Friday, June 05, 2009

Ross Macdonald's The Underground Man

Macdonald, Ross. The Underground Man. New York: Knopf, 1971.

(This, chosen by me, was this month's read for the mystery book discussion group, and, hey, look at that: I actually got a picture of the edition I read.)

I walked toward him, into the skeletal shadow of the sycamore. The smoky moon was lodged in its top, segmented by small black branches. (p. 40)
He was a short heavy-bodied man with iron gray hair and sideburns which seemed to pincer his slightly crumpled face and hold it out for inspection. (p. 102)
I got my binoculars out of the trunk of my car and focused them on the sloop. She was dismasted, and her rigging hung overside like a torn net. Her hull appeared to be sprung and heavy with water. She rose up sluggishly when the long surge lifted her, then fell back clumsily on her side. My breathing labored as if in empathy. (p. 174)
I hadn't quite forgotten that I so love Macdonald because he writes like this, but I haven't read him in a while, so let's just say it was about time I read him again. It's given me the opportunity, next time I'm raving about him to refer to him as "he of the smoky moons lodged in tree tops." Who says writing can't be stark and beautiful while still being chock full of wonderful simile and metaphor, not to mention adjectives and adverbs? Oh, I see. You, dear Hemingway-wannabe writing instructor, were talking about "manly man" writing, not all writing. Well, I beg to differ. You've obviously never read any Ross Macdonald (probably because genre fiction is beneath you, not being "real" literature).

What's wonderful about Ross Macdonald, and he proves it yet again with this book, is that he can give us that hard-boiled feel of Hammett and Chandler while also giving us a little more heart. We don't really know Lew Archer that much more than we know other detectives of his ilk; however, Macdonald has made us think we do. Meanwhile, Macdonald's exploring dysfunctional families and really thinking about what makes people -- all kinds of people -- tick, and he's doing so by adopting a genre not typically used for that purpose (at least, not in his day). Murder mysteries are supposed to be formulaic, cut-and-dry, easy reads. They are not supposed to explore the human psyche. That's the domain of real literature. But what better venue for dysfunctional families than a murder mystery? After all, dysfunction taken to its extreme typically leads to abuse and murder. Macdonald hasn't always exactly been applauded by high-brow critics for this literary feat of elevating the murder mystery into something more, but happily, more and more are beginning to disagree with those naysayers, to argue that what Macdonald wrote can be described as, if not exactly "literature," then at least "literary."

I had a hard time approaching this book without being influenced by the Ross Macdonald biography I read last year. My memory is quite fuzzy on some of the details of that book, but I do know that Kenneth Millar's (Ross Macdonald's) own daughter, a very troubled teen, disappeared at one point, and Millar had to hire a private detective to go in search of her. She was eventually found.

That part of the biography was quite poignant, as Millar's real life came to imitate his fiction, and I couldn't help thinking about it as I read this story (written years after his daughter's disappearance) of a young woman in her late teens who had disappeared with another woman's little boy, giving Lew Archer two lost children to find. As someone who dabbles in writing fiction, I had to wonder what, if any, details from Millar's own life were included in this book. These musings became a part of the mystery and intrigue for me.

I know real life events and observances show up in my own stories. Sometimes they are changed so much that they're barely recognizable. Other times, they're barely changed at all. Most often, pieces have been moved around a bit -- and names and places have been changed to protect the innocent -- to make room for a couple of pieces that weren't in the original. Exactly what Millar was doing with his own story is a mystery that will never be solved (although, if only I could remember, I'm pretty sure the biography provides some illumination).

The psychologist (and he was there) in Millar might argue that he was giving us a story both about his daughter and himself: the two lost children. His childhood was not a happy one. He was one of those children often used by the bitter adults in his life to fight their battles, often lost in different worlds. (Then again, he might be very annoyed with me for "psychologizing" when I know nothing about him, so let's get back to the book itself.)

It's funny. We chose the last book we read for the mystery book club (P.D. James's Cover Her Face) in part because we were looking for a book that was representative of the 1960s. As decades will do, that one, written in 1962, seems to have been far less representative of the era as we tend to think of it now than this one, written in 1971. Here we have the "long-hairs," the teens running away from home, the teens dropping acid, etc.

I found all this to be fascinating, both as a period piece, as well as an example of how Macdonald kept up with the times. The others of his books I've read were all basically representative of the 1950s. This book was less violent than those (and much, much less violent than the Hammett we read last year). That could be an indication of Macdonald growing more into his role of a serious, literary writer. However, it could also be an indication of a time when violence was "out," peace was "in."

As I've come to expect with Macdonald, California was very much a "character" in this book. This time, we had a raging wildfire as Lew traveled around the state, so California could remind us she has special issues that need attention. Then she drenched everyone with rain and threatened mudslides, upset that no one was psychoanalyzing her.

Who could blame us for not focusing all our attention on California? We were too busy trying to find a way out of this masterful web that Macdonald wove. We not only had missing children, but we also had missing parents, overbearing parents, sordid love affairs, loving parents (or were they?), oh yeah, and dead bodies. In other words, classic Macdonald. Only, it was somehow better, even though I keep thinking he can't possibly get any better. And that's a trait that separates him from some of today's mystery writers that I enjoy reading. They seem to hit their peaks early and then to go slowly downhill. Macdonald? He just kept climbing. Who knows where he might have ended up had Alzheimer's not claimed him?

My only disappointment here was that, unlike many of his other books, I did begin to suspect the killer early on and pretty much pegged that person well before I got to the end. However, I did not have all the twists and turns figured into the equation, the ones that kept me flipping pages. And you know, "whodunit" doesn't really matter when we're talking about a classic.


litlove said...

I've never read Ross Macdonald but now you have me all intrigued. Great review, Emily, and persuasive enough to make me go away and look his books up online now!

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, oh, I am so happy to have interested someone in Macdonald. It's time for a renewed interest in him.

knitseashore said...

I too have never read any books by Ross Macdonald, but you make them sound very tempting!

Dorothy W. said...

I really enjoyed this book, so thank you for choosing it! I too like how much he had to say about families and relationships, and it's interesting that all that comes from a "hardboiled" writer. I liked what it had to say about the late 60s/early 70s as well -- it didn't feel dated at all; instead, it captured the feeling of the time very well while also staying current.