Commentary Magazine


The Underground Man, by Ross Macdonald

Detective Story

The Underground Man.
by Ross Macdonald.
Knopf. 273 pp. $5.95.

Not since W. S. Gilbert brought to jolly culmination the Victorian obsession with children who somehow mislay—or are mislaid by—their parents, has a writer been as successful with entertainments revolving around what might loosely be termed the Oedipal theme as Ross Macdonald. His last two novels have enjoyed front-page coverage in the New York Times Book Review, he has recently been the subject of a Newsweek cover story, and, most important of all, he has broken through the barrier that normally segregates the detective novelist from the rest of literature. His latest book, The Underground Man, like The Goodbye Look which immediately preceded it, appears on the best-seller chart along with such inveterately popular novelists as Irving Stone, Leon Uris, Ernest K. Gann, and Irwin Shaw, not to mention that phenomenon of our times, Erich Segal.

One does not really begrudge Ross Macdonald his recent success. He has been toiling since 1949 in a vineyard that yields, as a rule, little celebrity, no serious critical recognition, and not much more than a modest livelihood for most of its laborers. Moreover, the interviews that have attended and celebrated his emergence from anonymity as a genre writer reveal him to be a man of exemplary sobriety, modesty, literacy, and decent social concern, as well as a man on whom life foisted a basic, tragic (or near-tragic) theme which he has patiently explored through eighteen novels without recourse to sensationalism and with considerable craft.

On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that Macdonald’s reputation is at the moment in process of gross inflation. In that first front-page Times review William Goldman (himself a would-be popular novelist, sometime dabbler in the mystery genre, and the author of Harper, a good, lively screenplay based on a Macdonald novel) termed his work “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American,” conveniently ignoring two obvious betters (Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler) and perhaps a half-dozen equals among his American contemporaries alone. Then we have Eudora Welty, no less, coming to praise The Underground Man in the same place, and insisting that “no one but a good writer—this good writer—could have possibly brought it off.” Whereupon a burbling of blurbs begins to deafen: “exhilaratingly well done . . . very moving . . . Mr. Macdonald’s writing is something like a stand of clean, cool, well-branched, well-tended trees in which bright birds can flash and perch. And not for show, but to sing.” Newsweek’s, man contents himself with the notation that in this book Macdonald “reached a peak in his art and what looks like a breakthrough into the charmed circle of detective novelists who have been accepted as literary artists.”

To all this one must enter at least a modest demurrer on literary grounds alone, although the more interesting question is why the literary community seems to have nominated Macdonald for the single (and since Raymond Chandler died, unoccupied) chair reserved for a mystery writer and located just a bit below the salt at its high table.

The Underground Man will do very nicely for analysis, for it is not really a breakthrough book commercially’ (The Goodbye Look, written in 1969, accomplished that task) or artistically (The Chill, 1964, is better, and Macdonald himself says that The Galton Case in 1959 was the beginning of a new maturity for him as a writer). Rather, it seems to me altogether typical of Macdonald’s pleasant, entertaining average. It begins with his detective-narrator Lew Archer encountering a small boy in the backyard of his apartment building. Together they feed some birds. A little later the lad’s inexplicably aggressive father takes him away to “Santa Teresa” (which is actually Santa Barbara, where Macdonald himself lives) ostensibly to visit his grandmother. Shortly thereafter the father is murdered and the boy kidnapped; a cigarillo the victim was holding at the moment of death ignites a forest fire which, Newsweek says, “rages like a moral plague” through the book, but which, in fact, burns pretty much like your average California canyon fire (although Macdonald, a dedicated conservationist, set out quite consciously to make this “ecological crime” the basic gimmick of the novel, it hardly qualifies as a very weighty symbol).

It turns out that the murdered man had devoted most of his life—as so many of Macdonald’s characters seem to do—to searching for his missing father and that it was the long-drawn-out anguish of that search that made him so edgy in Archer’s one earlier encounter with him. Moreover, we find out that he was murdered because he was about to discover at last what happened to dad, namely, that he had not simply run off, but had been murdered fifteen years previously. His son, in turn, is kidnapped by a pair of adolescents, one of whom had actually witnessed the first murder, and both of whose elders were closely implicated in that earlier case. Before the present puzzle is unraveled Archer—and the reader—encounters once again a cast of characters which has remained almost unchanging from one Macdonald novel to the next. In this particular instance there are no less than three of the slightly dotty old and middle-aged ladies Macdonald is particularly drawn to, all of whom have reached this condition as a result of devoting too much of their lives to guarding the unhealthy secrets of the past. In addition, we have, as usual, a bland pillar of the middle class (this time he’s a realtor, though usually he’s a doctor or lawyer) whose seemingly imperturbable surface Archer finally cracks; a young woman driven close to madness by the sudden surfacing of bloody fragments of memory; a lower-class criminal drifter whose function here, as in other Macdonald works, is to galvanize the more important characters.

