LAWRENCE OSBORNE

ONLY TO SLEEP

Lawrence Osborne was born in England but has travelled and lived all over the world. He is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The ForgivenThe Ballad of a Small PlayerHunters in the Dark and Beautiful Animals. In 2017, he joined Robert B. Parker and John Banville in being asked by the Raymond Chandler Estate to write a new Philip Marlowe novel. Only to Sleep also draws on his time living and working as a reporter on the Mexican border in 1990. His non-fiction includes travelogues and essay collections as well as the drinking odyssey The Wet and the Dry. He currently lives in Bangkok.

 

ABOUT ONLY TO SLEEP

Lawrence Osborne brings one of literature’s most enduring detectives back to life—as Private Investigator Philip Marlowe returns for one last adventure.

The year is 1988. The place, Baja California. And Philip Marlowe—now in his seventy-second year—is living out his retirement in the terrace bar of the La Fonda hotel. Sipping margaritas, playing cards, his silver-tipped cane at the ready. When in saunter two men dressed like undertakers, with a case that has his name written all over it.

For Marlowe, this is his last roll of the dice, his swan song. His mission is to investigate the death of Donald Zinn—supposedly drowned off his yacht, and leaving behind a much younger and now very rich wife. But is Zinn actually alive? Are the pair living off the spoils?

Set between the border and badlands of Mexico and California, Lawrence Osborne’s resurrection of the iconic Marlowe is an unforgettable addition to the Raymond Chandler canon.

Staunch says

Lawrence Osborne is the latest author to be commissioned by the Raymond Chandler estate to write a new Philip Marlowe novel. Only To Sleep sees Philip Marlowe lured out of retirement to investigate a suspected insurance scam.

Narrating in the voice of the now 72-year-old detective, Marlowe embarks on an extended journey in pursuit of the fate of an debt-ridden con man supposedly dead, and his not-so-grieving ‘widow’. Osborne brings a finely dialled down, older-and-wiser touch to the Chandleresque wit and charm, letting Marlowe accept that he’s lost his potency where the ladies are concerned, if not the ability to be just a little seduced. Feeling the years in his bones, the veteran PI shows he still has the smarts, determination, doggedness and unfailing instinct to see the job through and deliver a few nice surprises to the end. We’d say this is pitch-perfect. Slick and readable, great descriptions and dialogue, a proper mystery to solve, and a pleasure to be in the company of the old man as he rises so well to this (presumably last) challenge.

READ THE OPENING CHAPTERS OF ONLY TO SLEEP

One

Just below the old Spanish mission, a few miles north of Ensenada in Baja, I have the house that I bought from Larry Danish in 1984. There I live as an old gumshoe or jelly bean should, with my middle-aged maid, Maria, and a stray dog rescued from the garbage. Out at sea, the porpoises that never sleep. La Misión had been Larry’s exile for decades. He built a Spanish-style villa perched on the rocks within sight of the old La Fonda Hotel and Bar, where, it is rumored by the staff, the margarita was invented during Rita Hayworth’s many fiestas at that same establishment. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t true. But I too had known La Fonda, La Misión’s only hotel, for years. I used to drive down here in the ’50s, when it was still beautiful, before the world was turned into a silo of unsatisfactory teenage fantasies and a garbage dumpster of schemes. Before the SunCor corporation littered the coast with golf resorts and there was any such thing as spring break in Rosarito Beach. Back then I’d go there to lie on a bed in a dark room and dry out. By the ’70s, I was still drying out and no longer noticed whole decades passing in the night.

The cliffs of teddy bear cholla remain. The lonely hot roads in the interior and the little churches with their tin-painted retablos of car accidents and death by cancer. The Pacific with lines of kelp, chilling waves rolling in to a beach between rock headlands shrouded with mist and spray. This is what all of California once looked like. Close your eyes and wonder. I often do. How easy it was to destroy, easier than destroying a cherry cake with a plastic fork. All for a bit of tin.

But it’s a good place for an old man. A sanctuary of clean wind and two hundred days of sun. On weekends I played the casinos in Ensenada. There was a bar there called Porfirio’s, I think, which had a machine on the counter called El Electrucador. It was a kind of Van de Graaff generator with two finger pads. You put your fingers on the pads and the barman, with some noise and fuss, gave you a stiff shock. If you could withstand it, you got a free shot of mescal. I didn’t need to get it free, but I got it free all the same. I figured the shocks were doing my intestines and hair roots some good. People said I looked much younger when I came back from my weekends. They said I looked “returned from the dead.” At my age, I’ll take any compliment.

