Little Sister Robert Lee Martin (1952)
Whether they cut her too much slack growing up out of pity for her mother dying when she was little or they just didn’t lavish the time on her for more selfish reasons, preoccupied with their own affairs, Little Sister grew up spoilt, her behaviour indulged. Now Linda is seventeen, life’s for living, rules are for poor people, the world’s her oyster. Only some thing happened last night can’t be brushed under the carpet.
Private eye, Andrew H Brice, gets a summons from heiress Vivian Prosper, she’s not the type of woman who calls into the office. When he arrives at the Prosper family home the first impression is real money. Vivian is lying topless on a towel by the pool in the back garden. Ever the gentleman, Brice makes as much noise as he can approaching across the lawn. She grabs her little sweater but her nudity around a stranger doesn’t seem to bother her much. Vivian is a divorcee, she reverted to her maiden name when the marriage broke up. Vivian is the older of two sisters, step-daughters to sportsman, Jerome K. Pitt.
The call is about Linda though, the Little Sister, Vivian admits she hasn’t done much of a job bringing her up since their mother died, and Jerome is far too busy to be bothered. Linda is about to turn eighteen when she’ll inherit her trust fund, a tidy little fortune: $300,000. Vivian wants Brice to scare off her latest beau, there have been men before but Linda wants to marry this one. Arthur Spotwood is a grease monkey, a gold digger. Vivian explains that Linda is not in love just infatuated, she’ll get over it, she knows her sister. Spotwood is pretty sure of himself he’s already declined a $5,000 bribe to get lost. Brice is thinking Linda is of an age to make her own mind up, he has reservations about the job, but he’s willing to do some digging. Linda isn’t around, she didn’t come home last night, not for the first time.
Brice is leaving as a red convertible rolls up the driveway and the driver’s head falls forward on the horn. Linda is wasted but the car looks undamaged, apart from a stain leaking from the boot, (trunk). When Brice takes a look inside he finds a body, a young man, stabbed in the chest. Vivian instantly dives in to protect her sister and they put Linda to her bed. Then they chat, Vivian’s attitude to Brice suddenly softens, she pleads for his help to ditch the body, make it all go away. Brice should call the cops asap, he’s resisting Vivian’s charms but it’s tough and she’s being awful friendly. They agree to hold off, take a run at Linda to see what they can find out. That’s when Brice realises the girl has been doped. They call a doctor, a little while later and she’d have died. Finally Brice calls the police. Vivian isnt happy but Brice is her only chance to get Linda out of a hole. Brice is caught up in a web of lies, family secrets, jealousies, revenge and desperation.
The story has echoes of Chandler, a deliberate evocation of The Big Sleep, that is then subtly subverted, (Chandler published a novel called The Little Sister, 1949). Little Sister is well plotted and throws up a decent surprise or two after lulling the reader into a false sense of security. Brice is a likeable gumshoe, he has a way of playing with the other characters and a shady edge that works well. However, it’s his relationship with Vivian and the interplay between the two that sparks all the way through the story, that’s a lot of fun. The tone is crisp with a touch of humour and snappy dialogue. In all an entertainingly gripping read.
There’s an interesting introduction from Bill Pronzini who corresponded with Martin towards the end of his life. Pronzini paints a sad and touching portrait of a lonely man who never gave up on writing despite long since having published new material.
Black Gat Books, Stark House Press, paperback, August, ISBN 9781951473075

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