THE LITTLE SISTER (1949) by Raymond Chandler

This is one of my favourite Raymond Chandler novels but I’m probably in a minority on this. In fact, even the author professed to dislike it! I loved this book when I first read it as a kid but wondered how it might seem some three decades hence. Is my affection only due to my exposure to it as an impressionable teen? After all, it seems that the critical consensus is not with me … So, a contender as the greatest novel in the Philip Marlowe pantheon? Or should we set childish things aside? Time to tell …

I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; Rich Westwood’s celebration of 1949 at Past Offences; and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at Sweet Freedom.

“The only book of mine that I have actively disliked. It was written in a bad mood and I think that comes through.” – Raymond Chandler in a letter to James Sandoe

The Plot
OK, this one is a bit hard to follow but trying to untangle it is, I think, ultimately rewarding. So here is a longish synopsis, spoiler free as ever. Although partly set in Hollywood, this is not a story about the glamour and glitz of the American movie capital – rather, it takes the idea of manufactured surfaces and the masks people wear (in crime and without) and marries it to a fairly jaundiced presentation of the power exerted by the film industry. Private investigator Philip Marlowe is hired by the prim and proper Kentucky resident Orfamay Quest (what a great name) to find her brother, Orrin. Marlowe tracks him down to a seedy hotel, but he recently checked out. After talking to the toupee-wearing new occupant of the room, Marlowe finds the hotel manager dead, with an ice pick neatly planted in his back. Later the man in Orrin’s room calls Marlowe and they agree to meet at another hotel – but by the time Marlowe gets there, this man is also dead, again with an ice pick in his back. This time though another person is there – a woman holding a Chandler-The-Little-Sister-Penguingun who slugs the PI and flees. She is a rising movie starlet, Mavis Weld, and she was there to pay the man off as he had incriminating photos of her and Steelgrave, allegedly a former Cleveland gangster who may also have been involved in the recent death of a former rival. Marlowe senses that Weld is vulnerable and wants to help, though she rebuffs him at every turn and even gets Steelgrave to beat him up. He none the less gets himself hired by her agent and gets involved in a complex plot in which it appears that Orrin was part of the blackmail scheme together with a Dr Lagardie, also from Cleveland. But as the bodies start to build up, who is the real puppet master behind the curtain?

The Prose
There is just so much that is quotable here – just to give you a flavour, as a for instance:

On Los Angeles: “… a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup ” (chapter 26)

On cops: “What makes you Bay City cops so tough?” he asked. “You pickle your nuts in salt water or something?” (chapter 24)

On the moment of death: “Something happened to his face and behind his face, the indefinable thing that happens in that always baffling and inscrutable moment, the smoothing out, the going back over the years to the age of innocence.” (chapter 22)

On the medical profession: “I wondered how Dr Lagardie liked looking out of his front windows at a funeral parlour. Maybe it made him careful.” (chapter 16)

Chandler-The-Little-Sister-HoughtonThe Critical Consensus
Well … William Ahearn pretty much hated it; Clive James had some very interesting things to say, collected over at www.clivejames.com; Julian Symons said that the plot was as ‘as smoothly dovetailed as a piece of Chippendale’ in Bloody Murder; Anthony Boucher disliked it, damning it for what he felt was, “its scathing hatred of the human race.” Val McDermid in her introduction to the recent Penguin reprint marvelled at how, “… sixty years have not dimmed the excitement and freshness of his takes on those streets.” Ellie Gold celebrated the novel’s quite remarkable introspection; Al Clark called it, “the definitive Los Angeles novel.”

