Chandler, that is.
This month, for no apparent reason beyond, perhaps, marking his 130 birthday today (July 23), two new books are being published.
One, The Annotated Big Sleep (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, $25.00), celebrates the past, placing the 1939 novel (which introduced us to Los Angles private eye Philip Marlowe) on a pedestal, and then douses it with nit-picky glory and no small amount of reverence.
The other offering, due to go on sale tomorrow, is Only to Sleep (Hogarth, $26.00); a novel by Lawrence Osborne which offers us — of all things — a brand-new adventure featuring Marlowe, the world-wearyprivate eye who tromped down the mean streets of Los Angeles like a street-bruised Lancelot and right into the hearts and imagination of the world.
Chandler may have been sleeping the big sleep since 1959, but it’s clear his literary mojo’s still going strong.
* * * * *
The scholarly love on display in The Annotated Big Sleep, a hefty chunk (over 500 pages!) of literary respect, would surely have pleased Chandler, who yearned for that sort of thing, although — curmudgeonly English prep school snob that he was — he may have scoffed that it’s only a paperback. Still, Chandler was always a sucker for any kind of high-brow critical thumbs up, so this remarkable piece of noir scholarship makes for a fine birthday present.
Edited by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizzuto, who count among their many occupations scholar, librarian, critic, poet, researcher, novelist and professor, the book serves up a fascinating play-by-play of “one of the most celebrated and stylish novels of the twentieth century. ”
And so, alongside the sacred text itself, we get prodigious notes setting things in historical and cultural context, utilizing letters, source texts, maps, images, film stills, photos and even art from Black Mask and other pulps where Chandler, lest we forget, cut his teeth, and zeroing in on questions of class, gender, morality, desire and race that still reverberate over seventy years later.
The icing on the cake for me, however, may be the bracing fanboy foreword by Jonathan Lethem. Lethem, a sometime mystery writer (Gun With Occasional Music and Motherless Brooklyn, which won the presigious National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction), is just the sort of writer whose literary acclaim Chandler would have envied. And he pulls out all the stops.
The Big Sleep doesn’t. It never even nods. Flip the book open anywhere and it winks, leers, bristles, and sneers — in every line, a “quick jerky smile” plays across the face of the prose.
And so it goes. With unapologetic vigor and verve, Lethem namedrops Alice in Wonderland (Alice and Marlowe share “a certain odd kinship,” he states) and offers swing-for-the-fences proclamations (“on the level of deeper patterns of imagery, voice and rhythm” Lethem says the novel “works like a sonnet”).
Okay, it’s a little overheated, perhaps, but all in all, the research is impressive, the results illuminating and the enthusiasm contagious, offering us a deeper, richer understanding of the novel — even if I’m still not exactly sure who killed the chauffeur.
For Chandler geeks like myself who can just never get enough, this is pure bliss.
* * * * *
Of course, literary respect and the clanging of academic huzzahs don’t pay the rent, and so we also have Only to Sleep, a continuation of the adventures of Marlowe, a joint effort by the Raymond Chandler estate and British author Lawrence Osborne, ostensibly released to mark the 130th anniversary of the master’s birth, although the cynical among us might also note the looming copyright expiry date. And this just four years after the estate had unleashed John Bainville’s own meh-inducing Marlowe pastiche, The Black-Eyed Blonde (written under his mystery-writing pen name of “Benjamin Black”).
The Chandler estate, of course, is at this point simply a gaggle of lawyers — Chandler and his beloved wife Cissy never had any children. A bigger question, though, at least judging from online discussion among Chandler disciples in the months preceding publication was: “Who the fuck is Lawrence Osborne?”
Turns out Osborne was born in London and educated at Cambridge and Harvard. He’s lived in France, Italy, Morocco and Mexico and is now living in Bangkok, so of course he was the perfect person to write about LA’s most famous P.I.
What? Well, no.