We, the old guard, go to the terrace of La Fonda at night to eat its roast suckling pig and often stay there all day playing cards among ourselves under the palapas and running up our tabs. Alive is a relative word. They play Los Tres Ases and Los Panchos tracks on the sound system, and there are some of us who can dream backward to the splendid years. There is still an occasional glimpse of the old times here, and maybe it’s the last glimpse we’ll ever enjoy. Has there ever in history been a time when four decades could turn everything upside down in such a conclusive way? I can remember the summer of 1950 in this very same place. Men in flannel suits and the women dressed like movie stars to go to the supermarket in the daytime. Thirty-eight years on— not a great amount of time when you think about it—the gentle sound of swing has given way to Guns N’ Roses. Back then, the old Mexico was still there, hanging on to life with style. Pedro Infante was on the screens and Maria Félix was in the air. They were destroyed to make way for Madonna.

Then one day, after a low near-decade of sloth and decay and Ronald Reagan, two men from the Pacific Mutual insurance company walked into the terrace bar of La Fonda Hotel. They were dressed like undertakers and had sauntered down from the main road above the hotel, finding me seated alone with my pitcher of sangria and my silver-tipped cane as if they had known I would be there unaccompanied within sight of my home on the Baja cliffs. They knew which house it was, too, because their eyes rose to take it in, and they smiled with the small contempt of company men.

They’d heard I was retired, but a man they trusted in La Jolla had said I was the best that money couldn’t buy. That was, of course, the best joke of the afternoon. They offered to buy me an early dinner and bared the teeth of friendly hyenas who have done their killing for the day. The older one held out a card that gave his name, Michael D. Kalb, and the other simply told me his: O’Kane. Kalb had at least twenty years over his colleague, but both of them were lean enough to carry the undertaker look. When I had put down the habanero and they had settled down into their chairs, the older one spoke with a voice that made me think of a father telling a bedtime tale to a child with attention-deficit problems. He glanced with distaste at the Baja beach and his eyes were dead. Boys sat there under palapas, selling cattle skulls and lumps of floating kelp hacked out of the waves, yet it was clear that Kalb didn’t know their world, or mine, and that he had probably never ventured so far south before. Was he surprised that the sun still shone so gently?

  “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Marlowe. Sandy and I weren’t sure we’d be able to find you down here. You bought that house on the cliff?”

  “It’s called Danish Mansion. A lifetime of beating people up went into buying it.” They laughed, but there was surprisingly little sound.

  “Let’s get some margaritas,” Kalb went on loudly. “I like the frosted glasses with the salt around the rim.”

  “They were invented at this hotel,” I said. “Rita Hayworth used to come here. Margarita Hayworth.”

I wondered who had recommended me. Years had gone by since I was last on a case, beating sidewalks in proper leather shoes, yet many of my former employers were probably still alive. Deirdre Gowan in Del Mar, ancient but able to remember my services; the Garland family whose daughter had gone missing in ’79, and whose happiness I had restored. They were not yet ghosts.

  “It’s an easy job,” the younger one said. “Did you ever meet an American called Donald Zinn down here in La Misión? They say he used to come to Mexico a lot.”

I said I’d never heard of him.

  “Surprising. But anyway, he was a developer with a lot of debt who died in a swimming accident in a place called Caleta de Campos in Michoacán last month. He had a policy with us and we have to pay the widow. The paperwork all checks out fine on the Mexican side.”

  “Except,” said Kalb, “that it’s not entirely fine with us.”

  “In what way?”

  “Mr. Zinn had a policy with us for a number of years, and he had included his wife of about seven years. So there’s nothing suspicious about recent events relative to the policy. But we understand he had been going to Caleta de Campos for a number of years and that he was not prone to doing risky or adventurous things that might endanger his health.”

  “Drugs, maybe,” O’Kane said.

  “What I’m trying to say is that there was no reason to increase his premiums or regard his policy as risky. Quite the opposite. Despite being profligate with his money, he was not considered a risk by our department. But with a death in Mexico, we never know what the circumstances really are.”

  “Suppose,” the other chimed in, “he had committed suicide or even died in the course of committing a crime. Our liabilities wouldn’t be entirely the same. The picture would change.”

