Over the course of the last 2 years I've read 5 out of the 7 Philip Marlowe detective novels of Raymond Thornton Chandler (1888-1959). "The Little Sister" (1949) is the fifth Marlowe novel, and even though parts of it intrigued me, I couldn't help but feel a tad disappointed...
By 1944, Chandler had become a household name both in the USA and around the world for his tough-yet-sensitive, cynical-yet-romantic prose masterpieces. Around this time, Hollywood had come knocking. Chandler co-wrote the screeplay for "Double Indemnity" with Billy Wilder, and the first Marlowe novel "The Big Sleep" was made into a classic motion picture starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The money came rolling in: Chandler and his wife Cissy moved into a luxurious house in L.A.'s ritzy Pacific Palisades section. The Hollywood temptation came as well: Chandler began an affair with a secretary at Paramount Pictures and his chronic alcoholism--which was already bad--began to worsen.
In addition, during this time (the late 1940s), Los Angeles was rapidly transforming from what was once a small, coastal, desert community when Chandler had first moved there 30 years prior--into the enormous, sprawling, congested, and smoggy metropolis it is today. It's telling that Chandler moved 100 miles south to La Jolla, CA not long after this book was published.
One can sense while reading "The Little Sister" that Chandler was becoming bitter and weary--not only at the direction of his own life and the Hollywood movie machine (where writers are traditionally the low man on the totem pole) but also how his adopted home was changing...and not for the better, calling L.A. "a neon slum" and "a big, hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup." While world-weariness had always been present in all the Philip Marlowe private detective novels, here, unlike Chandler's other books, it almost weighs down the storytelling.
The story itself is the standard, convoluted Chandler fare: Ms. Orfamay Quest--a pretty young woman from Manhattan, Kansas--seeks Marlowe's help in locating her missing brother Orrin P. Quest. Marlowe immediately suspects that Orfamay is not all she appears to be, yet--lacking any other clients--he accepts her case nonetheless. From this unlikely setting, both Marlowe and the reader are brought into a world of movie stars, agents, gangsters, backstabbers (both real and metaphorical) and small-time hustlers. While it's hard to figure out exactly who is doing what to whom, this confusion is the hallmark of all Chandler novels--particularly the ones of any worth.
For the Chandler enthusiast, "The Little Sister" is an above-average book, with some of the punchiest, toughest dialogue that Chandler ever wrote. It's far from the worst Chandler I've ever read (that would be "The Lady in the Lake"--1943) However, for the enthusiast as well as the more casual reader, "The Long Goodbye" (1954) is Chandler's true masterpiece, with "Farewell, My Lovely" (1940) coming in a close second. "The Little Sister" is well worth the read, but I expected more from the potent combination of Raymond Chandler, Philip Marlowe & Hollywood.