The Underground Man

So my education in detective novels continues. The latest book group selection was Ross Macdonald’s The Underground Man, published in 1971, which we discussed at our lovely noir picnic. It’s another hardboiled detective novel like the book we started out with, Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. I’m surprised to find myself enjoying these books. When Hobgoblin told me the plot was convoluted I got a little worried, as I’m usually not fond of having to follow complicated plots. But as it turned out, I enjoyed the challenge (although I’m not sure I actually kept the relationships among all the characters straight).

Macdonald does his plotting very well, and it’s a pleasure to watch it all unfold. He introduces you to a couple characters who then lead you to a few more, and then some more, and then you learn that a couple of the characters know each other, and then that a few others know each other or had an affair or hated each other or some such, and then you learn about more people and more relationships, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a entire web of people and relationships that fits together beautifully. Or rather, not so beautifully, as very, very few of the relationships described are good ones.

This leads me to another thing I liked about the novel, which is that it creates a picture of late 60s/early 70s California in which what’s happening to the people happens also to the landscape. The novel is set in southern California where a forest fire is raging, threatening to destroy houses and neighborhoods. This is a place where people have begun to build where they probably shouldn’t, in areas that nature is going to try to reclaim in one way or another. As the fire rages and mudslides threaten and people try to figure out how to respond, this gets echoed by chaos on the social and moral level in the stories of cruel and incompetent parents, deceitful spouses and lovers, and the general atmosphere of secrets and lies.

There’s something deeply wrong at the core here, and the detective, Lew Archer, can only do so much to help things out. In fact at times he seems to cause more harm than good by dragging to light old secrets that end up causing more conflict. As he is zipping around California trying to find a young boy who’s been kidnapped and trying to piece together everyone’s story, the police and firefighters are busy trying to contain the fire, and all of them seem at the mercy of forces much larger than they are. The firefighters can only hope that the wind blows in the right direction, and Archer can only hope people will tell him the truth and he can do his job without becoming a victim himself. My book group noted the fact that Archer doesn’t seem to be all that great at questioning people and hasn’t figured out much more than is told to the reader, so there’s little sense in the book of any comforting presence or of anybody who has things under control. All anybody can do is to keep trying to figure out the truth and keep trying to straighten things out and hope for the best.

Several people in the book group said that while they liked Macdonald, Raymond Chandler is better. I have yet to read Chandler, and I see that I should, particularly since he often comes up in our discussions. The relative merits of Macdonald and Chandler are obviously up for debate, but at the very least I will have something equally good to look forward to when I finally get around to reading one of Chandler’s books.


Filed under Books, Fiction

13 responses to “The Underground Man

  1. you know, i think the detective genre has long been underrated. it often has a lot to offer, and each time i am surprised.



  2. I’m your opposite: I’ve never read MacDonald, but I’m consistently impressed whenever I pick up a Chandler novel. I’ll be curious to see what you think whenever you get around to checking him out!


  3. zhiv

    Your steady quiet effort on the mystery front is starting to work on me, plus you’re also beginning to head towards my territory. I have a little shelf, up high behind my spot here, where there are a bunch of mysteries–I rarely glance up at it. I know Macdonald and Lew Archer vaguely, and I get him confused with John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee, who I know much better.

    But you’ve never read Chandler?! C’mon! Run don’t walk girl. Very good stuff.


  4. As always, wish I’d been there (and I think the weather actually held out, for a change, and everything, right?). I love the way you discuss here California in relation to what’s happening to the characters, and true, that lack of control is in all the Macdonalds I’ve read. I love Chandler, but I think Macdonald (just barely) squeaks past him (you have to bring out a millimeter stick to measure by how much), because he’s more psychological, and well, that’s just the psychologist in me.

    P.S. I just started reading Margaret Millar’s (Macdonald’s wife) _The Fiend_ (the first of hers I’ve read), and it’s excellent so far — what a fascinating marriage that must have been. Wish I could have been a fly on the wall. Anyway, I’ll let you guys know if The Fiend remains excellent to the end or not (or if I forget, it will pop up on FB via


  5. Joseph Grinton

    Raymond Chandler was a master of language and that’s why I prefer him by a long way. I’ve read nearly everything he wrote, including his letters and the stories he never finished. I’ve only read one book by Macdonald and I found it very hard to follow. Hardboiled and very dry. Chandler’s writing seemed hardboiled but actually he had a very soft centre.


