Ross Macdonald,
Sleeping Beauty
(Amereon, 1973; Vintage, 2000)

When I was a young man in the 1970s, I was a devoted reader of Ross MacDonald. Since then, I have moved on to Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman and Lawrence Block, among many others. In digging through some old boxes of books I came across Sleeping Beauty by MacDonald. I remembered nothing about it except that it had impressed me long ago. So I reread it.

This is Ross MacDonald at his prime. Some observations:

Unlike so much of current detective fiction, there is virtually no backstory to private investigator Lew Archer here -- except for the fact that he is a former cop from Long Beach. In an age when so many fictional detectives live in an ongoing soap opera, this is refreshing. For that reason, this novel makes a good place to start for the Archer uninitiated.

MacDonald's choice of plotlines for his novels varies little. The Archer novels usually start with a missing young person. Archer is hired. Three generations are introduced. A crime was committed decades earlier by the oldest generation. The next generation covered it up (and often got rich). Sins of the past come to haunt the third generation. All is on display here.

This novel requires and rewards close reading. It is not slam-bang hard-boiled stuff. It intricately picks apart the history of a family that has long been in denial about the rotten things done in the past.

Archer never gets shot, punched out or hit over the head in this book. As for gunplay, it's all off screen. What crime writer could pull this off today? Well, maybe Connelly.

Red herrings? A ton of them. Don't even try to guess the ending, which only appears on the final page. But it takes your breath away. Lauren, the "kidnapped" girl who launches the action and who everyone is trying to find, doesn't die but never takes the stage.

Class war. Rich vs. poor is a constant theme for MacDonald. How do different classes intersect? Sex. In contrast to so many PI-cop interactions in other novels where the cops snarl, "Stay off this case, shamus, if you know what's good for you," Archer is treated with total respect by the police on the case. In fact, the level of respect and freedom to act by the cops is downright remarkable. In fact again, in a multiple-murder and kidnapping case involving a rich California family, the cops barely appear as a footnote.

MacDonald beautifully incorporates the "sin" of environmental depradation (an oil spill) with the more more human sin of murder.

review by
Dave Sturm

12 December 2009

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