But it turns out he is a legit writer, fairly well respected, with a handful of well-received novels to his name, and plenty of nice blurbs by distinguished literary types. Unfortunately, little of that praise would seem to apply to Chandler. I mean, Osborne gets a lot of praise for his plotting. Chandler? Not so much…
Fortunately, Osborne seemed well aware of his limitations. And he must have been aware of how previous attempts to nail down Chandler had gone…
“John Banville is an amazing writer, but I will fault him for not setting foot in Los Angeles for his Philip Marlowe novel [The Black-Eyed Blonde]. I think you have to live in a place or at least go there a lot before you write about it. Raymond Chandler lived in LA and he got the sticky, sweaty, asphalt-y feel of the place. Banville’s book doesn’t have that.”
And so Osborne set his own story mostly in Mexico, a part of the world he felt more comfortable with. Even better, though, was that he purposely broke Marlowe out of the temporal rut other writers had tried to jam him into. Eschewing the easy nostalgia of Marlowe’s 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Osborne swung for the fences, giving us an aged, retired Marlowe, who’s left the City of Angels (and America) far, far behind. It’s the 1980s, and the former gumshoe is well into his seventies, living off what savings he has in Baja, Mexico.
Turns out it was a smart move on Osborne’s part. Audacious, even. Because what works best in this book is all the ways it’s not Chandler, but merely Chandleresque.
For starters, Anglophile snob that he was, Chandler would never have used an Aztec song for an epigraph. Hell, I don’t recall him even speaking Spanish in the original books, but here he fluent as a taco.
To his credit, Osborne doesn’t even really try to match Chandler’s style, nor are the pages loaded with strained similes, metaphors that just don’t work and wise cracks that don’t break cleanly, a common failing of many who try to slavishly mimic Chandler. It also helps that Osborne shies away from excessive namedropping.
In fact, the less I thought of Marlowe or Chandler specifically, the more I enjoyed this book. Because the retired LA dick in these pages is an intriguing enough coot all on his own, without all the ka-ching calculations and literary nod-and-wink. This Marlowe is mournful and exhausted and more than ready to meet his maker, only not quite yet, and only on his own terms. I’m not quite convinced Chandler’s Marlowe would sport something as flashy as a silver-tipped cane (“the best that money could buy”, but it works for Osborne’s Marlowe.
Certainly there are connections to Chandler — that’s no doubt why they hired Osborne. Linda Loring is evoked, but never mentioned by name (“I was married once”). This Marlowe, too, narrates his own adventures, and he apologetically drinks gimlets (“it’s an old man’s drink”). Despite himself, he still has that romantic eye and an appreciation for beauty (“When she came back to the table, half-soaked from the surf, and happier she seemed as fresh and real as anyone I could remember”).
Of course, Marlowe is urged out of retirement (what would be the point of an entire book of him just sitting around drinking?). By two insurance men from LA, who want him to look into the death of Donald Zinn, a wealthy but none too scrupulous real estate dealer (sound familiar?) who allegedly drowned off his yacht somewhere along the Mexican coast, leaving behind a young and now very rich widow. When he finally tracks her down, he suggests he took the case for “a fair pile,” but there are other, more melancholy reasons lurking under the surface, as if the long career of going down the mean streets had, indeed, much to his surprise, left him both tarnished and afraid. “I never though retirement would be so sad,” he admits.
No longer merely world-weary, this Marlowe has become world-exhausted, and as he doggedly pursues the case (and the widow) back and forth across Mexico and California, there’s a palpable sense of sorrow on display; an elegiac sense of time running out, ushered along by some quietly beautiful writing: “We sat there for a long time, declining to disturb the moment or to add a single word to what had already been left unsaid.”
This Marlowe isn’t Chandler’s Marlowe.
But I think the two would have understood each other.
ALSO WORTH HUNTING DOWN
- The Many Faces of Philip Marlowe (July 2016, Crimereads)
Our pal J. Kingston Pierce takes a peek at all the Philip Marlowe books and stories Chandler didn’t write.