The Big Sleep | Study Guide

Raymond Chandler

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The Big Sleep | Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

The butler guides Marlowe to the greenhouse where the general is waiting, seated in a wheelchair. The greenhouse is hot, moist, and full of plants. The general interrogates Marlowe on his qualifications as a private detective—Marlowe worked as an investigator for the district attorney but was fired for insubordination. Marlowe's cynical explanation, "I test very high on insubordination," appeals to the general, who then asks what he knows about the Sternwoods. Marlowe explains both daughters are wild. One has been married three times, most recently to bootlegger Rusty Regan. The general explains Regan, whom he liked, is gone, and a man named Joe Brody was paid five thousand dollars to leave Carmen alone. Now someone named Geiger has approached the general with an IOU for Carmen's gambling debts.

Marlowe advises the general to pay, but the general doesn't want to because he is proud. Marlowe says he'll get rid of Geiger for him, but it would be simpler to pay him. The general gives Marlowe permission to handle it as it chooses. As Norris shows him out, he tells Marlowe Mrs. Regan wants to see him.

Analysis

The greenhouse where Marlowe and the general meet is an artificial environment, stifling and unnaturally fertile. It is private, because of the heat, humidity, and plants, and it is removed from daily life. It is also a symbol of deception. The heat, which helps the general's condition, allows him to grow orchids, which he dislikes and calls "nasty things." They serve as an excuse for him to stay in the heat, a deception he uses to disguise his reason for being there. Similar to the orchids in the greenhouse, the Sternwoods live in a layered reality, in which one thing serves as an excuse for another. The general's cultivation of his corrupt daughters is reminiscent of his comment about the orchids: "Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute."

Presentation matters here, however, and the Sternwoods have enough money to make things appear the way they want them to. The general supports his daughters financially but doesn't seem to care for them. In some ways, he seems almost disgusted by them. At best, he is disappointed in the way they have turned out.

Marlowe's first response to the general's request to explain his qualifications as a detective seems almost like a wisecrack. After all, it is difficult to take such a situation without a grain of salt. However, when he follows up by explaining what he knows about the Sternwood family, he shows his real qualifications and has done his homework. He knows a great deal about the family, including the daughters' reputations. That he has the courage to tell the truth to this rich, but ill, man establishes Marlowe as forthright and courageous. That he notices the general as "an old man two thirds dead and still determined to believe he could take it" establishes a certain sensitivity.

In terms of plot, the chapter introduces Marlowe's official case: investigate and end a blackmail scheme. The blackmail involves paying to keep the reality about Carmen Sternwood private. It also smoothly introduces a larger mystery, almost casually, in fact: the general's son-in-law is missing.

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