The Big Sleep: Chapter: 27,28
Behind the wheel of the gray Plymouth, Agnes makes the trade of money for information. Marlowe sticks to his story that Jones fled town because of Canino: “Forget Harry,” he advises her, and she seems willing to do so. She explains that she and Brody tailed Mona Mars and Canino about a week before. Canino is Mona’s “watchdog” and “was taking her out for air.” Agnes and Brody followed them past Realito and into the foothills, where a plant produces cyanide “for fumigation,” and to a little house behind a small garage and body shop owned by an Art Huck. The house is where Mona and her watchdog are staying. The moment Agnes has the money in her hand, she says, “Good-bye, copper, and wish me luck. I got a raw deal.” As she drives off, Marlowe comments, “Like hell you did.” He never tells Agnes that her little man, Jones, bought her life with his.
Marlowe drives in heavy rain to the location Agnes gave him. As he nears the garage, “Fate stage-managed the whole thing,” he says. The rain causes him to drive onto the road’s shoulder, and both the front and back tire hiss and go flat. Marlowe gets out and examines the road with a flashlight: Galvanized tacks are in the tires, and “the edge the pavement was littered with them.” Someone had tried to sweep the tacks off the road but hadn’t quite done the job. Ahead, Marlowe sees a light that might be Huck’s garage. Marlowe gets a gun—Lanny’s—from the hidden compartment in his car and heads for the garage. It seems too easy, to have found it so soon, and he chuckles—then remembers Jones. He walks around the garage to see the frame house behind it and a brown coupe that may be Canino’s, and thinks that “Nice Mr. Canino” probably lets Mona drive it now and again—Mona, the woman that “Rusty Regan ought to have married, that Eddie Mars couldn’t keep, the girl that hadn’t run away with Regan.”
Back at the garage, Marlowe bangs on the door and grins as he waits: “I was where I wanted to be,” in the place where answers are found and mysteries are solved. A voice demands, through the door, what he wants, and he says that he has two flats and just one spare. But the garage is closed for the night. Marlowe kicks the door hard and hears Canino’s “purring voice”: “A wise guy, huh? Open up, Art.” Huck open the door and knocks the flashlight out of Marlowe’s hand, ordering him to turn it off when he picks it up. Huck points a gun at Marlowe and waves him in. Art explains that a bank heist happened in Realito that day and that the police are in the foothills looking for the culprits and put down the tacks to stop the getaway car. From the shadows, Caninoorders the reluctantHuck to help the customer out, and Marlowe gets his first look at Canino’s thickly muscled body, “cool face and cool dark eyes,” and laconic, disinterested gaze that seems to regard Marlowe as “a slab of cold meat. Perhaps he thought of people that way.” He notes also how Art responds to Canino’s cold commands: Huck avoids looking directly at Canino and “rocked as if a gust of wind had hit him” before he complies.
Alone with Canino in the garage, Marlowe knows he could kill the hitman, who thinks that Marlowe is just a customer. Canino pours drinks, and Marlowe sniffs his carefully before sipping it. “There was no cyanide in it,” he reports pointlessly. Canino makes small talk, and Marlowe avoids it. He wants to get the tires fixed and leave. Huck comes in, soaked and with the punctured tires, and gets the air hose as Canino idly tosses a roll of nickels up and down. Some signal must pass between them, but Marlowe misses it, and Huck ropes him with the air hose, pinning his arms to his sides. Canino comes over, “almost dancing,” and strikes Marlowe repeatedly, with his fist closed over the coins, till Marlowe passes out.
Marlowe may skirt the law and apply methods that bother the police and the DA, but he nevertheless has a fully developed idea of what is just and fair. When Agnes drives away, he is glad to see her go, but he is also angry: “Three men dead, Geiger, Brody, and Harry Jones, and the woman went riding off in the rain with my two hundred dollars in her bag and not a mark on her.” That Marlowe continues to look for Regan is further evidence of his desire that the blame-worthy receive punishment. Regan was never his assignment, and he’s not only off the clock but is now dealing with truly dangerous men. This chapter, in fact, contains the most suspenseful scenes in the novel thus far, during which, Marlowe observes, the “minutes passed on tiptoe” because he and Canino, who seem to be strangers met by chance, are in fact “looking at each other across a little dead man named Harry Jones.”
