A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

not merely superfluous, but ridiculous

The Little Sister: Review

Copied, as per usual, from my Goodreads review:

I keep on opening these reviews of Chandler novels by quoting little scenes, and it’s becoming a habit, but it’s hard to break, because there’s always one little moment or line Chandler leaves in there that sums up his whole process. With The Little Sister, it’s this conversation between Philip Marlowe and a (possibly hallucinatory) night-shift detective who plays the piano in his spare time. “You’d be surprised how difficult some of that Mozart is,” he tells Marlowe. “It sounds so simple when you hear it played well.”

I’m sure I’m at least the four hundredth person who opened their review with that anecdote, because it’s perfectly descriptive of Chandler’s writing process and interests. He plays the old, familiar pieces that are so influential they’ve permanently altered our understanding of story–the dead body, the deadly woman, the cynical man who walks through the world trying to put it back in order. And his peculiar genius is how simple he makes his insane, convoluted plots seem, how the classicism of his approach shines through even in a novel that leans into the baroque–I did mention that the policeman in question may have been a hallucination, yes?

Philip Marlowe finally gets his Hollywood mystery in The Little Sister, and if you flip the pages and squint, you can see Shane Black’s career taking form as the tale unfolds. A twenty-dollar job to find a young man from a midwestern town leads to a drug ring, an icepick murderer, the faked death of a crime lord, and an abortionist to the stars. Under Marlowe’s gaze, the enticements of Hollywood become tawdry and sad, the actresses desperate, dangerous, and not worth the time. What sets this book apart from other mysteries with a jaundiced view of the city is how there is no contrast, no cut to a virtuous, “real” America–the heartland specimens we see are just as cheap and grasping, if in a more prudish, respectable manner.

Every mystery writer eventually begins to shadowbox with the reader’s expectations, an exercise that probably improves the novels to mystery buffs but generally makes them worse to an entirely credulous reader like me. The non-twists and fakeouts meant to throw off the attentive genre fan generally look like awkward narrative turns to an amateur, and the last few events here feel like they’re supposed to land harder than they do. But the moments in the few chapters before that, when Marlowe finally crosses the sort of line that’s always felt like his personal Rubicon, provide more than enough power for those of us who have followed him this far.

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This entry was posted on 21 July 2017 by in Elegant Extracts and tagged , , , , , .

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