In noir master Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister, a movie starlet with a gangster boyfriend and a pair of siblings with a shared secret lure private eye Philip Marlowe into the less than glamorous and more than a little dangerous world of Hollywood fame. Chandler's first foray into the industry that dominates the company town that is Los Angeles.
About the Author
Date of Birth:July 23, 1888
Date of Death:March 26, 1959
Place of Birth:Chicago Illinois
Place of Death:La Jolla, California
Education:Educated in England, France, and Germany
Read an Excerpt
The pebbled glass door panel is lettered in flaked black paint: "Philip Marlowe . . . Investigations." It is a reasonably shabby door at the end of a reasonably shabby corridor in the sort of building that was new about the year the all-tile bathroom became the basis of civilization. The door is locked, but next to it is another door with the same legend which is not locked. Come on in--there's nobody in here but me and a big bluebottle fly. But not if you're from Manhattan, Kansas.
* * *
It was one of those clear, bright summer mornings we get in the early spring in California before the high fog sets in. The rains are over. The hills are still green and in the valley across the Hollywood hills you can see snow on the high mountains. The fur stores are advertising their annual sales. The call houses that specialize in sixteen-year-old virgins are doing a land-office business. And in Beverly Hills the jacaranda trees are beginning to bloom.
I had been stalking the bluebottle fly for five minutes, waiting for him to sit down. He didn't want to sit down. He just wanted to do wing-overs and sing the prologue to Pagliacci. I had the fly swatter poised in midair and I was all set. There was a patch of bright sunlight on the corner of the desk and I knew that sooner or later that was where he was going to light. But when he did, I didn't even see him at first. The buzzing stopped and there he was. And then the phone rang.
I reached for it inch by inch with a slow and patient left hand. I lifted the phone slowly and spoke into it softly: "Hold the line a moment, please."
I laid the phone down gently on the brown blotter. He was still there, shining and blue-green and full of sin. I took a deep breath and swung. What was left of him sailed halfway across the room and dropped to the carpet. I went over and picked him up by his good wing and dropped him into the wastebasket.
"Thanks for waiting," I said into the phone.
"Is this Mr. Marlowe, the detective?" It was a small, rather hurried, little-girlish voice. I said it was Mr. Marlowe, the detective. "How much do you charge for your services, Mr. Marlowe?"
"What was it you wanted done?"
The voice sharpened a little. "I can't very well tell you that over the phone. It's--it's very confidential. Before I'd waste time coming to your office I'd have to have some idea--"
"Forty bucks a day and expenses. Unless it's the kind of job that can be done for a flat fee."
"That's far too much," the little voice said. "Why, it might cost hundreds of dollars and I only get a small salary and--"
"Where are you now?"
"Why, I'm in a drugstore. It's right next to the building where your office is."
"You could have saved a nickel. The elevator's free."
"I--I beg your pardon?"
I said it all over again. "Come on up and let's have a look at you," I added. "If you're in my kind of trouble, I can give you a pretty good idea--"
"I have to know something about you," the small voice said very firmly. "This is a very delicate matter, very personal. I couldn't talk to just anybody."
"If it's that delicate," I said, "maybe you need a lady detective."
"Goodness, I didn't know there were any." Pause. "But I don't think a lady detective would do at all. You see, Orrin was living in a very tough neighborhood, Mr. Marlowe. At least I thought it was tough. The manager of the rooming house is a most unpleasant person. He smelled of liquor. Do you drink, Mr. Marlowe?"
"Well, now that you mention it--"
"I don't think I'd care to employ a detective that uses liquor in any form. I don't even approve of tobacco."
"Would it be all right if I peeled an orange?"
I caught the sharp intake of breath at the far end of the line. "You might at least talk like a gentleman," she said.
"Better try the University Club," I told her. "I heard they had a couple left over there, but I'm not sure they'll let you handle them." I hung up.
It was a step in the right direction, but it didn't go far enough. I ought to have locked the door and hid under the desk.