Although this stock company is a bit worn from overuse, it’s not a bad one, since it has the advantage of conveniently—if repetitively—allowing Macdonald to develop his basic vision, which is that our personal lives, in this country, are thin and underdeveloped and therefore unable to withstand violent historical shocks. His older people, even those who appear to be well-established in their communities, invent and then live lies in order to cover their traumatic hurts, but these lies, often maintained over decades, narrow and twist their personalities until, when Archer comes on the scene, they have become grotesque parodies of human nature. In contrast, the youngsters, desperate for historical life-lines to cling to on our present stormy seas, are both pathetic in their need and disturbing—to the point where murder will out—in the effect they have on their elders.

It should be noted that Macdonald comes by his obsession with the Oedipal theme quite naturally. He is the son of an itinerant Canadian journalist who separated from Macdonald’s mother (a partial invalid) when the writer was a child, and he calculates that he grew up rootless in some fifty different homes as he and his poverty-stricken mother were passed from relative to relative during the Depression. Moreover, he began using the missing-father theme in his mysteries long before the youth cult and the agony of “growing up absurd” much interested the literary community.

Yet that does not necessarily mean that he is a very good writer. Macdonald, whose real name is Kenneth Millar, has paid gracious tribute to Raymond Chandler, the writer whose work his own most resembles. But despite a considerable body of opinion holding that he has surpassed his master, I think it not so. Macdonald, for example, speaks of trying to preserve “the fantastic lights and shadows of the actual Los Angeles” while “siphoning off” the romantic aura with which Chandler had invested the city, the better to make room for “a more complete social realism.” He has, indeed, drained the place of romance—no very difficult task considering the city’s thirty or forty years of bad press—but at great cost in that specificity of detail on which social realism depends. A writer must, I think, romanticize a place somewhat in order to communicate the power of climate, geography, and design to shape people and events, and to give some notion of the way personality and place interpenetrate, but we get almost nothing of this in the Lew Archer books.

It is precisely this failure to evoke a milieu, and the related failure to develop a wide range of memorable characters to populate it, that represents Macdonald’s great defect as a novelist. I’ve already mentioned the fact that his cast remains remarkably similar from book to book, with only the names, sketchy physical descriptions, and occupations varying while the psychological typology remains constant. What is more curious is his obsession with the upper-middle class and the rich. It is nearly always to their enclaves, many of them well outside Los Angeles, that Lew Archer is called to duty.

There are other defects in Macdonald’s work as well. Lew Archer is, by his creator’s own admission, “paper-thin,” a mere device who “makes it possible for me to dredge up material I wouldn’t be able to dredge up writing in my own person.” That’s a refreshingly honest statement, but it doesn’t make Archer a rich character like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, about whom we came to know quite a bit over the years and whose marvelous, wisecracking style—cynicism partially masking idealism—was one of the great delights of modern detective fiction. It could be argued, I suppose, that Archer in his grayness is more “realistic” than Marlowe, but that doesn’t compensate for his lack of humor and depth. As for the writing itself, Macdonald relies excessively on a single stylistic device, the strained simile (“The fire bent around it like the fingers of a hand . . .”) and, for the rest, his prose rhythms are rather monotonous. Miss Welty suggests that his narrative style is “built for action and speed,” and though one must concede the latter, there is really not much action of a physical sort in Macdonald’s work. Indeed one misses the tension present in other private-eye fictions which is generated by the sense that some nameless force may strike violently, absurdly, out of darkness, at the investigator.

