Thursday, August 09, 2012

Giving Macdonald His Due

Timed to the recent re-release, by Penguin UK, of five classic Ross Macdonald novels, all starring private eye Lew Archer, The Daily Beast’s Malcolm Forbes revisits The Underground Man, which he says is “arguably Macdonald’s best [book].” Forbes writes, in part:
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.
Click here to read Forbes’ full essay.

No comments: