Raymond Chandler uses character, setting and language to great effect in the second chapter of ‘The Big Sleep’ to begin to craft his novel. The character of General Sternwood is used to set up the atmosphere for the shady metropolis of Los Angeles, which is reinforced through the general’s setting and also to introduce both plot lines, of Geiger and then through the mysterious introduction of Rusty Regan. Chapter two sees Chandler begin to map the environment of the LA setting and attempt to demonstrate its variety.
He is drawn to the great estates of the wealthy, private landscapes at the Sternwood’s mansion, whose distinct atmosphere sets up detailed presentation of its inhabitants. The setting in chapter two mirrors the running themes of the chapter, with the French doors signifying sophistication and the family portrait of the Sternwood mansion inferring tradition and respectability. The portrait of the family featuring eyes of ‘coal black directness’ however, indicates there may be more than meets the eye with the Sternwood family and in particular, behind the ‘leaden mask’ of General Sternwood.
Just as the eyes in the portrait form a porthole into the work of art, so too do the eyes of the characters allow a glimpse of their true selves hiding beneath. The apparent respectability of the grand mansion masks a fundamental core of horror, corruption and death. The greenhouse in which Sternwood and Marlowe convene also helps to set the mood and the tone for the novel by acting both as an extension of the ailing General Sternwood and a microcosm for the corrupt world of LA that surrounds and decays him.
The greenhouse, ‘warm as a slow oven’ with a ‘soft, wet heat’, is a small-scale version of the fraudulent city of LA, in which rain pervades and thieves such as the blackmailing Mr Geiger cloy around the General. General Sternwood, crippled by debauchery and ‘two thirds dead’, is dehumanised with repeated animalistic imagery of him as a ‘new born spider’, with ‘claw-like hands’ and a ‘terrier at a rat hole’. This spider analogy represents his ailing state of being trapped in a man made jungle of the recurrent theme of corruption and at the centre of this ‘web’ of lies.
This air of entrapment and strangulation of the heat, damp air and vines sets an ominous and mysterious tone for the novel and its seedy occurrences. Sternwood has ‘hair…like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock’ and uses his strength ‘like a showgirl uses her last stockings’. This wonderfully dark language thick with sleazy connotations further degenerates the old man, in the same way that he has been devoured by the corruption surrounding him. This idea of corruption amongst a jungle setting draws parallels with Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.
Both tell of idealists whose adventures seemed destined to bring them in contact with some kind of truth but these lovers of truth learn that the only way to deal with the horror they have exposed it to bury it once again with a lie, a lie that leaves the hero perhaps wiser but also more bitter. The greenhouse not only houses the decaying general but the humid surroundings feature thick with festering orchids, crowding like the crooks of LA round the general, who describes them as nasty but seems overcome by them, ‘closing his eyes’ at their mention.
These overpowering and malodorous floras thrive in the uncomfortably intense heat, releasing a strange odour from their ‘meaty leaves’ and ‘stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men’. This unsettling imagery and the humanisation of the orchids, with their ‘meaty leaves’, contrasted with the dehumanisation of the general is a lasting one. Their putrid perfume, which ‘has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute’ and disturbing material also contrasts with their beautiful appearance and this theme of appearance and reality, clear also in the general, is also apparent later in the novel.
The sensual appeal of the casinos, luxury and vices of Los Angeles crumbles into seediness and the alluring nature of women peals away in a similar way to the orchids’ petals to reveal a darker and nastier reality, as signified by the sordid prostitute simile. Chapter two also establishes in more depth the roguish and repeatedly irksome nature of Marlowe and reveals more of his character and morality. Marlowe’s nature and indeed appeal, is that he satisfies a disdain for authority while continuing to work for law and order.
Marlowe’s old-fashioned chivalry is clearly incongruous in contemporary Los Angeles. Against the grim background of Californian degeneracy, the virtues of Philip Marlowe stand out in bold. With his vigorous intelligence, honesty, integrity, justice and chastity, he is a modern knight. As modern crime author Ian Rankin states, ‘Marlowe, however remains a knight of sorts – tarnished, to be sure, but a night knight errant. The work he does is dirty but he maintains his own moral code.
He keeps his cards close to his chest when he needs to in chapter two but also talks openly with the general about being fired for insubordination and his marital status, not with a calculated double standards like so many characters in the book and charging just twenty five a day ‘and expenses if… lucky’ for his services. It is clear that Marlowe ‘doesn’t suffer from many inhibitions’ and is much more than a ‘bit of a cynic’ as the general mildly puts it, in his clash with the butler at the end of the chapter.
His sharp, witty jibes to the butler, such as ‘that will save you from a pauper’s grave’ and his abrupt directness of ‘I don’t like that’, provokes a frosty reception from the butler with his unethical approach. Chandler uses chapter to two begin to effectively craft his, setting the reader expectations, suspense and a creating a dark tone and setting. This is done through the characters of Sternwood and Marlowe, their interaction and their backdrop.