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Lawrence Osborne does Raymond Chandler quite well, thank you

Lawrence Osborne does Raymond Chandler quite well, thank you
Lawrence Osborne brings Raymond Chandler's PI Philip Marlowe to life in 'Only to Sleep.' (Shonagh Rae / For The Times)

Following directions emailed to me earlier in the day by Lawrence Osborne, I wandered down Soi 23 — one of the many streets that spring off Sukhumvit Road, the main artery running through Bangkok — in search of his local sake restaurant.

Osborne had warned me it might be a “little tricky” to find. Having passed the farang bars, full of ruddy-faced expats sheltering from the evening heat, draining beers and playing pool, I found myself on a quiet street. On the right side was a luminous sign for a testosterone replacement clinic; on the left-hand corner, a karaoke bar.

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At which point, the sturdy silhouette of Osborne emerged from an adjacent alley. Wearing a crisp white shirt, the top two buttons undone, he greeted me with a firm handshake and warm smile and led the way toward the slither of light extending from a nearby doorway.

“It’s all very Chandler, isn’t it?” he joked, letting out an infectious hoot of a laugh, as we settled down at the corner of the horseshoe-shaped bar around the prep station where a chef was sharpening his sushi knife.

Lawrence Osborne at the Sang Seab Canal in Bangkok, Thailand.
Lawrence Osborne at the Sang Seab Canal in Bangkok, Thailand. (Nana Chen)

A waitress came to fill our glasses with sake. Osborne rapped in what sounded to my ears to be decent Thai. When I remarked on this he demurred: “I’m far from fluent, but it’s better than what most Westerners can speak out here.”

He is engaging company, able to wax lyrical on pretty much any subject. In the first 15 minutes of our meeting, we toasted Anthony Bourdain, who died the previous day (“a romantic soul”); Britain, the country of his birth and mine (“depressing”); and the films of Robert Mitchum (“one tough …, a real hero”).

Osborne moved here in 2011 from New York, where he made a name for himself writing esoteric travel pieces for the New York Times and New Yorker. Seven years and four critically acclaimed books later, the decision to ditch journalism for authorship in his early 50s has been more than vindicated.

If there is a common theme running through Osborne’s novels, it is the twines of alienation, displacement and fate — particularly among expats in distant lands. 2012’s “The Forgiven” concerns a British couple who seek expiation after running over a local boy in the Moroccan desert; “Hunters in the Dark” (2014) deals with an English teacher cut adrift in Cambodia.

He cites Paul Bowles as his favorite author, yet as a British writer living in a foreign culture, he is most often compared to Graham Greene, another one of his heroes. Not that he courts this kind of acclaim personally.

“None of these comparisons come from me,” he said, reaching over toward a plate of golden tempura. “I actually find it really strange that that’s kind of become a thing. I love Greene, but I don’t understand it at all.”

Yet it was Greene’s nephew, the late, distinguished publisher Graham C. Greene, who played a major part in getting Osborne’s latest novel off the ground.

Raymond Chandler in 1946
Raymond Chandler in 1946 (Associated Press)

As then-managers of the Raymond Chandler Estate, Greene and literary agent Ed Victor — who died last year — approached Osborne a couple of years ago with the idea of resurrecting Chandler’s legendary P.I. Philip Marlowe for one last adventure.

Initially, Osborne wasn’t convinced it would do his career any favors. After all, the previous incarnations of Marlowe commissioned by Chandler’s estate (“The Black-Eyed Blonde” by John Banville writing as Benjamin Black, and “Poodle Springs,” completed by Robert C. Parker, who also wrote “Perchance to Dream”) received lukewarm notices, dismissed as little more than exercises in literary ventriloquism.

“At first, I was loath to do it,” recalled Osborne. “Even though I actually liked Banville’s book, I thought the whole franchise thing was ridiculous and something of a perilous enterprise for a writer. Because, on one level, you can’t win. You’re always going to be criticized by either reviewers or die-hard Chandler fans.

“But then I thought about it a little more and decided that if I could really make it my own, it could work.”

The resulting work, titled “Only to Sleep,” admirably sidesteps the pitfalls of Chandler-esque pastiche. Nostalgic curiosity has been defenestrated; in its place, a Marlowe we at once know, but have never met before. This is a Lawrence Osborne book rather than a continuation novel.

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First and foremost, Osborne has shifted the action from the 1950s to 1988. Marlowe is in his dotage, already 10 years into his retirement, living just north of Ensenada.

"Only to Sleep" by Lawrence Osborne
"Only to Sleep" by Lawrence Osborne (Hogarth)

The story picks up with Marlowe supping on sundowners one evening in his local bar, when he is approached by two insurance men “dressed like undertakers” who ask him to investigate the death of a Mr. Zinn, a bankrupt property developer believed to have drowned in a swimming accident in Mexico.

