The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler (1949)

1. The artificial world of films and acting

Previous Chandler novels referred to their characters putting on acts, behaving like they’re in a B-movie, copying mannerisms from mobsters in the movies and so on. The Little Sister takes this theme to a new level.

This was the first novel Chandler wrote after a spell working as a Hollywood scriptwriter and he puts his insider information to good use. The key figure, Mavis Weld, is a Hollywood actress and the plot involves Marlowe in encounters with Hollywood agents, actors and wannabes, and even takes him onto the set of a movie being filmed. (Wikipedia informs me that aspects of the character of Mavis’s agent, Sheridan Ballou, were copied from Chandler’s writing partner, Billy Wilder, who he cordially disliked.) Accordingly, the incidence of acting similes and metaphors – along with references to contemporary actors (Orson Welles, Lillian Gish, Maureen O’Brien, Cary Grant) – shoots through the roof.

‘Aren’t you going to wrap it up in a handkerchief, the way they do in the movies?’ (Ch 27)

His finger tightened around the trigger. I watched it tighten… This was happening somewhere else in a cheesy programme picture. It wasn’t happening to me.’ (Ch 14)

‘I ought to slap your face off,’ I said. ‘And quit acting innocent. Or it mightn’t be your face I slap.’ (Ch 15)

‘I’m sure I didn’t know you scared that easy. I thought you were tough.
‘That’s just an act,’ I growled.

‘But you’re not in any jam. You’re right up front under the baby spot pulling every tired ham gesture you ever used in the most tired B-picture you ever acted in – if acting is the word -‘ (Ch 12)

‘I come up here to get co-operation,’ he told French… ‘You’ll get co-operation French said. ‘Just don’t try to steal the picture with that nineteen-thirty dialogue.’ (Ch 24)

And despite – or because of – his experience working in the Dream Factory, Chandler is not a fan of Hollywood. At least, Marlowe is not a fan of Hollywood. Throughout the novel Hollywood movies and their cheap gimmicks and mannerisms and corny dialogue, the sleazy sex-obsessed lifestyles of its stars, the corrupt greedy aspirations of people who want to get into movies, and the lowering of standards of behaviour which both the movies and the stars who populate the movies have encouraged among the population are the target of explicit diatribes, implicit in numerous descriptions of directors, agents and stars, and scattered in numerous throwaway remarks.

A long way off through trees I could see the lights of a big house. Some Hollywood big shot, probably, some wizard of the slobbery kiss, and the pornographic dissolve. (Ch 28)

And then there is the quality of the films themselves. In this novel Marlowe goes to see one and give us his disgusted commentary:

So I went to a picture show and it had to have Mavis Weld in it. One of those glass-and-chrome deals where everybody smiled too much and talked too much and knew it. The women were always going up a long curving staircase to change their clothes. The men were always taking monogrammed cigarettes out of expensive cases and snapping expensive lighters at each other… The leading man was an amiable ham with a lot of charm, some of it turning a little yellow at the edges. The star was a bad-tempered brunette with contemptuous eyes and a couple of bad close-ups that showed her pushing forty-five backwards almost hard enough to break a wrist. (Ch 13)

But his withering worldview is much wider than that. Marlowe’s tiredness comes from one man setting himself against the entire world, a world fallen catastrophically far from some fantasy prelapsarian Eden, in which men are performing apes or preening dandies, almost all women are sluttishly available, in which the bookish hero makes jokey references to Shakespeare or Wuthering Heights or Samuel Pepys which only emphasise the vast gulf between his literate and high standards and the gutter morals of the pond life he consorts with, in which the cops are corrupt and justice doesn’t exist and the bad flourish and the good die horribly.

2. The Fallen World of Philip Marlowe…

Once, long ago, it must have had a certain elegance. But no more. The memories of old cigars clung to its lobby like the dirty gilt on its ceiling and the sagging springs of its leather lounging chairs. (Ch 8)

I stepped out into the night air that nobody had yet found out how to option. But a lot of people were probably trying. They’d get around to it. (Ch 13)

In fact chapter thirteen is one long cynical plaint of disgust about the contemporary world, the ‘cold half-lit world where always the wrong thing happens and never the right’.

