Brackett discovers that the dead girl was selling herself to feed a drug habit, and that she went under different names. There’s no money in the case but with a sense that his business is going nowhere fast, Brackett puts some time – and his dwindling supply of cash – into discovering who would want the girl dead. He trawls a familiar sea of locations much loved by hardboiled PI novelists – bars, skin joints, pay-by-the-hour hotels and boxing gyms. Driven by no other motivation than a desire to give the dead girl some kind of identity and being other than the tag tied to her big toe in the police morgue, he uncovers a web of greed, lust and exploitation.
There is probably an MA thesis to be written on the subject of authors who have written a ‘Chandleresque’ novel. These books will feature a slightly down-at-heel but morally staunch private investigator, a man who reluctantly immerses himself in the sleazy underworld of murder and general criminality, but always has a sarcastic and cutting one-liner on his lips. How well does Marlowe’s novel sit within this genre? Walter Brackett doesn’t do sharply funny one-liners, that’s for sure, but he is a lonely man, far more so than, say, than that other hero of the mean streets, Robert B Parker’s Spenser. Brackett shares with other PIs a relationship with the police that is, at best, mutually ambivalent but, like Newman in Janet Roger’s outstanding recent contribution to the genre, Shamus Dust (2019 – click to read the review) has a code of conduct that is more humane and decent than his contemporaries who wear a badge or a uniform.
It is fitting that this beautifully written but rather melancholy novel ends as it does. The girl is never really identified as anyone other than “somebody’s sister’. Brackett learns that he has jumped to all the wrong conclusions and – horror of horrors for any self respecting American PI – he has been out-thought and out-investigated by the police. He does, however, have one surreal and ironic moment of success – he finds the missing dog.
Derek Marlowe moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s, but while working there, he contracted leukaemia, and died of a brain haemorrhage in 1996 after a liver transplant. Somebody’s Sister is no longer in print, but copies are widely available for just a few pounds from Amazon, Abe Books and other sources.