Perchance to Dream

A sequel to The Big Sleep? Are they kidding? Sure, Robert B. Parker did an okay job a couple of years ago when he took an unfinished Raymond Chandler manuscript, Poodle Springs, and built it into a complete, agreeably minor outing for that quintessential shamus, Philip Marlowe. (Chandler died in 1959.) But with The Big Sleep, the book that introduced Marlowe to the world back in 1939, you’re talking Immortal Classic. Marlowe’s hard-boiled narration — imitated, parodied, yet never equaled — seethes with wry, laid-back bitterness. The whiplash dialogue, much of which is gloriously preserved in the Bogart-Bacall movie version, still seems amazingly fresh and smart. Plus: hothouse atmosphere to spare and a plot full of gorgeous, disturbing twists. Can Parker come even close to measuring up?

Well, close. As Poodle Springs demonstrated, Parker has no trouble telling a story in the spare, coolly sardonic Chandler/Marlowe voice. True, Parker’s Marlowe, unlike the original, is a bit of a lightweight: He never zaps us with an arresting image, never sneaks over into genuine, tough poetry. But he also never strains pretentiously (like many other imitation Marlowes) or gets sappily self-indulgent (like Parker’s own creation, Spenser of Boston). Instead, Parker plays it smooth and safe — so safe that he even gets away with inserting chunks of The Big Sleep itself, as flashbacks, right into his brand- new chapters. The result is almost as thoroughly readable as the real McCoy, with sharp-focused details and enough wisecracks (sturdy rather than brilliant) to give the dialogue a Chandleresque sizzle.

Stylishly delivered or not, the tale Parker has concocted for this sequel doesn’t seem worthy of the occasion. It begins promisingly enough. A couple of years after the grim Big Sleep fade-out, Marlowe is summoned back to the Sternwoods’ hillside Los Angeles mansion. The general has died.His older daughter, Vivian (the Lauren Bacall role), still lives there, along with quiet, all-knowing Norris the butler. But younger daughter Carmen, sexually voracious and seriously warped, has been living at Resthaven, a posh psychiatric asylum — until recently, that is. Now, it appears, she has vanished from the sanitarium. So ever-faithful Norris hires Marlowe to find her.

Where’s Carmen? Why does everyone — including Vivian and the police — seem to want to hush up her disappearance? Is there a connection to the discovery of a woman’s mutilated corpse in a gully not far from the asylum? Unfortunately, these intriguing questions are answered all too quickly and bluntly: Carmen has become the latest sex slave of a sadomasochistic billionaire who has friends in high places (including the White House) and nearly unlimited power. There’s little suspense, and virtually no mystery, as Marlowe sets out to rescue Carmen from the cartoonish villains whose assorted crimes (a water-rights scam, dismemberment murders) are uncovered along the way. The action is steadily paced and effectively violent but no substitute for the layers and secrets of a vintage Raymond Chandler plot.

Parker, incidentally, gives away all the secrets of The Big Sleep in the first few chapters of Perchance to Dream. So stay away from the sequel if you haven’t already read — or seen — the original. And, if you do know The Big Sleep, don’t come looking for a comparable experience. All you’ll find here is a shrewd, affectionate tribute to the Chandler style and a brief reunion-half pleasurable, half frustrating — with a few of those memorable Big Sleep characters. B

Perchance to Dream
  • Book