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 yet inexorably toward a solution of the mystery.

A good writer, of course, will make us feel the gap between a mystery and its laying to rest. He will always write in a way that resists the expected ending: not simply to keep us guessing (for, as Edmund Wilson remarked, “The secret is nothing at all”) but to show us more about life—that is, about the way people die while living. The detective novel should therefore be demanding: the crimes we know of require as careful an inquiry as do those in Oedipus or the Book of Job. Yet popular mysteries are devoted to solving rather than examining a problem. Their logic abolishes mystery by elucidation: the corpse is buried for good. (There are, to be sure, enough corpses around.) You are no sooner moving on one case than you switch to another. Obviously, without the detective who can survive a world full of crimes the stories couldn’t exist.

Few detective novels want the reader to exert his interpretative powers fully, to find gaps in the plot or the reasoning, to worry about the moral question of fixing the blame. It is best, therefore, not to make large claims for mystery stories. They are simply exorcisms, stories with happy endings that could be classified with comedy because they settle the unsettling. There exists, however, a defense of the mystery story as art, whose principal document is Raymond Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder. In his moving last pages about the gritty life of the hero-detective, Chandler claims that mystery stories create a serious fictional world:

The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the finger man for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket….

It is not a fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization. All this still is not quite enough.

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man….

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks—that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

The story is this man’s adventure in search of hidden truth….

Ross Macdonald has also defended the social and psychological importance of the detective story. He sees it as rooted “in the popular and literary tradition of the American frontier.” Neither writer puts much emphasis on problem-solving, on finding out who killed Roger Ackroyd. But in spite of their claims for the honesty, morality, and the authentic American qualities of the detective novel, one cannot overlook the persistence in their work of the old problem-solving formula.

In The Underground Man Macdonald keeps entirely within the formula but broadens it by providing a great California fire as the background of his book. This fire is an “ecological crime” linked more than fortuitously to the cigarillo dropped by Stanley Broadhurst, the murdered son. Stanley belongs to a “generation whose elders had been poisoned, like the pelicans, with a kind of moral DDT that damaged the lives of their young.” By combining ecological and moral contamination Macdonald creates a double plot that spreads the crime over the California landscape.

California becomes a kind of “open city” where everyone seems related to everyone else through, ironically, a breakdown in family relations that spawns adolescent gangs and other new groupings. The only personal detail we learn about the detective, Lew Archer, is that his wife has left him, which is what we might expect. Neither cynical nor eccentric, Archer resembles an ombudsman or public defender rather than a tough detective. He doesn’t seem to have a private office, often being approached by his clients in public. One might say he doesn’t have clients since anyone can engage his moral sympathy.

He is, then, as Chandler prescribed, a catalyst, not a Casanova, who sees more sharply than others do. It is curious how the detective, as a type, is at the same time an ingénue and a man of experience—his reasoning must take evil or criminal motives into account, but through his eyes we enjoy the colors of the familiar world. Like other realistic artists the good crime writer makes the familiar new, but he can do so only under the pressure of extreme situations. It is as if crime alone could make us see again, or imaginatively enough, to enter someone else’s life.

Archer is not better than what he sees but rather a knowing part of it. His observations (acute, overdefined, “Her eyes met me and blurred like cold windows”) are those of an isolated, exposed man with a fragmented life. He finds just what he expects, people like himself, reluctantly free or on the run, and others equally lonely but still living within the shrinking embrace of an overprotective family. Yet just because Archer is so mobile and homeless he can bring estranged people together and evoke, as in The Underground Man, a consoling myth of community where there is none.

It is a myth only for the time being, perhaps only for the time of the book. Down these polluted freeways goes a man with undimmed vision, cutting through sentimental fog and fiery smog to speak face to face in motel or squalid rental or suburban ranch with Mr. and Mrs. and Young America! Superb in snapshot portraiture of California life, Macdonald gives us a sense of the wild life flushed out by the smoke, the way people lean on the another when they fear crime and fire. They are neatly described by Archer, who moves among them as erratically as the fire itself.

This panoramic realism has its advantages. It is outward and visual rather than introspective, and so tends to simplify character and motive. There is a terrible urge—in Raymond Chandler even more than in Ross Macdonald—to make the most of gross visual impressions. Hence Moose Molloy in Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, “a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and no wider than a beer truck” who “looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.” The images flash all around us like guns, though we can’t always tell to what end. Their over-all aim is to make the world as deceptively conspicuous as Moose Molloy.

The detective (American style) tortures human nature until it reveals itself. People froth or lose their nerve or crumple up: the divine eye of the private eye fixes them until their bodies incriminate them. What can’t be seen can’t be judged; and even if what we get to see is a nasty array of protective maneuvers and defense mechanisms, the horror of the visible is clearly preferred to what is unknown or invisible.

