The Underground Man: Ross Macdonald (1971)

“Isn’t there always a blond girl?”

Ross Macdonald’s The Underground Man, is set against a wildfire, but the book begins with a deceptive sense of peace. It’s supposed to be Archer’s day off; he is minding his own business, feeding peanuts to Jays outside of his apartment. A sweet little boy named Ronny Broadhurst peaks his head outside from a neighbouring apartment and starts chatting to Archer. A few minutes later, Ronny’s very uptight, ill-tempered father, Stan shows up and words are exchanged between Stan and his wife Jean who is staying, temporarily, in an apartment near Archer’s. It’s obvious from the ugly scene between Stan and Jean that they are separated and on the brink of a divorce. Stan, on the verge of violence, accuses Archer of being his wife’s new “playmate,” and leaves with his son. Jean later tells Archer that Stan is on his way to visit his wealthy mother in Santa Theresa and according to the news, due to a wildfire, there’s an evacuation order in place for that region. Archer establishes that Stan’s mother hasn’t seen her son, so he is on the case to locate the boy.

It’s a peculiar situation. Jean explains that Stan is obsessed with finding his father, a Saint Theresa lothario who disappeared with another woman years ago. Stanley’s mother was left high and dry and since her husband’s disappearance, there has been no word. Stanley’s obsession with finding his father has, according to Jean, ruined their marriage. The night before Jean left the family home with Ronny, Stan brought home a young blonde girl, a “hysteric” in Jean’s opinion, but the girl had a “wild story” that seemed to “fascinate[d]” Stanley.

The Underground Man starts with a toxic marriage and a boy who’s disappeared but soon Archer realises he’s in the middle of a very complex case. Under threat of a hungry wildfire, Archer searches the region for Ronny, but he must wade through years of secrets and several toxic relationships first: a few rocky marriages and a very unhealthy mother-son dynamic. The wildfire makes an unusual and interesting backdrop to murder and blackmail, and the descriptions tell me that Ross Macdonald lived through a California wildfire. The Forest service fire crews are out in the more remote areas protecting the houses of the wealthy while the lower end residential areas are “almost depopulated” with “a few men [were] up on their roofs with running hoses and defiant expressions.”

I got up and looked around me. Under the stratum of smoke which lay over the city, the air was harshly clear. The low sun was like a spinning yellow frisbee which I could almost reach out and catch.

This is the 16th book in the Lew Archer series.



Filed under Fiction, Macdonald Ross, posts

2 responses to “The Underground Man: Ross Macdonald (1971)

  1. I suppose it’s a reminder that life with all its complexities goes on just the same during a natural disaster.

  2. This is why I shy away from RossMacdonald. All too real.

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