NB: This is crossposted from my Goodreads account — hence the opening remarks.
One of the limitations of the Goodreads star system is that it doesn’t allow for nuance. This is an excellent novel that I admire immensely (five stars) yet it’s one that I didn’t personally much enjoy (two or three stars). Ideally I’d simply not give it a star rating at all, but that doesn’t appear to be an option.
It’s the late 1980s and Philip Marlowe is 72 years old. An insurance company calls him out of retirement to investigate the recent drowning death in Mexico of real estate magnate Donald Zinn, a client of theirs, a death that they regard as suspicious. For what he knows will be his One Last Case, Marlowe goes on a final, uncertainly treading quest in search of a man who may or may not be dead and whose beautiful wife or widow, Dolores, awakens in the detective memories of loves long lost . . .
I read John Banville’s Marlowe novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde, a while ago, and rather enjoyed it; I read Robert B. Parker’s “collaboration” with Chandler, Poodle Springs, a very long time back and recall little about it except a vague sense of disappointment; I haven’t read Parker’s solo Marlowe novel.
From the opening pages of Only to Sleep I was bowled over by how well Lawrence Osborne has caught the essence of Chandler’s voice: the rolling periods, the sorrowfully eloquent aphorisms, the wonderful metaphors — the whole gamut. After a few dozen pages the author, wisely I think, tones down the Chandlerisms a bit — only a bit — so that the prose becomes more straightforward. What aren’t diluted are Marlowe’s time-wearied reflections on life, morality, fate and destiny. If someone had passed this novel to me and told me it was a hitherto undiscovered Chandler manuscript, I’d have believed them (aside, of course, from the dates; Chandler died about three decades before the time in which the tale is set).
All this is wonderful. Only to Sleep is, so far as my experience goes, the best Marlowe continuation yet.
But the novel never becomes a page-turner. For the obvious reason of Marlowe’s age, there’s not a huge amount by way of action scenes, although they’re not entirely absent. That doesn’t matter much in itself. But in parallel with this there’s no tension to the tale, no elevation of suspense. The basic mystery is relatively soon solved, and thereafter we’re more concerned with the vagaries of Marlowe’s soul as, driven by his fascination for Dolores and more ethically flexible than he was in his younger days, he digs further into events. I was never bored by what I was reading, but at the same time I never became embraced by the tale to the point that the outside world disappeared.
In sum, this is a very fine book. If I learned it had been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, I’d nod approvingly. If I learned it had been nominated for an Edgar or a Dagger, I’d be less sure. It’s a splendid achievement on Osborne’s part and I may well look out more of his work, but I missed the experience of being spellbound.