Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Sleeping BeautySleeping Beauty by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"An offshore oil platform stood up out of its windward end like the metal handle of the dagger that has stabbed the world and made it spill back blood."

Sleeping Beauty, Ross Macdonald's penultimate Lew Archer novel, was published in 1973. I remember finding it one of the best entries in the series when I read all books by Mr. Millar (Ross Macdonald's real name) between 30 and 40 years ago. So I feel a bit disappointed that I have not enjoyed the book as much now as I had in the past, even if I still find it well written and hard to put down and even if I think that the very beginning of the novel is outstanding, perhaps not quite in the class of The Underground Man , but still unforgettable. Also, on a personal note, I had first read Sleeping Beauty in late 1970s, when living in Poland, and I could not imagine that about five years later I will take strolls on the same beaches that provide location for the major events in the story.

Lew Archer is returning home from Mazatlán and when the plane is flying low over the region of Pacific Point (a fictional town that is thought to represents La Jolla or Newport Beach) he catches a glimpse of oil spill. Instead of going home he drives to Pacific Point and watches oil workers struggling to contain the spill. On the beach he encounters a young woman, Laurel, who is trying to save a grebe fouled with oil. She asks him to drive her to Los Angeles and Archer learns that she is the granddaughter of the man whose well is spilling the oil. They stop at his apartment and Laurel steals a bottle of Nembutal sleeping pills from Archer's medicine cabinet. She then disappears and Archer, driven by guilt, manages to get hired by Tom, Laurel's husband, to search for her. Archer gets to know the entire oil-rich Lennox family, and learns a lot about dramatic events from their past. He also becomes an unwilling participant in grim current happenings caused by shadows of the past.

This is quintessential Macdonald. The events that occur in the early 1970s are driven by repercussions of what happened quarter of century earlier. People cannot escape the consequences of their past and the long-buried secrets and lies are resurrected to cast their horrific shadows. Children and grandchildren suffer because of sins committed by their parents and grandparents. Greed is the driving force of human actions: murder is justifiable since "Dad's estate is hanging in the balance." Although I share the author's bitter and cynical outlook on the causes of human suffering, I am unable to fully appreciate the novel. Maybe because the plot is way too complicated and its details and twists virtually impossible to follow? Or maybe because of too many convenient coincidences that help drive the plot?

All in all, I think it is mainly the oil spill theme that saves Sleeping Beauty from being an unremarkable novel for this great author. Mr. Millar's environmental awareness, not that common in the early 1970s, shines through.

Three and a quarter stars.

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