The Conclusion
So how does it feel, critically confronting this work so many decades after my first encounter? It seems to me that the charge of misanthropy is unfair. Yes, it is present, no question, but it is one of the major themes of the novel, which is about Marlowe’s attempts not to give in to the impulse, expressed most poetically in chapter 13 in which the detective vents his frustration and anger at the darkness that surrounds him, and repeatedly reminds himself to not give in, admonishing himself, “You’re not human to-night, Marlowe.” It is that struggle that makes this story so compelling and romantic. It’s not about money, it’s not about sex – Marlowe rejects both, though never out of hand, because for him it is about priorities – it’s about finding your humanity and hanging on it as tightly as you can. This is something that is cleverly underlined by the ending, in which a surprise villain is exposed as an Ellery Queen style master manipulator from behind the scenes – the motive proves to be all about love, as it is for nemesis when it comes through its own violent and tortured agent. Although the plot is a bit oblique, and there are many digressions, I still found this a powerful and at times even moving novel.

Chandler-The-Little-Sister-Pocket2The Chandler Canon
So where does it fall exactly? Chandler spent years working on The Little Sister, interrupted by Hollywood several times (which probably explains his nasty comments about the town) and I think it still stands up, though I may now agree that The Long Good-bye is a finer achievement. Chandler was at his freshets with his first two novels and at his most confident as a novelist with The Little Sister and The Long Good-bye. Playback is easily the least of them while The Lady in the Lake, in terms of plotting, is probably the finest of the three novels (the others as Sleep and Farewell) derived from his short fiction. Here is a full list of the Marlowe novels (and one short story):

  1. The Big Sleep (1939) – review here
  2. Farewell, My Lovely (1940) – review here
  3. The High Window (1942)
  4. The Lady in the Lake (1943)
  5. The Little Sister (1949)
  6. The Long Good-bye (1953)
  7. Playback (1958) – review here
  8. Poodle Springs (completed by Robert B. Parker in 1989) – review here
  9. ‘The Pencil’ – 1959 short story – reviewed here. There are other stories where the Marlowe name was belatedly appended for reprints, but this is the only genuine piece of Marlowe short fiction, and was the final story about the character Chandler would live to complete (though it was published posthumously).

After a 22-year break (the last had been The Brasher Doubloon in 1947), Philip Marlowe returned to the big screen in the shape of James Garner with Marlowe (1969), an updated adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s brilliant but highly pessimistic The LIttle Sister. Did it survive the transition to the swinging sixties? The screenplay was assigned to Stirling Silliphant, then riding high from his TV successes with The Naked City and Route 66 and his Oscar for writing In the Heat of the Night (1967) and the film was ultimately released as Marlowe right at the end of the 1960s and at the end of the glory days of the Hollywood studio system.

Marlowe02

Marlowe opens with a kaleidoscopic set of coloured images over the insistent refrain of Peter Matz title song – but then it’s definitely the late 60s, so what did you expect? There are also hippies and inevitably references to pot abound (but they were in the book too) – Marlowe even has a British hairdresser in leather pants for a neighbour! We also get the latest craze – martial arts! To replace the inevitable scene in which goons show up to give Marlowe a hard time, instead we get an early role for Bruce Lee, who is terrific in a couple of short but highly memorable scenes of well-choreographed mayhem. Also, the movie industry background has been replaced with TV (Mavis is now the star of a squeaky clean sitcom), but then this makes sense because the director, Paul Bogart, was known mainly for his work on the small screen and this does, with its brightly lit look, reliance on back projection and exteriors shot in the studio together with a general avoidance of bloodshed, for the most part feels like something that might be better suited for that medium.

Marlowe01

Garner is neat, tanned and tough and in deference to the original is even seen to smoke a pipe on occasion (apart from George Montgomery, the only Marlowe seen to do that on-screen thus far). On the other hand, he is much more conventional and, well, just plain nice than the character in the book (oh, and he also gets a regular girlfriend too). Sharon Farrell is terrific casting as Orfamay and really nails a rather slippery but truly central character. Gayle Hunnicutt does OK as Mavis, only having to play a more straightforward rendering of the character (she is certainly much harder to decipher in the original). Rita Moreno is somewhat typecast as the Mavis’ best friend, sexy latina Dolores, but is very good in the role – and certainly her final sequence in the strip club is one of the few that one knows would not have been made that way for television. Silliphant’s screenplay keeps a fair amount of the dialogue and does a fair job of compressing and streamlining the plot and also adds a few new elements to make the villain even harder to spot.

