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A classic revisited: The Little Sister

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Philip Marlowe is one of the definitive hardboiled detectives, with few equals in crime fiction. Nevertheless, The Little Sister is hardly Raymond Chandler’s definitive Marlowe novel. Other novels such as The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye and Farewell, My Lovely are better-known, perhaps because of more successful film adaptations. The Little Sister became 1969’s Marlowe, a film starring James Garner and best remembered as a sort of prologue to the actor’s television fame on The Rockford Files.

James Garner notwithstanding, The Little Sister deserves attention. While it may not quite reach the heights that other Raymond Chandler novels do, The Little Sister offers unique insights into Philip Marlowe and the hardboiled hero. Arguably, The Little Sister is important because there is no corresponding image of Marlowe from film. No-one is likely to read the Little Sister and imagine Humphrey Bogart. The Philip Marlowe that emerges from this novel is a less admirable, less secure character. The Little Sister’s Marlowe, however, is a character more deserving of a place in the noir canon than Bogart’s more familiar Golden Age portrayal.

The book offers us many of the conventions that we might expect to see in a hardboiled novel or a film noir derived from it. The story opens when a damsel in distress walks into Philip Marlowe’s office. The case won’t be closed until Marlowe runs up against blackmailers, femmes fatale, crooked doctors, Hollywood heavies, tough-nosed cops and mobsters. The Marlowe we remember has done all this and more. He’s maintained a wary skepticism and always had a bon mot we could quote admiringly, even if we don’t remember the context of the epigram.

But Bogie isn’t the protagonist here – Marlowe is. You’ll notice some similarities. And you’ll also observe some pretty stark differences. Marlowe isn’t very cool in The Little Sister. He’s down on his luck, drinks too much and shades the truth. His rapier wit is in place, to be sure. But observe how he uses it. Marlowe doesn’t go around dispensing eloquent quips because he’s practicing for a cocktail party. His jibes are a defense mechanism. Against the client whose money he needs, against the cops who can beat him with impunity, against mobsters far more powerful than he is. Sure, we know Marlowe runs his mouth. The Little Sister reminds us that he does it because he doesn’t have much in the way of firepower.

Raymond Chandler wrote novels about a detective. He didn’t write novels about detection. Marlowe’s powers of deduction do not begin to rival those of Lord Peter Wimsey or Hercule Poirot. The Little Sister suffers from Chandler’s well-known challenges with plotting. The central plot is more or less explained in a long monologue by Marlowe at the end – a practice Chandler scoffed at in The Lady in the Lake. Chandler isn’t one to foreshadow and drop red herrings and carefully pace his work until the conclusion ties it all up neatly.

Instead we get the mulishly cynical Philip Marlowe and atmosphere in spades. And Marlowe solves the case in the end not because he’s particularly brilliant, but because he hung on. Some would question whether a hero like Marlowe is properly part of noir, or whether PI fiction is its own genre. I would submit that Marlowe can be as noirish as anything Cain or Thompson ever wrote. Fetid appetites and self-aggrandising schemes run all through The Little Sister.

Philip Marlowe doesn’t resist getting caught up in the moral undertow because he’s particularly conscientious. No, Marlowe escapes ruin because of his vices. He refuses to profit from a Hollywood racket or partake in a gun moll’s lust. He isn’t virtuous; he’s just too stubborn to give them what they want. He doesn’t set the world to rights. He just stays alive long enough to see the unscrupulous destroy themselves.

“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid,” said Chandler. There are plenty of mean streets to be had in The Little Sister. Marlowe is frayed, jaded and cross. But he isn’t mean. He’s neither tarnished nor afraid. He’s too stubborn to be any of these.

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