What is Todd Robins reading?
When Todd started at Watermark Books & Cafe, Hicks's walk in Robert Stone's novel, Dog Soldiers, was arguably his all-time favorite literary passage. That is still the case. Raymond Carver's short stories ranked near the top as well. Raymond Chandler, George V. Higgins and Elmore Leonard (Unknown Man No. 89) were in the mix. Yet, books kept landing on the Watermark shelving cart. Let's just say The Epicure's Lament by Kate Christensen was nicely done. William Kennedy's Roscoe; Allegra Goodman's Intuition. Philip Kerr's Gunther series is a treasure. Finally, histories. Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra stands out.
Todd recently founded Vautrin, https://www.watermarkbooks.com/product/vautrin-volume-1-issue-1-spring-2019. The inaugural issue is due out the first week of June.
Until a few weeks ago, it had been a good twenty years since I’d read one of Raymond Chandler’s novels about the LA detective Philip Marlowe. But Chandler’s Marlowe novels stay in the mind. My recent return trip through The Long Goodbye firmed up what I’d remembered all that time: Marlowe stands out from the crowd with his point-of-view and descriptive power. His riffs can be read again and again. He’s a master of melody and mood. Words and phrases ring out early in The Long Goodbye, then chime throughout and build to greater power at the end.
Noting that level of excellence, you can’t settle for any old stand-in mystery writer if the goal is to turn Marlowe loose in one more narrative. A few years ago, the Chandler Estate recruited John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, for a mostly praiseworthy effort in The Black-Eyed Blonde, and then word got out last year that Lawrence Osborne had been asked to have a go at it.
This was welcome news if you’re acquainted with Chandler and Osborne. The latter writer was born in England in the late fifties and has lived all over the world as a journalist, but in the last decade or so, something changed for Osborne. He has published four superb novels in a row. A Watermark customer, after reading Beautiful Animals, gave me a selection of her favorite descriptive passages. Here’s a writer fully equipped for the Marlowe assignment.
It’s not as though Chandler failed to give Marlowe a thorough going over, however, so any time you hear of a contemporary author attempting a new novel about the iconic character, you question what’s left to explore.
In Only To Sleep, Osborne answers that question by picking up with a reflective Marlowe later in life. The detective is now in his early seventies and living in a house “a few miles north of Ensenada in Baja…with a middle-aged maid and a stray dog rescued from the garbage.” Those familiar with previous Marlowe narratives might wonder where he got the scratch to buy a house. It’s almost ridiculous, especially in The Long Goodbye, how difficult it is for anyone in LA to actually get the guy paid. Marlowe might be sardonic and suspicious of people in authority, but he lives by a code that compels him to search for what’s hidden. Money ranks lower on his priority list.
Still, it’s not completely out of the question that Marlowe somehow managed to rathole some cash. We’re further encouraged that things are right with this fictional world on hearing that Marlowe has spent “a low near-decade of sloth and decay and Ronald Reagan.”
He’s sitting in a local bar one afternoon when two men from an insurance agency seek him out, offer to buy him dinner, and bare the teeth “of friendly hyenas who have done their killing for the day.”
The gist is that an American by the name of Donald Zinn recently washed ashore from a swimming accident. The agents want Marlowe to find out if the monster payout is on the up-and-up. Marlowe agrees to pursue the matter, as much as anything, to experience one last wild ride to hell. For this engagement, he brings his intelligence, grit, and a silver-tipped cane that conceals a Samurai sword.
If Chandler gave us Marlowe’s rendezvous with a byzantine LA underworld, Osborne takes us on an enigmatic and treacherous tour through Mexico. The author apparently lived in Mexico when he worked as a reporter. The descriptive passages are equal to those in Beautiful Animals, vivid yet economical in service of the story.
Osborne occasionally gets compared to Graham Greene due to his British background and taste for exotic locales. There are probably several hundred writers who wouldn’t mind that pairing one iota. I’m tempted to describe Only To Sleep as a Raymond Chandler/Marlowe novel as written by Graham Greene, but let’s make the transition: this is a top-notch Marlowe novel as written by Lawrence Osborne.