The Underground Man (1971)is often paired with The Goodbye Look as the author’s best work. It achieves a complexity of plot, theme and structure not seen before in hard-boiled fiction. Among its concerns are ecological ravages, drugs, and the alienation of youth culture.
The apparent story begins on a note inherited from Chandler, the strange atmosphere that prevails during hot Santa Ana winds, which fan wild-fires. Archer goes out to feed the birds and is joined by a small boy, Ronny Broadhurst, whose parents quickly appear, on the verge of a marital breakdown. When Broadhurst’s father is murdered a few pages later, his cigarillo starts a raging forest fire, and the boy disappears. Archer begins his inquiry on the boy’s behalf, quickly linking him to disaffected teenagers Sue Crandall and Jerry Kilpatrick. All three are on a sailboat tied up at the Santa Teresa marina, where Jerry cold-cocks Archer and the young couple “kidnap” the boy. His investigations of their families lead Archer to see the seriousness of what was then termed the “generation gap”: “We’re losing a whole generation. They’re punishing us for bringing them into the world.” 1 Drugs, alcohol, and sex are the respite from “an unreality so bland and smothering that the children tore loose and impaled themselves on the spikes of any reality that offered” (104).
By the next day Archer has a good idea of where to find the trio; when the sailboat is found run aground, he traces them to a nearby motel; and then to Jerry’s artist-mother’s Sausalito home and finally to the Golden Gate bridge, where Sue threatens to jump. Through Ronny, Archer talks her back, and the apparent plot concludes – Archer’s goal having been only to save Ronny. The troubled young people re-enter their families, with the semblance of normality being their shared conceit.
However, there are three murders outstanding, so Archer must explain them. The revealed story is not very plausible, as critics such as Bernard Schopen, William Goldman, and Geoffrey Hartman have noted, but it is a stunning thematic elaboration. As in his previous work, Macdonald turns what had been a perfunctory part of the genre into the vehicle of his major statement. Stanley Broadhurst’s murder repeats his father’s murder, in which eight people had a hand (an echo of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express). This murder was the result of the lying and philandering of the previous generation of Crandalls and Kirkpatricks; indeed Leo Broadhurst, father of the novel’s initial murder victim, lies buried in his sports car under his son. The metaphoric intent precludes perfectly plausible revelation. Archer pulls in the Kirkpatricks as blackmailers in the previous generation. “A sexual/parental triangle surfaces on nearly every page of the novel, informing in one sense or another the relations between all the characters,” writes Bernard Schopen (123). The resulting thematic collage is so dense and overlapping that ultimate responsibility is not assignable. The roots of problems are ever-deepening and unrecoverable. As a character in the denouement he creates, Archer’s best hope is for a “benign failure of memory” on the part of Ronny. As Hartman remarks, when Archer lingers for a moment with Jean and Ronny Broadhurst at novel’s end, “for one moment the family exists and the detective is the father.” 2 The novel ends with symbolic rains quenching the forest fires, yet Macdonald is no optimist: flash floods threaten and the denuded hillsides pour tons of mud on the Broadhurst and Kilpatrick houses. Archer guards the boy, but cannot marry his mother, despite being “half in love,” because Macdonald’s point is that no matter what the boy wants to be, his parents’ and grandparents’ lives intrude on his fate in powerful but not always intelligible ways. NBC filmed the novel for TV in 1974, casting Peter Graves (below right) as Archer.
Like Black Money (1966) and The Goodbye Look (1969), this novel is conspicuously literary in structure. Black Money was intertextual, referring to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which Macdonald re-read every year. Black Money was constructed as a series of parallel, corrupt dreams, in which a poor but aspiring young man rises to a position of power to obtain a beautiful young woman he has set up as his ideal, only to find that she plotted a similar rise for herself. The Goodbye Look took the fable of Pandora’s Box as its metaphor: all characters connected with the box of letters that Archer finds in a motel room have acted on fantasies that fail. In similar fashion, The Underground Man carries on the most completely realized dialog the author would have with his most important influence – Freud and Freudian psychology. As Michael Collins commented, “What Ross Macdonald did was take murder and crime and put them back in the living room Hammett had taken them out of – but now it is a real living room, now the forces of violence inside the people are real forces that come from real causes in a real world the reader can, and must, understand.”3
1 Ross Macdonald, The Underground Man (New York: Vintage, 1996), 84. 2 Hartman, in Schopen, Macdonald, 125. 3 Michael Collins, “Expanding the Roman Noir: Ross Macdonald’s Legacy to Mystery/Detective Authors,” South Dakota Review. 24 (Spring, 1986), 123.