The Big Sleep: Chapter: 31,32
Norris and Marlowe walk out together, and their brief conversation reveals that Norris’s loyalties lie with the General, who, he says, appreciated Regan’s lively youthfulness and “soldier’s eye,” not unlike Marlowe’s own eye, he adds. As for “the ladies,” Norris simply shrugs when asked about their health.
As Marlowe leaves, he sees Carmen sitting in the garden, “with her head between her hands, looking forlorn and alone.” He startles her as he approaches, and at first he feels sympathy for her. But sympathy is replaced by disgust when she giggles, bites her thumb, and complains about boredom. She has apparently been playing lawn darts; some darts are lodged in a target and others are on the bench where she sits. Marlowe returns her “artillery”—the little gun—to her and advises her not to shoot at people till she can shoot better. She says, “Teach me to shoot” and suggests that they go down by the old oil wells, since it is illegal to shoot in the city. He agrees to do so—if she gives the gun back, which she does. They drive toward the oil fields and take a “narrow dirt road” past an old gate. The city noise fades, and Marlowe feels as if they are “far away in a daydream land.” Among the rusting, abandoned wells, they stop, and he checks the scene to be sure it’s safe to conduct gun class. Satisfied, he hands her the loaded gun and tells her to wait while he walks about thirty feet away to set up a rusted can as a target.
Marlowe walks back to within a few feet of Carmen when she suddenly “showed me all her sharp little teeth and brought the gun up and started to hiss.” He stops, and she orders, “Stand there, you son of a bitch.” She hisses more loudly, and her face has “the scraped bone look. Aged, deteriorated, animal-like, and not a nice animal.” He laughs and walks toward her, as she shoots, four times, but misses each time. Before she can fire the last shot, he rushes her and narrowly avoids being hit. Out of ammo, Carmen begins to shake, froth, and sway. Marlowe catches her as she faints, pries her teeth open, and stuffs a wadded handkerchief in her mouth. He carries her to the car, retrieves her gun, and drives her home. As they arrive, she sits up suddenly with a wild look, asking what happened. “Nothing,” he says. “Why?” She giggles and announces that she has wet herself. “They always do,” he says, provoking a look of “sudden sick speculation” and a moan.
Marlowe seems to go along so easily with Carmen’s out-of-the-blue request that he teach her to shoot, but by this point in the novel, readers know that Marlowe rarely acts carelessly. Since detective stories require readers to play along, to look for leads and try to solve the case themselves, this chapter is pivotal. Marlowe has carefully cleaned Carmen’s gun. He brings it back to her—though he knows she tried to murder Brody with it. Marlowe is on a hunting expedition. He has caught a whiff of his quarry—the answer to the question of Regan’s disappearance, which will tie the various nefarious actions together—and pursues it intelligently. This chapter sets up the “big reveal” of the final chapter, when connections are made and Marlowe’s methods are vindicated.
The maid guides Marlowe to Vivian’s room, which he now describes as like a “screen star’s boudoir, a place of charm and seduction, artificial as a wooden leg.” After some time, Vivian enters, dressed in white, fur-trimmed pajamas “cut as flowingly as a summer sea frothing on the beach of some small and exclusive island.” She sits and smokes, then accuses Marlowe: “So you’re just a brute after all.” She has heard that he killed a man—“Never mind how I heard it”—and now has had the nerve to “frighten my kid sister into a fit.”
Marlowe’s silence drives Vivian to fidget. Finally, she thanks him for keeping his head in the car, when she came on to him, especially because it’s “bad enough to have a bootlegger in my past.” Carmen is sleeping, she says—as she always does after a fit. Marlowe explains the chain of events, and when he mentions Carmen’s gun, Vivian stares, clearly surprised that Carmen possessed a weapon. Marlowe describes setting up for target practice—and skips Carmen’s attack on him, saying only that she had what appeared to be “a mild epileptic fit.” Vivian confirms his guess: “She has them now and then.”
Marlowe asks—again, and to Vivian’s annoyance—what Mars has on her. He mentions Canino and says, “Without a little help from a lady I’d be where he is—in the morgue.” He’s still working on how the threads of the cases weave together: “Geiger and his cute little blackmail tricks, Brody and his pictures, Eddie Mars and his roulette tables, Canino and the girl Rusty Regan didn’t run away with.” Vivian says she can’t help him piece the puzzle together, but he throws out a hypothesis: Geiger “got his hooks” into Carmen and tried, politely, to blackmail the General, with Mars protecting him as long as he served as Mars’s dupe. When the General showed spine by hiring Marlowe rather than paying up, Mars knew that he himself couldn’t blackmail the General easily and would have to wait till Vivian, an easier mark, inherited her share of the Sternwood wealth after the General died. This means that Mars did have something—on Vivian, on her father—worth blackmailing over.
