Book review: An old detective finds new life

 In Opinion

Philip Marlowe, the quintessential private detective, is the creation of the late Raymond Chandler, who died in 1959. 

Marlowe was tough-talking, street-smart and could handle himself in tight situations of which there were many. He became the model for the other fictional gumshoes that followed in his wake.

Marlowe appeared in several novels and was portrayed on the big screen by actors ranging from Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell to Robert Mitchum and Elliott Gould.

Marlowe has been described as a modern knight-errant, bent on doing the right thing while surrounded by corruption and bad people doing bad things. Of course, there was usually a woman in the mix, a femme fatale who would try and use her charms to sway Marlowe into helping her out of a jam. Think of Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep and you get the picture.

Fans of Chandler and his wisecracking detective will be happy to know that the writer Lawrence Osborne has given him new life in the novel, Only To Sleep. It is set in 1988 and finds Marlowe, now 72, retired, walking with a cane and living in Mexico where he spends his days in a bar playing cards and drinking tequila.

As the novel begins, he is enticed out of retirement by an insurance company that wants him to look into the death of a policyholder, the real estate developer Donald Zinn. He had an insurance policy worth a million dollars and the company is eager to make sure that everything is on the up and up.

Marlowe accepts the case because of what he describes as, “a summons from the depths of your own wasted past, you could call it the imperative to go out with full tilt trumpets and gunshots instead of the quietly desperate sounds of the hospital ventilator.” 

The knight-errant wants one final adventure.

This sets him off on a quest in pursuit of the truth about Zinn’s death. Before you get it into your head that Marlowe is a bit past it, it should be mentioned that his cane conceals a finely honed Japanese blade and Zinn has left behind a very attractive widow. These two elements in addition to a cast of some very shady characters make for a tale in the Chandler tradition.

In an interview, Osborne said that he was nervous about attempting a Marlowe novel. He didn’t want to write a 1940s or 50s period piece but rather something that would provide a different version of Marlowe. He succeeded.

This is a Marlowe who is introspective, world weary and nostalgic for the past. He looks at the world through a jaundiced eye and doesn’t like what he sees. But he is still dogged in his pursuit of the truth, refuses to back down when threatened and can still crack wise with the best of them. 

Marlowe may be 70-plus but this old dog can still hunt and, when necessary, bite. Remember that cane!

Basil Guinane is a recently retired associate dean of the School of Media Studies at Humber college, a former librarian and an avid reader.

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