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Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe: The Little Sister. Adapted and illustrated by Michael Lark. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. 1v. (unpaged). $15.00. ISBN 0-684-82933-9.

Crime and mystery fiction

Adults, teens, older kids; mild violence

Orfamay, a dowdy young woman from Kansas, hires jaded private detective Philip Marlowe to locate her brother, Orrin, who has not contacted his sister for some time. But as Marlowe investigates, he finds himself caught up in a much larger web of drug trafficking, murder, blackmail, assumed identities, celebrity, and money. Who is leaving ice picks in corpses' necks? Is Orrin the black sheep of Orfamay's family, or is it someone else? How does Miss Dolores Gonzales fit into this? What is the significance of the photos Orrin took of the movie star Mavis Weld? And how deep can Marlowe get into this investigation before someone decides that enough is enough?

Not being an aficionado of mystery fiction, I freely admit that it's hard for me to judge this story. As a reader accustomed to more straightforward plot lines, I found The Little Sister overwritten and convoluted, with two-dimensional characters acting in peculiar ways; but then, Raymond Chandler is an acknowledged master of the genre, so it must have conventions pertinent to the genre that I simply don't recognize. Or, maybe the adaptation is not so good--maybe it leaves out some important secondary material that develops these characters more fully. I can't tell, not having read this story in the original. However, the presence of Miss Gonzales must have been better spelled out in the original, because here there is no explanation of who she is. She first appears in Mavis Weld's house, but is she a friend? Housekeeper? Bodyguard? Other? Without this bit of explanation, you're left to wonder why she keeps drifting into the plot--to which she has a certain importance. And if this important piece of information has been left out, what else did Lark omit?

The art is competent but lit no fires under me. Like many such period pieces it has an Art Deco feel to it. Lark used shadowing quite a bit and lots of heavy black areas, probably to try to capture that film noir atmosphere. (The many shots of shadowed window slats are also a film noir tipoff.) As a result, many scenes in full daylight seem dark, and scenes indoors or at night are very black, though Lark usually has some mitigating image (e.g., skin, red lipstick, a light tan building) to keep the panels from turning into the visual lead balloons that the panels in the ultra-dark eXistenZ were.

Some of the light and shadowing went in funny angles or didn't appropriately cover things--they were used "artistically" but not physically accurately. For example, if there are shadow images of the window slats all around a desk, they should fall on the desk too... but they don't. And I haven't been in too many interior hallways where the overhead lights were set at an angle, especially one low enough and bright enough to cast almost a complete black shadow of someone on a wall. And there are several scenes with two people but only one casts a shadow. Lark is described as a "talented young newcomer," so one hopes he's picked up a few more tricks of the trade since the publication of this book.

Contributing to a relative lack of emotion displayed by the characters (not as bad as that in White Like She by any means, though) is the fact that you often don't see a fully drawn face--nearly every one, particularly that of Philip Marlowe, is either part-shadowed or covered in some way, by hair or glasses or a hat or some combination thereof. I guess this is supposed to heighten the mystery aspects of the story.

Partial faces and bad shadowing all in one!  

Copyright 1997, Michael Lark

One odd thing: Jim Steranko contributed no more than the cover, yet his biography on the last page of the book is almost twice as long as that of Lark. Whatever their relative levels of fame, I find this inappropriate and insulting to Lark.

This book would be appropriate for Raymond Chandler fans and mystery readers.


Copyright 2001, D. Aviva Rothschild


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