Ross MacDonald has a considerable reputation as a mid-twentieth century mystery novelist, the creator of the private detective Lew Archer. His actual name was Kenneth Millar. I’ve been reading his correspondence with Eudora Welty, which came as a complete surprise to me. It’s an intense and passionate correspondence, almost like the correspondence of lovers, which McDonald and Welty never were, except perhaps on paper. They both professed a strong admiration for one another’s work. Welty reviewed McDonald’s novel The Underground Man (1971) for the New York Times and praised it. Because there are few writers I regard as highly as I do Welty, I decided to read McDonald’s novel.
One of the most unusual characteristics of the novel, narrated by its main character, Lew Archer, is how invisible the narrator seems. He describes what is happening, what he does, and why, whom he is talking to, what they do, how events transpire, but he does it in a strangely passionless way. He’s hardly present. His personality is never really evident. We learn a few bits of information about him—he lives alone, for example, he was once married, he feels sympathy for young people in the early 1970s of Southern California who have gone off the rail because of drugs. But for the most part he is, as the main character, completely absent. Even when a woman he is interviewing, a woman whom he describes as “well built,” throws off her robe and offers to have sex with him, it’s as if he isn’t there. He declines the offer. I compared him in my head with Philip Marlowe, who’s being so thoroughly infuses the tone and narrative of Raymond Chandler’s novels--there’s no comparison. McDonald is more reserved and removed from his subject than Chandler is from his, but at the cost of indifference.
The narrative revolves around two murders, the disappearance of a young child who is probably in the company of a teenage girl whose parents believe she is perfect but who for various reasons turns out to be less than. Archer methodically works his way towards finding the child and unraveling the mystery of the murders. There are no big surprises, no gotcha moments, one event simply follows another. Perhaps it is the reader’s interest that gathers momentum.
Brush fires burn in and around the setting of the novel. Archer is constantly thinking about and alluding to them. The fires signify something—but it’s not mystery or passion. Maybe its evil, the sin that underlies the kidnapping of the boy and the troubled life of the girl who is with him. Maybe it’s his underlying assessment of the culture and the times. But the fires evoke a troubling, unsettling atmosphere, as if at any moment they might change direction and move towards the town and engulf everything. It’s California as a kind of modern hell.
Another motif is suggested in the title. The novel moves towards uncovering the mysteries beneath the lives of its characters, unknown, hidden information that gradually comes to light.
I didn’t really care when the novel was over. It’s dated, I guess. So am I.