The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
The Big Sleep
Raymond Chandler
  • Category:Crime Fiction, And Now A Major Motion Picture
  • Date Read:29 November 2023
  • Year Published:1939
  • Pages:251
  • 4.5 stars
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The Big Sleep was the first novel Raymond Chandler wrote. It introduced Chandler’s main character, Philip Marlowe, to the world. The success of Chandler’s first novel is obvious. He was to publish another six Marlowe novels in his lifetime, and there would be several movie adaptations, the most famous of which was The Big Sleep (1946), directed by Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Becall. The movie is a classic and is worth watching for its witty dialogue, intriguing action, atmosphere and the relationship between Bogart who plays Marlowe, and Becall who plays Vivian Rutledge. It is hard to read Chandler’s novel now without thinking about the movie, and whether you read the novel first or see the movie first, together they offer a rich playground for comparison and discussion.

The book, itself, draws you in from the very first chapter. Marlowe’s commission by General Sternwood, to take care of a potential blackmailer, is obviously only the beginning of what will become something more complex an interesting: of what becomes an affair full of intrigue, pornography, gambling, thuggery and murder. These days we would describe the plot as going down a rabbit hole, full of as many convolutions and turns as the best conspiracy theories but, despite the plot vagaries introduced into the film, Marlowe’s case may be complex, but it makes sense.

Of course, The Big Sleep is also of its time. The hardboiled genre is typically cynical, involves violence and corruption – sometimes a corrupt detective too – and often overly-sexualises its female protagonists, typically providing a shopping list of their physical attributes. If a woman is attractive and described in this way and walks into the detective’s office, odds are she will end up sleeping with the detective and/or will betray him. It’s a certain style that had developed in the period in which Chandler wrote The Big Sleep. On 1 August 2023 Vintage Publishers put a warning on the cover of their new release of The Big Sleep and other books from this era:

While these books are outstanding works in the genre, they are also firmly of the time and place in which they were written. These novels may contain outdated cultural representations and language. We present these works as originally published.

So, if you think you would be genuinely upset by the kind of content that attracts this kind of warning, this book may not be for you. At least Vintage left the novel unaltered, unlike amendments made to Roald Dahl’s works by Puffin this year.

However, I would argue that The Big Sleep refines the hardboiled genre. The writing is crisp, intelligent and witty. Its hero is tough and edgy but also vulnerable. Its women are attractive and dangerous, but they are actors on the stage playing their part in what is predominantly still a man’s world. The Big Sleep is a great novel, and we shouldn’t be afraid of reading fiction that immerses us in a world not our own.

THE HARDBOILED DETECTIVE

Marlowe is the quintessential hardboiled detective. The hardboiled genre was predominantly American, popularised by writers like Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), and James M. Cain (Double Indemnity, for which Chandler worked on the screenplay for Billy Wilder). The genre is exemplified by magazines like Black Mask, which published all the major writers during the period of the 1920s to 1940s, both their short stories and serialised novels. The genre emerged during the era of prohibition, organised crime and a perception of institutional corruption. Hardboiled detectives had moved away from traditional fiction detectives – mannered and privileged – made popular by earlier writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and contemporary writers like S.S. Van Dine, both of whom Marlowe specifically references: “I’m not like Sherlock Holmes or Philo Vance. I don’t expect to go over ground the police have covered and pick up a broken pen point and build a case from it.” The hardboiled detective had become a recognisable type. Dashiell Hammett, a private detective himself in real life, was aware of this when he wrote about his own detective, Sam Spade:

. . . your private detective does not – or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague – want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes into contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.

To the extent that Marlowe defines the hardboiled detective, he is smart, cynical, a loner and violent if he has to be. He is attractive to women but he remains emotionally distant. Sex is a matter of pragmatism. He is essentially flawed in some way; his personal life appears to be a mess. He once worked for the District Attorney, but he is clearly not a team player, and when he tells General Sternwood that he was fired for insubordination, we are inclined to believe him.

Marlowe, specifically, appears to have no family or history that we know of. The closest insight we gain into Marlowe’s personal life is his reflection upon the room in which he lives and his few meagre personal possessions:

. . . this was the room I had to live in. It was all I had in the way of a home. In it was everything that was mine, that had any association for me, any past, anything that took the place of a family. Not much; a few books, pictures, radio, chessmen, old letters, stuff like that. Nothing. Such as they were they had all my memories.