Marlowe06

Garner is probably a bit too laid back in the title role (he would be much better as the wry lead in the classic The Rockford Files a few years later) but Farrell and Moreno are terrific, as is Paul Stevens as Dr Lagardie, who to my mind is absolutely perfect in a small but crucial role as the tortured medico. An entertaining if much lighter take on a long and difficult book that deserves credit for making a somewhat impenetrable plot much easier to follow without really altering it – an impressive achievement actually, though apparently Silliphant was unhappy about the final result as much of the more hardboiled material in his script was eliminated by Bogart and the studio.

DVD Availability: Available in the US as part of the Warner Archive ‘made on demand’ series, the DVD offers an excellent transfer with strong colours and very good sharpness. No extras.

Marlowe (1969)
Director: Paul Bogart
Producer: Gabriel Katzka, Sidney Beckerman
Screenplay: Sterling Silliphant
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Addison Hehr
Music: Peter Matz
Cast: James Garner, Rita Moreno, Bruce Lee, Gayle Hunnicutt, Jackie Coogan, Carrol O’Connor, Sharon Farrell, Kenneth Tobey, William Daniels

I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘quantity in the title’ category:

017-Vintage-Chandler

***** / ***** (5 fedora tips for the book, 2.5 for the film)

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This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Five Star review, Friday's Forgotten Book, Hollywood, Los Angeles, Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, Raymond Chandler, Scene of the crime. Bookmark the permalink.

76 Responses to THE LITTLE SISTER (1949) by Raymond Chandler

  1. Ah, there’s nothing quite like Chandler’s prose, is there, Sergio? He had a way of saying things that I have always admired. And the essential fight to be a good person (whatever that is, anyway!) in a world that usually isn’t is a really interesting theme in his work. I can see why you think this is among his best, and you know? It’s fine if others don’t see it that way, in my opinion. Besides, Chandler at his weakest is heaps better than a lot of peopel at their best.

  2. le0pard13 says:

    Great article, Sergio. One of my favorite writers, for sure. I do appreciate Garner’s take with Marlowe, though. Perhaps, not classic, but he definitely had a style with the character. In fact, the film’s line of dialogue he uttered in his own distinct manner, “Does your mother know what you do for a living?”, would be reused many times during “The Rockford Files.”

    • Thansk for that Mike – and yes, that line is much better coming from Rockford (it’s certainly not in the book) but I agree, it’s a decent stab at updating a great book. Apparently it get mucked about a bit in post-production so that neither the director nor the screenwriter were best pleased by what was released.

  3. I must admit, as much as I enjoy Chandler I haven’t read several of his works—knew next to nothing about this one before your excellent review. 5/5 fedora tips has me intrigued… And I do love Chandler’s dialogue and style, some of the best writing of its time. You’ve sold me, I will keep my eyes peeled for a copy!

  4. Colin says:

    Good, comprehensive piece of work here, Sergio. I haven’t read the book for an awful long time – like you, it would have been when I was a teenager. – so I’m not in a position to say much on its relative merits. I remember liking it well enough at the time,
    Again, it’s been ages since I saw the film adaptation, which I didn’t mind. It feels quite different to the 40s adaptations of course but it’s enjoyable enough.

    • The striptease climax is a good example of Silliphant smartly updating the original text – if they had made it just a couple of years later it would have been twice as good as it feels like the last uncomfortable gasp of a product from the studio era (which ironically makes it seem more TV-like)

      • Colin says:

        It was an odd era in that respect and a number of films seem to exist in that no-mans-land between cinema and TV. I quite enjoy that feel, but then I’m always fascinated by transitional works anyway.

        • Yes, it kept reminding me a bit of WARNING SHOT, which I like a lot and that definitely feels like a super-annuated TV-Movie. I think MGM just didn;t know how to handle MARLOWE, which is a shame. Silliphtant did write a script for THE LONG GOOD-BYE but I have no idea what that turned out like. The Altman is a great movie in my opinion, but I totally get why people hate it too.

