Thursday Reviews: Sleeping Beauty by Ross MacDonald

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.

Remembering Ross (Forgotten Book Friday)

A Biography Ross Macdonald : A Biography by Tom Nolan


My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ross Macdonald is always mentioned in the same breath as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. And of the three, Macdonald was the most literate.

Here now is the full story of how Ken Millar of Ontario became Ross Macdonald of Santa Barbara, California. Biographer Tom Nolan traces Millars origins from an anonymous birth in the Bay Area to a bleak childhood spent mostly in Ontario.

If his creation, Lew Archer, seemed like an outsider, it might have been because Millar/Macdonald spent his life as a wanderer. From Ontario to Alberta to Vancouver and back, then across the border to Michigan to California, with a stint aboard a Navy ship at the end of World War II. He and wife Margaret Millar, a noted mystery writer in her own right, were the classic couple that couldn’t live with each other, but couldn’t live without each other either.

Nolan uses Millar’s recollections of his childhood in Kitchener and elsewhere in Canada to show how Millar the boy almost became Millar the criminal, acting out, even indulging in homosexual acts, to rebel against an overly religious mother and an absent father. Millar would make a conscious decision to become, instead, a scholar, eventually earning his Ph D with a dissertation on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom he would spend a lifetime studying.

As Millar’s writing career begins, Nolan divides chapters almost along the writing of each Lew Archer novel. As Millar (as Macdonald) moved away from imitating Raymond Chandler (which Chandler resented) to becoming a more psychological writer, the books start to parallel their author’s life. In the wake of daughter Linda’s disappearance in 1958, Macdonald begins focusing on the missing child as a touchstone. After her death in 1970, his work turns more toward the tragic consequences of family secrets.

Perhaps most tragic is the deterioration of Macdonald’s mind at the peak of his creative prowess. Starting with THE GOODBYE LOOK, Macdonald had become one of America’s (and Canada’s) pre-eminent writers. And yet after the release of the final Archer novel, THE BLUE HAMMER, his mind clouded, his ability to concentrate draining away. By the time of his death in 1983, he had taken hisplace alongside contemporaries Norman Mailer and Joan Diodon as one of the premier writers of his day. Yet even to the end, when he could barely remember his own name, Macdonald/Millar would still swim in the ocean everyday, at least until he was able.

Millar wanted to round off his Archer series with one last novel – a tome delving into Archer’s Canadian past – but his illness prevented him. Experts agree, though, he left behind one of the most impressive bodies of work not only as a crime writer, but as a seriousness novelist.

View all my reviews.

Scaling Mt. TBR

Amazon sent me some happy news yesterday.  The mad Dr. Gischler’s Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse, Neil Smith’s Yellow Medicine, and Reed Farrell Coleman’s Empty Ever After are all on their way.

And sitting on deck after I read those is Tom Nolan’s biography of Ross MacDonald.

Whoo hoo!  July will be Tom Waits, cold beer, and hot noir!

My wife and kid are going to go sooooooo sick of hearing Waits blaring from my office as I tear into these.  Maybe I’ll toss in Johnny Cash for Nita.