Double, Double, Oil And Trouble

Sleeping Beauty by Ross Macdonald Alfred A. Knopf, $5.95, 271 pp.

A SMALL confession: I love Ross Macdonald.

You should know this immediately, because it determines all that follows. If a stranger came up to you and said that Bailey's chocolate ice cream is delicious, you wouldn't give it much thought unless you liked chocolate ice cream. But chances are, if you like one flavor of book, you think you'll like them all.

I have never met anyone who didn't like Ross Macdonald. But until I ran across a chocolate ice cream hater, I would never have believed that one existed.

So be forewarned, and let me now tell you Ross Macdonald's new book, Sleeping Beauty, is simply terrific.

Part of my affection for Macdonald derives from shared interests: We are both fascinated by little children, beautiful women, unsolved murders, rich neurotics, and that strange socio-geographic area which goes under the generic rubric of Southern California. How could I help but love Sleeping Beauty, when Macdonald has sprinkled it so generously with all these ingredients?


The plot centers around the disappearance of beautiful Laurel Lennox, third generation heiress to an immense oil fortune. Laurel is slightly unbalanced (sensitive, if you prefer), and at first it seems she might have vanished in reaction to an oil slick formed by the family company's offshore drilling operation. Then her father receives a ransom call, which would suggest this is a kidnapping. But fifteen years ago, Laurel was involved in a similar kidnapping which, it turns out, she masterminded herself to extort money from her parents.

All the while Macdonald's detective, the super sympatico Lew Archer, is finding out about the burning of a ship off Okinawa in World War II the murder of Laurel's husband's mother over twenty years before, the love affairs of Laurel's father and uncle, and the strange relationship between Laurel's husband and his cousin. With true Dickensian finesse, Macdonald (and Archer, too) weaves all these threads together until the real picture becomes visible.

The mystery genre often seems an anachronism in twentieth century literature. We are not used to seeing all the pieces fit into place, all the ambiguities resolved, all the motivations defined. Even in such a vast, intertwining maze as Thomas Pynchon's new novel Gravity's Rainbow, we find dozens of false leads mixed among all the character recurrences and evolving relationships.

But in Macdonald's work, as in Dickens', we delight in finding that all the various characters are intermeshed in a network that stretches across space and time. From Dickens' novels, the reader inferred the existence of an all-encompassing, interdependent organic society, a world where no man lived alone. It was a nice assumption. The horse and buggy and the nickel beer were also nice.

Macdonald's intricate structures reflect a different submerged truth. In the bizarre environs of Southern California, only surfaces have reality: so textures, colors and, most important, patterns, take on a new significance. Every self-respecting locale and era has its poet. Just as Proust captured the spirit of modern French bourgeois life, just as Richard Wright conveyed the black lifestyle to his white readers, just as Scott Fitzgerald and the Roaring Twenties have become synonomous, so the work of Ross Macdonald is Southern California: dazzling, superficial, gaudy, colorful, combining desire with revulsion, beauty with horror, excitement with monotony.

Monotony is a charge sometimes leveled against Macdonald. To be honest, his books do share a striking similarity on the surface. Virtually all of them begin with a kidnapping or blackmailing which, it later develops, is intimately related to a murder that occurred about a quarter of a century ago. That murder was, as likely as not, witnessed by a small child, who has grown up to become a central figure in the new crime. And all of these events occur in the overripe city of Los Angeles or in the dusty, hot, neighboring Southern California towns.

Yes, each new book does resemble the previous ones. But who can object? Only those boors who complain that all Bach fugues sound alike, that London looks too much like New York, that Ingmar Bergman has made one film two dozen times. There is only one way to respond to such people. Refuse to see them and stop answering their phone calls.

Because anyone who doesn't enjoy Ross Macdonald cannot appreciate Southern California, which as everyone knows, is the true heart and guts of America, the future of the world. It would be un- American not to like Ross Macdonald and not to love Sleeping Beauty, one of his best books yet. No, it would be more than un-American. It would be unforgivable. And impossible.

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