Raymond Chandler once wrote that Dashielle Hammett “Gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” In his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” he continues to praise Hammett while berating Agatha Christie types who set murders at tea parties and ended them by bringing all the suspects into one room while the detective ran over all the clues before them, causing the killer to jump out and confess. Chandler set out to write Fiction, with a capital “ART”, that it happened to involve pimps, drug fiends, mobsters, and lots of murders is secondary.
It is difficult to review a single work of Chandlers, they all kind of fuse into a sort-of biography for his singular detective, Phillip Marlowe. His novels are very similar, in that they involve the seedier aspects of the city, are all told in the first person by Marlowe, always include various crimes, usually murder, and are filled with an assortment of double crossing, corrupt folks. But, novels are not the same in the way novels by the likes of Dean Koontz or Mary Higgins Clark are the same. Where they seem to have a dozen storylines and can simply fill in different character names and settings. No, though Chandler’s stories are similar in many ways, they differ in the means by which they are told. Like the way snowflakes look the same in one drift, but upon observation are each different. Or the way in which dollar bills are the same aesthetically, but are spent in a million different ways. Chandler’s writing sparkles amidst the slums and degenerates he writes about. His dialogue sparkles as Marlowe’s sarcasm cracks your lips into a smile.
The Little Sister starts with a little nebbish girl, from nowhere-Kansas who asks Marlowe to help her find her brother. From there the plot involves Cincinnati mobsters, Hollywood agents, starlets and a few ice picks sticking out of a few necks. As always, Chandler’s plot gets very complicated very fast. The joy of the novel is not in trying to figure out who is who, and who did what, but in the way Chandler lets the mystery unfold. The murders are always at the center of the story, but there is something else hanging near, something more akin to great literature, than dirty detective stories.
By the time he wrote the Little Sister, Chandler had written several screenplays for Hollywood pictures. He seemed to not like the experience one bit. There is plenty of cynicism directed towards Tinseltown here. The agents are like kings who will sell souls faster than Doctor Faustus, and the starlets are empty, callous girls who sell sex like McDonalds sells French fries.
Reading the Little Sister was a little sad for me, since it is the last Chandler novel that I had not read. There are still his short story collections to look forward to. It feels like the end of an era. His novels still swarm around in my head, and give me hope as a writer. Here is someone who wrote stories, not just to entertain, but to try to find something more-Literature or Art- and maybe, in doing so helped us to understand what it means to be a writer.