Monday, November 9, 2015

The Underground ManThe Underground Man by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...]Ross Macdonald, a mystery novelist who didn't so much transcend the genre as elevate it, showing again (like Hammett, Faulkner, Collins, Dickens, Greene, and many others since Poe) how the crime story can at any time become art." Tom Nolan, in Ross Macdonald: A Biography

Indeed, Ross Macdonald's prose can reach the level of high literary art. The first chapter of The Underground Man (1971) is magnificently written - pure, classic Macdonald: sparse, minimalistic, economical prose. On just six pages the author - through dialog and laconic observations - establishes the characters of four people and sets the serious and somber tone of the novel. I do not think Raymond Chandler had ever been able to match that level of literary brilliance. Not that the entire novel is a masterpiece, but the first six pages are truly extraordinary and should be used in creative writing classes.

Lew Archer (Macdonald's Philip Marlowe) is a private eye in the 1960s Los Angeles. A woman hires him to find her little son taken away by her husband, Stanley, who has been seen with a teenage girl. Stanley is obsessively looking for his father who left his mother 15 years earlier and whose whereabouts are unknown. We meet the mother, a rich and rigid woman, and the parents of the girl seen with Stanley as well as the parents of another young man, deeply embroiled in the happenings. There are two murders and Archer finds out that Stanley's disappearance has roots in events that occurred 15 years ago, in which all these parents have been involved in one way or another. The plot is much more complex than my clumsy summary of the setup is able to convey, but the events unfold logically and plausibly.

The novel's plot is set against the backdrop of a raging Southern California wildfire, and this setting resonates with me deeply. I remember the first time I read the novel - a little over 40 years ago in my native Poland - when the scenes of the forest fire made a very strong impression on me. At that time, I found them as exotic as, say, stories about Papua New Guinea or steppes in Mongolia, yet now I live in the area and have been almost as close to several California wildfires as the characters in the novel.

Mr. Macdonald (in private life Kenneth Millar) uses his favorite motif - one that dominates most of his novels (I have read all 18 of them, but this is the first one that I am reviewing here) - how the deeds of the previous generation affect the current one, how we pay for the sins of our fathers and mothers. I prefer to reframe that central theme as a rather sobering thought that when we hurt people close to us, we may be bringing doom to our children.

The title is masterfully chosen: a man's body is twice buried and twice dug out, and it all makes perfect sense in the plot. Mr. Macdonald's writing - so accomplished in some passages - suffers a little form overuse of annoying similes, for example: "Armistead sounded resentful and betrayed, like a sailor who had come to the edge of a flat world" and (on the same page) "He glanced around the harbor restlessly like a sailor who had gone to sea in his youth and never moved back ashore." Still, very few books in the genre are written this well.

Four stars.

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