The Big Sleep’s secondary character of Agnes finds a foil in the nameless clerk in the bookstore across the street from Geiger’s bookstore. Agnes, while never portrayed as stupid, is exposed as being uninformed by Marlowe’s clever ruse (does she have a Ben Hur 1860 with duplications, etc.). In contrast, the second clerk is confident in her thorough knowledge of books, and passes Marlowe’s test. Agnes’s contrarian personality, combined with the fact that, as her place of employ is not really a bookstore, she has no need to assist book-buyers, causes her to interact with Marlowe haughtily and impatiently. But the second clerk is helpful, and clever, and she and Marlowe immediately hit it off.

Whereas Agnes’s appearance is somewhat witchy- she is dressed all in black, with severely drawn up dark hair, the 2nd clerk is costumed in an ironically wholesome and asexual get-up. She looks uncannily like a school-marm or other archtypical academic woman, in glasses and a cravat, with her hair tied back. The contrast between her appearance and her sexually proactive behavior is tremendously ironic. She casually picks up Marlowe, initiating their sexual interlude by telling him “it’s raining pretty hard”, and throwing him the seductive glance that gives him pause. When closing the shade she rubs her back against the door, hypersexual while still dressed seriously and academically.

In announcing that the store is “closed for the afternoon” the clerk reflects that fact that she and Marlowe have ceased interacting in a businesslike way. She then completes this transition by taking down her hair and taking off her glasses. She releases a sort of liberated persona, and yet one that is also femme-inized. Whereas a woman at work could be, in limited cases, treated like a man, a woman not a work was a woman. This was clearly what the clerk wanted, she wanted to have sex with this interesting stranger in her store, and she was hardly going to have sex with him as a pseudo-man or as an asexual bookworm. (The debate remains between Betty Friedan and Margaret Mead as to whether a distinctly feminine sexuality is a sign of inferiority.)

As for Marlowe, he is practically two different people in the two different bookstores. In the first, he is disguised as an academic himself, a bookish man with little concern for fashion’s dictates even as to whether his hat brim is raised or lowered. But when he crosses the street- a transition accentuated by a thunderclap- he reverts to his true self, the virile man who collects “blondes and bottles”.

The casual interlude in which Marlowe and the clerk have sex is jarring in its re-imagining of public and private personas. However ‘free’ sexual mores may be or may have become, there are probably not many people who will ever actually kill an hour in the afternoon having sex with an interesting stranger. But Marlowe and the clerk meet each other’s public persona’s- the hard boiled detective and the serious clerk, and, again, as symbolized by the clerk taking down her hair and removing her glasses, proceed to reveal their private personas- the sexual woman and the sexual man.

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