Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1226
A tough, cynical, independent, thirty-three-year-old private detective, Philip Marlowe, recommended by his friend, Assistant District Attorney Bernie Ohls, agrees to interview wealthy General Guy Sternwood at Sternwood’s lush West Hollywood estate.
Old and dying, Sternwood hopes to salvage the last remnants of family pride nearly destroyed by his two immoral daughters. Sternwood hires Marlowe to thwart Arthur Geiger, a blackmailer. Ostensibly, Geiger is squeezing Sternwood over a gambling debt incurred by Sternwood’s disturbed younger daughter, Carmen. Dim-witted, spoiled, and promiscuous, Carmen unsuccessfully throws herself at Marlowe when he first arrives at the estate, only to be disdainfully rejected.
Before leaving, Marlowe is summoned by the General’s older daughter, Vivian (Mrs. Regan). A seductive, black-haired beauty, Vivian seeks to discover whether Marlowe was hired to locate her missing husband, Rusty Regan. Marlowe already knows from the General that Regan, a former bootlegger and Irish Republican Army officer, was Sternwood’s companion and protector—the bright spot in his waning life. Unimpressed by Vivian’s rich-bitch style, Marlowe, with his trademark insouciance, refuses to reveal his client’s wishes. Vivian seems relieved, however, that Marlowe apparently is not looking for Rusty. Nonetheless, displeased by Marlowe’s blunt talk and lack of servility, she haughtily dismisses him. The detective leaves feeling that he emerged from a decadent loony bin.
Marlowe begins his assignment by casing Geiger’s bookstore and by tracking Geiger, who soon confirms his hunch that the bookstore fronts for the sale of pornography. On a rainy night, he next trails Geiger home. While Marlowe watches, Carmen’s Packard arrives and a woman enters the house.
Events then move swiftly. Light from a flashbulb is followed by a scream inside the house, which draws Marlowe closer. His knock on Geiger’s door is followed by three shots. Someone pounds down Geiger’s back stairs and there are sounds of a car starting. Breaking in, Marlowe finds Geiger dead. Virtually naked and obviously drugged, Carmen, babbling incoherently, appears, unaware of what happened. Marlowe bundles her home in her Packard and leaves her with a trusted maid. Quickly returning to the murder scene, Marlowe finds that Geiger’s body is gone. Since the killer fled, it is apparent that someone else wants Geiger missing. Searching the house, Marlowe locates a notebook listing hundreds of potential blackmail victims, leaving the police plenty of suspects.
The following day, Marlowe accompanies Ohls while Vivian’s Buick is dredged from the water. Inside is a murdered man Marlowe identifies as Owen Taylor, an ex-con who once ran off with Carmen, but who at the end of his imprisonment was retained as the Sternwoods’ chauffeur. After this incident, Marlowe returns to Geiger’s store in time to observe someone removing Geiger’s books. Following the cargo, Marlowe discovers the recipient is Joe Brody, a hustler who earlier successfully blackmailed General Sternwood over Carmen.
Later at his office, Marlowe is unexpectedly met by Vivian. Troubled and apologetic, she displays a blackmail note including a pornographic photograph of Carmen accompanied by a demand for five thousand dollars. A woman phoned her, she reports, demanding payment that night or else the negative will be given to the scandal sheets. Not yet in possession of her inheritance, Vivian proposes that she get the money from Eddie Mars, a racketeer in whose casino she often gambles. Marlowe agrees. Vivian, meantime, discloses nothing about her Buick or her murdered chauffeur inside. She reveals, however, why Mars is likely (as he soon does) to lend her the money. Her missing husband, Rusty, it seems, ran off with Mona, Mars’s missing wife.
Returning to Geiger’s, Marlowe finds Carmen lurking about. Inside with Marlowe, she names Brody, her former blackmailer, as Geiger’s killer. Mars and his goons then arrive, demanding to know why Marlowe is there. In their ensuing exchanges, Mars denies killing Geiger. Warned off by Mars, Marlowe then locates Brody and his girlfriend, Agnes, whom he scares by implying that the police might find Brody a prime suspect in Geiger’s still undisclosed murder. Having shadowed Marlowe, Carmen suddenly breaks in and tries to kill Brody. Terrified, Brody surrenders the photos of Carmen to Marlowe, who promptly sends Carmen packing. Brody, called to the door moments afterward, is fatally shot. Marlowe catches the killer, a youth who was Geiger’s homosexual lover and the person responsible for moving Geiger’s corpse.
Marlowe delivers the photos to Sternwood’s trusted servant and Brody’s killer to the police. Though hassled by them, he maintains the integrity of his client, despite having withheld evidence. The same day, Sternwood offers to pay Marlowe to find Rusty, but Marlowe, refusing the money, decides to proceed unassigned. At home, Marlowe finds Carmen, naked, waiting to seduce him, and angrily ousts her. In the evening, ignoring Mars’s warnings, he visits Mars’s casino. In their tough exchanges Mars again denies killing anyone. Vivian, too, is present and winning heavily. As she leaves, Marlowe prevents one of Mars’s thugs from robbing her of her winnings. While being escorted home, Vivian, aping Carmen, fails either to seduce Marlowe or to gain information.
New connections materialize when another hustler, Harry Jones, desperate for money to leave town with Brody’s ex-girlfriend, Agnes, sells Marlowe vital evidence. Jones confirms that Vivian knows Canino, a Mars hitman, and that Canino knows where to locate Mars’s wife. Subsequently checking Jones’s story, Marlowe, hidden in Jones’s office, witnesses Canino poisoning Jones.
With these leads, Marlowe uncovers Mona Mars’s hideaway, but in the process a flat tire lands him in Canino’s hands. Slugged, captured, and bound, Marlowe briefly is guarded by the beautiful blond, Mona, whom Marlowe persuades to release him, although he is still handcuffed. Reaching his car and a pistol, he kills Canino in an ensuing shootout, all of which he swiftly reports to the police.
Marlowe’s evidence then allows him to solve key parts of the mystery. Since everyone knows of bad blood between Mars and Regan, Mars, with Mona’s connivance and Canino’s aid, fakes Mona’s disappearance to allay suspicions that Mars killed Regan. In the meantime, Mars, through Geiger, runs an elaborate blackmail scheme. First, he blackmails the ever-vulnerable Carmen. Later, after Vivian receives her millions, Mars plans to blackmail her, too. Vivian and Mars are aware that Carmen killed Rusty for refusing to sleep with her and that Vivian then persuaded Mars to dispose of Regan’s body. In love with Carmen, and loathing what Geiger did to her, chauffeur Taylor shot Geiger. Marlowe never clarifies who killed Taylor. It is because Geiger’s death ultimately threatens to lead to Mona’s whereabouts that Canino poisons Jones.
Finally, employed officially by Sternwood to find Regan, Marlowe, agreeing to teach Carmen to shoot, cons her into trying to kill him on the site where Regan’s body has been dumped. To save Sternwood’s pride, Marlowe then remands Carmen to Vivian, urging that she seek help for her now psychotic sister. Mars, his blackmail scheme aborted, is questioned and released by the police. Although guilty, he neither directly blackmails nor kills anyone. Justice for Marlowe means honoring Sternwood’s wishes. Sooner or later, after all, everyone succumbs to the big sleep—but not without first having dreamed, as Marlowe does, of the gorgeous Mona.
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