by Robert B. Parker
Parker’s sequel to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep raises a question: what’s next? Rosamunde Pilcher’s sequel to Jane Eyre?
In 1989 Parker took four chapters of an unfinished Chandler novel and spun them into the well-received Poodle Springs. Parker, perhaps, thought he had found a cottage industry to supplement his Spenser detective novels. He should think again.
With Perchance to Dream, Parker set himself a daunting challenge: create a sequel to a Chandler classic. That he’s not really up to the challenge is clear at the outset.
Parker reprints most of Sleep’s last chapter as a prologue to Dream. This is handy, indeed crucial, for readers unfamiliar with Chandler’s novel, but when Parker picks up the story, one can’t help notice the differences in style. Chandler’s prose is terse, powerful and funny when the need arises: Parker’s is cutesy, flimsy and too prone to wisecracks. Passages from Sleep are sprinkled throughout Dream, simply underscoring the gulf between master and protégé.
Parker starts well, reintroducing the characters from Chandler’s original. Here detective Philip Marlowe is hired by the late General Sternwood’s butler to find the disturbed Carmen Sternwood, who has disappeared from a sanatorium. Marlowe, in between downing shots of rye in his atmospheric office, forms an uneasy alliance with Sleep’s charming thug, Eddie Mars, to bring down the doctor and a multimillionaire he’s fronting for. The conclusion, when it comes, is unconvincing.
Snappy similes are a staple of the hard-boiled genre, and Parker goes head-to-head with his mentor. To Chandler, something isn’t just empty, it’s as empty as “rain barrels in a drought” or “a headwaiter’s smile.” Here’s Parker describing Marlowe after he has been banged around by bad guys: “My head felt like the inside of a snare drum,” “as if I’d been wrestling in a gravel pit” and “like I had been dragged in by a cat and rejected.” Advantage Chandler.
From Dream’s plot about water rights (remember Chinatown?) to the character names—the evil sanatorium chief is Dr. Bonsentir (get it, French students?)—to the fact that three chapters end with the exact same sentence, Parker’s writing shows a surprising dearth of imagination.
Here’s some free advice, Mr. Parker: Stick to Spenser, and let Philip Marlowe sleep the big sleep in peace. (Putnam. $19.95)