BOOK (1949)

Rewind, Book: 'The Little Sister' by Raymond Chandler

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 5:45pm

The Little Sister

by Raymond Chandler

Houghton Mifflin

"And then the phone rang." Philip Marlowe (Investigations) has been tracking a fly - "shining and blue-green and full of sin" - for five minutes when he is interrupted. With Raymond Chandler, such moments signal the imminent displacement of Marlowe's solitary, slightly unsatisfying ennui by the rough charms of the outside world.

In this his fifth case, he wants to delay combat if only for a second. "I lifted the phone slowly and spoke into it softly. 'Hold the line a moment, please'," he says before smashing the poor insect and then disposing of "what was left of him".

The caller is Orfamay Quest, the titular "Little Sister", who has travelled from Manhattan to Los Angeles in search of her brother, Orrin. For Orfamay, the telephone is a test of chivalry that Marlowe fails: "That's no way to talk to people over the telephone," she says of his devil-may-care style. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself."

Soon he is chasing Orrin's shadow from street to hotel room, from a stick-up to an ice-pick murder. Each development is either presaged or reviewed by the phone. Indeed, it is hard to see how Marlowe, or Chandler for that matter, could operate without one. Vital information is transmitted, as are tip-offs, red herrings and bad news: Chandler breaks Orrin's death to Orfamay down the line.

Towards the end of The Little Sister the telephone becomes akin to a lifeline, in part because everyone Marlowe meets (Orfamay, Orrin, the starlet Mavis Weld, the police detective Maglashan) wants him dead, gone or both. Beaten, abandoned and betrayed, Marlowe finds himself alone in his office, staring at his only link to a bleak, indifferent world: " … and then the telephone. It was dark and sleek in the fading light. It wouldn't ring tonight. Nobody would call me again. Not now, not this time. Perhaps not ever."

But Marlowe the compulsive cannot leave well alone. Before long he succumbs, calling the movie starlet Weld without any luck, before wondering whether he has a single friend who might like to hear his voice. "No. Nobody. Let the telephone ring, please. Let there be somebody to call up and plug me into the human race again. Even a cop … Nobody has to like me. I just want to get off this frozen star."

It's as if Marlowe's loneliness and disaffection has intensified enough to make the world pause for a second. And then: "The telephone rang." The world turns once more.

James Kidd