Book Review: The Little Sister (Raymond Chandler)

The Little Sister

Raymond Chandler

1949

“Who am I cutting my throat for this time? A blonde with sexy eyes and too many door keys? A girl from Manhattan, Kansas? I don’t know. All I know is that something isn’t what it seems and the old tired but always reliable hunch tells me that if the hand is played the way it is dealt that the wrong person is going to lose the pot. Is that my business? Well, what is my business? Do I know? Do I ever know? Let’s not go into that. You’re not human tonight, Marlowe. Maybe I never was nor ever would be.”

After releasing The Lady in the Lake in 1943, Raymond Chandler experienced a breakthrough.  It came in the form of a telephone call inviting him to assist with adapting a James M. Cain novella for an upcoming movie to be directed by Billy Wilder. Chandler took on the task, and the resulting film was 1944’s Double Indemnity – one of the benchmarks of film noir and a movie which remains one of the finest crime thrillers of all time. From there, Chandler found himself in demand as a Hollywood screenwriter. Four novels and a large pile of short stories into his literary career, Chandler had finally made the big time.

Regrettably, his subsequent work never quite matched the peak of Double Indemnity. Whilst he had access to all the resources and support he might have needed, only some of his works truly made it to the screen. The Blue Dahlia was one such production, but one that was made under difficult circumstances for Chandler, who was himself unhappy with much of the casting and approach, despite being the sole screenwriter assigned to the project.  Another original screenplay for a movie to be called Playback never came to fruition (though later was to emerge in novel format), and so after several years of varying success and involvement with big ticket actors and directors, the middle-aged Chandler grew disillusioned with the world of Hollywood, and returned once more to his literary endeavours and the character of Philip Marlowe. Less focused on creating a detective story, he used the book was an outlet for all the frustrations and disappointments he had accumulated over the years.

The resulting work, The Little Sister, is a strange and complex work, one which sets forth a staunch and damning depiction of the world of Hollywood, and Los Angeles itself.

Oher cities have something else, some individual bony structure under the muck. Los Angeles has Hollywood – and hates it. It ought to consider itself damn lucky. Without Hollywood it wold be a mail order city. Everything in the catalogue you could get better somewhere else.”

The story begins with Marlowe unenthusiastically waiting around in his office in his customary manner, with nothing better to do than trying to squat a small fly buzzing around his office, when he gets a call from a young lady called Orfamay Quest. She’s a young woman in from Manhattan, Kansas, and is trying to find her brother, Orin – a young man with a penchant for photography who has gone lost in the big bad world of Los Angeles. Out of boredom, Marlowe takes on the case. As he follows Orin’s trail, he finds himself dealing with back-street motels and reefer joints, before stumbling across two dead bodies, each with icepicks stuck in the pack of their necks. The trail then takes Marlowe to the home of Mavis Weld, a young movie starlet who has involved herself with some hoodlums and who may be the subject of a compromising photograph which could sink a gangster’s alibi – a photo that people would be ready to kill over. As the case progresses, Marlowe finds himself dealing with a nymphomaniac movie starlet, movie executives, dope-pushers, unhappy cops and almost finds himself on the receiving end of an icepick job. He eventually finds Orin, only to find out a further web of blackmail and deceit leading back to the mysterious young woman from Manhattan, Kansas…

The motion picture business is the only business in the world where you can make all the mistakes there are and still make money.”

The Little Sister isn’t the best of Marlowe’s outings – the story and underlying mystery are less developed and given less emphasis than in other works. It’s not uncharacteristic, with Chandler being a man who preferred creating strong individual scenes to creating a tight overarching plot, but some of the finer plot points and the ending chapters feel a little underwhelming compared to previous works.  That aside, it still contains several memorable scenes and certainly features some of Chandler’s most honest writing, as well as some of the best dialogue in the series – which is perhaps one of the key benefits Chandler took back from his time in Hollywood. As a character, Orfamay Quest is an interesting foil for Marlowe, and whilst she doesn’t actually have much direct involvement in the evens of the novel apart from visiting Marlowe’s office and making his life increasingly difficult for a while, she is an interesting character whose presence is still indirectly felt as the story moves along. Mavis Weld is also an interesting one – Chandler almost directly compares her with Martha Vickers, the actress who played Carmen Sternwood in 1946’s The Big Sleep, and who had a number of scenes cut or reduced due to fear that she was overshadowing the main lead, Lauren Bacall. When driving through Los Angeles, Marlowe takes in a movie starring Weld, and observes “Mavis Weld played second lead and she played it with wraps on. She was good, but she could have been ten times better. But if she had been ten times better half her scenes would have been yanked out to protect the star. It was as neat a bit of tight-rope walking as I’d ever saw.”

At its heart, The Little Sister is less a Philip Marlowe novel, and more of a Raymond Chandler novel. Whilst Marlowe often shared a number of the attributes and ethics of his creator, here Chandler seems to transpose himself into Marlowe far more than on previous occasions. It was something that would continue with The Long Goodbye and even Playback subsequently. But The Little Sister is the first time where Chandler truly put this into practice, and it succeeds pretty well. The book is a study into Los Angeles itself, and Chandler’s unhappiness in living in a world built around illusions and dreams. Having spent the preceding years working in Hollywood, with all its glamour and excess, he returned back disillusioned and somewhat disgusted with the movie industry. He continued to intermittently involve himself in movie projects – though not always with success, as with his involvement with Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train – but his strength remained as an author, working alone and under his own conditions.

“‘I do not draw a very sharp line between sex and business’, she said evenly. ‘And you cannot humiliate me. Sex is a net with which I catch fools. Some of these fools are useful and generous. Occasionally, one is dangerous.”

That’s not to say that his experiences didn’t seem to have an impact on his writing. Some of The Little Sister’s dialogue and descriptive passages are among the best in the series.  Also Chandler/Marlowe is much more open and forthcoming about the subject of sex this time around. Sex featured as an element in pretty much all of the previous Marlowe novels (most notably with Carmen Sternwood), but as a more of an unmentioned, secretive topic. Even the word sex is used sparingly –if ever. But with The Little Sister, it’s surprisingly direct. This was perhaps another result of Chandler’s time in Hollywood. Chandler was, by all accounts, cautions and rather hesitant when it came to the subject, and it must have been an eye-opener for him when he was on hand to witness the decadence and debauchery, not to mention the openness, of such matters within the industry. Marlowe himself remains pure, fending off the advances of a pair of luscious movie stars. It’s somewhat  ironic, given that Chandler himself reportedly engaged in affairs with studio secretaries, but then maybe Marlowe’s role remains that of the ‘shop-soiled Galahad’, and is perhaps Chandler trying to exert his own ideals in as best a way as he knew how – on the page.

Coming in-between Chandler’s Hollywood career and the book he would go on to release in 1953, The Long Goodbye, which many believe to be his magnum opus, time has treated The Little Sister with relative indifference. In other media, one film adaption staring James Garner was released in 1969 which has remained fairly overlooked since its release, and the BBC adapted it for radio twice. Once in the 1970s with Ed Bishop in the role of Marlowe, and then again in 2011 with Toby Stephens as part of the ‘Classic Chandler’ series which adapted all seven novels plus the posthumous Poodle Springs. This later adaption is surprisingly good and probably ranks as the best entry in that particular series.

As a detective story, it’s not up there amongst the likes of The Big Sleep or Farewell, My Lovely, but the point of the book was less to write a detective story but rather to create a story about vice, frustration and Chandler’s view of the world of Los Angeles as he knew it. On that level, it succeeds admirably. It’s still an enjoyable read and ultimately presents us with a rare and fascinating insight into the man behind the page.

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