Who Marlowe is appears to be something of a mystery itself. However, his inner life – his way of thinking in the moment – is revealed to us perceptibly by Chandler. Unlike Dashiell Hammett’s detective, Sam Spade, Marlowe is revealed to us as a first person narrator. His repartee may be witty and sparkling, forming a kind of linguistic shield, but we perceive he has a code and he is faithful to it. Is it too much to say that Philip Marlowe is married to his work? That he thinks of himself as a chivalric knight? Eddie Mars calls him a ‘soldier’ repeatedly, and Sternwood also uses the term. Perhaps Marlowe fought in the First World War, as Chandler did. But I think we are to understand that Marlowe is a different kind of soldier, fighting a conflict on the mean streets any way he can. Any of these appellations may be a stretch, but none of them are entirely untrue. Marlowe is a pragmatist who works for money, but money is of secondary importance to the code that Marlowe adopts. When Sternwood tries to pay him off for a job Marlowe considers incomplete he asserts that he does not wish to be paid.

So what is this code? In the very first page of the novel Marlowe observes,

“a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armour rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the visor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere.

It’s a telling image given that Marlowe will be commissioned to defend the honour of a young maiden – Carmen Sternwood, who is the subject of blackmail it appears – and believes his underlying mission is to investigate the disappearance of her elder sister’s husband, Rusty Regan. Instead of a sword, Marlowe wields his wits and a gun (several in fact!) and instead of the chivalric code he has a set of professional principles. That Marlowe has already inserted himself into the chivalric trope is apparent when he reflects upon the stained-glass image: “I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him [the knight].” For all the though-guy image that Marlowe projects, we should understand from the outset that Marlowe is an idealist whose intersection with the lives of the Sternwoods will reveal the limits of that idealism in a modern and corrupt world.

After all, Carmen Sternwood is not so maidenly or so much in need of rescue. She’s gotten herself into trouble, and Marlowe deals with that trouble, bringing her home safely after she has been drugged with ether and stripped bare at Arthur Geiger’s house. But her moods are erratic and she is a sexual aggressor who angers Marlowe when he finds her naked in his own apartment; in his own bed. She has not only readied herself, but has laid out a chess problem on Marlowe’s board. Marlowe attempts to move the knight – naturally the knight is his piece – but he cannot solve the problem, emblematic of the case, itself. Carmen Sternwood is not only sexually available, she is Marlowe’s equal, playing the stakes; she is an antagonist as much as she is a client. Marlowe reflects, “Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.” It’s a scene that highlights the conflict of Marlowe’s high ideals against temptation and corruption. There is something purer in Marlowe than his demeanour suggests and a corrupt world will countenance.

How do we assume Marlowe is so high-minded? That he represents an ideal in a corrupt world? We might point out that he doesn’t take sexual advantage of Carmen even though she is available, although some will argue that might suggest latent homosexuality, or emotional repression or Marlowe’s social alienation. Perhaps. Yet Marlowe constantly tells us what he is thinking, not just when confronted with Carmen’s availability. When Captain Crojager presses him for information from Marlowe’s case Marlowe responds,

I’m selling what I have to sell to make a living. What little guts and intelligence the Lord gave me and a willingness to get pushed around in order to protect a client. It’s against my principles to tell as much as I’ve told to-night, without consulting the General.”

When he attempts to return his fee to General Sternwood for a job incomplete he expresses a fidelity to his client that exceeds the bounds of a client’s understanding or knowledge: “You don’t know what I go through or over or under to do your job for you. I do it my way. I do my best to protect you and I may break a few rules, but I break them in your favour. The client comes first, unless he’s crooked.” When Mona Mars tries to justify her husband’s illegal gambling establishment, Marlowe responds, “Once outside the law you’re all the way outside . . . Don’t try to sell me on any high-souled racketeers. They don’t come in that pattern.” When Vivian calls Marlowe a “son of a bitch” he sweeps the insult aside because he can bear any insult if he knows he has remained true to his principles which prioritise the welfare of his client, whatever his fee happens to be, whatever their morality or worthiness.

