Chandler gathers epithets such as ‘hard-boiled’, ‘tough’, ‘tense’, like a half-sucked sweet gathers fluff in the bottom of a pocket. They are often used by people who haven’t read the books properly or rely on the screen portraits. Now, it is true that Chandler does not shy away from the nastier side of life; but for me, the works are acute and accurate portraits of a time, a place, and the people who lived there.
The Little Sister is a case in point. You know that whatever case is taken on by Philip Marlowe, it is not going to be straightforward. On the face of it, it is a simple of finding a missing person. But people go missing for a reason. Marlowe soon stumbles across a dead body. And then another. Blackmail, greed, and part of the nasty underbelly of Hollywood all play their part. And although this isn’t a whodunit, we are given plenty of indication as to who is responsible for the murders.
Chandler does not rely on complex twists so much as he makes use of layering. Marlowe peels away layer upon layer of event and motive, finding a solution to one problem only to uncover another. And on this journey of discovery we are treated to superb detail, some blisteringly original description, and a creation of atmosphere that is difficult to find elsewhere. From Marlowe’s office through run-down rooming houses and film studios, to rich districts and poor, luxury apartments and cheap dives, we can see, feel, smell, and even taste these places.
But it does not stop with the setting, because Chandler’s characters get the same treatment. Even minor characters and walk-ons are treated in such a way that you have a rich and unique impression of them. And central to this, of course, is Philip Marlowe. Which is where my opening comment comes in. Marlowe, it seems to me, is not a tough guy. Everything in this book, the story, the setting, the atmosphere, the characters, all point to an overwhelming fact. Marlowe is lonely. Desperately lonely. So lonely he no longer cares what happens to himself, although he does retain a core of humanity in that he cares what happens to other people (his dwelling on the father, sitting back in Manhattan, Kansas, coping with the aftermath of a stroke in a loveless relationship; his desire to keep scandal from destroying Mavis Weld’s career).
Like many genre works, crime thrillers are looked upon by some with a great deal of disdain. Even expressing admiration for a writer of Chandler’s considerable ability is looked upon as slumming it. Why, I don’t know. The book tells a good, plausible story. It is complex and reveals a great deal about human nature. It is exceedingly well written. It has no pretensions. You can read it as entertainment and you can also read it for deeper meaning. One could only wish that half of what is lauded as literary successfully fulfilled all those functions.