August 20, 2012


True Grit: Ross Macdonald Gets His Due : The beautifully charged language of Ross Macdonald's detective novels does more than adorn--it also helps swiftly clinch a character for the reader. (Malcolm Forbes. 8/07/12, Daily Beast)

Throughout his career, Ross Macdonald--the pen name of Kenneth Millar--was hailed as the true heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as master of the hardboiled mystery. But accolades beyond the reach of a genre writer still eluded him--until towards the end of his career, when he was finally acknowledged as not "only" a crime writer but a highly regarded American novelist. Macdonald subverted the genre by delivering the riddles and intricacies demanded of the crime novel in language that could be stark but also subtly nuanced and beautifully cadenced, while never slowing the requisite pace or diluting the excitement. In doing so he silenced those naysayers who had previously scoffed at the idea that the humble detective novel could possess any intrinsic literary worth. Praise finally came from both sides of the literary divide, with James Ellroy acknowledging his debt to Macdonald's Lew Archer books and Eudora Welty lauding him as "a more serious and complex writer than Chandler and Hammett ever were." Five of the gripping Lew Archer novels have just become part of the U.K. Penguin modern classics series. For many, this anointment is long overdue.

The Archer series ran from 1949 to 1976, and it is one of the later ones, The Underground Man from 1971, that is arguably Macdonald's best. It opens calmly with Archer waking up, feeding peanuts to dive-bombing jays at his window and feeling a warm but ominous breeze. Such a slow set-up was typical: no crash-bang corpse-on-first-page histrionics. Gradually, though, Archer finds himself "descending into trouble" when he is employed by a beguiling blonde to track down her abducted son. To stoke the tension, forest fires are raging in the hills of Santa Teresa (Macdonald's Santa Barbara) "like the bivouacs of a besieging army." The case expands to include an AWOL father, a blackmailer, a couple of gruesome murders and a catalog of dark family secrets.

Those skeletons in closets were a tried-and-tested trope of Macdonald's. A great deal of the fun in reading him is in locating the plot's false bottom and sifting the many lies for nuggets of truth. Archer is adept at disinterring ghosts from the past to return and haunt his suspects in the present. Characters are never allowed to vanish completely. The Underground Man is full of overprotective mothers who will do anything to safeguard their errant sons. When Macdonald's plots show signs of repetition (a mother also wants her son found in The Galton Case; so too does The Goodbye Look explore dysfunctional family drama and a decades-old crime) it is still a pleasure to lose ourselves in the tight, labyrinthine twists and turns. "I've never seen a fishline with more tangles," remarks one character of the case in The Drowning Pool, and The Underground Man is just as knotty, to the extent that the denouement is as cathartic as it is surprising.

REVIEW: of The Underground Man (BrothersJudd)

Posted by at August 20, 2012 5:18 AM

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