review: the little sister

The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler (1949)

The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler is the fifth novel in the series featuring hardboiled private detective Philip Marlowe.  It seems that I read one Marlowe novel a year, so this is my book for 2013.  What I will remember most about The Little Sister is my sense that this is the “odd” one.

The story begins with Marlowe in his office.  He obviously doesn’t have a case or anything to do, so his focus is on a blue bottle fly.  Marlowe watches the fly, waiting for his chance, and when it finally arrives, his phone rings.  Marlowe answers, asks the caller to hold a moment in a soft voice, and then squashes the blue bottle fly. Then he returns to his caller, Orfamay Quest.  Orfamay is from Manhattan, Kansas, and she is in Los Angeles to find her brother, Orrin Quest, who has gone missing.  She is the eponymous little sister of the title, and with reluctance on both of their parts, Orfamay becomes Marlowe’s client.  Marlowe sets out to investigate, and in the course of two days he stumbles upon two murders, both of which he reports anonymously to the police.  From the second crime scene, he takes a piece of evidence that eventually leads him to a Hollywood starlet, Mavis Weld.  Though she declines his offer of assistance, Marlowe convinces her agent to retain his services so that Mavis Weld, too, is one of his clients and on whose behalf he can do further investigation.  It is also for her benefit and protection that Marlowe gets further enmeshed into the morally corrupt and decaying world that is Chandler’s fictional world of Los Angeles, to the point that he too gets his hands dirty, all in the name of protecting his client. Ultimately, Marlowe does find Orrin Quest and solves the series of murders that occur during his investigation, and as readers have come to expect, Marlowe is irrevocably changed by his experiences and the choices that he makes.

In The Little Sister, Chandler gives us a darker, edgier Philip Marlowe in the sense that it feels like, if Marlowe ever had any hope for humanity, it is now all gone.  He’s 38 years old in this novel, five years older than the Marlowe we meet in The Big Sleep.  It’s as though he has given up or lost some important part of himself and now all he has left is his personal code of ethics that drives his sense of duty to do the best for his clients.  I felt this especially in Chapter 13, where Marlowe repeats the phrase: “You’re not human tonight, Marlowe.” There’s also a point in that chapter where he narrates: “Well, what is my business? Do I know? Did I ever know? Let’s not get into that.  You’re not human tonight, Marlowe. Maybe I never was or ever will be.  Maybe I’m an ectoplasm with a private license.  Maybe we all get like this in the cold half-lit world where always the wrong thing happens and never the right.” This is what I mean when I say Marlowe has lost something important, and here he states plainly what that something is: his humanity.  It’s this loss of feeling human that plagues Marlowe throughout the novel, and what makes it more interesting is his response to the three women in the novel.

Hardboiled detectives are always confronted with the femme fatale, and though they are tempted by them, they can never give into them.  This blueprint is followed in The Little Sister.  Orfamay Quest, Mavis Weld, and Dolores Gonzales (another actress) each represent sexual temptation and at various moments, damsels in distress in need of Marlowe’s help.  Also typical of Chandler’s femme fatales, they express the extent of the moral decay and corruption of Chandler’s post-war Los Angeles.  All three women are transplants to Los Angeles, and all three succumb to its corrupting influence and, like Marlowe, lose part of their own humanity.  Not surprisingly, it is the woman who has kept some semblance of humanity that gains most of Marlowe’s support and becomes the one woman he’s willing to sacrifice himself for.  Because even though this Marlowe is older and more cynical, we are still supposed to see him as the knight from The Big Sleep.  Tarnished and forced to get dirty in order to serve his clients, but a knight nonetheless.  But it’s Marlowe’s response to all of these women that intrigues me in that they throw themselves at him, and he doesn’t resist, but there’s also no pleasure either, and I think this is intended to further demonstrate his loss of human.  No, he’s not supposed to care for these women in a romantic sense, but it’s also that he seems to lack the ability to care for these women beyond a detective-client relationship.  I’ve always had difficulty with the way Chandler characterizes women, but at the same time, I can see how his characterization of them is intended to be representative of the world Marlowe is forced to navigate.  This novel in particular, though, seems more intent upon developing the female characters so that they highlight the growing disillusionment and nihilism of Marlowe’s worldview.

I said above that I would think of The Little Sister as the “odd” one.  Throughout the novel, Marlowe is just bumbling along, not sure where he’s going or what he should do next.  This is typical of hardboiled detective fiction, but this novel is even more chaotic and nonsensical than most.  This wasn’t my favorite Chandler novel, but what I did like was the evolution of Marlowe’s character.  If you’re reading the entire series, don’t skip this one; if you haven’t read any of the books in the series, definitely don’t start with this one.  It can stand alone, but it isn’t the right one for an introduction to Philip Marlowe.  My final analysis is that The Little Sister was okay, but I’m hoping the last novel, The Long Goodbye, will be better.

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