  “Do you see, Mr. Marlowe? It’s remarkably easy to bribe people down there to alter facts on a death certificate. It happens all the time. Caleta is a small village on the coast, fairly remote. It’s at least seventeen hundred miles south of the border. The embassy in Mexico City receives the report from the local police, the local coroner, and so on, and they rubber-stamp it before forwarding it to us. Most of these claims are not questioned. The insurance companies just pay out and they leave it at that. And yet we know fraud is going on. Well, maybe not fraud in this case. Maybe an embellishment of the truth to make Mr. Zinn look less responsible for his own demise than he might have been. What, for example, if he had been high on drugs at the time he was trying to swim across the bay at Caleta de Campos? I think that would change things.”

  “You’d have to pay out less?”

  “Possibly. There’s also the question of the cremation. He was cremated locally in Mexico, and very quickly. It’s unusual to say the least. We’ve come to the conclusion that it might be worthwhile for us to take a second look at the file. We thought you might like to go down there and check it out for us.”

  “To where?”

  “Well, he hung around in a number of places. As well as Caleta de Campos, he liked to big-game fish in Mazatlán. Perhaps we could get a better idea of what was going on the days leading up to his death.”

They had with them an envelope, which was now laid upon the table.

  “Here’s some information on him. The widow is named Dolores Araya and she’s still running the resort they built together near El Centro, out in the desert on the American side. You could go up and have a chat with her.”

  “I haven’t accepted yet.”

  “You have a point there! Shall we have another round of margaritas?” Kalb said, slapping his hand on the counter. “I’m not saying it’ll influence you. You’ll only do it if you want to do it.”

  “That’s what I’m thinking about.”

The drinks arrived. I hadn’t worked in ten years and I had retired too late as it was. In those final days, I felt I had run out of courage rather than energy. Seventy-two isn’t a bad age, but sixty-two is too old to be working. You are just impersonating the man you used to be.

Retirement had seemed like the best way not to die, but the adrenaline had gone the day I threw in the towel and it never returned. You have your books and your movies, your daydreams and your moments in the sun, but none of those can save you any more than irony can. I looked out now at the beach and felt as bored as I had the night before. The same old conversations of expats who were declining night by night on the terrace. The same gossip about neighbors and real estate deals and aging adultery and petty crime down the coast in Ensenada. The same overheightened indignations about things that didn’t really matter. I realized then that I had never anticipated getting old or not being needed. I was suddenly flattered by the presence of these two men in slim black suits with their salty lips, even when Sandy said,

  “You’re the best man for the job. We need someone inconspicuous.”

Someone far and away over the hill, in other words. His colleague assured me that it was nothing strenuous or physically risky. It would not be like the old days. I was too far gone to be a hero, and I wouldn’t have to be one.

  “We know you speak fluent Spanish, and that’s the essential thing. You’d just be collecting some information for us. Would you like a couple of days to think about it?”

Kalb handed me his card and I was tempted to refuse it just to see the look in his eyes.

  “I always decide on the spot, you know. It’s a bad habit, but it’s a habit.”

  “So?”

I knocked back the second margarita and rolled a coin in my head. It came out heads, and I always go with heads.

  “Well, I could give it a try.”

  “Excellent,” Kalb said, and there was a subtle relief in his tone. “I can set up a contract with my office tomorrow.” And he rattled off terms.

  “You can make that three hundred a day expenses,” I interrupted him. “I’d want to go to San Diego and see where and how Donald Zinn had spent his time, and then go to the resort and see Dolores Araya. Seeing the wife is always the fun part.”

  “Then we have an agreement?”

We shook hands then, and the two relaxed and pushed forward the envelope that lay before us. Inside were a sheaf of photographs of both Zinn and his wife, and the places they liked to frequent in happier days, including the Marius restaurant at the Méridien Hotel in San  Diego. It was a portrait of a marriage on two hundred thousand a year and a marina house on Coronado Cays. They had been told that the wife no longer went to the house but they had the keys, which I could pick up from their office when I was in town. How they had obtained them, they didn’t say.

  “Is that legal, to go inside their house?” I said, now that I was on their little team.

  “Old Donald had a mountain of debt, so the bank took the house and pretty much everything else. We came to an understanding with them. But no, it’s not legal. So if you want to look at the house, you’ll do it discreetly.”

  “So he was bankrupt?”

