The Little Sister
Cover of the first US edition
|Publisher||Hamish Hamilton (UK)|
Houghton Mifflin (US)
|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, his fifth featuring the private investigator Philip Marlowe. The story is set in Los Angeles in the late 1940s. The novel centres on the younger 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 book was first published in the UK in June 1949; it was released in the United States three months later.
Mousy Orfamay Quest from Manhattan, Kansas asks Philip Marlowe to search for her older brother Orrin, who had recently come out to work in nearby Bay City (a fictional town modelled on Santa Monica). Marlowe starts with Orrin's last known address, a seedy apartment building. The superintendent there has passed out in a drunken stupor and when awoken tries to call a Dr. Lagardie before passing out again. Marlowe then finds a man who claims to be a retired optometrist living in Orrin's old room. As Marlowe leaves the building, he finds 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.
When Marlowe returns to his office, he gets a call from an anonymous man who offers him an easy $100 to hold something. As he enters the man's room at the Van Nuys Hotel, a blonde emerges from the bathroom with a towel covering her face. She strikes Marlowe with a gun, knocking him out. When he comes to, he finds the "retired optometrist" dead, also with an ice pick in his neck, and the room in disarray from a search. Marlowe remembers that the optometrist wears a toupée and finds a camera shop claim check hidden there. When he notifies the Los Angeles police of the murder, they recognise the victim as a minor player in organised crime.
Based on a tip from the hotel detective, Marlowe comes to realise that the woman in the hotel room was Mavis Weld, a rising movie star. He goes to her apartment, where he meets Dolores Gonzales, another minor star. He trades innuendos with Dolores and offers to help Weld, but she throws him out. After using the claim check to retrieve a set of photos of Weld and a reputed gangster named Steelgrave, Marlowe visits her agent and makes him understand that, far from trying to blackmail the star, he 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 now 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 drugged cigarette. When he comes to, he finds Orrin trying to get into the room. Orrin has been shot and, with his last ounce of strength, tries to stab Marlowe with an ice pick. This confirms Marlowe's suspicion that Orrin committed the other murders.
Marlowe knows that he must call the police, but first he tries to contact Orfamay to tell her of her brother’s death. She tells him that she had been following him, had found her brother and called the police after Marlowe left. Marlowe is now summoned to the station, where the police are rough with him, but he stands firm and, after an interview with the District attorney, is released to "straighten things out" himself.
Dolores Gonzales calls Marlowe to say he must come to Steelgrave's home in the Hollywood Hills immediately, hinting that Mavis Weld's life is in danger. When Marlowe arrives, he finds Mavis is indeed there, but Steelgrave has been killed with a gun of the same type that Mavis used to threaten Marlowe in the hotel room, and of the same calibre as the gun used to shoot 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 then calls the police to report finding yet another body.
Although initially angry, the police are ultimately grateful to have the case resolved with an end to a known gangster on whom they had no evidence and so 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 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 of killing Steelgrave, in revenge for Steelgrave's having killed Orrin at Lagardie's office.
Realising there is still one loose thread, Marlowe visits Dolores Gonzales at her apartment and she confesses to engineering the crimes. It was she who killed Steelgrave, her former lover, who had left her for Mavis, and then she had told Mavis that her sister Orfamay did it. At first Marlowe finds it hard to believe that someone who seems so casual about sex could be so passionate. Then he realises that he can't touch Dolores without destroying Mavis and her career and leaves, only to see Lagardie heading up to see her. Marlowe deduces that he was Dolores’ former husband, whom she had left for Steelgrave when they all lived in Cleveland before moving to California. Marlowe notifies the police, who are searching for Lagardie, but they arrive to find he has stabbed Dolores.
Chandler, along with Dashiell Hammett, defined the hardboiled school of detective fiction, popularised 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 used 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 philosophical 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 (ed.). 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 (ed.). 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 (ed.). 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 (ed.). 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 (ed.). The World of Raymond Chandler. New York: A & W Publishers. pp. (120). ISBN 978-0-89479-016-4.