This book begins immediately at the Sebastian house, where Keith and Bernice’s daughter Alexandria, more commonly known as Sandy, has gone missing, along with her father’s shotgun and a box of ammunition. Keith Sebastian has hired Lew Archer to find her, and straight away it’s evident that there is little harmony between him and his wife, and that Bernice may know more than she’s willing to tell about Sandy’s state of mind. Sandy had been doing well at school – she’s in her senior year – until recently, and Keith thinks it’s since his daughter “took up with that wild man. Davy what’s-his-name.” (p5).
Heidi Spensler, Sandy’s friend, knows a little more, though she’s unwilling to tell Archer (and especially not Sandy’s parents) very much about her friend’s confidences, but she does reveal that Davy Spanner, however rough and thuggish he may appear, made Sandy happy after her relationship with another, unknown, man had led Sandy to contemplate suicide.
Archer’s conversations, later, with Laurel Smith, Davy’s employer, and Davy and Sandy themselves, and Belsize, Davy’s probation officer, lead to the assumption that Davy and Sandy plan to go to the house of Stephen Hackett, Keith Sebastian’s employer, with a sawn-off shot-gun – Archer suspects the worst may happen and tries to warn Hackett.
The worst does happen: Hackett is kidnapped by the two youngsters, and Mrs Marburg, Stephen’s heiress mother, offers Archer one hundred thousand dollars for his safe return. Later, Laurel Smith is found severely injured (and later dies), and Davy rejects Sandy, leaving her to be picked up by Archer and returned to her parents, while Davy continues on the run with Hackett.
Like most Macdonald novels, nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and it turns out that both Sandy’s and Davy’s lives are intimately involved with those of the Hacketts, though at first they, Archer and the reader are unaware of this. Characters are well drawn, sometimes sympathetic and sometimes not, but always understandable. Family secrets are revealed by Archer’s relentless questioning and chasing after leads, and several people die violently – not all by the same hand – before the truth is revealed.
Macdonald appears to be interested, in his later novels, in the clash between the generations: in this book, particularly between Sandy and her parents, but also between Mrs Marburg and Stephen Hackett. The nineteen-sixties’ counterculture is also touched on in Davy’s and Sandy’s use of drugs, and the alienation they feel from the adults around them, though Davy’s life has been materially disadvantaged and Sandy’s has not.
Macdonald’s prose is as involving and descriptive as ever:
“I could recognize some of the things on sight: a broad-bladed fisherman’s knife to which a few old fish scales were clinging like dry tears, a marriage certificate with deep fold-marks cutting across it, a bundle of letters tied together with a brown shoestring, some rifle bullets and a silver dollar in a net sack, a small miner’s pick, a couple of ancient pipes, an ineffectual-looking rabbit’s foot, some clean folded underwear and socks, a glass ball that filled itself with a miniature snowstorm when you shook it, a peacock feather watching us with its eye, and an eagle’s claw.”
With this is a sense of how and why people really tick, and a refusal to condemn behaviour which seems unreasonable, but in fact is rooted in traumas of the past. In these novels, the private investigator acts as a sort of roving moral compass, with his methods not strictly legal, but always ethical.