Mr. Norris leads Marlowe through the gardens to the greenhouse. It is swelteringly hot and humid inside, and filled with orchids. At the center, frail old General Sternwood is sitting in his wheelchair, unable to feel the heat. Sternwood offers Marlowe a brandy and Marlowe lights up a cigarette. The General can have neither. Instead, he complains about the smell and look of the orchids, as well as his ill-health. Then, the butler returns with Marlowe’s drink.
The frail General contrasts with the greenhouse is ironic, a place of life and vitality. The old man can neither smoke nor drink given his ill health, instead living vicariously through the young, strong, and masculine Marlowe.
The General asks Marlowe to introduce himself. He says that he is 33, somewhat educated, a former police officer, and “unmarried.” The General adds that Marlowe seems cynical. The detective responds he was “fired” from the police “for insubordination.” The General approves.
Given his age and experience, the General’s approval of Marlowe’s cynical attitude suggests this is a positive character trait, and a wise approach to a complicated world.
Marlowe tells the General what he knows of the Sternwood family: that the General is a widower, with two “wild” daughters, the eldest of whom, Vivian, is currently married to an “ex-bootlegger” called Rusty Regan. The General admits to being friendly with Rusty, who used to sit with the old man and tell him tales from the Irish revolution. But then Rusty disappeared suddenly a few weeks ago, the General tells Marlowe.
Marlowe’s to-the-point assessment of the Sternwoods, as well as the General’s unashamed confirmation, shows that moral rectitude is dying out in this city. Even the wealthy elite make no effort to appear respectable. The eldest daughter has married a series of men, the most recent a criminal for whom the General has deep affection.
But the General’s main point is that he’s being blackmailed, “again.” The first time was by a man called Joe Brody, whom the General paid off to leave Carmen alone. The General gives Marlowe the envelope with a threat inside: a note from an Arthur Gwynn Geiger, enclosing $5,000 in gambling-related I.O.U.s, signed by Carmen.
The immorality extends beyond the Sternwood family, as multiple parties have attempted to blackmail the General. His money makes him a target for the city’s vast criminal underworld, populated with figures seeking to make their own fortunes.
The General explains he will not talk to Carmen about it, as she would just make a face at him. Marlowe asks for more information about the girls. General Sternwood tells him they go about their own business, and that no Sternwood ever had “moral sense.” The girls are educated, he explains, though that doesn’t seem to have helped Carmen develop. The General does not claim to be a good parent, but nor is he a hypocrite, he insists.
In this exchange, the General states clearly that the Sternwoods’ wealth has never had a positive effect on their morality. Rather, the father has low expectations of his daughters, and thus has offered them little guidance in this respect. Carmen is barely educated, with the General seeming completely unconcerned about her lack of personal development. Indeed, the General has no qualms about admitting his neglectful parenting.
Marlowe advises the General to pay off the blackmailer, as it is not a large amount of money, and will be an annoyance to deal with otherwise. From the way Geiger has delivered his threat, Marlowe thinks the man must be experienced in pressuring rich victims. The detective then asks about Joe Brody, whom the General describes as a gambler. Marlowe next asks whether the General’s daughters have their own money. Vivian has a little from her mother, while her younger sister Carmen is not yet old enough to enter her inheritance. They both have allowances.
Marlowe’s readiness to give in to the blackmailer reveals his cynicism, as he sees such threats as the normal course of action in this society, and as such it is perhaps easier to simply pay up. The commonness of such activities also indicates the self-serving nature of the city. His attackers have no personal grudge against him—they are simply looking to cash in.
Marlowe says he is willing to look into Geiger for the General. He charges $25 a day and expenses. The General says he’s willing to leave the matter entirely to the detective’s discretion. Claiming tiredness, the General ends the meeting, and Mr. Norris arrives to escort Marlowe out of the greenhouse.
Changing his mind, Marlowe agrees to take the case, setting himself up to earn significantly less than the blackmailers are demanding. This contrast marks Marlowe as an honest man looking to right a wrong, much like the knight in the stained-glass window in the mansion’s lobby.
Mr. Norris informs Marlowe that Mrs. Vivian Regan wishes to meet him. Marlowe dislikes that the butler has interfered, but Norris responds that Mrs. Regan could see them from her window. The two men share a strained look.
Marlowe’s reluctance to meet Mrs. Regan indicates his pessimism about the meeting. He expects the worst from an unexpected encounter, one for which he has not prepared.