The Big Sleep: Chapter: 11,12
The client is Vivian Sternwood Regan, dressed expensively and contrasting painfully with the shabby furnishings of Marlowe’s reception room. She apologizes: “We didn’t get along very well yesterday. Perhaps I was rude.” Marlowe agrees—“We were both rude”—and ushers her into his equally shabby office. It’s clear that Marlowe didn’t go into the business to make money, but when Vivian asks why he did, he responds by asking why she married a bootlegger. She’s come, he assumes, to ask about Owen. “Poor Owen,” she says sincerely, acknowledging that Owen did love Carmen and would have married her. But Vivian is not very interested in Owen; she still wants to know why her father hired Marlowe. When he won’t say, she hands him a thick envelope addressed to Mrs. Vivian Regan. Inside is a glossy photo of Carmen, clearly from the photo shoot that Geiger’s killer interrupted. The sender wants $5,000 for the prints and negatives—that evening, or the photos go to a scandal sheet. The threat doesn’t impress Marlowe, but Vivian adds that the woman who called with the blackmail details said that a “police jam” is connected to the photo and to Carmen, who could be arrested.
Vivian says that Carmen has been at home, sick, or so the staff says. Vivian herself was out gambling and losing at roulette at Eddie Mar’s Cypress Club. The staff doesn’t know why Owen was out with the car—he left work without permission. Marlowe asks whether Vivian can get $5,000 quickly and advises that she borrow it from Eddie Mars. He advises her not to bring the police in because that might expose the family to more harm, and over drinks at his desk, she admits that Rusty ran off with Eddie Mars’s wife, which is another reason he might loan her the money. Marlowe suspects that Vivian is trying once again to get him to investigate Rusty’s disappearance, but she assures him that Rusty is not a blackmailer.
As Vivian leaves, she looks again at the photo of Carmen and comments that her sister has “a beautiful little body.” When Marlowe agrees, she says, “You ought to see mine,” to which he replies, “Can it be arranged?” She exits, calling him a “cold-blooded beast” as she goes, and he feels his face grow hot. He calls Ohls to check on the Taylor investigation and learns that Vivian was seen gambling at Las Olindas with a “playboy,” Larry Cobb. Marlowe ends his day by working, again unsuccessfully, on Geiger’s coded book.
Chandler subtly comments on issues of wealth, power, and influence throughout the novel. Marlowe is an admirable protagonist in part because he investigates crime though the business pays very little, for example. When he reminds Vivian that Owen had a police record, she shrugs—“He didn’t know the right people,” she says “negligently.” Marlowe disagrees with Vivian’s entitled view. And speaking of entitled, the $5,000 to which the blackmailer feels entitled would have the buying power of about $85,000 in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s Consumer Price Index inflation calculator.
Marlowe drives to Geiger’s house and considers the disappearance of his body. Geiger was large, so one man alone couldn’t have removed the body, and one of the people involved must have a key to Geiger’s car. Marlowe sees Carmen Sternwood in the hedges, “looking wild-eyed” at his car before she hides. He drives on, parks, and walks back, even though “it seemed an exposed and dangerous thing to do” in broad daylight. He finds Carmen by the front door, biting her thumb, pale with anxiety. He tries to put her at ease by teasing her about the name he used when they first met, Doghouse Reilly, and uses Geiger’s key to open the door, pushing her in. In daylight, what had seemed exotic and sexy about the room has “a stealthy nastiness.”
Marlowe asks Carmen why she came to Geiger’s house and what she remembers about last night. She denies having been there and blushes when Marlowe exposes her lie. He assures her that he’s a friend of her father and asks who killed Geiger. She asks who else knows that Geiger is dead, and Marlowe cannily suggests that Joe Brody might, which alarms her. She says “solemnly” that Joe is the killer but can’t say why, and her fists make “small white knots” as she says she’s seen Joe only twice but hates him. Marlowe wants to know whether Carmen would tell the police about Joe if her participation in the porn ring can be covered up. She giggles, and Marlowe gets “a nasty feeling” that Carmen, so drunk that she can’t follow his sentences, thinks that the pornographic photos were “a lot of nice clean fun.” But her giggling becomes hysterical, and he slaps her, which she seems not to notice. Marlowe thinks, “Probably all her boy friends got around to slapping her sooner or later. I could understand how they might.”
Carmen becomes suddenly serious and says that “Viv” showed her Marlowe’s card. She has come to Geiger’s house to get the photograph, but Marlowe tells her that it’s gone and advises her to tell no one, not even Vivian, that she was ever here and to leave the situation to him. As she is about to leave, they hear a car pull up, and the doorbell rings and rings as Carmen stands, hand on the doorknob, “almost drooling with fear.” She springs away from the door when they hear a key turn in the lock. A man steps in and stops, looking at Marlowe and Carmen “with complete composure.”
This chapter reveals another of Marlowe’s traits—his compassion for the vulnerable. Despite Carmen’s wealth and beauty, she is easy prey for the unscrupulous. He sees her for what she is: “A pretty, spoiled and not very bright little girl who had gone very, very wrong, and nobody was doing anything about it,” and pities her. Readers have probably noted by this time that Carmen is not only characterized as childlike but as an animal. She drools, starts and freezes with fear, and bites and nibbles with the sharp little teeth Marlowe often describes.