Marlowe awakens, slowly and groggily, to see a beautiful woman sitting by him in the lamplight, “which was where she belonged.” He is cuffed and tied to a heavy sofa. The woman turns to him, “her eyes . . . the blue of mountain lakes.” She asks how he feels, in “a smooth silvery voice that matched her hair.” Marlowe describe the pain in his jaw, and she asks sarcastically, “What did you expect, Mr. Marlowe—orchids?” “Just a plain pine box,” he replies and then outlines several funeral requests. Even when still silly from the assault, his wit doesn’t fail.
The woman knows Marlowe because she and Canino had time to go through his pockets, but she doesn’t think he looks so dangerous and is willing to accommodate him a bit—she turns off the glaring lamp when he asks. He asks where Canino and Huck are—“digging a grave,” perhaps. “They had to go somewhere,” she replies mildly. But her tone turns sharp when he reveals that he knows who she is—Mona Gage Mars—because the revelation puts him “in a bad spot” and she hates killing. She brings him a drink and helps him drink it, and her breath on him “was as delicate as the eyes of a fawn.” Mona asks why Marlowe has taken such risks to find Regan, since “Eddie wasn’t doing you any harm.” When he says that Mars killed Regan, she doesn’t move, but she draws in breath harshly and denies it: “Eddie’s not that sort of man.” He just provides a place for people to gamble. Marlowe sternly sets her straight: Mars is an ambitious man with the power to do whatever is necessary to get what he wants—money. Canino is his tool, a man who would happily “beat my teeth out and then kick me in the stomach for mumbling.”
Mona thinks about this. Marlowe comments—to fill space—that her platinum hair is out of style, but she explains that it’s a wig. Her own hair, she shows him, is cropped close like a boy’s. She had it cut to show Mars that “I was willing to do what he wanted me to do—hide out. That he didn’t need to have me guarded. I wouldn’t let him down. I love him.” Suddenly she goes to the kitchen for a knife, with which she cuts the ropes binding Marlowe. Surprised, he advises her to come with him and explains that Harry Jones knew her hiding place and that Canino killed Jones because he knew. “But Eddie Mars wouldn’t do that, would he, Silver-Wig? He never killed anybody. He just hires it down.” Mona orders him to get out, her knuckles white, but Marlowe points out that Canino doesn’t know that Marlowe knows—that Jones (and Agnes) gave him the information. What motive does Canino have to kill him, if Mars is not concerned with him?
Mona shakes and laughs “a racking laugh.” She seems puzzled, as if she can’t make everything she knows fit right. Women, she muses—she still loves him! Marlowe connects the facts that Mona can’t face: Canino will be back—a “man who kills like swatting a fly”—and know that she let him go. He’ll kill Mona without a thought for his boss, Mars, because Mars is “a handful of mush . . . . Canino would take him with a teaspoon.” She forces him out the door, insisting again that Regan is alive and well somewhere. Before he goes, Marlowe assures her that everything is going according to plan and kisses her on lips “like ice.”
Mona Gage Mars has been a phantom character for much of the novel. Readers hear characters describe her beauty—Agnes says of her, “If you ever see her, you won’t make a mistake the second time.” That is, she is so striking that no one who sees her can forget her. Somehow, readers have sensed, Mona ties other characters together, and this chapter reveals how. Her love for Mars is so deep that she willingly shears her hair to prove it, denuding her beauty at a time when women did not wear their hair short. Her trust in Mars is so profound that she doesn’t fear Canino. Her allure is so great that Marlowe risks his life, staying in the house longer than he should to try to persuade her to flee with him, and he exacts a cold kiss before he leaves. Mona and her criminal husband stand at the center of the story, tying the other characters to each other in strangling knots.