          • Colin says:

            Don’t get me started on the Altman movie! 🙂
            I know you’re a fan but it never worked for me – the “Gould factor” is a big part of the problem.

            Anyway, I’m fond of many of the early TVMs and enjoy the films that were headed in that direction.
            I like Garner (been watching a lot of Rockford Files stuff this year and recently bought the first 2 seasons of Maverick for less than $20) although he doesn’t seem like Marlowe as I imagine him.

          • He is an uneasy fit for Marlowe – he absolutely does a decent job here and is often good as taciturn, hardbitten chaps, as in HOUR OF THE GUN or even GRAND PRIX but is clearly much more comfortable in lighter parts.

          • Colin says:

            True, and Marlowe really does belong in the 40s and 50s in my opinion.
            I recently went through Killer in the Rain, which, as you know, contains stories Chandler used as the basis for later novels. Even though the characters there go by different names it’s still really Marlowe and the whole persona is wedded to that era.

          • I agree, though what I like about LITTLE SISTER and THE LONG GOOD-BYE is that they seem to reflect a backward glance at the 1930s and imbue them with a romantic feel the previous volumes lack. Later reprints changed the character names to Marlowe occasionally, which works fairly well, but is unnecessary too, let’s face it. I do prefer the novels thogh.

          • Colin says:

            Me too. I found the short stories interesting up to a point but not really a patch on the novels they eventually led to.

          • They are very much locked int eh gansgter era of the 1930s, but in a way I like that as they feel very different. Not as true with Hammett (some say they much prefer the short stories in the case fo the latter).

          • Colin says:

            Haven’t read any Hammett short stories so can’t comment. I do have a copy of The Big Knockover to hand though, and I’m kind of curious now.

          • That is definitely a great place to start, with a very nice intro from Lillian Hellmann too. One of the stories, ‘Corkscrew’ has a Western setting actually …

          • Excellent start to the week – job done!

          • Todd Mason says:

            The whining about the Altman movie is driven, I think, by those who take Marlowe more literally as a knight errant than the novels actually demonstrate. Of course, Altman, much more than Leigh Brackett, was always looking for a rock to look under at some point in each of his films.

          • Thanks for that Todd, I really agree – the film is not really a betrayal at all, but is a bitter pill if you have a romantic notion of the PI (incidentally, it appears that it was Brackett, when working with original director Brian G. Hutton, who came up with the ending in which Marlowe shoots).

          • realthog says:

            The whining about the Altman movie is driven, I think, by those who take Marlowe more literally as a knight errant than the novels actually demonstrate.

            Wot he said.

          • Fanks for that! Colin and I have chatted about this one elsewhere and I dare say Elliot Gould is not an easy fot for Marlowe for most fans of the book (who is clearly meant to be Cary Grant – which is why I think Dick Powell is the one that coems closest to Chandler’s own conception) But the Altman / Brackett iteration is a great, great 70s movie. The Blu-ray from Arrow is a thing of great beauty by the way

          • Todd Mason says:

            Well, I’m not sure I’d not consider the shooting a very rough sort of justice, as well as an act of passion…still might put him in prison, if I was a juror, but not happily. (I gather most of the complaints are at least as much about the Gould Marlowe being somewhat pusillanimous and kvetching rather than Spillanely crusading.)

          • Well, he is very much a dishevelled and tarneished knight – it’s the focus on just ow little control he really has over events that I suspect was perceived as too contrary to the myth – and yet I think it evokes the interiror landscape of the character rather splendidly

          • Todd Mason says:

            Yup. The lack of control over events lends realism (nudges it closer to a MacDonald narrative in some ways) and generally does undercut machismic fantasy. The best you can do is blast the bastard who used to be your friend.

            I’m also reminded of the nice setpiece that chilled critic John Simon’s blood…when the despondent novelist, in foreground/background, wanders into the surf, and his wife and Marlowe damned near drown themselves in a futile attempt to find/save him, while the writer’s dog cheerfully presents his walking stick, clearly taking all this to be a game.

