The Little Sister
First edition (U.S.)
|Publisher||Houghton Mifflin (U.S.)
Hamish Hamilton (U.K.)
|Media type||Print (hardback and paperback)|
|Preceded by||The Lady in the Lake|
|Followed by||The Long Goodbye|
The Little Sister is a 1949 novel by Raymond Chandler, the fifth in his popular Philip Marlowe series. The story is set in Los Angeles in the late 1940s. The novel centers on the little sister of a Hollywood starlet and has several scenes involving the film industry. It was partly inspired by Chandler's experience working as a screenwriter in Hollywood and his low opinion of the industry and most of the people in it.
The story opens when mousy Orfamay Quest phones and then visits Philip Marlowe's office in search of a detective. Orfamay is a "small, neat, rather prissy-looking girl with primly smooth brown hair and rimless glasses" from Manhattan, Kansas, who has come to Los Angeles to search for her older brother Orrin. Orrin had recently come out to nearby Bay City (a fictional tough town that appears in many Chandler novels, modeled on Santa Monica) to work as an engineer for the Cal-Western Aircraft Company, but in recent months he had stopped writing to Orfamay and their mother. Orfamay describes her concern to Marlowe and asks that he find her brother. Although Orfamay seems to be an innocent, small-town girl, Chandler foreshadows that she is not what she seems by having Marlowe say, in his initial description of her, "and nobody ever looked less like Lady Macbeth."
Marlowe starts with Orrin's last known address, a seedy apartment building in Bay City. Receiving no response at the front door, he breaks in at the back and encounters a man counting money. The man thinks that Marlowe is there to rob him, and a fight breaks out in which Marlowe disarms him. The man flees, and Marlowe proceeds further into the building, finding the superintendent passed out in a drunken stupor. He wakes the man, who tries to call a Dr. Lagardie before passing out again.
Marlowe then finds a man who presents himself as a retired optometrist living in Orrin's old room. The man seems cagey for a retired optometrist, and he and Marlowe trade wisecracks as they both try to feel each other out for information. During the exchange, Marlowe notices that the "optometrist" wears a toupee and is carrying a gun.
As Marlowe leaves the apartment building, he notices the superintendent lying unconscious. At first he assumes the man has passed out, but upon closer examination he sees that the superintendent is dead, having been stabbed in the neck with an ice pick. Marlowe phones the Bay City police to report the murder, but doesn't leave his name.
Marlowe returns to his office, where he gets a call from an anonymous man who offers him an easy $100 to hold something. Marlowe agrees to meet the man at his hotel. As he enters the man's room, a blonde emerges from the bathroom with a gun in her hand and a towel covering her face. She strikes Marlowe with the gun, knocking him out.
When he comes to, he finds the "retired optometrist" dead, also with an ice pick in his neck. The room has been searched and is in disarray. From the kind of containers that have been opened, it seems that someone was looking for a small object. As Marlowe surveys the scene, he tries to think of a spot that the killer may have missed. He remembers the optometrist's toupee, which is now fixed to the dead man's head. He removes the toupee and finds a claim check for the Bay City Camera Shop. He keeps the claim check and notifies the Los Angeles police of the murder.
The police arrive and, as they survey the scene, recognize the victim as a minor player in organized crime. Marlowe, wishing to keep his client shielded from the police, tells them the truth about getting a call from the man to come to his hotel, but not about having met the man earlier. The police are not satisfied that he is giving them a complete explanation, but they let him go for the time being.
Mavis Weld is currently a supporting star, but her prospects for true stardom seem very promising, prospects that could be destroyed if a love affair with a gangster made the news. Marlowe goes to Weld's apartment, where he meets Dolores Gonzales, another minor movie star. He flirts and trades innuendos with Gonzales and offers to help Weld, but she throws him out.
Two thugs sent by Weld's agent try to scare Marlowe off the case. Marlowe goes to see the agent and makes him understand that, far from trying to blackmail Mavis Weld, Marlowe may be able to help her.