  “Dry as a salted fish. We can’t understand how he came to have so much money in the first place. Perhaps he never did.” “The con men with great hair are the best,” I said, looking at the photographs. He was good looking in his way, with hair that age had not thinned or otherwise fallen into disgrace. The eyes were full of torment, the eternal fear of being exposed and hunted. A San Diego pill, not quite in the first rank but blessed by the creator with a Roman nose. The clothes he wore were fine, with the heft of heavy cotton—I understood the attraction. Fragments of equally fine cars appeared in some shots.

  “I get the picture,” I said, putting the sheaf down. “He’s dead but he’s still living. If he’s dead, maybe I should go meet his ghost. It’ll be extra if I do.”

  “All right,” Kalb said with his glacial grin.

I raised my empty glass and made a toast to Rita Hayworth, and they had no idea who she was.

 

After they had left and as soon as the first stars had come out, a tolling bell began to echo from the hillsides above, and I let myself drift from the present backward in time. The sea became quiet. My cane rested between my legs. The lights of the lobster boats came on, and I took my solitary tequila straight up. After dusk I drove up the coast to clear my head, following the line of cliffs bristling with agaves. It was what I did every night, racing as far as the new American golf town of Real del Mar. Amid the coarse and treeless hillsides the HQs of the Frisa Group and of Radar Communications stood in howling winds. It was, I supposed, where Zinn had been working behind the scenes.

When I returned to the house Maria was already asleep and the dog was roaming the beach alone, as I let him do. With an unwatered bourbon I lay sleepless in my bedroom, whose single window faced the sea and funneled its noise directly to my bed. I got three hours usually, but that night it was barely two. The electric lights on the beach went off at midnight, but the sand was bathed in a dim glow from the hotel terrace. Lobster fishermen stood with their baskets in front of a windguttered fire and I watched them for a long time, shaking with insomnia. There was, I thought, something calling to me from out in the dark.

It came from out in the tempest, even from the lights of the fishing boats a mile out at sea. You can be called to a last effort, a final heroic statement, because I doubt you call yourself to leave comforts and certainties for an open road. But the call is inside your own head. It’s a sad 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 sound of a hospital ventilator. Victory instead of defeat. You know that it will be the last time you ride out of the gates fully armed and that makes you more curious than you have ever been.

Two

One dry morning a few days later I drove up to San Diego and checked into a little hotel I knew in Hillcrest that long ago used to be charming. Now, like all things, it had faded and was preserved merely by failure. I got a kick out of being near Balboa Park and the rattle of gang violence late at night. The barbarians were not only at the gates, but well and truly inside them, confident and getting bolder by the day. In the evening I made my way down to Casa de Pico on Juan Street in Old Town, where I could devour a few suizas to the sound of a mariachi band with their ponderous double basses and silver-embroidered sombreros. It was a sad scene but I liked it. Everything familiar has its merits, just like everything sad.

I got a little booze high that night and had to be escorted back to my car by the gentlemen of the establishment, who were also wearing spangled sombreros. I assured them that I could drive back to my hotel, which was not far. But in the end I had to sober up leaning on the hood and it was a while before I could drive at all. At the hotel I fell into bed and lay there fully clothed, full of demonic premonitions. It sometimes happened when I went back to the booze, and I went back to it as soon as I was alone in America and not with my housekeeper and regulars in Mexico. It was as if the lights went out and in the darkness I crawled about, secretly delighted and ravished. Drinkers never learn the antidote. Our way of surviving is just to succumb once in a while.

The following afternoon I went to the Méridien. Since the Zinns went there frequently I figured the staff there would remember them and be able to tell me something about them. Maybe they argued in public, maybe Zinn went there sometimes by himself and met associates. Everything happens in restaurants. The hotel stood on the Coronado side of the bay surrounded by landscaped gardens and pools upon which silent swans and teal sat as if tranquilized. Its terraces looked out over the downtown towers; below it, on the Coronado shore, other restaurants would light up at night, great glass cages flickering with candles and set on the beach. It was a maze of waterfalls, bubbling streams, and blue lagoons. The new world. The Marius restaurant, though, had no windows. It was intimate and slightly suffocating, a place for more secretive rendezvous, decorated with beige limestone floors and honey-glazed walls. The manager was surprisingly helpful. I showed him my photograph of the Zinns and asked if he could find a reservation the couple might have made. It turned out they had been in some months earlier, and he showed me the reservation himself. I asked if he remembered them.

  “Monsieur Zinn?” he said. “He was a frequent guest. He came every week almost. They always ordered a Pomerol.”

  “A Pomerol?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Was he a heavy tipper?”

  “I cannot think of anyone who tipped more heavily, as you say.”

