“The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings.”
Chandler’s famous detective draws on the noir world he knows not only to do his work but also to describe his world. Examples of his creative figurative language occur throughout the novel (and were often picked up verbatim in the screenplay for The Big Sleep’s movie adaptation). This sentence condenses the General’s resignation to his desperate situation battling the willingness to try one last thing before giving up into a short, knowing burst of words that reveals Marlowe’s ability to read character. It also contextualizes for readers the seamy world in which Marlowe moves.
“. . . I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stockings. They seemed to be arranged to stare at. They were visible to the knee and one of them well beyond. The knees were dimpled, not bony and sharp. The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim with enough melodic line for a tone poem. She was tall and rangy and strong-looking. . . . she had the hot black eyes of the portrait in the hall.”
These sentences record Marlowe’s first impressions of Vivian Sternwood and reveal something about both characters. Marlowe knows how to appraise a woman—not only her beauty but also her nature, which in this case is passionate and unyielding—and Vivian is more than willing to use her beauty to gain, if she can, an advantage over Marlowe. The lines reveal Chandler’s handling of imagery as well. Not only does he have Marlowe describe Vivian’s legs, starting at the racy area (for that time) above the knee and working down, but Chandler also describes the legs as if they were music. His figurative language encompasses sound, sight, and even emotion in this comparison.
“I went to bed full of whiskey and frustration and dreamed about a man in a bloody Chinese coat who chased a naked girl with long jade earrings while I ran after them and tried to take a photograph with an empty camera.”
Marlowe’s description of his dream ends the eighth chapter and the evening during which he followed Geiger, discovered the pornography studio and client record, and found the murdered Geiger and Carmen, nude and drugged. The events of the day have answered many questions—what Geiger was up to, why Carmen was being blackmailed repeatedly—but raise more. That Marlowe dreams in such specific terms about the unanswered questions speaks to his professional engagement with the case and, even more, to his deep curiosity about human behavior and motivation.
“Yes. I like roulette. All the Sternwoods like losing games, like roulette and marrying men that walk out on them and riding steeplechases at fifty-eight years old and being rolled on by a jumper and crippled for life. The Sternwoods have money. All it has brought them in a rain check.”
These lines are Vivian’s reply to Marlowe’s lack of surprise that she has lost heavily at roulette. They capture her judgment on herself and her entitled family, risk-takers from a line of adventurers who get away with more than others would because of their wealth. The lines reveal, for the first time in the novel, why General Sternwood is in a wheelchair, and they hint at the bitter disappointment that Vivian’s stylish appearance and witty but jaded words cover. They also add to the novel’s critique of wealth in the hands of people who lack principles. As Ohls puts it, “They seem to be a family things happen to.”
“‘It’s no racket for bums,’ I told Brody almost affectionately. ‘It takes a smooth worker like you, Joe. You’ve got to get confidence and keep it. People who spend their money for second-hand sex jags are as nervous as dowagers who can’t find the rest room. Personally I think the blackmail angles are a big mistake. I’m for shedding all that and sticking to legitimate rentals. . . . Everybody knows the racket exists. Hollywood’s made to order for it. If a thing like that has to exist, then right out on the street is where all practical coppers want it to exist. For the same reason they favor red light districts. They know where to flush the game when they want to.”
This dialogue, from the thirteenth chapter, is Marlowe at his manipulative best. He puts together what he knows about Brody, the facts he’s gathered by tailing and investigating, and his deductions and spins a persuasive story that successfully entices Brody to imagine himself as Geiger’s heir. At the same time, Marlowe’s speech embeds a cynical jab about Hollywood culture of the time as “made to order” for the exploitation of physical beauty. And, to top it off, Chandler writes another of Marlowe’s apt and earthy similes, comparing jumpy porn consumers to old women with overactive bladders.
“That kind of thinking is police business, Marlowe. If Geiger’s death had been reported last night, the books could never have been moved from the store to Brody’s apartment. The kid wouldn’t have been led to Brody and wouldn’t have killed him. Say Brody was living on borrowed time. His kind usually are. But a life is a life.”
Captain Cronjager makes these accusations and others, with cold, controlled anger, when Marlowe explains that he was “in a pretty tough spot” and decided to protect his client by not reporting Geiger’s murder. Marlowe is smart, cool under pressure, good at what he does—but he is not a perfect hero. Noir fiction calls for a flawed protagonist, and Cronjager’s assessment of the situation points up Marlowe’s shortcomings.
“Such a nice escort, Mr. Cobb. So attentive. You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record. So it could become part of history, that brief flashing moment, soon buried in time, but never forgotten—when Larry Cobb was sober.”
Vivian delivers this assessment of Larry Cobb while he is sleeping off a drunken state in his car, at Mars’s club. Cobb is wealthy—much more so than the Sternwoods, with “a place on Long Island, a place at Newport, a place at Bermuda, places dotted here and there all over the world probably.” Her harsh words about Cobb, in the context of the novel, criticize not only him but also herself and the dissipated wealthy crowd among whom Vivian moves and who provide her with no sense of meaning or purpose. Hence, she gambles wildly, Cobb drinks himself nearly to death, and Carmen seeks sexual escapades.
“It was raining hard again. I walked into it with the heavy drops slapping my face. When one of them touched my tongue I knew that my mouth was open and the ache of the side of my jaws told me it was open wide and strained back, mimicking the rictus of death carved upon the face of Harry Jones.”
Marlowe is used to the threat of death and, in his line of work, must necessarily deal with corpses. He has already seen Geiger’s and Brody’s bodies without apparent reaction and can seem almost inured to death. But Harry Jones’s death by cyanide poisoning shakes him deeply, not only because of Canino’s utter lack of remorse but also because Jones, though a small-time crook, was not a bad guy. He died to protect Agnes, and he acted squarely with Marlowe. Marlowe registers the murder scene in detail: “The wave of almond odor flooded me again, and the sour smell of vomit. The little dead man sat silent in his chair, beyond fear, beyond change.” Marlowe’s reaction to Jones’s death suggests to readers that Marlowe is not a cold-blooded killer or a beast, insults Vivian had recently thrown at him.
“When you hire a boy in my line of work it isn’t like hiring a window-washer and showing him eight windows and saying: ‘Wash those and you’re through.’ You don’t know what I have to 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 favor. The client comes first, unless he’s crooked. Even then all I do is hand the job back to him and keep my mouth shut.”
Sitting by the dying General’s bed, Marlowe lays out the ethic of his work as he sees it. He explains why he pursued the question of Regan’s disappearance and earns Sternwood’s approval and admiration. For readers of noir fiction, Marlowe’s description characterizes the “hard-boiled detective” as a problematic hero. His ethic drives him to risk his life for the client and the case, but he operates at the edge of lawfulness. By this point in the novel, readers know that Marlowe has passively withheld and actively suppressed vital information that might have prevented a death. He has butted heads with law enforcement and risked his client’s disapproval. But he has lived by the ethic that he outlines in these lines.
“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he, too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.”
As the novel ends, Marlowe reflects—philosophically, for him—on the brevity of life. His reflection is not merely academic, however, because these lines reveal his decision not to tell the General about Regan and his justification for keeping the matter of Regan’s murder out of the law. Marlowe protects his client—General Sternwood—at the expense of what would, for him, be an enormous paycheck. He foregoes professional reputation, too, and remains just outside the law when he lets Carmen get away with murder. Marlowe has what he wants most: answers to question, solutions to mysteries, the truth.