Read for CBR10 Bingo: Published in 2018
I was recently at a book signing for author Megan Abbott. A week before the signing, she published an article on trying to understand her love for Raymond Chandler’s work in the age of #MeToo. Chandler’s most famous detective, Private Investigator Philip Marlowe, is written as a notorious misogynist who is often quite brutal to women. I was fortunate to talk to Abbott a little about her piece and we both agreed that while Chandler has his problems, he’s also the godfather of most modern day American detective novels. Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series is my personal favorite but there is no Archer without Marlowe.
Considering the iconic standing of the character, Lawrence Osborne is taking on a heavy task by writing a new Marlowe novel. He’s not the first to do it: famed mystery scribe Robert Parker has written two, while Benjamin Black’s most recent effort The Black Eyed Blonde is in movie pre-production with Liam Neeson set to star. But still, this is a challenge that should only be handled by a capable writer.
Osborne is a capable writer. More than competent, even. His dialogue is sound, his characterization good. And unlike Parker or Black who kept their books in Chandler’s timeline, Osborne decides to age Marlowe into his 70s and park him in 1980s Mexico. He’s retired and living a leisurely life, certainly in better health than he was when we last saw him in Playback. I could buy the idea that if Marlowe quit smoking and cut down on drinking, he could be living this life.
The problem with the book is: it’s not written by Raymond Chandler. It’s got the body of a Marlowe novel. I could definitely see a 72-year old Humphrey Bogart chasing his prey through Mexico. But it doesn’t have the soul. Chandler’s writing style is so unique and sharp. It’s difficult to mimic and to his credit, Osborne doesn’t try. But it’s impossible to separate the style from the character. It’s more competent than well-written Marlowe fan fiction, which is essentially what The Black-Eyed Blonde is. But it feels like someone took an outline from a Chandler book and just ran with it.
So what I don’t understand is why Osborne didn’t just try to do his own thing. As said above, I’m not a Marlowe fanboy. I recognize the importance of his character but I’m not defensive that someone else would give it a go with him. I just wish they had done so with more verve. This is a better book than The Black-Eyed Blonde but the reason why I gave both of them three stars is Black decided to set his in LA and make it an LA specific tale and at least try to be Marlowe, while Osborne borrowed Marlowe’s name and clothes, sanded the edges of his attitude and called it a book. Black tries to go there and while he doesn’t have the reach to do it, I admire the hustle. Osborne has gifts but decided to settle. If you put the best parts of Black’s style with Osborne’s capability and plotting, you’d probably have a Marlowe book that would satisfy me.
If nothing else, this book made me want to read more of Osborne’s work, which I look forward to in the near future.