THE PLOT

An online search reveals that there is a general feeling that the plot of The Big Sleep is convoluted or difficult. This reputation may have been earned by the book’s film adaptation by Howard Hawks in 1946. The film is somewhat difficult to follow, especially on a first viewing. This is partly due to its source material – the structure of the book and the layering of its mystery – but it is also due to the changes made to the plot when adapted to the screen. However, the novel is quite easy to follow and no one should be intimidated by it. Like most crime novels not everything is as it first appears to be, and the entire mystery is really split into two main acts. The first involves Marlowe’s commission to rid General Sternwood of yet another blackmail attempt. Marlowe investigates Arthur Geiger’s bookstore because Geiger has sent the General promissory notes signed by Sternwood’s youngest daughter, Carmen, which Geiger’s note states are legally uncollectable, but assumes the General will no doubt want to honour, anyway. Having already been blackmailed by Joe Brody, the General senses the true intent of Geiger’s note. Geiger’s store turns out to be a front for a pornography business which Carmen has gotten herself involved with. The pictures of Carmen are valuable blackmail material, and Marlowe has to ensure his client is protected, even while a series of murders based around the blackmail plot occur.

The second half of the novel segues into the story of the disappearance of Vivian’s husband, Rusty Regan. The story is that Regan had an affair with Eddie Mars’s wife, Mona, and they ran off together. Eddie Mars runs a gambling house and it is clear he is involved in illegal schemes. Marlowe hasn’t been commissioned to find Regan, but everyone assumes he has been, and Marlowe increasingly believes Regan has been involved in the plot to blackmail Vivian and Carmen’s father.

In fact, what the book possesses which the movie does not is clear exposition scenes that explicitly tie up the disparate ends of the plot and make everything clear for the reader. In the case of the first section of the book, everything is explained in Chapter 18 when Marlowe is called in by his former boss, District Attorney Taggart Wilde. The same is true at the end of the story, as the mysteries of the plot are revealed in a dramatic confrontation which is followed by an exposition scene at the end. If you have read the book and still think it is unclear how the entire plot fits together, you can read my summary of what has happened by clicking here. Bear in mind, it is a total spoiler for the book, and the movie is different.

THE BOOK AND THE FILM

Of course, not every detail is entirely neatly explained in the book. There are a couple of exceptions. In Chandler's novel we learn that Owen Taylor, the Sternwood chauffeur, murdered Arthur Geiger just before Marlowe entered Geiger’s house. Taylor was in love with Carmen Sternwood and the murder is revenge for Geiger’s exploitative photos of Carmen, taken for his pornography ring.

After that, Taylor is murdered, himself. Chandler is reported to have told Howard Hawks, the director of The Big Sleep, that he didn’t know who killed him. Taylor and his car end up in the water at the end of Lido fishing pier. The mystery of Taylor’s murder remains unsolved and forgotten at the end of the film.

However, there are hints from which we can speculate. Ironically, it’s actually a bit clearer in the film. In the film, when Marlowe interrogates Joe Brody in his apartment, Brody admits that he chased down Owen Taylor after he shot Geiger and forced him to hand over the picture of Carmen Sternwood:

MARLOWE: So you left an unconscious man in a car way out near Beverly someplace. And you want me to believe that somebody conveniently came along, ran that car all the way down to the ocean, pushed it off the pier and then came back and hid Geiger's body?

BRODY: Well, I didn't.

MARLOWE: Somebody did. And you wanted time to take over.

BRODY: You can't prove I did it.

MARLOWE: I don't particularly want to. All I want to do is find out what Geiger had on the Sternwoods.

Marlowe states what is true for the story. Taylor’s death is really not germane to the forward action of the plot. But Brody is the most likely suspect with motive and opportunity. This exchange in the novel, however, is lengthier. Brody says Taylor attacked him before escaping, and claims he didn’t see Taylor again. It leaves us with a feeling that there is still something to explain.

Brody, himself, is murdered shortly after this exchange with Marlowe, by Carol Lundgren. Lundgren, we learn, is the homosexual lover of Geiger (made explicit in the book). He sees Joe Brody moving Geiger’s pornographic stock from the back of his store the morning after his murder and assumes he is Geiger’s killer. This is Lundgren’s motivation for killing Brody. In the movie, Lundgren, himself, is moving stock from the store. This seemingly inexplicable change is explained by a remark by the bookstore owner across the street from Geiger’s shop, who tells Marlowe in the movie that Lundgren is “Geiger's shadow.”

