The Underground Man at Age 50
How Ross Macdonald turned hard-boiled crime stories into Freudian case studies
I’ve written a lot on West Coast crime fiction, but have never published any of those pieces. I haven’t even shown them to anybody. I often write things simply for my own enjoyment—in fact, I usually write for fun, even when working with an eye toward publication. But operating on Substack tends to blur the dividing line between writer and publisher. So perhaps I will devote an occasional Substack article to some of my favorite West Coast crime fiction books.
Here’s a start—below I look at The Underground Man by Ross Macdonald, which celebrated its 50th birthday this year.
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The Underground Man at Age 50
By Ted Gioia
And what, precisely, is an underground man?
The most famous ‘underground man’ in literary history comes to us via Dostoevsky. Is Ross Macdonald, author of The Underground Man, aiming to impart a double dose of Russian existential angst and nihilist pessimism to his hard-boiled detective fiction?
No, I don’t think so.
Perhaps he intends his title to be taken literally. There are no archeologists, coal miners, or spelunkers in these pages. Yet we do encounter buried—and excavated and re-buried—bodies at various junctures in Macdonald’s 1971 novel. This author cared quite a bit about dead bodies. "The detective isn't your main character,” he once proclaimed, “and neither is your villain. The main character is the corpse. The detective's job is to seek justice for the corpse. It's the corpse's story, first and foremost." From this perspective, The Underground Man is merely named after its protagonist, the murder victim.
But I have a different theory for the title of this novel. Macdonald was obsessed with Freudian psychology. Around the same time The Underground Man was published, Macdonald told Newsweek magazine: “Freud was one of the two or three greatest influences on me. He made myth into psychiatry, and I've been trying to turn it back into myth again in my own small way.” Given this predisposition, I can’t help seeing the ‘underground man’ as a canny reference to those unconscious and troubling aspects of the human psyche that are deeply buried, not in soil but in the recesses of our minds, and come back to the surface under prodding or in a crisis.
“Macdonald brought the crime story into a more ambiguous modern age, a brave new era when a copy of Civilization and its Discontents solves more problems than a loaded gun.”
Macdonald’s novel is filled with these buried artifacts—that’s actually a trademark of his stories, in which the crime is often the least interesting part of the tale. Almost every character in these pages has some past scandal or tragedy they would prefer to repress. In order to highlight these psychic depths, Macdonald constructs a story that involves the childhood experiences of many of its main characters. Against these long-term psychological case studies, he superimposes two different crimes separated by 15 years. In the first instance, three youngsters steal a car—a seemingly minor infraction, hardly worthy of a detective novel. This incident seems connected, for a variety of reasons, to a series of later crimes, including murder, kidnapping, and theft.
The plot is extremely complex, especially given Macdonald’s interest in exploring the relationships between the various characters and their parents. (And, really, we must give this author full credit for anticipating current-day fiction, which is fixated on dysfunctional moms and dads to an extent 19th century novelists could hardly never imagined.) But the buried body does seem to be at the center of the many conflicts. Stanley Broadhurst is not just the central corpse, but also son of a missing person, and father of another vanished victim, namely his young son Ronny—who has been kidnapped. Yet the ethical issues here become as tangled as the forensic evidence. Long before you finish The Underground Man, you will change your mind several times over questions of guilt and responsibility, victim and victimizer.
I even had to construct a chart to help me navigate through all this.
This all makes a bizarre kind of sense, at least in terms of narrative structure. I vividly recall reading Freud’s case studies back in college, and how surprised I was by their resemblance to mystery stories. Macdonald’s tales are simply the flip side of that same coin.
Even so, the Freudian tone of the novel often leads to peculiar outcomes. As the story unwinds, our detective Lew Archer seems more intent on getting people into counseling than on arresting perps. “The hot breath of vengeance was growing cold in my nostrils as I grew older,” Archer admits at a late stage in the story. In another scene, he confronts a suspect who is clearly guilty of several crimes, but Archer offers an excuse you will never encounter in a Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple novel: “He [the criminal] belonged to a generation whose elders had been poisoned, like the pelicans, with a kind of moral DDT that damaged the lives of their young.” At such moments, I can’t help remembering Philip Larkin’s famous poem about “mum and dad.”
The irony of these interventions is augmented by Macdonald’s private investigator Lew Archer, who is probably the most repressed person in this whole book. He keeps his emotions under check throughout the course of the entire story—perhaps too much under check, almost to a pathological extent—yet the reader can’t help feeling that he is the most dangerous person in the pages of The Underground Man. The suspects, for all their troubles and transgressions, are mere pussycats compared to the coldhearted private eye snooping around their past histories.
Even if I don’t buy into Macdonald’s notions of generational guilt, I am drawn into his storytelling. The writing is perhaps not quite as compact as his hard-boiled predecessors Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but he more than compensates by his bold way of creating images and landscapes infused with archetypal significance. A grad student could write a smart paper on the role of Earth, Air, Water, and Fire in this book. By the way, the novel is called The Underground Man, but it might just as well have been called The Burning Man or The Water Man. Many small details that, at first glance, seem unimportant—the watering of lawns, say, or the spread of a brush fire—will appear charged with symbolic resonance upon further consideration.
Yet Macdonald takes a huge risk here. He is a specialist in crime fiction, but the significance of the crimes shrinks the further you go into The Underground Man. This would present a challenge to any mystery writer, but especially so to an author trying to carry on the hard-boiled tradition that flourished from the late 1920s into the 1960s. Some readers probably put aside The Underground Man, published in 1971, with dissatisfaction, seeing it as an arteriosclerotic detective story, lacking the animal spirits necessary to keep the genre vibrant. Did this book represent the moment when the hard-boiled story went soft? Had private eyes lost their mojo by the end of the Nixon era? Yet others will praise Macdonald for bringing the crime story into a more ambiguous modern age, a brave new era when a copy of Civilization and its Discontents solves more problems than a loaded gun.
I fall into a third camp. I prefer to see this book as one of those anti-mysteries (many of them from continental Europe) that rely on the scaffolding of the detective story, but only to construct something very different from a traditional whodunit. I am reminded of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge or Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person or Leonardo Sciascia’s The Day of the Owl—books that subvert reader expectations and genre conventions at every turn.
Macdonald’s achievement, however, may be the greatest of all these—if only because he managed to do all this without tarnishing his credentials as a genre writer. It’s one thing for a literary author to play around with crime story concepts, as Nabokov does in Pale Fire or or Robbe-Grillet in The Erasers. No one expects these highbrows to sell to a mainstream audience or secure a movie deal. But Macdonald pulled off both of those feats, somehow managing to please a very hard-boiled audience with an extremely soft-boiled tale.