Through his investigations, Marlowe learns that the photos of Weld were taken by Orrin, Orfamay's missing brother. He also finds out that Orrin is working with a shady doctor named Lagardie, who practices in Bay City. Marlowe confronts Lagardie, but as they talk, Marlowe is knocked unconscious by a cigarette laced with a small amount of cyanide, which Lagardie had given him. When Marlowe comes to, he finds Orrin in the room with him. Orrin has been shot and is dying. With his last ounce of strength, Orrin tries to stab Marlowe with an ice pick. This confirms Marlowe's suspicion that Orrin committed the murders of the building superintendent and the phony optometrist.
Marlowe knows that he must call the police, but first he tries to contact Orfamay. He feels that he owes it to her to let her know that her brother has died before he calls the police. Before he can meet with her, however, the police contact him and request he come down to the station at once. Orfamay contacts him, informing him that she followed him, found her brother and called the police after Marlowe left.
The police are rough with Marlowe, finally fed up with his half-truths and eating his dust. Marlowe stands firm and, after playing cards all night with an unassuming detective, is released in order to "straighten things out" himself.
Dolores Gonzales calls him to say he must come to Steelgrave's home immediately, hinting that Mavis Weld's life is in danger. Marlowe senses a trap, but he straps on his gun and drives with her to Steelgrave's home in the Hollywood hills.
When Marlowe arrives, he finds Mavis Weld is indeed there, but Steelgrave has been shot to death, with a gun of the same type that Mavis used to threaten Marlowe in the hotel room, and of the same caliber as the gun used to kill Orrin. Weld confesses to Marlowe that she killed Steelgrave and is ready to turn herself in. Marlowe convinces her to leave the gangster's home, and he calls the police to report finding yet another body.
Although initially angry that Marlowe has clearly made adjustments to the scene to make Mavis Weld's involvement in Steelgrave's death appear ambiguous, the police are ultimately grateful to have the case resolved and an end to a known gangster on whom they had no evidence and could not hold. When Mavis Weld's agent hires a society lawyer to defend her reputation, the police accept that they don't have a convincing case against anybody.
Back in his office, Marlowe is visited by Orfamay one last time. He confronts her with the truth that she knew all along about the photos Orrin took, that her real motive was to get money from Mavis Weld, who is her sister, and that it was she who told Steelgrave where to find Orrin in exchange for $1000. He also accuses Orfamay, not her sister Mavis, of killing Steelgrave, as revenge for Steelgrave's having killed Orrin at Lagardie's office.
The case seems wrapped up, but Marlowe realizes there is still one loose thread. He confronts Gonzales at her apartment. She was in fact the one pulling the strings, manipulating Doctor Lagardie and Orrin. She confesses to Marlowe that she engineered the crimes. He finds that Dolores Gonzales killed Steelgrave and told Mavis that her sister Orfamay did it. Dolores claims she did it for revenge, because she was in love with Steelgrave, who had left her for Mavis.
Dolores tells Marlowe that her motive for killing Steelgrave was love – of Steelgrave, not money. At first Marlowe laughs in her face, finding it hard to believe someone who seems so casual about sex could be so passionate about love, but then he realizes she is sincere: Gonzales was indeed in love with Steelgrave and was jealous of Mavis Weld. Marlowe realizes that he can't touch Gonzales without destroying Mavis and her career. He leaves her apartment dejectedly, only to see Lagardie heading up to see her. Marlowe realizes the doctor plans to kill her, and notifies the police but does not intervene. The police arrive to find her dead.
Chandler, along with Dashiell Hammett, defined the hardboiled school of detective fiction, popularized in pulp magazines such as Black Mask. The hardboiled school was an alternative to the traditional murder mysteries of people like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Unlike the mannered, complex plots typical of these authors, the hardboiled stories moved "murder out of the Venetian vase and into the alley" and "gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish."
One thing that distinguished Chandler's hero Philip Marlowe even from his other hardboiled peers is that Marlowe often doesn't apprehend the criminal or explain every plot point at the end of the novel. Marlowe is a witness to events and, at most, is able to manipulate them in subtle ways to balance the scales of justice a bit. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Little Sister. Marlowe is always arriving too late to prevent a murder or catch the criminal. Even at the very end, when he has finally solved the complex riddle of the case, his last act is simply to notify the police too late and let events take their course.
