Private detective Philip Marlowe uncovers a twisted plot when he's hired to find the missing wife of a Los Angeles businessman. The wife is Crystal Kingsley, and her husband hadn't heard from her in two weeks, when he received a wire from her stating that she wants a divorce. Marlowe tracks down her boyfriend, Chris Lavery, who says he hasn't seen her either. While he's at Lavery's, some police officers confront Marlowe, accusing him of bothering Lavery's neighbor, a doctor named Almore.
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Marlowe goes to Kingsley's cabin in the woods, where he and the caretaker discover a woman's body in the lake. The caretaker says the body is his wife, Muriel, who also left him two weeks ago, and he is later arrested for her murder.
Marlowe returns to the city to re-interview Lavery, but finds him dead in his home. When the detectives arrive, he repeats rumors he'd heard about Dr. Almore's wife disappearing and the police covering it up, which does not win him any friends. Later, Kingsley contacts Marlowe and says that Crystal called his (Kingsley's) secretary, asking for money, and he wants Marlowe to deliver it to her so that he can bring her back to him.
At the rendezvous, Marlowe confronts the woman, who is not Crystal. He thinks she killed Lavery, but before he can grab her, someone knocks him out from behind. When he awakens, the woman is dead and he's been framed for the murder by a police detective who had covered up the death of Dr. Almore's wife.
Marlowe convinces the detective, named Degarmo, that it would be easier to frame Kingsley for Crystal's death, and that they should go to the lake cabin to get some evidence that they can plant at the scene. Once there, Marlowe reveals that he's figured out the true story: the body believed to be Muriel was really Crystal, whom Muriel had killed to steal her identity. She also killed Lavery, then Degarmo killed Muriel.
The two men fight and Degarmo runs out to escape, and is shot by sentries when he runs across the dam on the lake, which is under armed guard against sabotage because of World War II. Marlowe returns to Los Angeles and awaits his next case.
Best part of story, including ending:
This novel is more twisty than the usual Philip Marlowe stories, but also easier to follow. There's a straightforward sense to it that holds together despite the unraveling, intertwined plots.
Best scene in story:
The caretaker that Marlowe meets is a sad, depressed character, and when they find the woman's body floating in the lake, he becomes even more distraught. It's a rare instance when someone in Chandler's world becomes almost sympathetic.
Opinion about the main character:
Marlowe is his usual self here, sardonic and too smart for his own good. He's fortunate that he only gets beaten up twice before the end of the novel, and that even though he's clever enough to figure out what happened, he didn't get killed in the process.