Five minutes later the buzzer sounded on the outer door of the half-office I use for a reception room. I heard the door close again. Then I didn't hear anything more. The door between me and there was half open. I listened and decided somebody had just looked in at the wrong office and left without entering. Then there was a small knocking on wood. Then the kind of cough you use for the same purpose. I got my feet off the desk, stood up and looked out. There she was. She didn't have to open her mouth for me to know who she was. And nobody ever looked less like Lady Macbeth. She was a small, neat, rather prissy-looking girl with primly smooth brown hair and rimless glasses. She was wearing a brown tailor-made and from a strap over her shoulder hung one of those awkward-looking square bags that make you think of a Sister of Mercy taking first aid to the wounded. On the smooth brown hair was a hat that had been taken from its mother too young. She had no make-up, no lipstick and no jewelry. The rimless glasses gave her that librarian's look.
"That's no way to talk to people over the telephone," she said sharply. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
"I'm just too proud to show it," I said. "Come on in." I held the door for her. Then I held the chair for her.
She sat down on about two inches of the edge. "If I talked like that to one of Dr. Zugsmith's patients," she said, "I'd lose my position. He's most particular how I speak to the patients--even the difficult ones."
"How is the old boy? I haven't seen him since that time I fell off the garage roof."
She looked surprised and quite serious. "Why surely you can't know Dr. Zugsmith." The tip of a rather anemic tongue came out between her lips and searched furtively for nothing.
"I know a Dr. George Zugsmith," I said, "in Santa Rosa."
"Oh no. This is Dr. Alfred Zugsmith, in Manhattan. Manhattan, Kansas, you know, not Manhattan, New York."
"Must be a different Dr. Zugsmith," I said. "And your name?"
"I'm not sure I'd care to tell you."
"Just window shopping, huh?"
"I suppose you could call it that. If I have to tell my family affairs to a total stranger, I at least have the right to decide whether he's the kind of person I could trust."
"Anybody ever tell you you're a cute little trick?"
The eyes behind the rimless cheaters flashed. "I should hope not."
I reached for a pipe and started to fill it. "Hope isn't exactly the word," I said. "Get rid of that hat and get yourself a pair of those slinky glasses with colored rims. You know, the ones that are all cockeyed and oriental--"
"Dr. Zugsmith wouldn't permit anything like that," she said quickly. Then, "Do you really think so?" she asked and blushed ever so slightly.
I put a match to the pipe and puffed smoke across the desk. She winced back.
"If you hire me," I said, "I'm the guy you hire. Me. Just as I am. If you think you're going to find any lay readers in this business, you're crazy. I hung up on you, but you came up here all the same. So you need help. What's your name and trouble?"
She just stared at me.
"Look" I said. "You come from Manhattan, Kansas. The last time I memorized the World Almanac that was a little town not far from Topeka. Population around twelve thousand. You work for Dr. Alfred Zugsmith and you're looking for somebody named Orrin. Manhattan is a small town. It has to be. Only half a dozen places in Kansas are anything else. I already have enough information about you to find out your whole family history."
"But why should you want to. I'm fed up with people telling me histories. I'm just sitting here because I don't have any place to go. I don't want to work. I don't want anything."
"You talk too much."
"Yes," I said, "I talk too much. Lonely men always talk too much. Either that or they don't talk at all. Shall we get down to business? You don't look like the type that goes to see private detectives, and especially private detectives you don't know."
"I know that," she said quietly. "And Orrin would be absolutely livid. Mother would be furious too. I just picked your name out of the phone book--"
"What principle?" I asked. "And with the eyes closed or open?"
She stared at me for a moment as if I were some kind of freak. "Seven and thirteen," she said quietly.
"Marlowe has seven letters," she said, "and Philip Marlowe has thirteen. Seven together with thirteen--"
"What's your name?" I almost snarled.
