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.

review: the lady in the lake

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler (1943)

This is the fourth novel featuring Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled private detective, Philip Marlowe.  The story begins with Marlowe meeting his client, Derace Kingsley.  Kingsley wants Marlowe to find his wife, Crystal Kingsley, who hasn’t been seen by anyone in a month.  Mrs. Kingsley was last seen at the mountain cabin the couple owns, and that is where Marlowe begins his investigation.  As the story develops, Marlowe once again must make his way through a world where everyone has something to hide, surfaces can be deceiving, and law enforcement is not only ineffective but corrupt.  Marlowe continues to be a flawed character and yet, just as Chandler mandated, he is the best man in his world. As is typical in hardboiled detective fiction, the plot is intricate and the disappearance of Mrs. Kingsley opens the door for murder, which Marlowe aims to solve while still protecting his client.  The climax of the novel for readers who have caught some of the clues but haven’t fully figured out the resolution to the mystery is both satisfying and surprising. The novel ends a bit abruptly but with one of Marlowe’s characteristic observations that possess multiple meanings.

The first six weeks of my summer vacation were spent teaching a course on classic and hardboiled detective fiction, and so I just recently re-read the first book in the Philip Marlowe series, The Big Sleep.  I think that rereading the first book in the series and teaching a class on the genre has definitely impacted my reading of The Lady in the Lake.  It adheres to the format and conventions of the hardboiled detective novel—there’s the femme fatale, the corruption of law enforcement, and the alternative forms of justice that the guilty are subject to.  But one of the things that makes this particular installment in this series stand out in my mind is that even though Marlowe is still very much the sleuth as loner and is still isolated and alienated from the world in which he lives and works, he’s not completely alone this time.  At the beginning of the novel he meets Sheriff Patton who is a source of help to Marlowe and who also holds, if not the exact same, then at least similar ideals of justice, morality, and ethics.  He has a personal code just as Marlowe does, and like Marlowe, he doesn’t waver from it while doing the best he can with what he’s got.  Also during the course of the investigation he meets Captain Webber, who once again is not the same as Marlowe and who sees Marlowe as a complication to the murder investigation and a dangerous, loose cannon.  The two men eventually come to at least respect each other and the struggle of the other to do good in a corrupt world.  Like The Big Sleep, Chandler gives us other characters who fall into the same category as Marlowe, and yet, it is still Marlowe who reveals the mystery and in his own (heroic) fashion, brings those who are guilty to justice.  Perhaps this is all to say that what I liked about this novel was Marlowe’s interaction with the other “good” men and I also appreciated that while the plot was intricate, it wasn’t as disconnected as some of the other Marlowe novels in that as a reader, I could see what some of the clues were adding up to and how they fit together.  This novel is by no means a “puzzle” like classic detective fiction of the Golden Age, but I didn’t feel like I was simply along for the ride as the action reached the climax.

There is something about The Lady in the Lake that makes it feel different from the first three novels in this series, but I struggle to put my finger on exactly what that is.  I think it has to do with my sense that the characters in this novel just aren’t as vividly drawn as the characters in previous novels, with Marlowe being the obvious exception.  The rest of the characters felt flat and only there to serve specific narrative and plot purposes.  If I have one complaint about the novel it is that I would have liked to see some of the other characters given more life.  Marlowe is definitely the star and the central focus of the novel (and the series as whole) but it seems that in this novel he has to do all of the heavy lifting without help from the supporting cast. In the final analysis, I would say that I liked The Lady in the Lake and would recommend it to other readers who have read any of the Philip Marlowe novels and/or readers who like early hardboiled detective fiction.  I don’t think you have to read the books in order, though I would recommend starting with The Big Sleep so that you can have a better idea of Marlowe’s philosophy, his code of ethics, and what drives him to do what he does.