Friday, November 4, 2022

Robert Martin's Little Sister

Robert Martin had a moderately successful career as a pulp writer in the 40s and writing paperback originals in the 50. His career unfortunately hit the skids in the early 60s. He wrote crime novels under his own name and using the pseudonym Lee Roberts. Little Sister was published in 1952, under the Lee Roberts name.

It opens in classic private eye novel style. A PI named Brice (who narrates the tale) arrives at Vivian Prosper’s house. She wants to hire him. Two things are immediately obvious. Firstly, these people are seriously rich. Secondly, Vivian Prosper is the most gorgeous hunk of woman Brice has ever laid eyes on. Vivian is worried about her seventeen-year-old sister Linda. Vivian wants to stop Linda from marrying. Or rather, she wants to hire Brice to find a way to prevent the marriage. It’s a dirty job but Brice is happy to do it.

There are however complications. Such as the dead guy in the trunk of Linda’s car. He’s not just dead, he’s been murdered. Linda arrived home very drunk, which was not unusual, but Brice could see that she wasn’t just drunk. She had been drugged.

Vivian had hoped to get rid of the body to avoid any unpleasantness with the police but the police become involved when a doctor has to be called. The doctor has to be called because Linda’s drug overdose almost proves fatal. Vivian still wants to hire Brice, but now she wants to hire him to prove that Linda had no connection with the murder.

And then somebody drugs Brice.

Brice has a few leads, but one of them leads to another corpse.

There are a number of possible motives. The Prospers’ financial situation is complex and there’s a lot of money involved and murder would be a convenient way for some family members to get their hands on that money. Non-family members might also benefit financially from a well-timed murder.

Then there’s jealousy. Vivian is jealous of Linda, and Linda is jealous of Vivian but for different reasons. And men are a major problem for both Prosper women.

Brice isn’t quite a conventional fictional PI. He’s not that much of a tough guy but you wouldn’t want to underestimate him. He takes being a private detective slightly more seriously than he’s prepared to admit. He’s no genius detective but he knows his job. He gets on very well with the police and he never withholds information from them. The PI with an uneasy or hostile relationship with the cops is such a cliché that it’s quite refreshing to come across one who goes out of his way to help them.

There’s a moderately hardboiled ambience to the story. There’s also some humour. There is a very funny scene in which a woman from whom Brice is trying to get information gets very very excited by the fact that she’s talking to a real private eye, just like in the movies. She practically begs him to seduce her.

There’s also some startling and unexpected cynicism. Brice is a fictional PI who is basically a decent regular guy and basically law-abiding, he’s no thug, but he’s also rather lacking in a sensitive side. He’s not quite your stereotypical tough guy with a warm sensitive caring side.

As for sex, he’s not an outrageous womaniser but if sex is on offer he’ll take it.

The plot is pretty sound, with lots of suspects all of whom seem quite capable of being the killer. The climax, with the killer giving a long confession which fills in all the blank spots in the plot, is maybe a bit contrived but this was a technique that was quite common in traditional puzzle-plot mysteries and this book is structurally closer to the puzzle-plot mystery genre than to the typical American private eye thriller.

There’s certainly plenty of tension in the closing pages. It really does seem like the killer holds all the cards and must triumph. And of course in the noir private eye genre you can never be sure if you’re going to get a downbeat ending or a happy ending. This is a story which could end either way.

It might be a bit of a stretch to describe this book as noir fiction but it does have two femmes fatales. They’re both very sexy and very dangerous and either might well be capable of killing. And they’re both ambiguous enough that they could equally plausibly turn out to be guilty or innocent.

There’s nothing especially to mark this out as a great private eye thriller but it’s very competently executed and it’s a very entertaining read. Recommended.

Little Sister has been reprinted by Stark House under their Black Gat Books imprint.

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