There are, of course, differences of style among American mystery story writers. Macdonald’s characters, for example, are more credible than Chandler’s, because they are more ordinary, or less bizarre. Chandler is often on the verge of surrealism, of tragi-comic slapstick: his people are grotesque, manic, hilariously sad. Chandleresque is close to Chaplinesque. The novels of Macdonald and Chandler have, nevertheless, the same flaw: the only person in them whose motives remain somewhat mysterious, or exempt from exposure by vulnerable gestures, is the detective.

Yet Chandler’s Marlowe is not really mysterious. Just as in his world punks are punks, old generals old generals, and the small guys remain small guys killed by small-time methods (such as liquor spiked with cyanide), so a detective is a detective.

The first time we met I told you I was a detective. Get it through your lovely head. I work at it, lady. I don’t play at it.

One of the funniest moments in The Big Sleep occurs when Marlowe is trying to prove to Carmen that he mustn’t sleep with her while on the job. As in allegory, people are what they are with a vengeance. When Marlowe is asked why he doesn’t marry he answers, “I don’t like policemen’s wives.” To marry Mr. Detective means becoming Mrs. Detective. Nothing here is immune from specialization: killers or peekers can be hired, sex stage-managed.

The one apparent superiority of the detective is that although he can be hired, he doesn’t care for money (even if he respects its power). We really don’t know whether the other characters care for it either, but they are placed in situations where they must have it—to make a getaway, for instance—or where it is the visible sign of grace, of their power to dominate and so to survive. What Marlowe says to a beautiful woman who offers him money is puzzlingly accurate: “You don’t owe me anything. I’m paid off.” Puzzling because it is unclear where his real satisfaction comes from. He seems under no compulsion to dominate others and rarely gets pleasure from taking gambles. What is there in it for him? The money is only expense money. We don’t ever learn who is paying off the inner Marlowe or Archer. Their motives are virtually the only things in these stories that are not visible.

We are forced to assume that the detective is in the service of no one—or of a higher power. Perhaps there is an idealism in these tough tales stronger than the idealisms they are out to destroy.

I sat down on a pink chair and hoped I wouldn’t leave a mark on it. I lit a Camel, blew smoke through my nose and looked at a piece of black shiny metal on a stand. It showed a full, smooth curve with a small fold in it and two protuberances on the curve. I stared at it. Marriott saw me staring at it. “An interesting bit,” he said negligently. “I picked it up the other day. Asta Dial’s Spirit of Dawn.” “I thought it was Klopstein’s Two Warts on a Fanny,” I said.

This is merely a sideshow, but behind such scenes big questions seem on the verge of being raised: of reality, justice, mercy, loyalty, etc. When Lew Archer says, “I think it started before Nick was born, and that his part is fairly innocent,” he begins to sound theological, especially when he continues, “I can’t promise to get him off the hook entirely. But I hope to prove he’s a victim, a patsy” (The Goodbye Look).

But the moral issues are no more genuinely explored than the murders. They too are corpses—or ghosts that haunt us in the face of intractable situations. So in The Goodbye Look, a man picks up an eight-year-old boy and makes a pass at him. Boy shoots man. But the man is the boy’s estranged father and the seduction was only an act of sentiment and boozy affection. Grim mistakes of this kind belong to folklore or to high tragedy. The detective story, however, forces them into a strict moralistic pattern or, as in Ross Macdonald, into a psychoanalytic parable with complicated yet resolvable turns.

This may seem no condemnation, but there is an exploitative element in the crime novel: we are prompted to read more, to see more, to know how the one just man (the detective) will succeed—yet when we finish these books we cannot reread them. They lack a Jamesian reticence that, at its best, would chasten the detective urge to reveal a secret flaw, or penetrate some private world. We are made to thirst, like Othello under Iago’s goading, for visible proof. There is something erotic, even pornographic, in this need to see justice done, which draws us into one false hypothesis or flashy scene after another.

Thus the trouble with the detective novel is not that it is moral but that it is moralistic; not that it is popular but that it is stylized; not that it lacks realism but that it picks up the latest realism and exploits it. A voracious formalism dooms it to seem unreal, however “real” the world it describes. In fact, as in a B movie, we value less the driving plot than moments of lyricism and grotesquerie that creep into it: moments that detach themselves from the machined narrative. Macdonald’s California fire affects us less because of its damage to the ecology than because it brings characters into the open. It has no necessary relation to the plot, and assumes a life of its own. The fire mocks the ambitions of this kind of novel: it seems to defy manipulation.

Crime fiction today seems to be trying to change its skin and transform itself (on the Chandler pattern) into picaresque American morality tales. But its second skin is like the first. It cannot get over its love-hate for the mechanical and the manipulative. Even mysteries that do not have a Frankensteinian monster or a super-intelligent criminal radiate a pretechnological chill. The form trusts too much in transcendent reason; its very success opens to us the glimpse of a mechanized world, whether controlled by God or Dr. No or the Angel of the Odd.

