The Big Sleep: Chapter: 21,22
Marlowe is sitting in his office, somewhat despondent, when Norris calls to ask, on behalf of the General, whether the investigation is complete. Geiger’s blackmail attempt is resolved, Marlowe says and promises to destroy the photos (of which the General knows nothing). Norris says that Mrs. Regan had tried to call, and Marlowe lies that he missed the calls while out getting drunk. “Very necessary, sir, I’m sure,” the deadpan butler replies. Norris will send a generous check for Marlowe’s services, and the matter will be closed—except that the General would like to thank Marlowe in person.
Marlowe drinks from his “office bottle” and considers the facts. Regan left a wealthy, attractive wife, apparently, for “a vague blonde”—why? The General didn’t tell Marlowe that the Missing Persons Bureau had Regan’s case. Pride? Carmen would soon find someone new to “drink exotic blends of hootch” with, and Vivian was tight enough with Mars to borrow a lot of money from him. Lundgren, “the boy killer with the limited vocabulary,” is in jail, and Agnes is in custody as a material witness. And Marlowe himself? “I had concealed a murder and suppressed evidence . . . but I was still at large and had a five-hundred-dollar check coming.” A smart man would sit tight and drink, so Marlowe of course decides to take Mars up on his offer.
Marlowe drives to Mars’s club, “a big dark outwardly shabby place” with “scrolled porches, turrets all over the place, stained-glass trims . . . a general air of nostalgic decay”—once the home of a rich man. Inside, Mars’s office is also dark and old-fashioned in style, but Mars is a thoroughly modern racketeer, all business. Marlowe’s not a gambler—or at least “not with money,” Mars says, noting that Vivian is in the club. Mars thanks Marlowe again for keeping his name out of the newspapers, and Marlowe requests the promised information about Regan. Mars says he didn’t kill Regan and doubts that Marlowe truly cares about Regan. “No, not professionally,” Marlowe says. He explains Geiger’s attempt to blackmail Sternwood and the General’s concern that Regan was involved. Mars laughs—he knows Geiger’s usual methods. Suddenly “sulky,” Mars complains that the General should hire someone to keep his daughters home because “they’re plain trouble.” When Vivian wins, she takes Mars’s money with her; when she loses, he ends up with useless IOUs. Her father has the money and gives her only an allowance. Either way, Mars ends up the loser.
Marlowe decides to look around the club, and Mars checks as he leaves: “We’re friends, aren’t we, soldier?” Marlowe agrees to that but then asks whether Mars is having him tailed in a gray Plymouth. Mars is “jarred” and denies it. Marlowe muses that Mars’s surprise is genuine: “I thought he even looked a little worried. I couldn’t think of any reason for that.”
The Big Sleep’s story is complicated, and this chapter offers a slight resting point in the plot and a review of what’s come so far. It seems to contain a conclusion or resolution: The threat of blackmail is past, the embarrassing photos are in hand, the murderers have been arrested. Yet readers, like Marlowe himself, cannot leave the loose thread—Regan’s disappearance—hanging. It would have been smarter to quit the case, Marlowe says, but the unanswered questions draw him and readers on.
The evening wears on, and the tired band is taking a break as Marlowe enters the ballroom-turned-gambling casino. Mars hasn’t changed much about the old ballroom, which pleases Marlowe, who detests the “pseudomodernistic circus of the typical Hollywood night trap.” Vivian is winning big at roulette, and Marlowe catches glimpses of her bare neck and shoulders through the crowd that has gathered to watch. The croupier must call Mars to the table because he can’t cover her bet with the cash he has on hand. A messy pile of about $16,000 in cash and chips spills over the table in front of Vivian, who looks pale as she orders the croupier to “Get busy and spin that wheel” in a “cool, insolent, ill-tempered drawl.”
With an “indifferent smile,” Mars approves the continued play and tosses his wallet to the croupier, who counts out thousand-dollar bills to cover the next bet. Vivian stiffens at Mars’s presence with “an almost unbearable inner tautness,” and the crowd is still as the croupier prepares to spin the wheel. When she wins the bet, Vivian laughs in triumph, Mars smiles and leaves the room, and Marlowe slips away to the lobby for his hat and coat. He walks along the house’s porch, in dense fog, and hears a man trying to stifle a cough. Marlowe’s instincts kick in: “Something made me step behind a tree and crouch down.” The man is wearing a mask.
A mark of Chandler’s novels is that minor characters who, in the hands of some authors, are not much more than props, are developed to the extent that their time “on stage” allows. The croupier, responsible for the roulette wheel in this chapter, gets such development. Though never named, he has character—and style. Vivian insults him; he remains cool and professional, smiling “a cold polite smile that had looked at thousands of boors and millions of fools.” Vivian regards the man as a servant to be commanded, but Marlowe admires the croupier’s “tall dark disinterested manner” and lack of reaction to the enormous amount of cash in play. The croupier straightens up the stacks of chips and bills, and after he extracts the thousand-dollar bills from Mars’s wallet, he “laid it aside as carelessly as if it had been a packet of matches.” He takes his time and is not cowed by the hostile Vivian. The croupier is a “little person” among the wealthy and influential but is not fazed, and for that, Marlowe admires him, as he admires anyone who is good at his or her work.