Lawrence Osborne on re-imagining Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's iconic sleuth

The British novelist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about writing the quintessential hard-boiled detective's final case.
Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist currently residing in Bangkok. (Chris Wise)
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Novelist and journalist Lawrence Osborne writes as adventurously as he lives. Born in England, he's spent time in Mexico, Greece, Italy, France, Morocco, Cambodia and Thailand, and draws on his experience of diverse locations to create rich, vivid settings in his work.

For his latest book, Only to Sleep, Osborne was invited by the Raymond Chandler estate to write a new novel featuring Philip Marlowe, Chandler's enduring private detective. In a unique twist, Osborne sets his story in Mexico, luring an aging Marlowe out of a comfortable retirement for one more investigation.

Osborne's novels often feature European expatriates facing dramatic events in far-flung places — the Moroccan desert in The Forgiven, China's Macau peninsula in The Ballad of a Small Player and the Greek island of Hydra in Beautiful Animals. His nonfiction includes Paris Dreambook and The Wet and the Dry, a memoir about bar-hopping through the Islamic world.

Osborne spoke with Eleanor Wachtel from his home in Bangkok.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it...

"My first instinct was to not write a Philip Marlowe story. I didn't really want to. This whole idea of a franchise, to me, is something like James Bond. But I thought to myself that if I could make him old and set it in the Mexico where I had lived in 1990, I could do it. That way, it wasn't just a pastiche based on research or what other people had already done — I could draw from my own experience. 

"It was a flattering yet dangerous proposition, one where the diehard Chandler fans will sneer at you for not being up to the standards of the master. I don't want to compete with Raymond Chandler. I don't want to compete with other Marlowe writers, like John Banville or Robert B. Parker. With Only to SIeep, I wanted to write my own book. If I had not been able to find my own voice in this, I would not have accepted it."

Chivalry, dead or alive

"There's a medieval, romantic aspect to Marlowe, which I think is what Chandler intended. It's such an anachronism in the culture that we have now. It's maybe even an aspect of outmoded masculinity, which is maybe not outmoded at all, but it's certainly part of a masculinity that no longer has credibility today.

"Masculinity it may be, but it's also gentle and generous in spirit. It's a point to consider whether such virtues are more durable than we like to think, or whether they survive more than we think and are felt by more people than we realize. I think, actually, that it is a kind of eternal aspect of the male character."  

An evocative sense of place 

"I think we grow out of the landscapes we grew up in. It was D. H. Lawrence who coined the phrase 'the spirit of place' and I was a great devotee of Lawrence when I was a kid. It was Lawrence who famously arrived in a place and immediately started writing about it, even though he'd never been there before. His idea was that place itself has a kind of mystical electricity, one that you can feel in the animal sense, and you can even describe it.

"Place is a completely enigmatic thing. It's not something necessarily cultural; it's more than that. Landscapes have a kind of energy and a kind of character that is definitely distinct. For example, I go to Mongolia every year because I love archery. There's something about the spirit of place there in the Gobi desert that refreshes me in some way." 

Lawrence Osborne's comments have been edited and condensed.