  “Did they ever have an argument in public?”

He said he had never seen one. They were very private, they always sat by the wall, and they were always alone. They liked the restaurant, one of the waiters told him, precisely because it had no windows.

  “That’s a curious reason to like a restaurant.”

  “People come here for the privacy.”

  “Did he ever meet anyone else here?”

  “He came midweek sometimes and had lunch with gentlemen. Never ladies. Sometimes they left together.”

  “What kind of gentlemen?”

He shrugged. “Gentlemen.”

  “No Able Grables?”

  “Excuse me?”

I’d forgotten he was too young to understand the reference, and I had to laugh off the gaffe.

  “I’m sorry, I mean girls. The loose kind. That’s what we called them back in the day.”

I walked around the absurd hotel afterward, thinking how it might suit a man like Donald Zinn and how much he must have liked it. I was trying to understand his world, but in reality I already knew it. There were hundreds of Donald Zinns trapped inside hundreds of similar lives. They were no different from the swans and teals imprisoned within the landscaped gardens. Except that Donald was a black swan. After lunch in the hotel I drove down to his abandoned house. Coronado Cays lay in a place called Silver Strand to the south of Coronado itself in the direction of Imperial Beach. It was a series of quaint villages with West Indian architecture built around an artificial lagoon. The townhouses had their own mooring docks and each one had a yacht parked outside. Zinn’s included. There was a guard at the gate decked out in a white jacket and pith helmet, Bermuda-style, and the units had blue limestone shake roofs on chalk-white walls and arched Antiguan windows. There was a clubhouse with a gold-and-white-striped hip roof and a weather vane, and the Zinn residence was on a piece of the lagoon called Green Turtle.

Before their offices closed for the day, I stopped in at the Cays Homeowners Association and coolly asked how much a Green Turtle beauty might cost me. About three quarters of a million. It was useful to know. There was a lot of Japanese money pouring in, they admitted, and the Cays were the chicest address on the water now. Given how ugly it was, there was no reason to doubt it. I parked in front of the Zinn place and went up to his door. The insurance men had given me a key. A hand-fired tile set into the wall showed both his name and the number of the unit. I let myself in and found myself in a long front room hung with silk curtains with eighteenth-century indigo patterns. It was obvious that the people from the bank had been there and that they had done an inventory. There were little tags on some of the handsome antique pieces.

One dry morning a few days later I drove up to San Diego and checked into a little hotel I knew in Hillcrest that long ago used to be charming. Now, like all things, it had faded and was preserved merely by failure. I got a kick out of being near Balboa Park and the rattle of gang violence late at night. The barbarians were not only at the gates, but well and truly inside them, confident and getting bolder by the day. In the evening I made my way down to Casa de Pico on Juan Street in Old Town, where I could devour a few suizas to the sound of a mariachi band with their ponderous double basses and silver-embroidered sombreros. It was a sad scene but I liked it. Everything familiar has its merits, just like everything sad. I got a little booze high that night and had to be escorted back to my car by the gentlemen of the establishment, who were also wearing spangled sombreros. I assured Only to Sleep them that I could drive back to my hotel, which was not far. But in the end I had to sober up leaning on the hood and it was a while before I could drive at all. At the hotel I fell into bed and lay there fully clothed, full of demonic premonitions. It sometimes happened when I went back to the booze, and I went back to it as soon as I was alone in America and not with my housekeeper and regulars in Mexico. It was as if the lights went out and in the darkness I crawled about, secretly delighted and ravished. Drinkers never learn the antidote. Our way of surviving is just to succumb once in a while. The following afternoon I went to the Méridien. Since the Zinns went there frequently I figured the staff there would remember them and be able to tell me something about them. Maybe they argued in public, maybe Zinn went there sometimes by himself and met associates. Everything happens in restaurants. The hotel stood on the Coronado side of the bay surrounded by landscaped gardens and pools upon which silent swans and teal sat as if tranquilized. Its terraces looked out over the downtown towers; below it, on the Coronado shore, other restaurants would light up at night, great glass cages flickering with candles and set on the beach. It was a maze of waterfalls, bubbling streams, and blue lagoons. The new world. The Only to Sleep Marius restaurant, though, had no windows. It was intimate and slightly suffocating, a place for more secretive rendezvous, decorated with beige limestone floors and honey-glazed walls. The manager was surprisingly helpful. I showed him my photograph of the Zinns and asked if he could find a reservation the couple might have made. It turned out they had been in some months earlier, and he showed me the reservation himself. I asked if he remembered them. “Monsieur Zinn?” he said. “He was a frequent guest. He came every week almost. They always ordered a Pomerol.” “A Pomerol?” “Yes, sir.” “Was he a heavy tipper?” “I cannot think of anyone who tipped more heavily, as you say.” “Did they ever have an argument in public?” He said he had never seen one. They were very private, they always sat by the wall, and they were always alone. They liked the restaurant, one of the waiters told him, precisely because it had no windows. “That’s a curious reason to like a restaurant.” “People come here for the privacy.” Only to Sleep “Did he ever meet anyone else here?” “He came midweek sometimes and had lunch with gentlemen. Never ladies. Sometimes they left together.” “What kind of gentlemen?” He shrugged. “Gentlemen.” “No Able Grables?” “Excuse me?” I’d forgotten he was too young to understand the reference, and I had to laugh off the gaffe. “I’m sorry, I mean girls. The loose kind. That’s what we called them back in the day.” I walked around the absurd hotel afterward, thinking how it might suit a man like Donald Zinn and how much he must have liked it. I was trying to understand his world, but in reality I already knew it. There were hundreds of Donald Zinns trapped inside hundreds of similar lives. They were no different from the swans and teals imprisoned within the landscaped gardens. Except that Donald was a black swan.