In the movie certain references were required to be excised which explain this change. Under the rules of the Production Code Administration introduced in Hollywood in 1934 (and strictly enforced) scenes of nudity and references to homosexuality were censored. Therefore scenes from the book in which Carmen Sternwood appears naked required her to be clothed in the movie, and Lundgren’s homosexual relationship with Geiger could not be made explicit, either. He is recast into the role of a kind of 1940s personal assistant and chauffeur.

However, on the whole the film is more confusing, and it is worth considering why this is so, since the possible answer reveals something about the novel. I suspect, though I have not read anything that supports this opinion, that the plot confusions had a lot to do with the movie’s two main stars, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Becall. The Official 1946 trailer for the film appears at the end of this review. You could be forgiven for thinking they were the only two actors appearing in the film on the basis of this trailer. The marketing is built entirely around their real-life relationship. The two had met in 1944 while working on Howard Hawks’s film based on Ernest Hemingway’s novel, To Have and Have Not. Becall was nineteen at the time and Bogart forty-four. Despite their age difference they were married in May 1945, so they were husband and wife during the production of The Big Sleep. For anyone who has read the book, it is obvious that changes were made to the movie to include Becall in more scenes and to introduce a love story that is absent from the book. Marlowe and Vivian kiss in the book and that scene is represented in the movie, but their relationship can only be described as troubled in the novel, and its denouement certainly doesn’t support the emphasis on the love story in the film. The sidebar to the right shows stills from several instances in which Becall’s character is placed in scenes she does not appear in the novel.

Even the movie’s credits telegraph this emphasis on romance. Becall and Bogart are pictured in romantic silhouette while two cigarettes smoulder in an ashtray together. Vivian, Becall’s character, is renamed. Instead of Vivian Regan she is Vivian Rutledge, thereby uncoupling her from her husband in the novel, Rusty Regan (renamed Shawn Regan in the movie). The exposition scene in Chapter 18 of the novel, featuring District Attorney Taggart Wilde and Captain Crojager is replaced with a meeting between Marlowe and Vivian in a restaurant. In fact, Vivian turns up all over the place. When Marlowe goes to Eddie Mars’s gambling house Vivian is there, as she is in the book, but she is given a song to sing in the style of 1940s entertainments. But she’s also at Joe Brody’s apartment when Marlowe goes to see him, as well as when Marlowe finally discovers the whereabouts of Mars’s wife, Mona: there Vivian is, inexplicably keeping her company. Vivian even adopts the role that Mona plays in the novel during this scene. And then there is an exchange between Vivian and Marlowe as they drive to the destination of the final showdown, which highlights the irreconcilable loose ends the plot changes have introduced into the movie:

MARLOWE: They'll all ask the same question: “Where's Shawn Regan? Why did Mars hide his wife out to make it look like she ran off with Regan?" Why did you hide out there? You're playing with dynamite.

VIVIAN: Don't ask any more questions.

MARLOWE: I won't even ask you how you got into this mess.

That’s as much explanation as we’re offered in the film. And Vivian’s constant presence suggests levels to the plot and potentialities that the story simply can’t support. And instead of the final showdown, involving another character as Chandler wrote it, Hawks’s movie places Vivian there at the desperate end. While the same solution to the mystery is cryptically arrived at, as found in the novel, Hawks offers up an entirely different bad guy to distract us and end the film.

CHANDLER’S STYLE

Regardless of this quibbling, Howard Hawks’s film is wonderful to watch, even if not all of it makes sense. And while Chandler’s own plot is explicable, he is also a stylist first and foremost. One thing the film does capture is Chandler’s facility to write witty dialogue and prose. The repartee between Marlowe and the two Sternwood daughters is particularly noteworthy, but it is there throughout. Chandler conveys a great deal about character without labouring over it. Marlowe may have a personal code, for instance, but his motivation is expressed succinctly in the opening paragraph as he neatens and washes in preparation for his meeting with General Sternwood: “I was chasing four million dollars.” There is a wry cynicism to much of the writing which lesser writers have imitated and exaggerated, creating a stylistic cliché for hardboiled novels which this novel doesn’t really indulge.

An interesting comparison can be made, for instance, between the introduction of Chandler’s femme fatale, Carmen Sternwood, and Dashiell Hammett’s Mrs Wonderly from The Maltese Falcon:

HAMMETT:

She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.

