The Raymond Chandler estate has asked three authors (Robert B. Parker, Benjamin Black, and now Lawrence Osborne) in recent years to write continuation novels about classic private eye Philip Marlowe. Only to Sleep is the third and most recent, written by Osborne.
The book is set in 1988, and the investigator is now 72 years old, rusticating in a hotel in Baha, California. When two insurance company representatives show up and ask him to go to Mexico and make some inquiries for them, he finds himself interested. He’s bored, and doesn’t really care much if the job gets dangerous (which they assure him it will not).
He sets out on the trail of Donald Zinn, an American businessman who was found murdered on a beach – and very quickly cremated. The company paid out his wife’s insurance claim, but they’re suspicious. The hunt leads to that wife, a young and beautiful woman who fascinates Marlowe. He soon becomes certain that the man she’s traveling with is in fact Zinn, who faked his death. But Marlowe’s actions after finding them are… ambivalent.
I wasn’t greatly impressed by Only to Die. There’s some good writing here, but the story – like its hero – has weak legs. Raymond Chandler’s famous advice on plotting was, “When in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.” That policy doesn’t work very well when your hero is in his seventies, though. If tough guys with guns show up too often, the show will pretty much be over. So other ways have to be found to pass the time. And although Marlowe’s meditations on life are one of the pleasures of a Chandler novel, they can’t carry a whole book – especially in the hard-boiled genre.
On top of that, a major plot point involves Marlowe doing something that strongly violates his private eye code (as I understand it). He mitigates that choice through later actions, but the whole business diminished him for me.
So I don’t highly recommend Only to Sleep. I finished it, so it didn’t insult my intelligence, but it wasn’t what I hoped for. Cautions for language and adult themes.