The Little Sister
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard – 1949
Okay, I’ll admit it: The reason I’m reviewing “The Little Sister” is because I’m completely obsessed with Raymond Chandler. How could I not be? The man basically created an entire literary genre, or at least, he gave a previously ‘pulp’ genre literary aspirations. The detective novel probably wouldn’t be such a popular genre today were it not for the efforts of such men as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald. I might be inordinately obsessed with them, but that doesn’t mean their works are not worth reading. Far from it.
Raymond Chandler’s short stories were originally published in the pulp magazine “Black Mask,” and he began writing screenplays for Hollywood films following the success of his first novel, “The Big Sleep,” whose main character, as with nearly all his writing, was one Philip Marlowe, the now-quintessential hard-boiled detective. The frustration and disgust Chandler felt for Hollywood culture were well-documented in letters to his agents, friends and colleagues: and even more so in “The Little Sister,” written near the middle of his career as both novelist and screenwriter.
“The Little Sister” is not the best of Chandler’s novels, but it is remarkable in its introspection: a quality that was sparse, if not lacking, in his previous novels. The 13th chapter is a heartbreaking sequence of Marlowe’s dissatisfaction and depression, with the repetition of the phrase “You’re not human tonight” demonstrating his frustration: so similar to Chandler’s own: with the culture of L.A. and the Hollywood of the ’40s, with its gambling dens, mobsters, pornography rings, blackmailers and extortionists, 114 murders a year and only dirty cops to solve them. And that’s only in Chandler’s world.
Joyce Carol Oates, in a review for “The New York Review of Books,” said that Chandler’s prose “rises to heights of unselfconscious eloquence, and we realize with a jolt of excitement that we are in the presence of . . . a stylist, a writer with vision.”
I would actually disagree with the first part of her statement: Chandler’s prose is very self-conscious. Not in the annoying, hipster way reviewers discourage nowadays, but in an endearing, self-deprecating style that Chandler knew precisely when to turn on and off. Philip Marlowe is constantly mocking other characters for their “’30s style of speech”: a hard-boiled style made popular, in part, by Chandler himself but more so by the magazine he wrote for. This self-awareness is part of Chandler’s style and stemmed from his desire to turn the hard-boiled genre into literature. His dry, cynical figurative language: which led fellow noir writer Ross Macdonald to say that Chandler “wrote like a slumming angel”: has been copied and parodied so often it seems almost clichéd, but becomes startling again when read in context.
There are moments in “The Little Sister” when one feels as if Chandler’s propensity for startling metaphor has gone a little too far: “His composed gray face was long enough to wrap twice around his neck,” “he had a jaw like a park bench,” and (my personal favorite) “I pushed it open, with the tenderness of a young intern delivering his first baby.” His descriptions of violence are almost offhand, which make them all the more disturbing. His depictions of female characters are, as always, problematic: Mavis Weld has an innocence at odds with her status as a Hollywood starlet, and Dolores Gonzales’s aggressive sexuality only seems to serve as contrast for that innocence.
Nevertheless, “The Little Sister” is in turns heartbreaking, hilarious, disturbing and sometimes all three at once. The mystery is difficult to track half the time, and by the end of the book you’re no longer sure who’s dead, who killed whom or even who’s responsible for the whole mess (Marlowe, perhaps, since his presence seems to set off most of the murders) but it doesn’t really matter anymore. As Chandler once said, it’s not the whodunit that matters in the end of a good detective novel, but the exploration of human nature, of the secrets that hide in daylight, of the darkness at the center of men’s souls that at times seeps out and drowns our natures in greed and despair and, of course, of the one man who spends his life in search of that “hidden truth,” abandoning everything except his honor. That is what the detective does, that is what he is, and that is what Chandler spent his whole career chronicling.