“Money could do a lot of things in this world. It could build you a castle, Sader told himself—or a dungeon.”
There are two kinds of money in Long Beach, California. Old money means prosperous Midwesterners who settled there a few decades ago; they speak only to each other. That’s Felicia Wanderley. New money comes from oil, and they tell themselves they have more fun without those snobs on Ocean Avenue. That’s Perry Ajoukian.
As far as anyone knows, these two have never met. They have only two things in common: both vanished on the same night, and both families retained the firm of Sader and Scarborough to investigate. It’s up to Sader and his partner Dan to learn whether Mrs. Wanderley and young Ajoukian are connected by one more thing—murder.
Sleep with Strangers is a superb private-eye novel, tough and tender in equal parts. Its humor, humanity, and striking use of California locations compare favorably with the work of Ross Macdonald.
As a protagonist, Sader initially seems to lack personality. However, as he searches for Felicia Wanderley and mentors his excitable younger partner, Sader’s true character emerges as an honorable and melancholy man, continually yearning for what can never return. Eating in cafeterias and going home to his studio apartment, he wonders if he is too old for love or excitement, only to find that he might not like the way those things enter his life.
The primary source of Sader’s nostalgia is Long Beach itself. He is always comparing the current city to a mythical “before.” Before the war, before the oil, a time when everybody knew each other. Every location Sader visits, he can instantly pinpoint in time, often a time in the distant past. Even the mansions of Ocean Avenue, once the objects of his youthful wishes, no longer figure in the dreams of the young.
These homes, big and imposing as they were, looked old-fashioned compared to newer districts being built by the wealthy. As Dan had said, a few miles away in Garden Grove you cold have a mock ranch on one and a half acres. And your neighbors weren’t elderly and stuffy mortgage owners from Kansas; they were young doctors and dentists and super-merchants, and they’d be fun to meet over cocktails in somebody’s imitation ghost-town saloon.
It’s like a nesting doll of artifice, as the ersatz ancestral manors of fifty years before are superseded by an imitation Old West town—the kind of village Long Beach really was before the Ocean Avenue crowd moved in.
The most vivid setting, and the one Sader keeps returning to, is the Signal Hill oil field. Once a residential district, no new homes have been built there since oil was discovered thirty years earlier. “He could make out the black skeletons of oil rigs in the mist, and here and there a tank shone out with a silvery bulk against the dark. Below and to the right, the carpet of lights that was Long Beach made a fuzzy glow all the way to the edge of the Pacific.”
Some ramshackle houses still stand in the shadow of the oil derricks, sump pits gurgling in the background. One is occupied by Milton Wanderley, Felicia’s poor relation, who keeps a spare room full of baby pigs for his amusement-park booth. (Even Sader cannot help being charmed by the adorable piglets.) Another is being sold by the slatternly Charlie Ott, who may have crossed Mrs. Wanderley in the deal. Yet a third belongs to Margot Cole. She needs money and is hiding a secret from her estranged husband. Even when you add in Tina Griffin, a well-off but hard-drinking widow, it becomes clear that for all her snobbery, Felicia Wanderley was not traveling in the most highbrow circles.
Sader instinctively dislikes Mrs. Wanderley, perhaps sensing that they have both fallen into the same nostalgia trap.
He remembered the moment when he had first seen Mrs. Wanderley’s photograph, the quick dislike, which he had been unable to quell. The picture had been full of a silly pretense; behind the unlined and yet somehow unyoung face, you sensed self-infatuation. You sensed also the years of dieting, of expensive beauty care. And yet, the result was ludicrous. That bee-stung mouth and fuzzy hair reminded him of noting so much as movie stills of the vintage of 1920. He remembered vividly the pictures, cut from magazines, with which his older sister had plastered her bedroom walls. Somehow, Mrs. Wanderley had fallen in love with herself at the stage where she had resembled Mary Miles Minter, and had never grown up.
His client, Kay Wanderley, defends her missing mother in words that could almost apply to Sader, saying, “She had a world that she loved and it fell apart, and then she was lost. She was like a child alone in the dark.”
Maybe because he was created by a female author, Sader recognizes the effort required to achieve Mrs. Wanderley’s youthful appearance and Kay’s slim figure; eating dinner with Kay, he notes every mouthful she deprives herself of. Unlike the women, Sader believes he has stopped struggling against nature, even encouraging Dan to call him “Poppa.” That is, until he finds himself growing fond of a younger woman.
This is not the first time a detective has had to ask himself whether the woman he’s falling for is guilty of murder. It is the first time I can recall him seriously considering whether he’s too old for her. This preoccupation leads him into dicey actions that nearly derail the ending. There is also a queasy moment when he assaults a woman (then convinces a witness that he was right to do so!), which stems from the same need to prove his virility and “protect” the object of his affections. The more deeply he falls in love, the more dangerous he becomes.
As Sader searches for Felicia Wanderley, Dan is conducting his own investigation into the disappearance of Perry Ajoukian. His efforts mostly remain in the background, but they bubble up periodically as both partners interact with Perry’s beautiful wife and controlling father (“He expected me not to like the guy, his own son, and he was enjoying that expectation”). As Sader once did, Dan romanticizes the detective business, excited to be living out his Bogart fantasies, complete with femme fatale. But Dan is about to learn that real-life murder is not like it is in the movies.
Sleep with Strangers is an unusual beast, a hardboiled detective novel with a feminist slant that is largely concerned with whether its protagonist can accept growing older. Like the city of Long Beach, Sader has changed since the war, but not all change is for the worse. The novel is remarkably generous to its characters, with room for the follies of young and middle-aged alike. The reader is left with the impression that everyone who’s left alive at the end is going to be all right, one way or another.
Sleep with Strangers is available as an ebook from the Library of America.