CHANDLER:

She was twenty or so, small and delicately put together, but she looked durable. She wore pale blue slacks and they looked well on her. She walked as if she were floating. Her hair was a fine tawny wave cut much shorter than the current fashion of pageboy tresses curled in at the bottom. Her eyes were slate-grey, and had almost no expression when they looked at me. She came over near me and smiled with her mouth and she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain. They glistened between her too taut lips. Her face lacked colour and didn’t look too healthy

Hammett’s Mrs Wonderly is conventionally sexual: curved (“without angularity”), high-breasted, with red hair and lips and with glistening teeth. Chandler, writing ten years after Hammett, has inherited the hardboiled tropes and transformed them from a sexual display to representation of character. Carmen’s description begins conventionally enough (“small and delicately put together”), but the catalogue of her features is somewhat unappealing: expressionless slate-grey eyes, predatory teeth, too taut lips and an unhealthy pallor. Chandler is telling us something about his character here and we should be paying attention.

And Chandler’s handling of the hardboiled tropes extends beyond character. Marlowe might see himself as a knight, even one somewhat out of step with his situation. But as readers we see the irony of Marlowe’s initial introduction to the knight in the stain-glass attempting to untie his damsel: that while Marlowe may rescue Carmen from Geiger we sense it is only her reputation at stake. It’s Marlowe who ends up tied and trussed upon a floor, and it’s a woman who unties him, saving no less than his life. With this first novel Chandler was already attempting something different in the genre. The real story, not how the mystery gets solved but what actually happened behind the scenes, is essentially a story about the women. I imagine that sometime in the future someone is going to think to do a feminist rewrite of The Big Sleep, and then we’ll see Carmen Sternwood or Vivian Regan tell their stories. If nothing else, there could be some interesting holes to fill in, too. I’m not talking about who killed Owen Taylor. There is another question left hanging that the film avoids raising because Vivian is given only one unseen and unexplained husband in it. In the book we are told that Regan is her third husband. We have to wonder, what happened to the first two?

Apart from the explicit references to 1940s society, The Big Sleep still feels very modern. It’s well worth a read.



The Original trailer for Howard Hawks’s screen adaptation of The Big Sleep (1946)
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Raymond Chandler
Raymond Chandler
Raymond Chandler was born in America but lived in England until he was twelve. He didn’t begin writing until he was sacked from his role as an oil executive for drunkenness during the Great Depression. He decided to turn his hand to writing. His first short story was published in Black Mask magazine in 1933 and his first novel, The Big Sleep was published by Alfred A. Knopf in February 1939. He would publish seven Marlowe novels in his lifetime.

Black Mask Magazine

Black Mask magazine
Black Mask magazine was first published in 1920 and ceased publication in 1951. Its peak circulation period was in the 1930s. The magazine published all the well-known crime fiction writers of the period. Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon was first serialised in the magazine and Raymond Chandler published his first story, ‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot’ in the magazine in 1933. The two covers above are examples of the style of the magazine, and bear the names of Hammett and Chandler for these issues.

Scenes from The Big Sleep

I argue that Lauren Becall and Humphrey Bogart’s marriage the year before the production of The Big Sleep, and the Hollywood romance formula applied to many films, was likely a factor in plot changes made to the film. Some of these changes make the movie harder to follow. Below are a few examples where the screenplay was written to give Bogart and Becall more screen time together, and to effect a romantic ending.

