The Mystery of Mysteries

The Underground Man

by Ross Macdonald
Bantam, 256 pp., $1.25 (paper)

Ross Macdonald’s “underground man” is a corpse buried in a red Porsche on a California hilltop. In a house nearby, just before being murdered, he had been making love to one married woman while planning to run off with another. Fifteen years later his son is about to dig him up but the son too is killed, on the same spot, in the act of exhuming the evidence. The girl who is with the son happens to be the daughter of the woman the corpse slept with the night he was killed—she is probably their illegitimate child—and she is raped. In the less than seventy-two hours Macdonald’s book covers, another murder takes place and a child is kidnapped. It is, as one character observes, “a bad night for mothers.” (I suspect Macdonald is not too fond of mothers and likes to give them bad nights.) Indeed the day is almost turned into night by the smoke of a vast California brush fire that burns throughout the novel, threatening to leap into the plot and wipe out (among other things) the evidence.

If we knew nothing but this outline we would attribute the plot to some grim tragedy of revenge—“The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children….” The mind is unable to accept this deadly history of one family as something accidental; to draw a moral from the events makes them less chilling or unreasonable. But Macdonald’s plot remains stronger than any idea or moral he can draw from it; and this paradox has haunted the mystery story since its inception.

The mystery story has always been a form in which appalling facts are made to fit a rational or moral pattern. The formula began to emerge with the first instance of the genre, Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), in which a child—the heir apparent to a noble house—is killed by the enormous helmet of an ancestral statue, which literally buries him. After this ghostly opening Walpole’s novel moves, like its modern descendants, from sensation to simplification, from bloody riddle to solution, fitting in as much machinery as possible on the way.

The conservative cast of the mystery story is a puzzle. Born in the Enlightenment it has not much changed. As mechanical and manipulative as ever, it explains the irrational, after exploiting it, by the latest rational system: Macdonald tends to invent characters whose lives have Freudian, even oedipal, explanations. In The Underground Man, as in his earlier book The Chill, the murderer turns out to be a murderess, a possessive mother with an overprotected son: the real underground man is the underground woman.

With a sense of family nightmare as vivid as it is in Walpole, The Underground Man advances inward, from the discovery of the corpse to the frozen psyche of the murderess, Mrs. Snow. The characters are all efficiently, even beautifully, sketched, but they are somehow too understandable. They seem to owe as much to formula as the plot itself, which moves deviously…

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