The brash first-person narrator of the novel sets the opening scene: on a rainy morning in mid-October, Philip Marlowe, private detective, is dressed to meet a new client: “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober,” he declares, “and I didn’t care who knew it.” Marlowe arrives at 11 at the lavishly adorned but largely empty Sternwoodmansion in West Hollywood for an interview with General Guy Sternwood, an elderly man who, Marlowe has heard, nevertheless has “a couple of daughters still in the dangerous twenties.” Before the butler can retrieve Marlowe, he meets the younger of these daughters. Carmen Sternwood walks toward him “as if she were floating” and smiles with “little sharp predatory teeth” as she flirts outrageously with Marlowe, going so far as to fall into his arms so that he must catch her. The butler reappears and is unsurprised, and Carmen flees “like a deer” upstairs. Unmoved by Carmen’s wiles, Marlowe advises the butler, “You ought to wean her.”
In the novel’s opening sentences, Chandler establishes the voice of his first-person narrator, Philip Marlowe. Marlowe’s sharp intelligence reveals itself in how he takes in and comments on his surroundings—in this case, the Sternwood estate—and readers see his native cynicism in his reaction to Carmen. Marlowe appears to be a man who has learned from hard experience to protect himself, body and mind.
The butler ushers Marlowe into a greenhouse crammed with tropical plants and dripping with humidity. The air is thick with the “cloying” smell of orchids, and the light itself is green as it flows around a “forest” of plants “with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.” In the center, in a clearing under the dome, the General, “an old and obviously dying man,” sits in a wheel chair, wrapped warmly in a robe despite the heat of the greenhouse. Even speech is hard for this man as he explains why he wants to hire Marlowe.
The General watches hungrily as Marlowe drinks a brandy and smokes, pleasures he can no longer enjoy, as Marlowe gives his resume: He is thirty-three, unmarried, an investigator who works for himself because he “test[s] very high on insubordination.” Marlowe summarizes what he knows about the General, a widower with two wild daughters and several former sons-in-law. Rusty Regan, a bootlegger from Ireland, is the most recent of these but has disappeared mysteriously. However, the General’s current problem is that he’s being blackmailed—again.
After examining the blackmail demand, Marlowe advises the General to pay, since the blackmail is “a question of a little money against a lot of annoyance.” Since the General’s pride won’t allow him to do so, Marlowe agrees to handle the case, and Marlowe gladly leaves the suffocating greenhouse, only to be stopped by Norris, who informs him that Mrs. Regan—that is, Vivian Sternwood—wants to see him. She has, the butler says, “a misconception of the purpose of your visit.”
Setting plays a large role in the novel, as readers see in this chapter. Marlowe characterizes the greenhouse as a mishmash of uncontrolled life and stinking decay. The “abominable plants” oppress with their moist overgrowth, yet in their midst sits the General, with a face like “a leaden mask” and “bloodless lips.” The General himself is conscious of the contrast, describing the orchids around him as “nasty things . . . . Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.” The orchids and other tropicals represent the contradiction of outward beauty and underlying decay that marks the noir world. In addition, the orchids represent beauty run amok and in this sense represent the General’s other primary cares—his lovely but uncontrollable daughters.