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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.

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