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The Underground Man ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels

Ross Macdonald -- the pen name for Kenneth Millar -- was born in 1915. He spent his early years in rural Ontario, but lived for most of his adult life in Southern California. He made his reputation with 18 Lew Archer novels published between 1949 and 1976. Macdonald wrote in the tough, hardboiled tradition, but his detective was not always a tough guy. In book after book, Lew Archer gently pieces together broken family ties. An Archer novel typically features a labyrinthine plot involving mistaken identities within clans haunted by tragedy. Archer solves murders by uncovering the traumatic memories of adults who had suffered or witnessed misdeeds as children.

The solutions required amazing genealogical gymnastics. In "The Galton Case" (1959), Archer exposes a young man posing as the heir to a lost fortune -- first as an imposter, and then as the real heir unknowingly posing as an imposter. In "The Chill" (1963), Archer uncovers a bizarre mock-Oedipal coverup in which a murderer lives with her college dean husband, posing as his mother.

Archer himself remained an unsolved mystery throughout. "My concern," Macdonald said in 1971, "is to tell the story of others. So I've deprived Archer of a private life." Over the years Archer became, in Macdonald's words, "almost pathologically selfless."

But new evidence shows that Macdonald had big, unrealized plans for his detective-samaritan. Macdonald's literary archive at the University of California at Irvine recently acquired a set of extensive notes for the final Archer novel he planned to write before Alzheimer's disease overtook him.

The novel was to have been a grand finale: The plot spans Lew Archer's career, and in it the genealogical detective learns he has a long-lost daughter. Macdonald planned for the young woman to come to Archer as a client searching for her unknown background. "The unspoken irony," Macdonald wrote in his notebook, is "that she is talking to Archer, who is her background." Macdonald planned for Archer to track down the truth, and this time the lost branch of the family tree would contain Archer himself.

This twist follows Macdonald's life: His only child, Linda, died of complications from drug abuse. But more significantly, the unpublished final chapter of the Archer saga only intensifies the writer's longstanding obsession with broken families. The phrase "generation gap" entered the American lexicon during Macdonald's lifetime. Macdonald wrote about domestic strife with real sympathy for both rebellious children and their stricken parents. "The Archer novels," he said in 1973, "are about various kinds of brokenness."
    -The last testament of Ross Macdonald (Leonard Cassuto, 11/2/2003, Boston Globe)

From the first, this socially conscious and psychologically inclined novelist forged a different path from his more overtly hard-boiled colleagues. In Macdonald's stories, Kreyling notes, "Finding out who did it is not as important as finding out how many willful and accidental accomplices there were, and how far back in the history of a doomed family the evil began." As Macdonald's skills and confidence increased, his investigator became more and more in tune with the postwar zeitgeist: "Archer was increasingly meeting clients who needed an analyst as much as, or more than, they needed a private detective. In hindsight it seems inevitable that the decade of the 1950s would make or break Archer and Macdonald. The audience was ready, the cultural mood was right, and Macdonald had the tools."

Kreyling's most dazzling chapters explicate Macdonald's last nine novels, from 1962's "The Zebra-Striped Hearse" to "The Blue Hammer" of 1976. In his consummate '60s books, Kreyling writes, "Having grown out of conventional crime and into the thicket of family pathology, Macdonald pushed the family and its pathologies into the spotlight of the detective novel," with the result that "the family romance in Macdonald's creative hands became a sensitive instrument in the examination of an entire social moment." And Macdonald, Kreyling concludes (weaving pertinent references throughout to such other West Coast artists as Joan Didion and the Beach Boys), was the novelist of that moment, his books "reflecting a civilization in crisis, imploding from the weight of too much dream and not enough reality."

In the final three novels of the 1970s, Kreyling shows, Macdonald worked to symbolize and dramatize not only the expiration of the golden myth of California but also the conclusion of the Archer saga ("an ongoing philosophical work") and even the novelist's own eventual end: " 'The Underground Man' (1971), 'Sleeping Beauty' (1973), and 'The Blue Hammer' (1976) are apocalyptic novels obsessed with endings. The first two are centered on catastrophic events, a fire and an oil spill, which threaten to bring an end to the especially fragile and beautiful natural California…. 'The Blue Hammer' was written by a man sensing unmistakable intimations of his own mortality. In 'The Blue Hammer' artists die but the world goes on."
    -REVIEW: of The Novels of Ross Macdonald by Michael Kreyling (Tom Nolan, LA Times)

Though he's generally listed third in the triumvirate--Dashiell Hammett (The Father); Raymond Chandler (The Son); and Ross MacDonald (The Holy Ghost)--Mr. MacDonald is more properly recognized as the greatest of the private eye authors. Hammett's one great novel, The Maltese Falcon, and the equally great film version, along with his precedence in time (1939), are undeniable, and Chandler was likewise fortunate enough to have Humphrey Bogart put his imprint on Phillip Marlowe, but neither sustained a series of novels at the steady high quality of the Lew Archer books. In fact, Hammett and Chandler tailed off rather badly at the end of their careers, whereas the final few Archer mysteries scaled heights that not only transcended the genre but make them necessary reading for anyone hoping to understand the "malaise" that afflicted America in the 1970s. The Underground Man, published in 1971, may well be the best of MacDonald's oeuvre, which would make it pretty much the best p.i. book ever written. Hard to argue it isn't at least one of the pinnacles.