‘I used to like this town,’ I said… ‘A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverley Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars and no takers.Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the interurban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but good hearted and peaceful. It had the climate they just yap about now. People used ot sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn’t that, but it wasn’t a neon-lighted slum either… Now we get characters like this Steelgrave owning restaurants. We get guys like that fat boy that balled me out back there. We’ve got the big money, the sharp shooters, the percentage workers, the fast dollar boys, the hoodlums out of New York and Chicago and Detroit – and Cleveland. We’ve got the flash restaurants and night clubs they run, and the hotels and apartment houses they own, and the grifters and con men and female bandits that live in them. The luxury trades, the pansy decorators, the Lesbian dress designers, the riff-raff of a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup. Out in the fancy suburbs dear old Dad is reading the sports page in front of a picture window, with his shoes off, thinking he is high class because he has a three-car garage. Mom is in front of her princess dresser trying to paint the suitcases out from under her eyes. And Junior is clamped on the telephone calling up a succession of high school girls that talk pidgin English and carry contraceptives in their make-up kit.’ (Ch 26)

… in which all women are biddable…

 She reached a quick arm around my neck and started to pull. So I kissed her. It was either that or slug her. She pushed her mouth hard at me for a long moment, then quietly and very comfortably wriggled around in my arms and nestled. (Ch 7)

The girl behind the counter was a straw blonde with a long neck and tired eyes… She had a low lingering voice with a sort of moist caress in it like a damp bath towel. (Ch 8)

She slapped me delicately across the tip of my nose. The next thing I knew I had her in my lap and she was trying to bite a piece off my tongue. (Ch 12)

She hauled off and slapped me again, harder if anything. ‘I think you’d better kiss me,’ she breathed. Her eyes were clear and limpid and melting. (Ch 12)

‘You always wear black?’ I asked.
‘Yes. But it is more exciting when I take my clothes off.’ (Ch 23)

‘Will you make love to me tonight?’ she asked softly.
‘That is an open question. Probably not.’
‘You would not waste your time. I am not one of those synthetic blondes with a skin you could strike matches on. These ex-laundresses with large bony hands and sharp knees and unsuccessful breasts.’ (Ch 26)

… everyone behaves like B-movie tough guys…

 ‘Don’t get tough with me,’ the man said. ‘I’m a bad man to get tough with.’ (Ch 4)

I reached over and pressed down the riser on the phone. Held it that way while I fumbled around for a cigarette. I knew he would call right back. They always do when they think they’re tough. They haven’t used their exit line. (Ch 7)

‘Do you smoke that piece of old rope because you like it or because you think it makes you look tough?’ (Ch 8)

‘I got business to attend to. Beat it and keep going.’
‘Such a tough little guy,’ I said. (Ch 11)

 … jokey highbrow references are wasted on ignoramuses…

 ‘Never the time and place and the loved one altogether,’ I said.
‘What’s that?’ she tried to throw me out with the point of her chin but she wasn’t that good.
‘Browning. The poet, not the automatic. I feel sure you’re prefer the automatic.’ (Ch 12)

A male voice called: ‘Here, Heathcliff. Here, Heathcliff.’ Steps sounded on a hard walk.
‘That’s Heathcliff,’ the chauffeur said sourly.
‘Heathcliff?’
‘That’s what they call the dog, Jack.’
Wuthering Heights?’ I asked.
‘Now you’re double-talking again,’ he sneered. (THW Ch 5)

‘Maybe the printing was just a little game he played with himself.’
‘Like Pepys’s shorthand?’ I said.
‘What was that?’
A diary a man wrote in a private shorthand, a long time ago.’
Breeze looked at Spangler. (THW Ch 16)

…  and ironic references to the genre only emphasise everyone’s entrapment…

‘That didn’t have anything to do with the Stein killing. Steelgrave was under glass all that week. No connection at all. Your cop friend has been reading pulp magazines.’
‘They all do,’ I said. ‘That’s why they talk so tough. (Ch 16)

3. The exceptionalism of the private detective

Or, Why the single private investigator regards himself as above the fray, an exception to the fallen world – an exceptionalism which is particularly clear in the contrast between the PI – allowed great leeway to follow his own conscience in the pursuit of a personal vision of Justice – and the agents of the Law, the police, constrained by procedure and the limitations of bureaucracy.

From the start of the crime genre the detective is placed in opposition to the plodding feet of the official enforcers of the Law. As early as the three Edgar Allen Poe stories (1840s), which are generally thought to have founded the genre, the freedom of action and incisive insight of independent detective C. Auguste Dupin is set against the plodding hapless efforts of the Parisian police. Conan Doyle 50 years later echoes exactly the same tropes: Holmes the brilliant outsider and loner is effortlessly superior to the bumbling Grigson and Lestrade of Scotland Yard. Watson observes him frequently not telling the police the full story and suppressing facts to ensure his own freelance version of justice prevails.

Chandler has the same fundamental structure – as a freelance private detective Marlowe uncovers and encounters all kinds of aspects of a crime or ‘case’ which the police never see. But there are several interesting differences:

  • the cops are not just ineffective, they are sometimes actively corrupt
  • Marlowe is not superhuman; he is deeply fallible

His fallibility is emphasised throughout, it is a leitmotiv that he only realises twists and deceptions too late, a point rammed home in the final chapter where he sees the sinister Dr Lagardie entering the hotel Van Nuy and calls the cops but, between them they’re too slow to prevent Lagardie killing the unpredictable nymphomaniac Dolores Gonzalez.

For some reason it’s the police from Bay City neighbouring Los Angeles who come in for stick in Chandler’s novels. In Farewell, My Lovely Marlowe is beaten unconscious by two corrupt Bay City cops who then dump with a ‘doctor’ at a ‘clinic’ who shoots him full of ‘dope’ . In this novel the thuggish Lieutenant Moses Maglashan from Bay City sits in on an ‘interview’ with Marlowe and makes it quite clear that his techniques include beating suspects unconscious or permanently damaging their kidneys.

Marlowe is split: he is generally sympathetic to the cops, who he sees as ordinary people trying to do an impossible job:

They just sat there and looked back at me. The orange queen was clacking her typewriter. Cop talk was no more treat to her than legs to a dance director. They had the calm weathered faces of healthy men in a hard condition. They had the eyes they always have, cloudy and grey like freezing water. The firm set mouth, the hard little wrinkles at the corners of the eyes, the hard hollow meaningless stare, not quite cruel and a thousand miles from kind. The dull ready-made clothes, worn without style, with a sort of contempt; the look of men who are poor and yet proud of their power, watching always for ways to make it felt, to shove it into you and twist it and grin and watch you squirm, ruthless without malice, cruel and yet not unkind. What would you expect of them? Civilisation had no meaning for them. All they saw of it was the failures, the dirt, the dregs, the aberrations and the disgust. (Ch 24)

On the other hand, it’s in The High Window that Marlowe crystallises the reason he so often – and so provokingly – doesn’t tell the police the full story, in fact so often goes out of his way to conceal evidence, hide the truth and generally be a difficult customer:

Breeze said: ‘Make your point.’
I said: ‘Until you guys own your own souls you don’t own mine. Until you guys can be trusted every times and always, in all times and conditions, to seek the truth out and find it and let the chips fall where they may – until that time comes, I have a right to listen to my conscience, and protect my client the best way I can. Until I’m sure that you won’t do him more harm than you’ll do the truth good. Or until I’m hauled before someone who can make me talk.’
Breeze said: ‘You sound to me just a little like a guy who is trying to hold his conscience down.’
‘Hell,’ I said. ‘Let’s have a drink…’ (THW Ch 15)

Despite the throwaway context, this is the justification all private detectives make for doing it their way. It is the core rationale of the genre.

Pulp jacket cover of The Little Sister

Pulp jacket cover of The Little Sister

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