  6. I’ve never read Chandler either (have read Dashiell Hammett, though, too), or Ross Macdonald. And I call myself a mystery fan? Ack. There are so many mystery writers, though, it’s hard to read them all! I think I’d also love Macdonald’s descriptions of California in the 70s. I love it when an author can evoke a particular place at a particular time so well! Perhaps Chandler should be my next mystery choice (and I was just thinking how much I’m in the mood for a good mystery!).


  7. I very much enjoyed Emily’s review of this, and I loved yours, too. I shall certainly get around to reading this one of these fine days!


  8. This sounds like a very interesting book. I like the idea that the detective isn’t one who has it all together and struggles to find the answers. That, to me, makes the story more real and interesting. I rarely read mysteries, but I will put this on the list in case the urge comes upon me sometime.


  9. I’m a huge fan of hardboiled novels and though I enjoy Macdonald’s Archer novels and stories, no one does it better than Chandler. Chandler may not have created the hardboiled novel, but he perfected it.


  10. Had to leave another comment based on what others are saying. Macdonald started out in the hardboiled genre (although even in his earliest novels, you get a glimpse of what was to come), but by the end of his career, he really was no longer a hardboiled writer. He took the genre on a different plane from Chandler or Hammet, using the hardboiled technique to explore dysfunctional families, which is what so impressed his publishers at the time. I think of him as the founder of the psychological mystery, paving the way for the likes of Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth George, and Jonathan Kellerman, who don’t write in the hardboiled style, but who focus on family dysfunction (what I’m not sure of, now that I’m reading Margaret Millar, though, is whether he founded it, or she did, or they did it together, with two different styles). In that respect (content as opposed to style), he and Chandler can’t really be compared. Chandler wrote about society, not the family.


  11. Emily (edge of the page) — I certainly am discovering how much the genre has to offer. My book group has been fabulous because it has taught me SO much.

    Emily — well, I don’t know when I’ll get to Chandler, but I’m looking forward to it, and I will certainly post on him when I get there! The Chandler/Macdonald comparisons have been interesting.

    Zhiv — I can be strongly influenced by what people around me are reading, so with so much enthusiasm for the mystery genre in a lot of my friends, I really can’t help myself. And yes, I hope to get to Chandler soon!

    Emily B. — I’m very interested in your thoughts on Chandler vs. Macdonald in both your comments, and what you say about Macdonald and family makes a lot of sense. I admire M. for focusing on families so much. Interesting that you see him as the founder of the psychological mystery. I didn’t see much psychological analysis in Macdonald, but it’s clear he’s interested in how families pass down problems from one generation to the next. He portrays it rather than analyzing it, I suppose. And interesting about Millar too; I’ll look out for your thoughts on her book.

    Joseph — it’s good to hear Chandler is such a master of language — I’ll look forward to that. The Macdonald was hard to follow, although I didn’t find it dry. Perhaps I’d say it’s spare and detached, but I saw so much emotion underneath it all.

    Danielle — if you want an evocation of California, Macdonald is definitely a good writer to go to. If it weren’t for this group, I wouldn’t have gone for the hardboiled writers either, but I’m glad I did. Enjoy Chandler when you get there!

    Litlove — thank you! It’s fun to post on these mysteries at the same time Emily does. And I would certainly enjoy hearing your take on the book.

    Stefanie — yes, so often the detective seems to be holding information or conclusions back from the reader, so it was interesting to have a detective that doesn’t do that. He kind of stumbled along in his investigation, which was unusual.

    Mike — well, yet another reason to get around to reading Chandler soon!


  12. I love mysteries but still haven’t quite gotten into the noir genre as much. I finally read Hammett just last year but am looking forward to reading Chandler & Macdonald one of these days. Oh, so much more time is needed for all the books! 🙂


  13. Iliana — oh, yes, I’d love more time for all the books! It’s fun having an aspect of the genre left to explore, isn’t it?


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