It doesn’t take much to lure the old shamus out of a seclusion, which he isn’t much enjoying anyhow. “I never knew retirement would be so sad,” he confides wistfully to a friend at one point.

After paying a visit to Zinn’s beautiful young widow, Dolores, in San Diego, who has already received a payout of $2 million, Marlowe immediately suspects foul play. A trail of leads soon takes him driving back across the border to Mexico to sleazy resorts, mountaintop villages and down-at-heel hotels in search of the truth over Zinn’s demise. Jeopardy and danger await at every turn.

For those familiar with Osborne’s previous works, his métier here remains an unerring sense of place. It’s on which the narrative pivots, as opposed to the other way around. Evocations of the badlands of the U.S.-Mexico border are as acute in their detail as Chandler’s were of L.A.’s neon-lit, dope-and-brew netherworld of yesteryear.

Osborne lived and breathed these dusty roads as a reporter with the San Diego Reader in the early 1990s, before running afoul of his editor over an article concerning the pollution of a local river. “They had the sheriff run me out of town.

“The only way I could do this book was to root it in my own experiences, instead of putting it in 1950s L.A. — a place I never saw,” he told me. “I couldn’t do that. I cannot write anything unless I’ve lived and worked in the place I’m writing about. And the Mexican border, I know back to front.”

Lawrence Osborne at The Upper House in Hong Kong.
Lawrence Osborne at The Upper House in Hong Kong. (Courtesy Lawrence Osborne)

“Only to Sleep” is as much a meditation on aging and memory as it is a crime thriller. Now 72, Marlowe is, by his own admission, “an old gumshoe.” He never goes anywhere without his silver-tipped cane; he needs help getting into cars; his hands shake from time to time. He is frail, but as Osborne said, “Who gets old and isn’t vulnerable?”

He is nostalgic for the past in which “men in flannel suits and women dressed like movie stars to go to the supermarket in the daytime.” He notices sadly that “the gentle sound of swing has given way to Guns n Roses.”

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The younger generation Marlowe encounters has no truck with the street argot he once rapped in so freely. When he uses the description of meshuga (“crazy”) at one point, his interlocutor replies mockingly: “Is that Ice age slang?” A reference to an “able Grable” draws a blank response from a young waiter.

The world Marlowe now occupies is cold-hearted and vacuous, “after a low near-decade of sloth and decay and Ronald Reagan.” It is unrecognizable to the PI’s moral compass of honor and respect.

“He is in many ways a gentleman’s gentleman,” explained Osborne. “Although the figure of the gentleman is something that is now derided — it has no currency in modern culture. But Chandler didn’t feel that way. I think he felt that it was valuable — and I do as well — to keep your word and be principled.”

Osborne doffs his cap in places to the wisecracking dialogue now synonymous with Chandler, but on the whole, he soft-pedals on the one-liners. Nonetheless, a few humdingers can be found (“What happened to your neck?”/ “I ran into a reindeer”).

Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe with Lauren Bacall in "The Big Sleep."
Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe with Lauren Bacall in "The Big Sleep." (Handout / UCLA Film & TV Archive)

There are a couple of points where one fears the frisson of sexual tension between the young widow and Marlowe might escalate into the realm of unbelievable seduction. Thankfully, though, a wizened Marlowe has abandoned hope of reliving the carnal exploits of his youth.

“I was asked about doing a love scene, and I was like, ‘No, he’s old — he’s not going to have a ... love scene!”, said Osborne, followed by another bolt of laughter.

If there’s one common bugbear with Chandler’s books it’s that the plot is subjugated by style to such an extent that the story peters out into indecipherability. The famous story goes that director Howard Hawks, when making “The Big Sleep,” phoned Chandler to clarify the killer of one of the characters, only for the author to respond that he didn’t know himself.

While expansive — and by no means not without twists — Osborne’s story is considerably easier to get one’s head around. Taking in a series of Mexican processions and local festivals, in places, it has the feel of a road novel, not a million miles away from Nabokov’s “Lolita.”

“Well, I think Chandler was really out of it in terms of plotting,” said Osborne. “All the plots in Chandler’s stories were absurd. But, at the same time, when you are writing a Marlowe book, the plot can be as insane and crazy as you want it to be.”

It took Osborne only six months to write “Only to Sleep,” a process so enjoyable, he described, his bright eyes flashing, as like “eating chocolate every day. “I woke up every day and looked forward to writing it.”

As we settled the bill, hunger and thirst long slaked, I asked him what kind of response he envisages for the book. Did he think it might attract people who’ve never read Chandler, but have read his works — or vice versa?

“I think it will most probably be for people who are more familiar with Chandler,” he said. “But for me, it’s my book — for better or worse.”

Davies is a British freelance journalist based in London.

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