Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister

The Little Sister was published in 1949 and is the fifth book to revolve around the sardonic and world weary hardboiled private detective hero Philip Marlowe. Raymond Chandler was deeply depressed and distracted at the time as his wife was ill and he had great difficulty finishing the novel. It was written on and off during a period that overlapped with him working for Paramount studios and he uses the story to throw some barbs at Hollywood (a place that he never seemed to like an awful lot, apparently find it shallow and tiresome) and also reflect on his general weariness and unhappiness. Marlowe, like Chandler, is an increasingly lost and disillusioned character in the book, almost frozen in places, increasingly prone to introspection as he haunts his familiar landscape of low rent post-war Los Angeles. There is always a seedy underbelly lurking beneath the surface and this is where Marlowe's cases inevitably lead him.
The story is set in 1947 and begins with Marlowe in his ramshackle office one morning trying to swat a fly as he waits for a client to arrive. He won't have to wait long. A woman named Orfamay Quest asks Marlowe to find her missing brother Orrin. "She didn't have to open her mouth for me to know who she was. And nobody ever looked less like Lady Macbeth. She was a small, neat, rather prissy-looking girl with primly smooth brown hair and rimless glasses." Orrin ran away to Los Angeles from the Midwest and hasn't been heard from for a few months. His letters home just stopped. Marlowe begins his search for Orrin, trawling through cheap tatty boarding houses, and - as ever - what appeared to be a fairly straightforward case at first glance soon becomes incredibly knotty and complicated.
It's probably reasonable to say that The Little Sister feels less essential than earlier Marlowe stories like Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep and doesn't have quite so many memorable supporting characters. Chandler admitted that the book was written in a bad mood and he was happy to be finished with it but the internal dialogue flourishes that he gives Marlowe here are certainly interesting as an insight into how Chandler was feeling at this stage of his life and career. "I was a blank man. I had no face, no meaning, no personality, hardly a name. I didn't want to eat. I didn't want to drink. I was a page from yesterday's calendar crumpled at the bottom of the waste basket."
Marlowe's increasing sense of loneliness in the story echoes the way Chandler felt with his wife often under the influence of sedatives and asleep for days at a time. Chandler always felt her absence most in the evenings because he no longer had anyone to talk to at night and there is a memorable scene in the book where Marlowe is driving home in the dark and all of a sudden can't face the thought of being alone and turns his car around up to the hills of Los Angeles. "I ate dinner at a place near Thousand Oaks. Bad but quick. Feed 'em and throw 'em out. Lots of business. We can't bother with you sitting over your second cup of coffee, mister. You're using money space. See those people over there behind the rope? They want to eat. Anyway they think they have to. God knows why they want to eat here. They could do better home out of a can. They're just restless. Like you. They have to get the car out and go somewhere. Sucker-bait for the racketeers that have taken over the restaurants. Here we go again."
Marlowe is older now and more grizzled and cynical than ever but he's still on the side of the angels despite the mean streets he has to navigate. He might not be perfect but he'll never sell his soul to anyone. Marlowe's sarcastic sense of humour is still very much intact though - as is his Ian Fleming's literary James Bond capacity to take a beating and stagger back to his office for strong coffee and eggs at some madly unsocial hour. The wit of the character is more defensive than usual as if it's now used to protect himself. The absurdity and harsh reality of life is always far too apparent to our hard-drinking loner hero.
The story is twisty (probably too twisty in this case) in the usual Chandler fashion and although not really his very best the sense of time and place is still vivid and superbly captured. The actual reveal is sort of explained to us at the end rather than presented as an interlocking series of clues that the reader might be able to fathom for themselves and although it seems to slightly contradict some of Chandler's own thoughts on fiction of this type I don't think it's a huge weakness in this context. Marlowe is not Sherlock Holmes and often seems as if he's completely in over his head but it's his dogged persistence rather than his detective skills than will inevitably win through in the end however pyrrhic the victory might be. What Marlowe has is a certain type of street savvy and the ability to size people up.
The key plot element is borrowed from an incident involving a real life gangster (can't say who for fear of spoilers) and The Little Sister notably brings Marlowe into the orbit of Hollywood. Chandler famously worked as a writer on classic films like Strangers On A Train and Double Indemnity but didn't have much affection for Hollywood. He was removed from Strangers On A Train after loudly referring to Alfred Hitchcock as a "fat b*******" and was highly irritated by Billy Wilder's twirling cane (I'm not making this up) when he had to collaborate with him. When Marlowe comes into contact with an actress or observes the twinkling lights of Hollywood, Chandler lets us know exactly how he (and his sardonic narrator of course) feels about Tinseltown and the people who work there. "Behind Encino an occasional light winked from the hills through thick trees. The homes of screen stars. Screen stars, phooey. The veterans of a thousand beds."
Marlowe's relationship to the city ("The most of everything and the best of nothing," says Marlowe) feels especially jaundiced in the novel and inspires some very Chandleresque flourishes. Note how he contrasts the natural beauty of the city with the man-made seediness it contains in his introductory passage. A perfect example of the lyrical slightly soppy and bitter cynical sides of Chandler all in one. "It was one of those clear, bright summer mornings we get in the early spring in California before the high fog sets in. The rains are over. The hills are still green and in the valley across the Hollywood hills you can see snow on the high mountains. The fur stores are advertising their annual sales. The call houses that specialize in sixteen-year-old virgins are doing a land-office business. And in Beverly Hills the jacaranda trees are beginning to bloom."
The Little Sister is a very interesting read with some great moments but it does unavoidably suffer a little when judged alongside the Marlowe series as a whole and is a good book but one that feels like a slightly strange later entry in a series that has already peaked. I love some elements of the novel but it feels like Chandler never quite got a handle on the plot in places - frazzled and distracted as he was at the time and less willing to read the book over and rewrite as he might usually have done. Still, it goes without saying, that even so-so Chandler is still superior to most other works of detective fiction.
- Jake

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