With his v-shaped facial features and yellow-grey eyes, Samuel Spade is a private detective who resembles a good-looking version of Satan. Effie Perine, his lanky and boyish-looking female assistant, enters Spade’s private office and announces the arrival of a new, beautiful client named Miss Wonderly. As Spade rolls a cigarette, Effie leaves the room and Wonderly enters. Spade casually asks Wonderly what he can do for her.
This description appears to cast Spade as a villain or at least as having less than perfect morals. In the Christian tradition, Satan is the great deceiver, so the description foreshadows Spade’s many deceptions. The scene also contrasts Wonderly’s beauty with Effie’s masculine-looking plainness.
In emotional distress, Wonderly describes in disjointed phrases how her teenaged sister, Corinne, has run away to San Francisco with a man named Floyd Thursby. With no one to turn to, Wonderly says she has come to San Francisco to employ Spade to find her sister before their parents return from Europe in two weeks. Wonderly claims she’s already contacted Thursby, who said he will meet with her this evening to discuss Corinne.
Wonderly seems helpless, taking on the “damsel-in-distress” role in order to play on Spade’s sympathies. Yet even in her story, Wonderly is not totally innocent because she wants to deceive her parents by having Corinne come home before they arrive so that they don’t find out about her running away.
In the middle of her story, Miles Archer barges into the office, startling Wonderly. Spade introduces Archer as his partner and fills him in on the details. Not meeting Archer’s gaze, Wonderly looks aside as he looks her up and down. Archer makes a suggestive gesture to Spade, who quickly and quietly chides him.
In stereotypical gender roles, Wonderly acts shy and modest while Archer overtly ogles her. Although Spade scolds Archer, he may be doing so in order to avoid losing a client rather than to protect her honor.
Spade tells Wonderly that they’ll have someone follow Thursby after he leaves the meeting with her. He explains that once Thursby unknowingly leads the detective to Corrine’s whereabouts, the detective will either convince her to leave Thursby or use other means to make Thursby let her leave. Wonderly gasps at the suggestion of violence and tells Spade that Thursby would be willing to kill Corrine to escape the detective. After Wonderly explains that she told Thursby that her father would “punish” him for what he’s done, Spade infers that Corrine is pregnant and asks if Wonderly’s family could cover it up with a marriage between Thursby and Corinne. Wonderly blushes as she reveals the full extent of the scandal: Thursby cannot marry Corrine because he has a family back in England. Thursby would rather kill Corinne than have to face a scandal where his family finds out about his affair.
For the first time, Spade implies that his detective agency will use less-than-legal means to help his clients. Wonderly has been hiding the fact that her sister is pregnant, a taboo for unmarried women in the 1920s, but Spade is sharp enough to see past this deception. Once again, Wonderly plays the role of the demure woman by blushing at the scandal of her sister’s relationship with a married man.
Spade says they’ll put one of their detectives on the job, but she asks if either he or Archer could take care of it personally. She agrees to pay extra, producing two hundred-dollar bills. Archer immediately agrees to do the job himself.
In the novel’s first illustration of the power of greed, Archer jumps at the chance to make money even though Wonderly warns him that Thursby is willing to use violence.
After accompanying Wonderly out, Spade returns to his office where Archer mentions that he saw more hundreds in her purse. Spade pockets one of the hundreds and asks Archer what he thinks of her. Misunderstanding Spade’s intent, Archer says he has dibs on her. Grinning wolfishly, Spade mocks Archer’s foolish recklessness by suggesting that she’s a suspicious, possibly even dangerous woman.
Archer’s greed leads him to transgress Wonderly’s personal boundaries by looking into her purse. Spade, too, is quick to snatch up the bill, showing he is not immune to the power of money. While Archer is under the spell of Wonderly’s beauty, thus his claim of dibs, Spade’s question was not about her beauty but his suspicion that she’s hiding something.