Geiger’s death was unexpected, provoked by Taylor’s love for Carmen, but it didn’t matter much to Mars, who was “playing a deeper game” that Geiger and Brody knew nothing about. But Mars, Canino, and Vivian knew about it. When Regan disappeared, Mars set up the scenario—Mona in hiding, Regan’s car in the garage, the whole play-acting—not because he wanted to divert suspicion after killing Regan or having Canino kill him but because he knew “where Regan had gone and why and he didn’t want the police to have to find out.” Mars was playing for million-dollar stakes.
Vivian says, “God, how you tire me!” in a “dead, exhausted voice,” but Marlowe, after apologizing, presses on. He says that, while a thousand dollars is a lot of money (to him, anyway), he can’t find Regan. Vivian’s pulse shoots up; she wants a cigarette, which Marlowe lights for her. He toys with her—if the Missing Persons Bureau can’t find Regan, he likely can’t, either, but they don’t think that Mars killed him. “Who said anybody did away with him?” she asks, and as he gets ready to answer that question, “Her mouth looked like the prelude to a scream.” She controls herself as he takes Carmen’s gun out of his pocket and sets it, “with exaggerated care, on her white satin knee.” He assures her that the gun is empty, no threat, but her pulse “jumped wildly in her throat,” and she can’t speak. Marlowe then reveals that he had loaded the gun with blanks. That’s why Carmen couldn’t hit him, at close range, with any of the five shots. He grins “nastily” as he says, “I had a hunch about what she could do—if she got the chance.”
Vivian calls Marlowe “a horrible man” and says that he has no proof that Carmen fired at him. But he believes that the same scenario played out with Regan: Carmen asked him to drive to the oil field and then shot him—fatally—for the same reason she fired at Marlowe. Regan had rejected Carmen’s sexual advances, and she could not stand the insult.
Vivian whispers in agony, “Merciful God, Carmen! . . . Why?” She seems like a frightened child; she offers to pay Marlowe for his silence—fifteen thousand dollars, the amount of cash Regan was known to carry on his person, and, Marlowe assumes, the fee that Canino got for disposing of Regan’s body when Vivian appealed to Mars for help. “But that would be small change to what Eddie expects to collect one of these days, wouldn’t it?” Marlowe accuses. He gets called a “son of a bitch” by a second Sternwood daughter in one morning. Marlowe rages at Vivian’s smug assumption that his detective work is motivated by greed, that money would cause him to hide her secrets and Carmen’s, and that if he took the money, he could transform from a “son of a bitch” to a “gentleman” like the drunkard Larry Cobb. She sits “as silent as a stone woman,” so Marlowe makes an offer: If Vivian will put Carmen in a treatment facility far away from LA, he might relent and not turn Carmen in.
Vivian paces slowly and finally admits the details: Regan is in the sump by the old wells. Carmen told her, in a childlike way, about shooting Regan. “She’s not normal,” Vivian admits, and would eventually “brag” about her actions. Then the General would have to turn her over to the police, which would kill him “that night.” Vivian had no strong feelings for Rusty, love or hate, but her father does mean something to her. She wanted to spare him. She hoped that, gradually, Carmen’s epilepsy would cause her to forget. But Mars, she knew, would “bleed her” to death and never forget. She turned to him because she had nowhere else to turn, knowing fully what it would cost her.
Marlowe gives Vivian three days to get Carmen into a treatment center—after that time, he’ll tell the police. She worries that Mars will try to kill Marlowe, but since Mars’s “best boy” couldn’t do it, Marlowe is not overly worried. Norris knows but will never tell, she says. Marlowe leaves the house quickly, wanting to be done with the Sternwoods forever. As he leaves, he thinks about Regan’s body in the sump and realizes that the location doesn’t matter: “You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that.” Better not to torment the dying General with the facts and the “nastiness” of which Marlowe is now a part, he decides. He stops at a bar and drinks Scotch, but the drinks don’t help: “All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again.”
Noir fiction does not assume happy endings, and true to its genre, The Big Sleep leaves every major character disappointed in some way. Carmen will be institutionalized, separated from Vivian and from the lavish lifestyle she craves. The General will die without learning what happened to Regan. Mars’s big plans for the Sternwood fortune have been frustrated, and readers can only guess how Mona may have changed toward him. Many smaller dreams, mostly illegal, have been smashed as well, though new criminal ventures will take their places; and law enforcement personnel are left with unsolved cases. Since readers experience the story through Marlowe’s narrative eye, however, his unhappy ending resonates most. Sitting alone in the bar, a little richer, but not for long; on the outs with the police and DA, Marlowe’s status is shaky, and his last words are full of longing regret over Mona, beautiful, intelligent, and utterly inaccessible.