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The Big Snooze : PERCHANCE TO DREAM: Robert B. Parker's Sequel to Raymond Chandler's 'The Big Sleep' (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $19.95; 271 pp.)

January 13, 1991|Dick Lochte | Lochte is the author of the mystery novels "Sleeping Dog" and Laughing Dog." and

"I grew up wanting to be Raymond Chandler, and now, in a sense, I am," novelist Robert B. Parker confided to a reporter for this paper late in 1988. It had just been announced that Parker, arguably the most popular private-eye writer extant, was going to complete a novel that Chandler, the master of the game, had been noodling with before his death. Parker went on to say, "It is an occasion for reviewers and critics to point out my failure: 'Well, he's no Chandler.' "

The 1989 publication of that book, "Poodle Springs," proved Parker to be something of a clairvoyant: Critics reported that he was no Chandler. But that didn't seem to matter very much. The novel was entertaining. Readers liked it. And one could understand why Parker would have wanted to "be Raymond Chandler" for the three months it took him to complete the work, especially if one had just contributed a short story to the collection "Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe." I can't speak for the other 22 mystery writers who wrote Marlowe stories for that anthology honoring the author's 100th birthday, but I can say that I had a fine old time being Chandler, however briefly.

Parker had an additional motivating force, however--a reported $1 million-plus advance for doing the job on "Poodle Springs." And it is likely that this added incentive is what prompted him to return once more to the Chandler well.

This time, unfortunately, the well was dry. No more incomplete novels. And so we have a yarn that is described on its cover as "Robert B. Parker's Sequel to Raymond Chandler's 'The Big Sleep.' " This identification might be to differentiate it from Chandler's own highly regarded sequel, "Farewell, My Lovely." More likely, it serves the purpose of linking the names of both novelists in the same way they were linked on the "Poodle" cover.

Further strengthening the similarity to that "collaborative" effort, Parker has salted his "Dream" with snippets from "Sleep." But this gimmick does his fiction no favor. The Chandler chapters in "Poodle Springs," written when the author was at the end of his string, were far from his best. To say that Parker's continuation was seamless was not precisely a compliment. "Sleep," on the other hand, is an example of Chandler in his prime. The passages quoted are so perfectly wrought that they make Parker's prose seem pedestrian and slapdash.

The prologue of "Dream," for example, consists of most of "Sleep's" final chapter, including the famous lines: "What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill. You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. . . ." OK, take it Robert B.!

Parker follows with an uncluttered, bare-bones work in which Marlowe is hired to locate Carmen Sternwood, a murderous nymphomaniac who has gone missing from the sanatorium where she was deposited just after "Sleep's" finale. The detective goes about his task with determination, pausing to crack wise, bed down Carmen's jaded older sister (something he purposely avoided in "Sleep"), join forces with Eddie Mars (the suave mobster who tried to have him killed in the earlier book) and in relatively short order--this is a remarkably brief novel--he accomplishes his purpose.

There is only one dogleg in the plot, leading Marlowe to an investigation of a land-and-water scam straight out of the Chandleresque film "Chinatown." Parker adds nothing to the old characters, and his new ones are fairly familiar--the brooding small-town cops, the evil psychiatrist, the tough-talking-but-good-hearted elderly woman who runs a tank-town newspaper. It's not a particularly inspired or clever concoction.

And, as if the occasional "Sleep" sections didn't offer enough contrast in quality and style, Parker indulges in the particularly self-defeating game of rephrasing Chandler. He writes: "It was the kind of heat where families begin to eye each other's throats, where mousy accountants turn savagely on their boss, where irritation turns to anger and anger turns to murder, and murder turns into rampage." Compare that awkward passage to Chandler's oft-quoted lines from "Red Wind": "It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountains and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husband's necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer in a cocktail lounge."

Every page of this strange little book makes you wonder why a mystery novelist justifiably famous in his own right would go to such lengths to highlight the gulf separating him from his acknowledged idol. Then a thought occurs: Maybe he felt so guilty about poaching on the idol's preserves that he bungled the job on purpose to make sure he wouldn't get away with it.

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