PI Lew Archer was described by his creator, Ross MacDonald, as being so two-dimensional that he would disappear if he turned sideways. He said this when his Archer series had broken away from following Raymond Chandler’s template in plot and style and moved into a more literary direction. Yet, having just read Sleeping Beauty, I think MacDonald sold his character and himself short. We don’t know much about Lew Archer’s personal life. He used to be an investigator for the DA out in Long Beach, California. He’s divorced. He lives in an apartment in Santa Monica. (Gone is Santa Teresa, Archer’s fictional place of residence that he bequeathed to Sue Grafton for her Kinsey Millhonne series.) And at the beginning of the story, we know he’s no fan of the oil industry. Flying back from Mexico, he sees an oil spill not unlike the BP spill from a couple of years ago spewing crude into the Pacific, a site Archer compares to a dagger in the heart of the Earth.
He has no idea he is about to step into the middle of that spill almost literally. After giving a woman a lift home, he finds sleeping pills missing from his medicine cabinet. He soon learns the woman is the daughter of a wealthy oil family, a family at the center of the controversy surrounding the current oil spill. Soon, he learns there has been a kidnapping, or at least a ransom demand. As Archer pulls at the threads of the case, he discovers there is much more than meets the eye. The roots of the case date back to World War II (This is in 1973.) and an aircraft carrier destroyed in a refueling accident off Okinawa.
The theme of family secrets coming back and haunting the next generation is one that runs through MacDonald’s work from his debut, The Moving Target. There is the additional twist of Laurel, the missing woman. Many have cited MacDonald’s problems with his daughter and grief over her death as the basis for many of the characters in his later novels. Tom Nolan, in his biography of MacDonald, even quotes some of MacDonald’s friends on the subject. Whatever the source, MacDonald’s novels have an emotional depth that is actually not as common as many of us would like in PI fiction.