It was the house of a man both used to money and anxious not to lose it. I went upstairs and looked through the three bedrooms. On the mantelpieces were framed photographs of the couple, one at a polo field and another at a restaurant in Paris. Such are the interchangeable decors of the materially fortunate. The wardrobes were still packed with his splendid clothes. The velvet smoking jackets, the Huntsman suits, the shirts from Rome (or Horton Plaza). I sat in one of the velvet chairs, which seemed to match the jackets, and wandered through a bathroom with white shutters. It was as if they had walked out the day before and would be back for tea.

But it was all, of course, built on debt. That was the key fact about the Zinns: they borrowed and they never paid back. Paying back is for crumbs and heels. It’s the art of mirrors.

 

My last stop was the offices of Zinn’s company, Desert Blooms, in Del Mar. It lay on a street called Camino Real, filled with tree-shaded compounds and elegant developments, and all around it were the lush San Diego canyons bursting with flame vines. Del Mar was a favorite Mafia hangout because of the racetrack and the seafront hotels, and in the fifties at least, it had been a place where the caporegimes liked to play. I remembered it well, and not particularly fondly. I played a few blackjack tables there myself back in the day. But now it had moved up in the world, or down, depending on how you looked at it. I found the building where Desert Blooms was located and went up to the first floor. There, sure enough, were the glass doors with the company’s logo, but behind them all was mothballed. The office had closed down, and rather recently as far as I could tell. It didn’t mean that they were out of business, but they were no longer on Camino Real. A stack of sealed boxes stood on the former reception desk. I took a few photos of the closed office and went back down to the street, where nothing awaited me and nothing was to be found. His widow must have wrapped up his affairs swiftly and sold everything that could be sold. She was a wonder of efficiency. Now I understood why Pacific Mutual had gotten the shivers, even though there was nothing they could put their finger on.

Three

The next day I drove out to El Centro, two hours east on Interstate 8. I hoped to catch Dolores on the premises of her resort before dark came, but first I went out alone to the Salvation Army house on the edge of the commercial lettuce and radish fields where the border town peters out into dust and haze. There, by the Salvation Army, a fairground was in full swing in the spring heat, a Ferris wheel preparing for dusk and Mexicans in tall white Stetsons with their girls on their arms. Two miles north of the border it was still Mexico. It was ninety-seven in the shade and there was no shade. A warm day, you might say, at the end of spring, or the beginning of hell, or else in the middle of the Anza-Borrego. I bought a sugared churro and wandered about at the edge of this hidden world, feeling young for the first time in years. It happens like that, and sometimes in a single moment. You are no longer seventy-two years old. The ocotillos bloomed red, their flowers like stiff paper cups, and the mesquites were filled with gracklings, as if they were the first signs of a new lease on life: an old man in a ragged cowboy hat blinked at them and wondered if he had a year left after all. A year, maybe even two. I looked at my watch and saw that it was past three o’clock.

