The private detective Philip Marlowe enters the Sternwood mansion in Los Angeles at 11:00 on a morning in mid October. Marlowe is unusually clean and well dressed for the occasion of meeting General Sternwood, an old oil baron, for a commission. Contrasting with the luxury of the mansion and Marlowe's refined appearance is the weather outside, which is overcast and threatening rain. Marlowe takes notice of many elements of the mansion's décor, including a stained-glass panel of a knight rescuing a naked woman who is tied to a tree. Among a number of other fineries that point to the Sternwood's wealth, Marlowe also notices a large oil portrait of a general with "hot black eyes."
As the detective continues his catalog of the items in the house, a small, pretty, young woman—somewhere in her early twenties—appears. She is highly flirtatious with Marlowe, who introduces himself by the name of "Doghouse Reilly." The girl, who we later find out is Carmen Sternwood, the youngest of the General's daughters, has a habit of biting her thumb and giggling. Carmen throws herself back into Marlowe's arms and says, "You're cute "—a line she repeats throughout the novel from her lips.
The Sternwoods' butler, Norris, walks in while Carmen is still in Marlowe's arms, announcing that the general is ready to receive Marlowe. Marlowe asks the butler who the girl is. He also says to the butler, in his typically witty and brash style, "You ought to wean her. She looks old enough."
Marlowe follows the butler into the greenhouse, where the sick General is waiting. The greenhouse is uncomfortably hot, filled with jungle-like greenery, and the air thick and moist, suffused with a suffocating odor of wet orchids. They reach an open space where the sick and dying General is sitting in his wheelchair. Marlowe sits down and accepts a drink of brandy, and is told that he may smoke. The ailing General Sternwood explains that, like the orchids, he seems only to be able to exist in this heat.
The two men have a fast-paced conversation. Marlowe describes himself briefly and the General outlines the case that Marlowe is supposed to "take care of." The General says he is being blackmailed, and not for the first time. He had been blackmailed in the past by a man named Joe Brody, to whom he had to pay $5,000 in order for Joe to the General's youngest daughter, Carmen, alone.
Now, the General is again being blackmailed through a scheme involving his daughter, by man named Arthur Gwynn Geiger, who claims that Carmen has a number of gambling debts, for which he provides three signed promissory notes. Sternwood shows Marlowe the promissory notes, which carry Carmen's signature and date from September, the month prior. Also attached is a card that carries the name of Mr. Arthur Gwynn Geiger and the name of his business, "Rare Books and De Luxe Editions." The rare book business appears to be some kind of cover for Geiger, who is asking for $1,000.