latest installments in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series; good novels, entertaining, but they never match the original works.

But Chandler is the crème de la crème – – and Marlowe is the iconic hardboiled detective. Some authors might buckle under the strain of such an undertaking, and rightly so. Adapting Chandler’s prose; capturing Marlowe’s voice; these are novels that have been studied religiously for decades now. Readers of Banville / Black’s novel THE BLACK EYED BLONDE (a title left to waste by Chandler) will be scouring the text for inaccuracies. I certainly was. And when I was done – – a mere three days after reading its opening page – – I was left satisfied, impressed by the author’s resuscitation of Marlowe’s world, but pondering whether it was needed in the first place. After all, Chandler’s novels have proven they’ll resonate forever.

THE BLACK EYED BLONDE begins with a woman, naturally. Clare Cavendish wanders into Marlowe’s office with a job for him. Her ex-lover is missing, and she wants him found. This begs the obvious question: why. But Marlowe is blinded by her beauty and accepts the job. The pace is plodding in the first 100 pages – – almost as though Banville / Black was finding his way into Marlowe’s world, desperately seeking traction and a hook to propel the narrative forward – – but when he finds his mojo, events spiral rapidly: murder, mayhem and torture abound as the plot snakes its way to a perfunctory conclusion. This is an absorbing rather than thrilling read; it’s not adrenaline spikes that will keep the pages turning, rather a complete immersion in 1950’s Los Angeles. Whatever my gripes about Banville / Black’s commentary on the genre, one cannot argue he’s a literary master and stylist.

THE BLACK EYED BLONDE is an unessential entry in the Chandler canon. This is not doing the novel a disservice. Banville / Black has proven himself a capable impressionist – – and enticed me to check out his Quirke novels – – but this is a perpetuation of a character who doesn’t need a revival to remain relevant. Banville / Black doesn’t offer us anything we haven’t seen before – – imagine the uproar if he had! – – but because of these constraints, THE BLACK EYED BLONDE reads like an echo. There’s no doubt it possess resonances of Chandler’s brilliance, but plenty of other contemporary hardboiled fiction has done the same, without exploiting the Marlowe name.