An hour later, I drove past the Southern Pacific freight yard and the edge of the ghetto beyond, past miles of light industrial warehouses, faded silos, and unused lots of desert scrub. In the area called Northside, gang insignia were sprayed onto the curbsides, Nuestra Familia and La M. The dark jacarandas and billboards loomed over the roads selling the virtues of Farmers Insurance and Sharma Homes. North of the city lay the human wilderness of Brawley and Calipatria. I knew the Salton Sea all too well and I doubted whether it, too, had changed much in eleven years. How much could a place called Slab City change for the better? The dread was eternal. Back then I’d spent blissful days at Bombay Beach and Durmid under those burned-coke mountains interviewing dead people. One day I’d go back as a tourist, but not in this lifetime.

A mile from the road was the site of the Palm Dunes Resort, and it was indeed an oasis of transplanted palms. The work crews had walked off one fine day—so it seemed—leaving the cement mixers and the hoes in place, and now there were only the adobe bungalows sitting in their glades of ornamental saguaros and the pools emptied of water but still glittering with art deco mosaics. The sand had blown in with the winds and silted up the public spaces, leaving ridges against the locked doors and the windowsills. I got out of the car and walked around. A security man tried to intervene but I charmed him off with some loose Spanish. He even told me how long the site had been shut down. And what about el patron, I asked. He shrugged and said he had no idea. He was a developer who had run out of money for his Dune Palms.

“What about the señora?”

“Señora Zinn?”

“She’s still here, isn’t she?”

He looked up with greater wariness into my old eyes that he didn’t know and my gringo sneer.

“How come you speak Spanish anyway?”

“I retired there.”

“Mexico?”

I said it didn’t concern him, I just needed to know if Señora Zinn was in her office that afternoon.

“Claro que si.”

I gave him a tip and didn’t ask permission to walk up to the gate and peer inside. He watched me go, and said nothing.

INTERVIEW WITH LAWRENCE OSBORNE

Bridget Lawless talks to Lawrence Osborne 

BL:  What was your reaction on being asked by the Chandler estate to write a new Philip Marlowe novel? Other writers have taken the challenge before you – did you talk to them first? Or have to think long and hard about it? Did they let you in on why they’d chosen you?

 LO:  I was quite surprised since it came out of the blue and I did not previously know Ed Victor, Graham C Greene or the rest of the Greene family who now run the Chandler estate. And at first I was inclined to refuse because I was doubtful about franchise continuation novels in general and about my ability to pull it off in particular. I don’t know Banville, so I didn’t confer with anyone else before accepting. My gut instinct was that I didn’t want to do a researched period piece – it’s not my thing. So it would have to be rooted in my own experiences. Meanwhile, I never did find out why they had chosen me, other than that Mr Victor, of the literary giants of London in my father’s generation, had read my stuff and found it not entirely wanting.

BL:  You’re a writer of original material. How does it work when you take a commission like this? Do you have a free hand in the story? Does the estate have to OK the idea? How involved are they in the process?

LO:  For me it was essential to have a free hand, and that involved both setting the story in a time and place I knew well myself and making Marlowe older in order to “own” him a bit myself. It would enable me to re-imagine the character instead of just copying it. I think at first the estate were a little taken aback at the idea of making him older. We haggled a bit about the age. I wanted him to be 82, they insisted on late fifties, and in the end we agreed on early seventies. Within a few lines of the beginning I knew this was right. I think I had it in the back of my mind anyway – I just had to be talked out of making him truly in his twilight years.

BL:  Marlowe is 72, an old man (by his own description – it’s not so old these days!) in Only To Sleep. He’s adopted a comfortable, slowed-down lifestyle, simple yet a little decadent, stripped back to the few things he really enjoys. What made you figure this would be how the old guy would choose to live out his days?

LO:  I have a fair number of friends of this age where I live now, in Bangkok, because it’s a place where guys often retire. I am very curious about their lives. Moreover, the novel is set initially in La Mira and Ensensada in Baja, where I also lived at the very period in which the novel is set, so I knew many of those types in that place as well. Here’s a quality they have : they don’t care about what people think about them. Why would they? I find this quality increasing in myself, I might add. The closer to the brink you get, the less you care about the drop on the other side. You might as well make life simple.

BL:  Your handling of a character we feel we know well is superb. He’s entirely recognisable, still sharp, witty, dry. The energy is dropped down a few notches, but the determination still there, and the nose for it. Yet unlike many of the ‘Chandleresque’ novels out there, you get it right. How important was it to read the novels or watch the Philip Marlowe films, to make it the same guy, just older, rather than a parody?