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But there is little point in belaboring these flaws. However sympathetic we are to Macdonald, who is manifestly a nice guy and, within his limits, a devoted craftsman, it is clear that we are not dealing with a writer who really transcends the boundaries of his genre. In effect, he has throughout his career, whether consciously or not, offered a succession of false clues to his real identity. Except recently, perhaps as an afterthought to the fame that has been thrust upon him, he has not seemed to aspire to being a novelist in the full sense of the word. Rather, he is something of a detective-story classicist, his work meeting the basic criteria W. H. Auden has sensibly defined for this fictional mode in that it deals with a closed, and closely related, society which excludes the possibility of an outsider committing the crime and insists that each person present might potentially be the criminal. It must also at least appear to be an innocent society existing in what seems to be a state of grace, which means that the detective is a rather god-like intruder whose sole function is to punish the transgressor, whoever he may be, restore the group to innocence, and then retire from the scene.

The effect of Macdonald’s fictions, then, is precisely the opposite of Chandler’s, and the satisfaction they give us is precisely the satisfaction we obtain from the more obviously stylized whodunits of Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, and the other masters of the purely ratiocinative school. Whatever else work within limits of this sort may be, however enthusiastically addicted to it we may become, it is not art—it is fantasy.

Since it is obviously not difficult for literate people to tell the difference between a highly stylized generic form and a true novel, it is useful to inquire into the reasons for the confusion which has grown up around Macdonald’s work. There is, to begin with, a very strong desire among professional practitioners and critics of the mystery to insist that good writing is good writing no matter where you find it and thus to break what they insist are the false walls that separate the detective, spy, and adventure categories from the rest of literature. And who can deny that many writers in these categories (one thinks of Geoffrey Household, Eric Ambler, John Le Carré, to name just three easy names) are indeed superior as writers of good, strong narratives to many a more seriously studied modern novelist? But more important in understanding the particular case of Macdonald is what might be termed a confusion of innocences. There is the sort of which Auden speaks, that state it has ever been the business of the detective symbolically to reconstitute through effort of reason. And then there is the innocence many readers presume abides in young people and from which a cruel world forcibly separates them. About this latter innocence Macdonald has lately taken to talking more directly. Thus, speaking of the adolescent kidnappers in The Underground Man, Lew Archer notes: “They seem to have thought they were rescuing Ronny from the adult world. To a certain extent it was true.” And again, examining the motives of one of them, he says: “He belonged to a generation whose elders had been poisoned, like the pelicans, with a kind of moral DDT that damaged the lives of their young.”

But such expressions of sentiment, fashionable as they may be, do not constitute the heart of Macdonald’s current appeal. Long before he expressed this point of view so openly, it was clear that in his little world some suspects are less equal than others, that young people, no matter how suspiciously, erratically, or irresponsibly they behave, never turn out to be guilty of any very serious crime. They are always the victims, and, indeed, it generally develops that it is the sins of the fathers that are being visited on them, even unto the second and third generation. Which is merely a way of saying that they are the victims of historical forces gone awry, if not totally out of control. And that, of course, is a feeling by no means confined to the young. I suppose all of us, at one time or another, have toyed with the notion that we are imprisoned in historical chains that are not of our own devising, just as we are constricted by the play of larger historical forces (the cold war, etc.) over which we have no control. It is, in fact, one of those comforting half-truths that help to make life a little more bearable. It is also the most common of our contemporary justifications for avoiding responsibility for our actions. It may be too that we entertain the hope that a magical figure like Lew Archer will someday pass through our lives and relieve us of the constraints that limit us.

Be that as it may—and the entire subject is certainly too large to be gone into here—all I really want to suggest is that Macdonald’s present eminence does not depend on the literary quality of his work, but on the fact that he is our only writer of generation-gap mysteries at a moment when that gap is much on everyone’s mind. The coming together of a writer’s understandable personal obsession with a society’s less understandable concern about the guilty silence that seems to exist today between father and sons is nothing more than an interesting coincidence. But I think it careless to mistake this coincidence—interesting though it may be—for evidence of high moral purpose or remarkable artistic achievement on the part of that writer. At best, Macdonald is a writer of severely limited capabilities and a rather weak inheritor of the tradition of what Edmund Wilson once called “the boys in the back room.” He is, moreover, an entertainer who has wiped the grin off his face and is thus able to confront the historical moment with that measure of decorum the middlebrow public deems suitable to its seriousness. Wise guys, it seems, need no longer apply for membership on the best-seller list and that’s too bad, for the possibility exists that the generation gap, like many of the other “great issues” of the day, may just be closer to farce than it is to tragedy.

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