The Phone Prank
In chapter 11 of The Big Sleeep Vivian Regan visits Marlowe in his office on the seventh floor of an office building. She has received a photo of her sister, naked. The blackmail plot is now evident. She tries to find out why her father hired Marlowe and there is some minor flirtation when Vivian remarks about her sister’s body in the photograph, “You ought to see mine.” But Hawks’ film accentuates the growing attraction between Marlowe and Vivian. She flirtatiously scratches her leg and they engage in a practical joke together on the telephone on the police.
Apartment Scene with Joe Brody
In chapter 14 Marlowe goes to Joe Brody’s apartment to question him. Agnes, his accomplice is with him, and in the following chapter Carmen comes to the apartment with a gun to demand her photograph back from Brody. It’s plausible that Vivian might have also come to Brody’s since she has been sent the same picture, but she is not in the scene in the book. She is in the film. There is really no purpose for her to be there, since the scene involves Marlowe’s questions, Carmen’s arrival and Brody’s death.
The Restaurant Scene
In chapter 18 of the novel Marlowe is debriefed by District Attorney Taggart Wilde and Captain Crojager. The scene serves to tie up the disparate threads of the plot in the first half of the novel. Wilde and Crojager are replaced in the film with when Marlowe meets Vivian at a restaurant. The scene serves the same expositional purpose, but towards the end of the scene Vivian is bumped by a man into Marlowe’s arms.
Marlowe Tied Up
In Chandler’s novel Marlowe finds himself tied up and in the presence of Mono Mars when he awakes, after being overcome by Canino. Marlowe arguably gets emotionally closer to Mona than any other woman in the novel, and her presence and action is critical to the plot. Nevertheless, Vivian is inexplicably present in the film scene, and once Mona’s necessary presence is established, she angrily leaves the scene, allowing Vivian to play the role Mona plays in the novel.
The Final Showdown
Vivian’s presence is important for the final exposition of the novel, but she is not present at the final showdown. The movie changes the ending entirely to place Marlowe and Vivian in danger by elevating Mars’s role in the story. It allows for a typical romantic ending to the movie.

BBC Interview of Chandler with Ian Fleming

Tape recorder
In 1958, Ian Fleming interviewed Raymond Chandler for the BBC in London. Chandler had reviewed Fleming’s Bond novels and was complimentary. The two writers became friendly. In this interview Chandler was a little intoxicated. But both authors speak of their own and each other’s characters, James Bond and Philip Marlowe, offering insights into their creative and imaginative lives, as well as the way they understood their own creations. The interview begins with Ian Fleming speaking first.
The interview is 24 minutes 27 seconds long.

Read Michael Duffy’s ‘interview’ with Raymond Chandler

As part of the Great Writers project on this website Michael Duffy offers his ‘interview’ with Raymond Chandler. Read the complete interview and other information about Raymond Chandler by clicking here

WARNING!: The solution to the mystery is completely revealed below

Carmen Sternwood makes a pass at her sister’s husband, Rusty Regan. He rejects her. In a rage bordering on epilepsy she kills Regan. Vivian learns what her sister has done and asks Eddie Mars, whose gambling house she frequents, to help her get rid of the body. They dispose of it in one of the old oil sumps that dot the edge of the property, from which the family made a part of their fortune.

Mars sees the potential of blackmailing the Sternwood family, but he is not sure what General Sternwood knows. If he thinks the General knows of the murder, he will be able to collect a lot of money quickly. If not, he will wait until the General dies and Vivian inherits his fortune, and he will blackmail her, instead.

In order to determine what the General knows he gets Geiger to send promissory notes for gambling debts signed by Carmen, to the General. Geiger is Mars’ tenant and is also exploiting Carmen as part of his pornography business. He has taken nude photos of her. Mars’ wants to see how the General will react: if he has a guilty conscience and simply pays them. Instead, the General hires Marlowe.

Eddie Mars knows of his wife’s affair with Rusty Regan. It is fairly well known. When Regan is murdered he realises that some people will suspect he was behind it. To help counter this he has his wife, Mona, taken to Realito where she is guarded by Canino so it would look like she ran off with Regan. It was worth his while to do this because he needed the leverage over Vivian to blackmail her when she came into her inheritance.

The story is complicated by Carmen’s relationship with Owen Taylor, the family chauffeur. He is in love with Carmen and finds out how Geiger is exploiting her. He kills Geiger the night Marlowe goes to the house to speak to Geiger about the promissory notes. He escapes from the back of the house before Marlowe enters. Marlowe finds Carmen naked and almost unconscious from ether, as well as the camera which Geiger was using to photograph her.

At some stage, Owen Taylor is killed, placed in the car and it is plunged into water from the end of a pier.

Carol Lundgren, Geiger’s homosexual lover, sees Joe Brody moving stock from the back of Geiger’s store the day after Geiger’s murder. Joe Brody is looking to take over Geiger’s business. Lundgren makes the reasonable assumption that Brody murdered Geiger, and kills Brody when he answers the door while speaking to Marlowe.

The first part of the plot is really unravelling the complications of the main story involving Regan’s murder, the question of which is continuously deferred throughout the book, since Marlowe was not hired to find him. Marlowe begins to work on the mistaken assumption that Regan is, in fact, behind the conspiracy to blackmail the Sternwoods before the truth is revealed to him at the end.