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Marlowe's Hangover

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Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe: The Little Sister
By Michael Lark
Fireside Books; 136 pages; $15 paper



A new graphic novel illustrates the metaphor behind the mystery of the genre's greatest gumshoe

By Richard von Busack

RAYMOND CHANDLER was the great poet of that terrible city to the south. His summing up of the land, the people and the morals of Los Angeles still bears authority 50 years later. He helped create the City of Angels; people still see the city through his eyes.

Chandler's sixth book featuring his detective hero, Philip Marlowe, was The Little Sister; written in 1949, five years after his previous Marlowe novel, The Lady in the Lake. In letters, Chandler told friends that he didn't feel like writing a new Marlowe story. In The Little Sister, even the detective protests, as if to the author, about being used again.

"The routine I go through is so tired I'm half asleep on my feet," Marlowe thinks aloud, elsewhere muttering about "all the tired mannerisms of my trade."

For The Little Sister's subject, Chandler took his bad times in Hollywood. Like many writers of quality, Chandler faced a dilemma. His books sold, but royalties were low; he wasn't prolific, and the movies were his best source of money. Chandler had a varying pride in and disgust for the industry. He was fascinated by its energy, its fear and duplicity.

As he wrote in one typically precise letter, "If my books had been any worse, I should not have been invited to Hollywood, and if they had been better, I should not have come." In The Little Sister, Marlowe, the man who can't be bought, may be wish fulfillment for a writer who would have loved to tell the movie studios where to shove their dirty money.

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Allen Barra's review of a new Chandler biography.

Info about Chandler's books.

A list of Chandler books made into films.

A page devoted to Double Indemnity.

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MICHAEL LARK'S graphic-novel adaptation Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe: The Little Sister preserves most of the virtues of its source. Private detective Marlowe, the only honest man in Los Angeles, tries futilely to reunite a scattered family: a dead blackmailer, a rising movie star and a girl named Orfamay Quest, a prairie virgin with the heart of a rattlesnake. In sorting out the mystery, Marlowe tangles with picture people, including a powerful agent, a half-senile studio head and the muscle the studios call out to deal with blackmailers--all these, and the corrupt small-town cops from Bay City (Santa Monica).

Lark clarifies Orfamay from the book's blur of feuding archetypes into a sharp, tragic outline. The old maid from Manhattan, Kan., who betrays Marlowe wasn't as real in the novel as she is in Lark's pages. The girl in these drawings is more dangerous, more hidden, not a silly flirt. In the graphic novel's only serious clinch, Lark depicts the tenderness of an older, worldly man as he embraces a young and supposedly innocent woman.

The artist's slight but necessary use of caricature in the drawings sharpens the sense of The Little Sister as a story of a film about a film, preserving Marlowe's existential panic at realizing he's nothing but a character in a cheap melodrama. One critic, Eric Homberger, wrote, "[Oscar] Wilde said that life imitates art. Chandler catches that moment where art imitates life imitating art."

Here, not just Marlowe is a critic of the movie he's in, but all of the characters similarly complain. Two thugs tell Marlowe, "We're just a couple of bit players"; Christy French of the LAPD threatens a Bay City cop, "Just don't try to steal the picture with that nineteen-thirty dialogue." About to shoot Marlowe, Mavis decides against it, saying, "I guess I don't like the script. I don't like the lines. ... It isn't me."

Lark is skilled in the use of chiaroscuro and "camera angles"; he knows the pregnant pause, the use of inanimate objects to tell stories, and the expansion of a significant paragraph. The expert coloring adds to the mood. The book is subtle in the dull pink of a Bay City cop's flushed face, the light blue, empty and blank boulevards, the pink and magenta hydrocarbon sunsets.

Lark is almost defeated by Chandler's finale, but he sorts out the tangle as best he can. The resolution of The Little Sister is like a ball of yarn that the cat's had. In a letter, Chandler groused about being persuaded into rewrites on The Little Sister. The author claimed he was considering "more or less letting it [the ending] hang in air on the theory that who cared anyway?"

CHANDLER ISN'T read for his mystery plotting. If Marlowe novels are consumed in clusters--as they are; you rush out and get the next after you're done--the dizzying Chandler milieu conspires to give the sense Marlowe is lost in one long unsolvable mystery, from which he will never emerge.

Marlowe is a mystery to himself even. But is there a clue buried in the stories--are the books some sort of metaphor for an alcoholic life? Why does Marlowe seem like such a waste, as far as all of the people who meet him are concerned? Why is he so self-loathing, so isolated? Why isn't he someone who could be making more money, someone who could maybe have a home or a wife to play chess with?

Always the same answer, as when you ask any other drunk case: They'd be corrupted if they had to live like normal people. Cornered, drunks reach for their integrity; they're the only ones who can see in a world of the blind.

Some of Chandler's most savory passages describe Marlowe's coming to after a blackout--after being knocked over the head or involuntarily shot full of drugs. Occasionally, the Bay City rollers or some villains have dumped some hootch over him so he's stinking of gin when he wakes up. It's never his fault when it happens.

(From Lark's edit of Chandler's prose, when Marlowe rises after having been given a doped cigarette: "How long had I been out? I got up on my haunches and braced myself and shook my head. It went into a flat spin. It spun down about 5,000 feet and then I dragged it out and leveled off." Had a few hangovers like that?)

Lark's adaptation solved the mystery for me. The artist's images of the beaten detective make plain an aspect of Marlowe that hadn't been obvious before. Chandler, often criticized for not being a personal writer, may have been more personal in these details than he's been credited.

In one scene in The Lady in the Lake, Marlowe gives a taciturn man a drink to make him talk. Chandler writes, "The whiskey won the fight as it always does." That sentence is written in heart's blood. It may be unfair to extrapolate what Chandler's life (as a serious alcoholic and the son of an alcoholic) was like from what's on the page; but Lark's realistic images of a battered and broken Marlowe, in his cheap office, stubbled, rumpled, reaching for a shot of scotch, doesn't debunk the hero; instead it refines Marlowe's tragedy.

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From the May 22-28, 1997 issue of Metro

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