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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The Underground Man

by
Ross Macdonald


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Underground Man



Title: The Underground Man
Author: Ross Macdonald
Genre: Novel
Written: 1971
Length: 228 pages
Availability: The Underground Man - US
in Four Later Novels - US
The Underground Man - UK
The Underground Man - Canada
L'homme clandestin - France
Der Untergrundmann - Deutschland
L'uomo sotterraneo - Italia
El hombre enterrado - España
  • A Lew Archer novel

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Our Assessment:

B+ : great tone and atmosphere

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Commentary . 9/1971 Richard Schickel
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 14/2/1971 Eudora Welty
Sunday Times . 21/11/1971 Edmund Crispin
The Times . 18/11/1971 H.R.F.Keating
TLS . 12/10/2012 Sarah Curtis


  From the Reviews:
  • "(I)t seems to me altogether typical of Macdonald’s pleasant, entertaining average." - Richard Schickel, Commentary

  • "The plot is intricate, involuted, and complicated to the hilt; and this, as I see it, is the novel's point. The danger derives from the fairy tales into which people make their lives. In lonely, fearful, or confused minds, real-life facts can be come rarefied into private fantasies. And when intensity is accepted -- welcomed -- as the measure of truth, how can the real and the fabricated be told apart ? (...) What gives me special satisfaction about this novel is that no one but a good writer -- this good writer -- could have possibly brought It off. The Underground Man is Mr. Macdonald's best book yet, I think. It is not only exhilaratingly well done; it is also very moving." - Eudora Welty, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Good characterization and mise-en-scène, slightly marred, however (pace Aristotle) by too frequent indulgence in metaphor." - Edmund Crispin, Sunday Times

  • "Californian opulence once again eviscerated in all its dark extravagance of emotion, all its wriggly hidden horrors." - H.R.F.Keating, The Times

  • "The Underground Man has a slower pace and fewer witty one-liners than The Moving Target, but one warms to Lew for his insights into the problems of others and his awareness of his own demons." - Sarah Curtis, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       For much of The Underground Man fires blaze in and around Santa Teresa -- Macdonald's fictionalized version of Santa Barbara --, a threat that laps at property and characters and unpredictably spares and consumes. It is a difficult threat to control and grasp -- much like those faced by the characters in the complicated case that Lew Archer has to deal with in this story.
       The case begins relatively straightforwardly: Jean Broadhurst spent the night with her six-year-old son Ronny at a friend's place, one of Archer's neighbors. Archer meets the boy when his father, Stanley, comes to pick him up, to go take him to visit Stanley's mother -- and he sees that Broadhurst is also traveling with a young blond. Jean comes to Archer for help the next day, when she hears about the fires in Santa Teresa -- the place where her mother-in-law lives, and where Stanley was taking the boy.
       Archer agrees to try to help, and soon finds more than he bargained for: Stanley, dead and buried, the teenage blond and Ronny gone. It looks like a sort of kidnapping, with the girl -- Susan Crandall -- a good girl who suddenly seems to have gone over some edge, likely drug-fueled, but it's not your traditional sort of kidnapping, with ransom demands or the like. Indeed, the girl seems to be protective of the kid -- but she and the young man she goes on the run with do make it difficult for Archer to reunite mother and child.
       Another dead body -- whom Archer also encountered while he was still alive, and who was demanding some money -- complicates the puzzle.
       Stanley had been looking for his own lost father for a long time -- the man abandoning his family was: "the main event of his childhood" -- and, as Jean explains to Archer:

     "My husband has been looking for his father for some time," she said, "and gradually breaking up. Or maybe I've gotten it turned around. He's been looking for his father in the hope it would put him back together."
       The Underground Man is full of broken grown, or near-grown, children -- Susan is just one of the others -- as well as misguidedly protective parents. So, also, Archer recognizes, in talking to her parents, some of what happened to Susan Crandall:
I began to think I had a glimmering of the problem. It was often the same problem -- an unreality so bland and smothering that the children tore loose and impaled themselves on the spikes of any reality that offered.
       Stanley's father disappeared fifteen years earlier, and Stanley's desperate search for him is the final push for all the dominos to fall, as there are other dark secrets from the past that contribute to the catastrophic present-day conflagration.
       It's pretty satisfying as murder-mystery, despite the usual complex intertwining of rather many lives and, especially, pasts (which, as so often in Macdonald's novels, continue to haunt, the consequences flaring up long, long after). But it's the telling that makes the book, and Macdonald is in fine form here, with Archer just the right mix of participant and observer. There are the nice moments of self-recognition, too:
He had a salesman's insight into human weakness, and he'd touched on a fact which I didn't always admit to myself -- that I sometimes served as a catalyst for trouble, not unwillingly.
       Archer is always poking around, and several characters make mention of that -- "All you do is ask questions", one notes; "I get tired of it, too", he admits to her, but The Underground Man gets that mix of probing and action pretty well right.
       A fine, nicely melancholy work, and certainly among the better Archer-novels.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 December 2017

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Links:

The Underground Man: Reviews: Ross Macdonald: Other books by Ross Macdonald under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Canadian-American author Ross Macdonald (actually: Kenneth Millar) lived 1915 to 1983.

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© 2017 the complete review

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