“The Underground Man” by Ross Macdonald (published by Penguin Books)

Digging up the dirt

Published in 1971, this is remarkably prescient about 2024’s calamitous climate changes in southern California. Just like today, when the Golden State regularly blazes in what victims often unimaginatively describe as “apocalyptic”, so in 1971 “Sparks and embers were blowing down the canyon, plunging into the trees behind the house like bright exotic birds taking the place of the birds that had flown”.
6. July 2024 5:56

A stratum of smoke lay over the city, fictional Santa Teresa, writes Macdonald: “When I turned away from the bright counter, it was almost fully dark. I glanced up at the mountains, and was shocked by what I saw. The fire had grown and spread as if it fed on darkness. It hung around the city like the bivouacs of a besieging army.”

Again, just like the 2020s, American mystery writer Ross Macdonald offers epic descriptions of fiery destruction and desperate evacuations of communities in the face of the flames. In the ravaged and charred landscape a body is found in an open shallow grave, done in with a pickaxe. But the sheriffs are too busy with the chaos in their valley to really focus on the murder and the possible kidnapping of a six-year-old boy. Their faces are black with soot.

Macdonald is a man with a way with words and a gift for similes: “The low sun was like a spinning yellow frisbee which I could almost reach out and catch.” He has a thought on population growth too: “It was late on a Saturday afternoon, and the beach was littered with bodies. It was like a warning vision of the future, when every square foot of the world would be populated.”  Private eye Lew Archer is alone on the beach, and thus – “I felt as if everybody but me was paired off like the animals in the ark.”

Or, casting a critical eye: “I found when I followed the driveway around to the back that behind its imposing front it was just another tract house, as if the architect had tried to combine a southern plantation mansion with the slave quarters.” Or a subtle tongue-in-cheek comment – “The walls were lined with books, many of them in foreign languages, like insulation against the immediate present.”

Macdonald was born Kenneth Millar on December 13, 1915, in Los Gatos, California, but spent almost all his youth in Canada, where he was educated. Millar wrote his early novels under his real name, and these were “The Dark Tunnel (1944), “Trouble Follows Me (1946), “Blue City” (1947) and “The Three Roads (1948).

Then he adopted pseudonyms. As John Macdonald he wrote “The Moving Target (1949; reissued in 1966 as “Harperwhen it was filmed under that title with Paul Newman). This book introduced the shrewd private investigator Lew Archer, a tough but humane sleuth.

Millar/Macdonald became John Ross Macdonald and then simply Ross Macdonald for such Lew Archer mysteries as “The Way Some People Die (1951), “The Ivory Grin” (1952), “Find a Victim (1954), “The Barbarous Coast (1956), “The Doomsters (1958) and “The Galton Case (1959). “The Far Side of the Dollar (1965) won a UK Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award.

Such later novels as this one, “The Underground Man (1971) with its wildfire, and “Sleeping Beauty (1973) where there is an oil spill, have some environmentalist themes and reflect his enduring interest in man’s threat to nature. The series concluded with book 18, ”The Blue Hammer” in 1976.

The Underground Man is the 16th Lew Archer book, and the private detective shares prominence with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. The title of the book is an odd reference to that body found in the open shallow grave, which hadn’t been filled in completely. Odd, in that it doesn’t make a lot of sense, plus if every crime book featuring a buried stiff in a shallow grave had this title there would be hundreds of them.

In his search for a missing six-year-old boy amidst the flaming hillsides, and with the authorities preoccupied, Archer must dig into every character’s life. And there are a lot of characters to keep track of in this long and fast-moving plot.

One can only admire Macdonald’s grasp as it becomes increasingly difficult for the reader to figure out who killed whom and when, and who slept with whom and when. The interrelationships are murky and the misdeeds of the fathers and mothers have been passed on to their mentally disturbed adolescents.

It’s a mess of murder, duplicity and corruption in dysfunctional families with hidden pasts. Understandably, perhaps, it shows why Macdonald has his prominent place in the pantheon and this particular book has been plucked from his bibliography for a new edition. It is one of another 10 Crime & and Espionage reissues from publisher Penguin Random House.

Macdonald’s “The Drowning Pool” was one of the first 20 Crime & Espionage titles reissued in 2023. The hard-boiled author was president of the Mystery Writers of America in 1965, and apart from the recognition by the UK Crime Writers Association, in 1981 he received The Eye, the Lifetime Achievement Award from The Private Eye Writers of America.

He died in his adopted hometown Santa Barbara, California, in 1983 aged 67 years, and his make-believe Santa Teresa represents Santa Barbara. It’s nice for an author to be remembered. Here are a few choice lines from “The Underground Man”

“He rose and went to the blinded window, separating the slats with his fingers and peering out, like a man in a building under attack.”

“The question didn’t deserve an answer, and he knew it. He drifted to the bar as if he might find a ghostly bartender to complain to.”

“In any case, when I switched on the light he was lying there in front of the broken desk, grinning up at me like a magician who had pulled off the ultimate trick.”

“She opened the wardrobe closet for my inspection. It was stuffed with coats and dresses like a small army of girls crushed flat for storage and smelling of sachet.”

“Armistead sounded resentful and betrayed, like a sailor who had come to the edge of a flat world.”

The Budapest Times has made up a 100-question quiz on “The Underground Man  in which participants must answer those puzzlers about who killed whom and when, who slept with whom and when, and the various confusing interrelationships. The winner will be awarded The Budapest Times Diamond Dagger. Introductory question: where to find the quiz?

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