Sleeping Beauty – Ross Macdonald

(Vintage Crime/Black Lizard 2000, originally published 1973)

This is one of Macdonald’s later Lew Archer novels: the last, The Blue Hammer, was published in 1976 (Macdonald died in 1983, at the age of sixty-eight). There’s a rather dark and nocturnal tone to this novel, which begins on a flight from Mexico to Los Angeles, from which Lew Archer gets a first glimpse of the oil slick which becomes a dark backdrop to the events of the novel.

While driving home, Archer stops off at the beach, partly to indulge his curiosity about the oil spill, and meets a woman there who is trying to rescue a grebe from the oil. Later, after his meal in a local restaurant, he meets her again, and takes her to his house where she calls her husband, who “has a woman with him” and leaves Archer’s house. It’s only after she’s gone that he realises that she’s taken with her a bottle of Nembutal (sleeping pills) containing a lethal dose. Worried about her, Archer contacts Laurel’s husband, Tom Russo, a pharmacist, and finds out from him a list of people with whom Laurel might have gone to stay.

“I asked myself as I drove across Westwood where my concern for his wife originated. The answer wasn’t clear. She seemed to be one of those people to whom you attached your floating fears, your unexamined sorrows.

“Her eyes seemed to be watching me out of the darkness like the ghost of a woman who had already died. Or the ghost of a bird.”


Later, at Captain and Mrs Somerville’s house (Elizabeth Somerville being Laurel’s aunt), Archer discovers that Laurel has been kidnapped and a large cash ransom is being demanded: her father hasn’t enough money, so Sylvia, his mother, has offered to pay. However, a suspicion lingers that Laurel is engineering this situation, but Jack Lennox, her father, is not behaving rationally, either.

A body, pulled from the ocean the following day, leads Archer to Ralph Mungan, and to all manner of family secrets being unearthed, including the mystery of the death of Allie Russo, Tom Russo’s mother, when he was only a boy, and why the Canaan Sound, Somerville’s ship during the war, was set on fire.

As usual with Macdonald, the plot twists and turns as Archer finds more motives for the deaths which happen, and people lie and cover up minor sins which also, incidentally, hide larger ones of other people. Also, as in most of his books, the crimes of the present have a backdrop in unresolved crimes of the past, and so this leads to his characters behaving in entirely understandable ways. The denouement is surprising, but not unfairly so, and the characters are well-drawn and with realistic motivations. Sylvia Lennox hates her former husband, for example, but is surprised to find that she regrets his death from a heart attack. The action of the book also takes place over a realistically short space of time, though plenty of things happen during that time: however, the book is not frenetically-paced, and the prose is rather measured and reflective.

Again, another Macdonald crime novel which is highly recommended.

This entry was posted in 2010 New Reads, Crime fiction, Fiction, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sleeping Beauty – Ross Macdonald

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Rather than reading the Archer stories solely as mysteries, thrillers, entertainments, and detective stories (though of course they can exist solely on that level for readers who are interested in them as such), we’d do ourselves a favor to consider them in a few other ways as well. In the massive reference work World Authors 1950-1970, published by the H.H. Wilson Company, Macdonald wrote that The Galton Case and Black Money “are probably my most complete renderings of the themes of smothered allegiance and uncertain identity which my work inherited from my early years.” Of course, in Black Money the smothered allegiance occurs between the lovers Ginny Fablon and Tappinger.

    • Ela says:

      That’s interesting. I’d never have thought of that in my reading of the novel myself, but then I’m a very general reader than an analytical one. I think a lot of his books take generational conflict as a part of the plot and its resolution, but maybe that’s more evident in his later work.

      Many thanks for the comment, and sorry that it’s taken me so long to reply.

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