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.
Sternwood then introduces another mystery when he mentions the disappearance of his son-in-law, Rusty Regan. The General had taken a liking to Regan because Regan had spent many hours with the General in the hot greenhouse talking to him. Regan had been a soldier in the Irish revolution, an illegal immigrant in the United States, and had married the General's eldest daughter, Vivian Sternwood. After this aside about Regan's disappearance, the conversation ends.
Marlowe exits the greenhouse to find Norris, the butler, ready to write out a check for him and telling him that "Mrs. Regan"—Vivian Sternwood—would like to see him. Apparently Mrs. Regan is curious as to why her father has called in a private detective.
Marlowe enters Mrs. Regan's room, a highly ornate, high-ceilinged space. Vivian is beautiful but Marlowe thinks she is "trouble." She is flirtatious like her sister, but in a less childish manner. Vivian is also taller and stronger- looking than her sister. She has black, intense eyes much like the portrait Marlowe has noticed in the Sternwood mansion.
Vivian and Marlowe have snappy discussion, mainly consisting of her attempts to find out what her father is up to. Vivian tries to ascertain whether her father's hiring of Marlowe has anything to do with finding her husband, Rusty Regan. Vivian's insistence and inquisitiveness come across as suspicious to Marlowe.
Mrs. Regan tells Marlowe that her husband just drove away one day without saying anything, and that his car was later found in a private garage. Marlowe, knowing it is what she wants to hear, tells her that he has not been hired to look for Regan. Marlowe leaves abruptly, and not on especially good terms with Mrs. Regan.
After leaving the house, Marlowe looks out onto the Sternwoods' oilfields. He realizes as he is walking away from the house that the sky is black and that thunder is resounding nearby. Marlowe, thinking about Geiger and the case at hand, makes his way to the Hollywood Public Library to do a bit of research on rare books and famous first editions.
Detective Philip Marlowe immediately introduces us to Chandler's style and tone. Marlowe is observant and direct and, as we soon find out, he is honest beneath his brashness. The first indication that Marlowe is a "good guy"—and even perhaps a modern-day knight—is his assertion, upon seeing the stained- glass panel of the knight rescuing the damsel, that if he himself lived in the Sternwood house he would eventually have to climb up and help the knight because the knight does not seem to be getting very far in his feat. Marlowe, then, is symbolically characterized as a "knight" from the beginning pages of the novel. The stained-glass panel serves a dual purpose: it serves first as a symbol for the motif of knighthood that is pervasive throughout the novel, and it also serves as a means of foreshadowing. The stained glass prefigures the events in which Marlowe later must "rescue" Carmen Sternwood as the events of the mystery unfold.
The stained glass is not the only bit of foreshadowing in these chapters. The ominous weather is foreboding rain, mirroring Marlowe's foresight that Vivian Sternwood is "trouble." Furthermore, there is the portrait Marlowe mentions over and over again throughout his visit to the Sternwoods', and also the symbol of the greenhouse. The portrait reveals intensely dark eyes that help set the dangerous mood of the novel. Marlowe compares both Vivian's and the General's eyes to the dark eyes of the portrait, which points to the fact that there may be more than meets eye below the surface of the Sternwood family. 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 greenhouse also helps to set the mood and the tone for the novel. It is damp and wet, the air is thick and oppressive, and orchids with petals that feel like flesh surround Marlowe and the General. The greenhouse gives the impression of entrapment, strangulation by heat and vines—adding to the mysterious and ominous tone Chandler evokes.