          • The scene in the surf is very well done though it’s a shame the lighting is so unconvincing (especially considering it comes from Zsigmond) but it was clearly a bitch to shoot

  5. neer says:

    Interesting review Sergio. It’s ages since I read the book and all I remember is being very confused about it all: too many corpses; too much double-crossing…but your review and those five fedora tips make me want to read it once again. I’ll see whether I can get a copy. Thanks.

  6. Santosh Iyer says:

    You have rated 5 out of 5 ! Does the rating apply to both the book and the film ?

  7. realthog says:

    I remember enjoying this one a very great deal. Your splendid writeup makes me think I should try to find the time to revisit it!

    I share your reservations about the movie.

    • Thanks chum, so glad you liked this one too. I was rather dismayed in looking at my various books on Chandler (don’t have the tom Nolan yet though) and they all seem quite hard on it, basically following Chandler’s own worried about it and Boucher’s accusations of misanthropy – much better than that!

  8. Bev Hankins says:

    Terrific review, Sergio. And you make a compelling case in the conclusion for me giving it a try. I’ve not read a Chandler yet…still on my list of authors to try.

    • Thank you Bev – I know you are not necessarily a hardboiled kind of gal (sic) and love this book though I do, must admit that either The Big Sleep or Farewell My Lovely would be probably better places to start as the tone is livelier and fresher – this is undeniably a later, more melancholy work.

  9. Todd Mason says:

    Even though MARLOWE is a bit blander than it should be, I might be tempted to nudge a fiver rating up to 3 for the film, even if mostly for the cast. Someone other than Bogart(!) directing might’ve gotten a hole in one, rather than a bogie (not to speculate Too Much on how smashing Moreno would’ve looked in more likely stripper deshabille).

    I read THE LITTLE SISTER as a young (legal) adult, and as one who likes Hammett and “Macdonald” more than this middle guy, it’s still a fine novel to say the least, and I doubt you’d be too disappointed to revisit it. Only PLAYBACK was ever easy to put down…I even enjoyed the POODLE SPRINGS completion.

    • Thanks for that Todd, liking the Humphrey wordplay there 🙂 Though I rather like the ideas of a striptease done as a MGM production number, it doesn’t feel all that plausible (speaking of which, though she looks pretty much topless, Moreno was in fact sporting a latex appliance across her chest for those scenes). Hard not to agree about Playback, though it has good things; Poodle is better than most people think (on the other hand, Parker’s follow up, Perchance to Dream is just dreadful).

      • Todd Mason says:

        Hadn’t tried PERCHANCE yet, might’ve been successfully warned by reviewers. I was definitely aware of Moreno’s non-nudity, and thinking more in terms of what a stripper might actually be doing in 1969, at least in most places…if Moreno was game, I don’t think the audience would suffer, if you follow me. Still a handsome woman recently, and remarkably cute back then. (Of course, though I could read well above the level it hoped to instruct us in, I was of the generation that first encountered her and Morgan Freeman on the PBS children’s teaching-reading-through-blackout-sketches and repetition series THE ELECTRIC COMPANY, starting a few years later. Freeman’s recurring character was Easy Reader.)

        • Todd Mason says:

          And, of course, an imitation of a Vegas show could run somewhat along those lines, which is what I gathered was happening in MARLOWE.

          • I think you are right there – pretty sure it’s not what Silliphant envisioned, but Moreno had to be given some kind of showpiece and at least it is hightly dramatic

        • Todd Mason says:

          MGM Busby Berkleey-style choreography could happen, that is, on a somewhat sad, tatty scale, which is how I remember it in MARLOWE…perhaps should review. Basta!