The Little Sister was the first novel Chandler wrote after working as a screenwriter for Paramount in Hollywood, and it reflects some of his experiences with and disdain for the film industry.
Although Chandler's name and fiction are almost synonymous with Los Angeles, he spent most of his adolescence in England, and he retained a preference for manners and formality that he learned in the English public school system. This put him at odds with the informal atmosphere in Hollywood.
For example, Chandler took an instant dislike to Billy Wilder, his writing partner on Double Indemnity. According to Wilder's recollection, "[Chandler] was a very peculiar, a sort of rather acid man, like so many former alcoholics are... he didn't really like me ever."
Chandler was not the kind of person to directly confront someone. The partnership with Wilder seemed to be going well on the surface. Then one day Chandler did not show up for work, but instead delivered a typed list of complaints to Paramount officials, demanding that they be resolved before he would return to working on the script. John Houseman, one of Chandler's few Hollywood friends, remembers one item in particular:
"Mr Wilder was at no time to swish under Mr Chandler's nose or to point in his direction the thin, leather-handled malacca cane which Mr Wilder was in the habit of waving around while they worked." 
Chandler utilized this experience in the novel. When Marlowe visits the office of Mavis Weld's agent (Chapter 18), he describes the agent in a manner reminiscent of his complaint against Wilder:
He walked away from me to a tall cylindrical jar in the corner. From this he took one of a number of short thin malacca canes. He began to walk up and down the carpet, swinging the cane deftly past his shoe.
I sat down again and killed my cigarette and took a deep breath. "It could only happen in Hollywood," I grunted.
He made a neat turn and glanced at me. "I beg your pardon."
"That an apparently sane man could walk up and down inside the house with a Picadilly stroll and a monkey stick in his hand."
As in all of Chandler's novels, one of the major themes in The Little Sister is the love/hate relationship that Chandler had with Los Angeles and Hollywood. Much of the novel is devoted to mockery of the phoniness and self-importance of people in the film industry. And one of the most memorable passages in the book is a long soliloquy by Marlowe where he waxes philosophically about the emptiness and shallowness of Los Angeles and its residents. That section is punctuated by Marlowe saying to himself "You're not human tonight, Marlowe."
At the same time, one of the main villains of the novel, the one "who never looked less like Lady Macbeth," is not the film star of the Quest family, but the little sister: the mousy small town girl who ultimately cares more for a few dollars than for her siblings. Meanwhile, the heroine who is willing to sacrifice herself, and whom Marlowe ultimately rescues, is the jaded Hollywood starlet, Mavis Weld.
- Bayley, John (2002). "Introduction". Raymond Chandler Collected Stories. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. (xi). ISBN 0-375-41500-9.
- Chandler, Raymond (1950). The Simple Art of Murder. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0394757653.
- Davies, Russell (1978). "Chapter 3: Omnes Me Impune Lacessunt". In Gross, Miriam. The World of Raymond Chandler. New York: A & W Publishers. p. (33). ISBN 978-0-89479-016-4.
- Houseman, John (1978). "Chapter 5: Lost Fortnight". In Gross, Miriam. The World of Raymond Chandler. New York: A & W Publishers. pp. (55). ISBN 978-0-89479-016-4.
- Wilder, Billy (1978). "Chapter 4: On the Fourth Floor at Paramount". In Gross, Miriam. The World of Raymond Chandler. New York: A & W Publishers. p. (46). ISBN 978-0-89479-016-4.
- Houseman, John (1978). "Chapter 5: Lost Fortnight". In Gross, Miriam. The World of Raymond Chandler. New York: A & W Publishers. pp. (54). ISBN 978-0-89479-016-4.
- James, Clive (1978). "Chapter 10: The Country Behind the Hill". In Gross, Miriam. The World of Raymond Chandler. New York: A & W Publishers. pp. (120). ISBN 978-0-89479-016-4.