"Orfamay Quest." She crinkled her eyes as if she could cry. She spelled the first name out for me, all one word. "I live with my mother," she went on, her voice getting rapid now as if my time is costing her. "My father died four years ago. He was a doctor. My brother Orrin was going to be a surgeon, too, but he changed into engineering after two years of medical. Then a year ago Orrin came out to work for the Cal-Western Aircraft Company in Bay City. He didn't have to. He had a good job in Wichita. I guess he just sort of wanted to come out here to California. Most everybody does."
"Almost everybody," I said. "If you're going to wear those rimless glasses, you might at least try to live up to them."
She giggled and drew a line along the desk with her fingertip, looking down. "Did you mean those slanting kind of glasses that make you look kind of oriental?"
"Uh-huh. Now about Orrin. We've got him to California, and we've got him to Bay City. What do we do with him?"
She thought a moment and frowned. Then she studied my face as if making up her mind. Then her words came with a burst: "It wasn't like Orrin not to write to us regularly. He only wrote twice to mother and three times to me in the last six months. And the last letter was several months ago. Mother and I got worried. So it was my vacation and I came out to see him. He'd never been away from Kansas before." She stopped. "Aren't you going to take any notes?" she asked.
"I thought detectives always wrote things down in little notebooks."
"I'll make the gags," I said. "You tell the story. You came out on your vacation. Then what?"
"I'd written to Orrin that I was coming but I didn't get any answer. Then I sent a wire to him about Salt Lake City but he didn't answer that either. So all I could do was go down where he lived. It's an awful long way. I went in a bus. It's in Bay City. No. 449 Idaho Street."
She stopped again, then repeated the address, and I still didn't write it down. I just sat there looking at her glasses and her smooth brown hair and the silly little hat and the fingernails with no color and her mouth with no lipstick and the tip of the little tongue that came and went between the pale lips.
"Maybe you don't know Bay City, Mr. Marlowe."
"Ha," I said. "All I know about Bay City is that every time I go there I have to buy a new head. You want me to finish your story for you?"
"Wha-a-at?" Her eyes opened so wide that the glasses made them look like something you see in the deep-sea fish tanks.
"He's moved," I said. "And you don't know where he's moved to. And you're afraid he's living a life of sin in a penthouse on top of the Regency Towers with something in a long mink coat and an interesting perfume."
"Well for goodness' sakes!"
"Or am I being coarse?" I asked.
"Please, Mr. Marlowe," she said at last, "I don't think anything of the sort about Orrin. And if Orrin heard you say that you'd be sorry. He can be awfully mean. But I know something has happened. It was just a cheap rooming house, and I didn't like the manager at all. A horrid kind of man. He said Orrin had moved away a couple of weeks before and he didn't know where to and he didn't care, and all he wanted was a good slug of gin. I don't know why Orrin would even live in a place like that."
"Did you say slug of gin?" I asked.
She blushed. "That's what the manager said. I'm just telling you."
"All right," I said. "Go on."
"Well, I called the place where he worked. The Cal-Western Company, you know. And they said he'd been laid off like a lot of others and that was all they knew. So then I went to the post office and asked if Orrin had put in a change of address to anywhere. And they said they couldn't give me any information. It was against the regulations. So I told them how it was and the man said, well if I was his sister he'd go look. So he went and looked and came back and said no. Orrin hadn't put in any change of address. So then I began to get a little frightened. He might have had an accident or something."
"Did it occur to you to ask the police about that?"
"I wouldn't dare ask the police. Orrin would never forgive me. He's difficult enough at the best of times. Our family--" She hesitated and there was something behind her eyes she tried not to have there. So she went on breathlessly: "Our family's not the kind of family--"
"Look," I said wearily, "I'm not talking about the guy lifting a wallet. I'm talking about him getting knocked down by a car and losing his memory or being too badly hurt to talk."
She gave me a level look which was not too admiring. "If it was anything like that, we'd know," she said. "Everybody has things in their pockets to tell who they are."