Book Review: The Underground Man by Ross MacDonald

Updated on February 12, 2018
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Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

alternate cover for the novel
alternate cover for the novel | Source

Trying to enjoy a day relaxing, Lew Archer instead finds himself helping a woman whose child may have been kidnapped by her estranged husband. The trail leads him into the mountains of southern California just as a wildfire is sweeping through, threatening the towns and private estates of the wealthy. His investigation becomes complicated by murders, one recent and another decades older, all relating to the missing boy’s grandfather. The crimes also reveal the deep divisions between the rich and poor in the area and confront Archer with the question of how does he try to find justice in a situation where both people and the environment are hostile.

There is some social commentary in that plenty of people in the novel complain about hippies and the directionless youth being a danger as their homes and communities burn down around them. Archer doesn’t give any direct judgements on this, but there is an irony in how the people who put themselves in danger by building homes on mountainsides susceptible to fire and mudslides spend their time worrying over imagined dangers that young and poor people might pose.

Often the fire is compared to a military operation as in “The fire had grown and spread as if it fed on darkness. It hung around the city like the bivouacs of a besieging army” (77). There’s a lot to these descriptions that carries a subversive current in that Archer is a veteran of World War Two and the story is set during the Vietnam conflict. The latter point is almost never remarked upon, but much like the wildfire, it is always in the background like a threat to overturn everything that has been built.

View of JPL with the 2009 California wildfires behind and the efforts to extinguish the blaze.
View of JPL with the 2009 California wildfires behind and the efforts to extinguish the blaze. | Source

And It Burns, Burns, Burns

The motives of so many characters are directly related to the past. In effect, the novel is saying that the past is always present as some characters, like Stanley and Jerry Kilpatrick, are obsessed by it, some characters, like Mrs. Broadhurst and Mrs. Snow, try to hide it and run from it, and still others try to profit from it like Al Sweetner and Mr. Kilpatrick. What they all have in common is that none of them are free from their past, and it comes to dictate their present and future. This preoccupation with the past leads to almost nothing good, and the worst of the sourness poisons lives and marriages, ultimately leading to murder. When confronting a killer, Archer recognizes the futility of trying to explain to her the tragic scope of her actions when he says, “There was no use arguing with her. She was one of those paranoid souls who kept her conscience clear by blaming everything on other people. He violence and malice appeared to her as emanations from the external world” (272). Like many characters, she attempts to escape any and all responsibility for her actions. These situations are a counterpoint to Archer, who has no past with any of these people, yet he accepts responsibility for trying to save the innocent and uncover the truth.

Archer is still impelled by twin motives of finding justice for his clients and his own thrill seeking, even as father time takes its toll on him. His age and experiences also give him a jaded view of certain circumstances. When explaining to parents the dangerous situation their daughter is in, Archer describes how the father’s “gaze moved past me and grew distant as if he was watching his daughter slip away over a receding horizon. I had no children, but I had given up envying people who had” (185). Ever since Moving Target, he’s been aware about his motivations if not always candid about them. When another character accuses him of being a troublemaker, Archer admits, “I sometime served as a catalyst for trouble, not unwillingly” (86). Also as he comes closer to finding a resolution to the missing child and multiple murders, he questions just what he’s going to do:

The hot breath of vengeance was growing cold in my nostrils as I grew older. I had more concern for a kind of economy in life that would help preserve the things that were worth preserving. No doubt Leo Broadhurst had been worth preserving—any man, or any woman was—but he had been killed in anger long ago [....] As for the other homicides, it was unlikely that Mrs. Broadhurst had had a reason to kill her son or an opportunity to kill Albert Sweetner. I told myself I didn’t care who killed them. But I cared. (253)

With these thoughts, he continues to look into the truth and solve crimes that everyone else would rather forget even as he is aware of the trouble it brings on himself. Archer remains a flawed, interesting, and self-aware character, which does wonders to keep the novel grounded while giving the audience someone to root for.

Each Day Above Ground

The Underground Man is an excellent novel in the Lew Archer series by Ross Macdonald. The writing is tight and effective, and the setting provides another layer of danger on top of the multiple mysteries in which Archer finds himself involved.

Source

Macdonald, Ross. The Underground Man. Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 1996.

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    © 2018 Seth Tomko

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