Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Underground Man - Ross MacDonald

There are few pleasures in life for the reader that beat the feeling you get when you find a promising looking author who is not only new to you but has a sizeable back catalogue to work through. This has been a good reading year for me so far with plenty of happy discoveries but I have a feeling that Ross MacDonald is going to be the most satisfying of the lot. He was a chance discovery that came about after seeing 'The Underground Man' mentioned in a couple of different places, just enough to raise interest and make the name stick so when I found myself with the book in my hand the obvious thing to do was read it immediately.

The tale end of summer, beginning of autumn, has never been my favourite time of year and the older I get the less I like it. My coping strategy is generally shopping or book based and as I'm depressingly broke post holiday (and to make matters worse I accidentally put my camera through the washing machine today - it died in just the way you might expect) so it's strictly books at the moment. Classic hard boiled noire hits the spot for some reason and that's why I'm so pleased with the MacDonald (and okay there may have been a little bit of a book splurge in the last few days).

'The Underground Man' comes late from MacDonald's career, and by extension that of his decidedly world weary private eye Lew Archer. His first book came out in 1949 but this one is from 1971 - another thing to look forward to is going back through some of the older books in the series and seeing how the character of Archer develops along with MacDonald's style as a writer - a quick google suggests this will be interesting.

The action all takes place across a couple of days in a hot Californian September. A forest fire threatens the city and everyone seems hot bothered and angry. Lew meets a neighbours young son whilst feeding the birds, minutes later he becomes a reluctant witness to a row between the boys parents which ends in a likely abduction by the father. There is a mysterious blond in the best tradition who becomes the catalyst for everything unravelling. 

There are a couple of bodies, suitably hard boiled one liners, and yet more mystery women. There is also some vintage cold war paranoia and more complicated family relationships than I could shake a stick at. MacDonald brings a Freudian sensibility to the plot, all his characters are paying the price for earlier traumas as the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children but what at first seems exceptionally bleak also has a distinctly hopeful edge to it.

By the end of the book the fire is under control, the boy is returned to his mother, and there is always the slim chance of learning from the mistakes of the past. All the secrets have been revealed, there's nowhere left to hide and everybody left standing is standing together. It is by turns funny, clever, dark, and startling - I can't wait to read more.


  1. Like you I'm a noir fan as you know. I haven't read MacDonald, but I have an early one of the Lew Archer novels on my shelves - The Drowning Man, I think. It'll be interesting to see how different they are. Glad you enjoyed yours though - bodes well for others.

  2. I thought of you when I was reading it Annabel, and also the next one I'm going to write up! I liked it so much I ordered another 4 titles without stopping to think, they arrived this morning and I'm quite excited by them.

  3. Rather than reading the Archer stories solely as mysteries, thrillers, entertainments, and detective stories (though of course they can exist solely on that level for readers who are interested in them as such), we’d do ourselves a favor to consider them in a few other ways as well. In the massive reference work World Authors 1950-1970, published by the H.H. Wilson Company, Macdonald wrote that The Galton Case and Black Money “are probably my most complete renderings of the themes of smothered allegiance and uncertain identity which my work inherited from my early years.” Of course, in Black Money the smothered allegiance occurs between the lovers Ginny Fablon and Tappinger.