Book Review: “Only To Sleep” by Lawrence Osborne

Only To Sleep by Lawrence Osborne

Phillip Marlow appeared in stories by Raymond Chandler from the 1930’s to 1950’s, as well as movie adaptations on into the 1980’s.

In recent years, the Chandler estate has authorized some new works about Marlowe by contemporary authors, emulating the original style.  The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014) by Benjamin Black [1] has now been followed by a new novel by Lawrence Osborne.

Only To Sleep is set in 1988, when Marlow is 72 years old and the world has moved on from mid century California noir.  Retired in Mexico, Marlowe is drawn back to work to investigate the death of an American.  Deep in debt, heavily insured, and a poorly documented drowning in Mexico—the insurance company would like to be sure this isn’t a scam.

The old war horse can’t resist one more charge when the trumpet blows.

The story features a lot of scenery in rural Mexico (circa 1988): dust, jungle, light, and a lot of people on the make, both locals and gringos.  Phillip chases clues from place to place, drinking, wise cracking and bribing bus boys.  Just like the old days.

If this is a classic Marlow case, the man himself is scarcely the same. Old and slow, he’s not going to be kicking in doors or knocking heads.  And, as for the dames, the pilot is out, and he’s out of the combat zone.  Nothing but memories on that front.

“Count me as one of those who know that life is unbearable not because it’s a tragedy but because it’s a romance. Old age only makes it worse, because now the race against time has reached the hour of high noon.” (p. 194)

It’s been a long time since I read the originals, and I frankly don’t remember the style very clearly.  So I can’t judge how well Osbourne emulates Chandler.  You can draw your own conclusions.

But the story certainly hits the noir song dead on.  Marlow is not motivated by the money, or by the interests of his insurance company clients.  And the facts are murky, to say the least.  So why does he persist?

An old man could be excused for walking away, especially when things get dicey.  But how can he let it be?  The whole story is driven by the desire to know what really happened. And as always, he is trying to answer the noirest question of all:  what is the true moral course?

If noir is a tale about the last honest man, this must be the last case of the last honest man.

  1. Benjamin Black, The Black-Eyed Blonde, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2014.
  2. Lawrence Osborne, Only To Sleep: A Phillip Marlowe Novel, New York, Hogarth, 2018.


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