The story opens with Archer feeding peanuts to some blue jays outside his apartment--the sort of balance of nature to which MacDonald seemingly wanted him to restore the world by solving crimes. But when a little boy emerges from another apartment, followed by his mother and then by her estranged husband, Archer is plunged into their domestic quarrel and then into a series of adulteries, broken marriages, petty crimes, frauds, and murders stretching back across three generations. And, as if to demonstrate that such disordered lives must have cosmic consequences, the backdrop for the tale is a raging brushfire, fed by the Santa Ana winds, that sweeps across the scenes of the crimes and threatens to consume the whole cast. And just as mortal crime triggers natural disaster, so too does a character suggest to Archer that he serves as a similar spark to human tinder:
"You smell like trouble to me," he said.

That stopped me for a minute. He had a salesman's insight into human weakness, and he'd touched on a fact which I didn't always admit to myself--that I sometimes served as a catalyst for trouble, not unwillingly.
Of course, a forest fire burns away dead wood and allows for new growth, but Mr. MacDonald provides us little reason to believe that Archer's cases have much salutary effect.

To the extent there is some hope, Mr. MacDonald would appear to be suggesting that the confused young people of the era were not so much to blame for their problems as their parents -- that Greatest Generation that he indicts in a way that will shock readers of Tom Brokaw. Typically drawing a parallel to the environmental degradation that was imagined to be a sign of the times, he refers at one point to “a generation whose elders had been poisoned … with a kind of moral DDT that damaged the lives of their young.” that image of moral DDT is quite powerful and positions his fiction quite comfortably in the American Puritan tradition of Original Sin and Fallen Man. But his vision of American life is so pitch black by this point that it places him squarely in the 1970s. History students trying to imagine how that decade could have ended in Jimmy Carter's hand-wringing could hardly do better than read Ross MacDonald to get a sense of how bleak the mood was at the time.

At any rate, Lew Archer is a first-rate guide through this darkness, lonely and vulnerable in ways that most modern private eye novelists have abandoned. This forces him to be more passive than his super-heroic successors, but also means that he's affected by the tragedies he plums in ways that they never are. And so, when the novel ends with the rains finally having come and a human touch as moving as Bill Murray taking Scarlett Johansson's foot in Lost in Translation, we may not get closure, but we do feel that some semblance of order has been restored. In 1971 that may have been as much as most folks hoped for.


Grade: (A+)


Ross MacDonald Links:

    -Ross Macdonald (1915-1983) - Pseudonym for Kenneth Millar (Kirjasto)
    -ESSAY: The Writer As Detective Hero,/a> (Ross Macdonald, January 1965, Show)
-ESSAY: MACDONALD VERSUS MACDONALD: A CRIME FICTION DEBATE: Evaluating the literary legacies of John D. MacDonald and Ross Macdonald from inside a Florida flea market. (RON CORBETT, 3/20/24, CrimeReads)
    -INTERVIEW: THE BACKLIST: JONATHAN KELLERMAN ON RETURNING TO MARGARET MILLAR AND ROSS MACDONALD: Kellerman sits down with Polly Stewart to discuss Millar's classic noir. (POLLY STEWART, 3/19/24, CrimeReads)
-REVIEW ESSAY: The Underground Man at Age 50: How Ross Macdonald turned hard-boiled crime stories into Freudian case studies (Ted Gioia, 12/20/21, The Honest Broker)
    -ESSAY: Gatsby as noir: The genesis of Ross Macdonald’s Black Money: (Tom Nolan, Library of America)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Ross Macdonald (
    -Ross MacDonald (Thrilling Detective)
    -Ross MacDonald (Stop You're Killing Me)
    -The Ross Macdonald files (Karl-Erik Lindkvist)
    -Ross Macdonald (Wikipedia)
    -Ross MacDonald (1915-1983) (The Literary Encyclopedia)
    -PROFILE: The last testament of Ross Macdonald (Leonard Cassuto, 11/2/2003, Boston Globe)
    -ESSAY: Firmness: Lew Archer should be the hero of our time. (Alan Jacobs, 4/15/20, Hedgehog Review)
    -PROFILE: THE CASE OF THE BROKENHEARTED FATHER: A troubled teenage girl. A dark night. A dead child. Investigating the real-life tragedy that haunted Ross Macdonald. (DAVID BOWMAN, Salon)
    -TRIBUTE: Fifty Years with Ross MacDonald (J. Kingston Pierce January Magazine)
    - EXCERPT: from Ross Macdonald: A Biography By TOM NOLAN
    -ESSAY : Stranger No More (Tom Nolan, January Magazine)
    -ESSAY: Tarnished Gold: Tracking Lew Archer Reveals Insights Into California's Soul (Tom Nolan, WestWays)
    -ESSAY: Ross Macdonald (Tom Nolan, BookSense)
    -ESSAY: Archer Takes the Case: A veteran MacDonald reader picks his favorite three Archer stories (Karl-Erik Lindkvist, January Magazine)
-ESSAY: Learning from Lew (Gary Phillips, January Magazine)
    -ESSAY: It's Personal: the Compassionate Miossions of Ross MacDonald and Lew Archer (Kevin Smith, January Magazine)
    -INTERVIEW: The Case of the Split Man: an interview with Tom Nolan (J. Kingston Pierce January Magazine)
    -PROFILE: Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar) (William Marling, Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction)
    -PROFILE: Gumshoe in paradise - Santa Barbara, California (Peter Fish, September 1999, Sunset)
    -PROFILE: Ross Macdonald: A Brief Biography (Classic Crime Fiction)
    -ESSAY: Ross Macdonald’s Marked Copy of The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Study of Influence (Robert F. Moss)
    -ESSAY: Ross MacDonald, The Holy Ghost (Nuclear Typewriter)
    -ESSAY: Exit Lew Archer; Enter Lew Harper? (Ron Miller, THE MYSTERY CLASSICS: BOOK & FILM)
    -ESSAY: Maestros of Murder: Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald (Roy Meador, BookSource Monthly)
    -ESSAY: "Tecs of the Times": A History of Private Eye Fiction (Neil Albert, MysteryNet)
    -ESSAY: The mystery as novel of manners - society's reflection in mystery stories (Linda Bridges, 1/20/92, National Review)
    -BOOK SITE: The Novels of Ross Macdonald by Michael Kreyling (South Carolina University Press)
    -ART: Caricature of Ross MacDonald (David Levine, This drawing originally appeared with Tough Guys, September 30, 1976, NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: "ross macdonald" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The Ivory Grin by Ross MacDonald (jcc55883, AOL Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Find a Victim by Ross MacDonald (Howard Dratch, Blog Critics)
    -REVIEW: of The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald (William Marling, Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction)
    -REVIEW: of The Underground Man by Ross Macdonald (William Marling, Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction)
    -REVIEW: of The Underground Man (TC, Mystery Guide)
    -REVIEW: of The Underground Man (jcc55883, AOL Journal)
    -REVIEW: of The Underground Man (Richard Schickel, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of Sleeping Beauty by Ross MacDonald (jcc55883, AOL Journal)
    -REVIEW : of Sleeping Beauty (Joe Hartlaub, Book Reporter)
    -REVIEW: of The Blue Hammer by Ross Macdonald (Thomas R. Edwards, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Lew Archer: Private Investigator by Ross MacDonald (James Clar, Crime Scene Scotland)
    -REVIEW: of Strangers in Towm: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries. By Ross Macdonald (Scott Veale, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries By Ross Macdonald (J. Kingston Pierce, January)
    -REVIEW: of Strangers in Town (Michael Carlson, Shots)
    -REVIEW: of Meet Me at the Morgue by Ross MacDonald (Janet Julian, Kliatt)
    -REVIEW: of Ross MacDonald: A Biography by Tom Nolan (Terry Teachout, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Ross MacDonald by Tom Nolan (Jerry Jay Carroll, The SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Ross MacDonald: A Biography by Tom Nolan (Roger Miller, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: of The Novels of Ross Macdonald by Michael Kreyling (Tom Nolan, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Novels of Ross MacDonald by Michael Kreyling (Dennis Lythgoe, Deseret Morning News)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: THIS 1970S FILM ABOUT ROSS MACDONALD IS FASCINATING AND UNEXPECTEDLY BEAUTIFUL: A 1977 documentary that aired on PBS shows the legendary author working and swimming, alive with ideas. 9DWYER MURPHY, 1/04/21, Crime Reads)

    -ESSAY: The mystery of Margaret Millar: why are her novels out of print? (Jon L. Breen, April 18, 2005, The Weekly Standard)


- The Moving Target (1949)

-The Drowning Pool (1950)

-The Way Some People Die (1951)

-The Ivory Grin (1952)

-Find a Victim (1954)

-The Name Is Archer [Short Stories] (1955)

-The Barbarous Coast (1956)

-The Doomsters (1958)

-The Galton Case (1959)

-The Wycherly Woman (1961)

-The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962)

-The Chill (1964)

-The Far Side of the Dollar (1965)

-Black Money (1966)

-The Instant Enemy (1968)

-The Goodbye Look (1969)

-The Underground Man (1971)

-Sleeping Beauty (1973)

-The Blue Hammer (1976)

Book-related and General Links: