Philip Marlowe is not the sort of private eye to flinch or shy away from troublesome clients. When he gets a phone call from a young woman who thinks she wants to hire him - although she doesn't approve of his drinking or smoking and doesn't think he's a gentleman - he hangs up the phone on her. That, he muses, was a mistake: "It was a step in the right direction, but it didn't go far enogh. I ought to have locked the door and hid under the desk." Instead, he finds himself drawn into a dark and violent search through the glitz of Hollywood in the late 1940s. You'll find the story in Raymond Chandler's 1949 novel, The Little Sister, and believe me, Marlowe should have followed his instincts. The Little Sister is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
The woman who telephoned Marlowe about hiring him turns up at his office and does, in fact, hire him. Her name is Orfamay Quest, she has come to Los Angeles from her home in Manhattan, Kansas, and she wants Marlowe to find her younger brother, who left home to take a job in Los Angeles but who has failed to communicate with his family. The trail leads Marlowe to Hollywood and the definitely tarnished glamor of the movie industry.
Sound pretty straightforward? Well, no. This is Raymond Chandler, after all, and it isn't long before the bodies are piling up, Marlowe is finding that just about everyone has secrets to hide and is lying to him, and his client is turning out to be...well, let's just say, difficult. The plot is complex, with a fair number of twists and turns, violent and very dark indeed.
All of that is redeemed, for me, by Chandler's clever writing; he can come up with one-line descriptions that make any writer jealous. Of one Hollywood actress, for example, he says, “She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.” Or consider this description of a night-time drive through Los Angeles and Studio City:
"I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed carhops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad."
My edition of The Little Sister quotes a New Yorker magazine review that says Chandler wrote as if pain hurt and life mattered. Readers looking for a happily-ever-after ending won’t find it here; in this world, everyone and everything is damaged. But they will find an intense but ultimately pleasurable reading experience.
As part of my continuing commitment to the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog, I am submitting this to cover the Bingo square calling for one book with a size in the title. For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.