It is to the credit of the detective story that it has not grown old, but why has it not grown up? Is the genre more serious because characters now speak a raw vernacular? As the plot is stripped of gothic meanderings, as it becomes streamlined and short-winded, the characters simply turn even more into loaded formulas. Plot ideas and bizarre situations prevail over the art that might be made of them. The detective novel, in both its old and its new incarnation, has thus been a good hunting ground for serious artists—Faulkner, Graham Greene (occasionally), Nabokov, Malraux. They can refine and mock the jumpy stories where all is casual and crucial by turns, childlike and violent.

Moreover, though the American “realist in murder” (as Chandler calls him) takes pride in having purged his work of Lord Peter Wimsey and chicken-wing-gnawing debutantes, his vision remains a similar mixture of the sophisticated and the puerile. The American hero-detective is not at all what Chandler claims he is, “a complete man.” He starts with death, it is true; he seems to stand beyond desire and regret. Yet the one thing the hardboiled detective fears, with a gambler-like fascination, is being played for a sucker. In Hammett’s Maltese Falcon the murder of Miles who trusted Miss Wonderly begins the action; Spade’s rejection of Brigid O’Shaugnessy completes it. To gamble on Brigid is like gambling that love exists, or that there is, somewhere, a genuine Falcon. Spade draws back: “I won’t play the sap for you.”

No wonder this type of story is full of tough baby-talk. So Archer in The Chill:

No more guns for you,” I said. No more anything, Letitia.

Taking the gun from Letitia, at the end of The Chill, is like denying Baby its candy. It seems a “castration” of the woman, which turns her into a child once more.

In Ross Macdonald’s novels the chief victim is usually a child who needs protection from the father or society and gets it from Mother as overprotection—which is equally fatal. Enter the dick who tries to save the child and purge the Mother. Children are always shown as so imprisoned by the grownup world that they can’t deal with things as they are; and so the child remains a “sucker.” There is often little difference between family and police in this respect. The psychiatrist is another overprotector. “They brought me to Dr. Smitheram,” Nick says bitterly in The Goodbye Look, “and…I’ve been with him ever since. I wish I’d gone to the police in the first place.” The detective alone is exempt from ties of blood or vested interest, and so can expose what must be exposed.

Both the arrested development of the detective story and its popularity seem to me related to its image of the way people live in “civilized” society—a just image on the whole. For we all know something is badly wrong with the way society or the family protects people. The world of the detective novel is full of vulnerable characters on the one hand, and of overprotected ones on the other. Macdonald complicates the issue by emphasizing the wrong done to children, and especially to their psyches. Dolly in The Chill, Nick Chalmers in The Goodbye Look, and Susan Crandall in The Underground Man are as much victims of what Freud calls family romance (that is, family nightmare) as of society. We don’t know what to protest, and sympathize with the adolescents in The Underground Man who kidnap a young boy to prevent him from being sacrificed to the grown-up world.

Yet “protective custody” doesn’t work. In The Chill, relations between Roy and Letitia Bradshaw are a classic and terrible instance of the man being forced to remain a man-boy as the price of making it. Roy, the social climber, marries a rich woman who can send him to Harvard and free him from class bondage. But the woman is old enough to be his mother and they live together officially as mother and son while she kills off younger women to whom her “child” is attracted.

Protection, such novels seem to imply, is always bought; and much of the price one pays for it is hidden. Macdonald tends to give a psychological and Chandler a sociological interpretation of this. Chandler is strongly concerned with the need for a just system of protection and the inadequacy of modern institutions to provide it. He indulges, like so many other crime writers, in conventional woman hating, but suggests at the same time that women become bitches because they are overprotected. Helen Grayle, in Farewell, My Lovely, is the exemplary victim who (like the Sternwood sisters in The Big Sleep) is allowed to get some revenge on her “protectors” before she is caught. Yet Chandler often lets his women criminals escape, knowing sadly or bitterly that they’ll be trapped by the system in the end.

To avoid being a sucker and to expose a crisis in the protective institutions of society are psychological and social themes that are not peculiar to the American detective novel. They have prevailed since chivalric Romance invented the distressed damsel and her wandering knight. But the precise kinds of family breakup, together with new and menacing groups (similar to crime syndicates) which the detective is pitted against, give crime novels a modern American tone. That the detective is a private sleuth defines, moreover, his character as well as his profession, and makes him the heir to a popular American myth—he is the latest of the un-co-optable heroes.

Yet detective stories remain, like Lew Archer’s steak, “hot and sizzling on one side, frozen solid on the other.” They show only the oppressive family (“I felt…as if everything that happened in the room was still going on, using up space and air. I was struck by the thought that Chalmers, with family history breathing down his neck, may have felt smothered and cramped most of the time”) and the freewheeling detective. Nothing lies between the family and the loner except a no man’s land of dangerous communes: virile fraternities, like criminal mobs or the police, that are literally based on blood.