        • Never saw that Todd – I think West Side Story was probably my first encounter, but this one was a close second – as not even a teen, I think the finale got pretty much seared on my brain, fake chest or not … Terrific performer, love it whenever she is on the tube

          • Todd Mason says:

            No, no reason you would’ve seen THE ELECTRIC COMPANY in the UK or certainly Italy, in the 1970a…TEC as a series just wasn’t as universal in its appeal as SESAME STREET and its international variations; ELECTRIC, I suspect, barely traveled to Canada. And it was off the air for years, with a short-lived revival in the middle of the last decade. But in the 1970s in the US, any PBS-watching kid was going to encounter Moreno shouting “Hey, you guys!” at least once in a while, and might even be shown the program in a classroom. And she was great (as well as adorable) in WSS as well…and most upset by the bad stereotypical accent her singing double used.

          • Morena is amazingly busy (hell, she was the only reason I watched BL Stryker along with the fact that Robert and Joan Parker controbuted some of the scripts) – and yeah, you can tell when in that one song when Betty Wand / Marni Nixon does her singing.

    • Todd Mason says:

      And I should’ve put it, I doubt you’d ever be too disappointed to revisit it.

    • Barry Ergang says:

      Really, Todd? POODLE (Parker expletive-deleted) SPRINGS over lame-ass PLAYBACK? What were you smoking when you read and/or watched the film version? (Yeah, I know I’m in the minority when it comes to Robert B. Parker, but there were better choices to complete POODLE SPRINGS–if someone *had* to–than this pretender to the throne. E.g., read–if you already haven’t–Keith Laumer’s DEADFALL, the finest stylistic homage to Chandler I’ve yet to come across–and I read it decades ago.

  10. tracybham says:

    I enjoyed your review of both book and movie. It will be a while before I get to the book but I have watched the movie and plan to again, just because I love James Garner so much.

  11. Todd Mason says:

    It’s interesting that both MARLOWE and THE LONG GOODBYE use future action icons rather effectively, if not completely so…Bruce Lee in the first, Arnold Schwarzenegger in the latter. Not quite the path that Mike Mazurka would follow after MURDER, MY SWEET…of course, he wasn’t Colorful Muscle in that film.

    • That had not occurred to me before, cool! And of course, Marty Augustine’s line is just the best of he movie after he horribly smashes a coke bottle across her face to make a point: “Now, that’s someone I love! And you I don’t even like!”

  12. Todd Mason says:

    Or even Mazurki, which I can blame on the dance-crazy spellchecker on this computer.

  13. Yvette says:

    Sergio, I do, vaguely, remember reading this and not liking it much but then I read it years after you first did (I didn’t actually read Chandler until just a few years ago) and maybe I just wasn’t in the mood. I do love THE LONG GOODBYE, THE LADY IN THE LAKE and THE HIGH WINDOW. And yes, I’m one of the very few who liked George Montgomery in THE BRASHER DOUBLOON with the always wonderfully sleek and mysterious Ella Raines. In fact, I liked the movie version of THE HIGH WINDOW better than the book. Heresy? Possibly. 🙂

    I’ve always believed that Chandler’s finest quote was/is: Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished or afraid…

    It’s how I measure my heroes.

    As for the film, I guess I never saw it. Though something about that Rita Moreno picture in your post rings a bell…

  14. A solid piece, Sergio. I plan to read Raymond Chandler someday and giving him company will be Dashiell Hammett, two detective fiction writers I have never read. Talking about James Garner, I recently saw him in THE NOTEBOOK and prior to that in 8 SIMPLE RULES, and it was hard to believe he was the same young man I saw in western and other films.

  15. Like, apparently, many of us, I read Little Sister when I was a teenager,and remember almost nothing. One day will get round to re-reading. And count me in as someone else who likes James Garner in anything.

  16. Pingback: Badass biddies, screaming mimis and, erm, a fur turban: #1949 book | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  17. Pingback: Top 10 Hollywood novels – BuzzPOP

  18. marblex says:

    Can’t stand Gould’s persistent overacting. Garner was great as Marlowe. Sharon Farrell was crazed as Orphamae. Good stuff.

  19. marblex says:

    sorry about the double post if i could delete i would

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