LO:  I consciously stayed away from re-reading or re-watching, but those novels and the adaptations are burned into my DNA at this point. I’ve been thinking about them all my life. When I was a small child I used to creep up to my great aunt’s bedroom –she lived with us in a large house in Haywards Heath – and against maternal orders stayed up lying hidden under her bed watching old noir movies on her black and white TV set. Those were the days when the BBC used to screen classic movies late at night. I remember watching “Build My Gallows High” – otherwise know as “Out of the Past” – and “The Lady in the Lake” thinking that these fairy tales inhabited by Robert Mitchum and Robert Montgomery, or Audrey Totter for that matter, were the ones I wanted to live in more than the rather boring one I actually did live in. Many times writing “Only to Sleep” I felt I was once more lurking under Aunty Mary O’Kane’s bed staring out into a beautiful alternate universe.

BL:  Marlowe is invited to investigate the supposed death of a wealthy man, who has left a very rich widow. Dolores is every bit his kind of gal, even if he’s lost his mojo somewhat… But he doesn’t know that when he takes the job. Why did you feel this particular story – a potential insurance scam – would be the one that could entice Marlowe out of retirement?

LO:  I’ve known a fair number of private detectives and I find they are often driven not just by money but by a deeper curiosity about the ways that human beings tick. They enjoy solving puzzles and decoding human motives. They are a bit like readers in that way. I once wrote a piece for Playboy about a P.I. in Thailand who used to follow insurance frauds across South East Asia. As a condition for talking to me he suggested that I go to Manila and bribe an official in the Manila town hall to issue me a death certificate – just so I knew what it was like to fake one’s own death. It was a strange experience to do it, to say the least. I guess I committed a felony in the Philippines but I still have my own death certificate and it hangs above my desk. I died of pneumonia in a reputable Manila hospital, it appears, and the certificate is signed by an imaginary aunt called Rose Osborne.

BL:  The novel takes us literally on a journey. I don’t think I recall Marlowe getting on a bus before. Slow travel suits him. This feels like a world and a landscape you know well. Did you live there while writing Only To Sleep?

LO:  I worked as a small town reporter out of San Diego, Chula Vista and El Centro on the Mexican border in the early nineties, so the place and time were intimately familiar to me, though I had never used that material, so to speak. It was a lonely and difficult time in my life, and I spent my time driving all over back-road Mexico and California chasing crime and human interest stories, often for weeks at a time living out of my car trunk. Without telling my employers I would skip off to little beach villages in Mexico and try to write failed novels with the dubious assistance of Mexican liquors. I guess I was pretty lost at that time and that feeling was easy for me to recall when writing “Only to Sleep.” A melancholy, rootless atmosphere that was my own, not Chandler’s. Mercifully, I was eventually fired for writing a story about a polluted river that runs through El Centro – the New River. But not before the town’s mayor called me into his office and threatened me and my room at the Kon Tiki motel was ransacked and its contents thrown into a dumpster. The Kon Tiki, of course, with its Chinese owners and the daughter playing her violin, made its way into the novel.

BL:  There’s a moral thread running through this story. Was that ‘true Marlowe” to you, or intended as some kind of redemption for the character?

LO:  I think there’s a moral thread in Chandler, as indeed there usually is in any novelist worth their salt. The tale, if it’s good, is usually a morality tale deep down – but not on the surface. The surface can be chintz and sequins.

BL:  Many writers need a fixed place to work. An anchorpoint from which their imagination travels. You seem to have a wonderfully nomadic life – living in many different countries around the world. Do you travel to find inspiration? Or… Are you on the run…?

LO:  Surprisingly, I am not on the run. I often wonder why not. I’ve lived in Bangkok for 7 years and it suits me just fine. It’s surprising how many people pass through. When I travel now I do so alone and out of curiosity. I go to Japan for real solitude, because its literature is the closest to my heart and because I am studying the language. In fact I am writing this in the great pine forests just outside Kyoto. It is the most perfect place in the world in my eyes.

BL:  Has writing ‘the new Philip Marlowe’ brought more attention than for Lawrence Osborne novels? Or brought a new audience to you? How do readers respond to contemporary writers daring to step into the shoes of writers and characters they love?

LO:  I would say the degree of attention is about the same, or even a little less. There are readers who are attracted to continuation novels and those who are scornful and wouldn’t go near one. The latter are hard to convert, though I valiantly tried. I see their point. But a novel after all is a novel, provided the writer puts his or her all into it. It should stand on its merits.