So my education in detective novels continues. The latest book group selection was Ross Macdonald’s The Underground Man, published in 1971, which we discussed at our lovely noir picnic. It’s another hardboiled detective novel like the book we started out with, Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. I’m surprised to find myself enjoying these books. When Hobgoblin told me the plot was convoluted I got a little worried, as I’m usually not fond of having to follow complicated plots. But as it turned out, I enjoyed the challenge (although I’m not sure I actually kept the relationships among all the characters straight).
Macdonald does his plotting very well, and it’s a pleasure to watch it all unfold. He introduces you to a couple characters who then lead you to a few more, and then some more, and then you learn that a couple of the characters know each other, and then that a few others know each other or had an affair or hated each other or some such, and then you learn about more people and more relationships, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a entire web of people and relationships that fits together beautifully. Or rather, not so beautifully, as very, very few of the relationships described are good ones.
This leads me to another thing I liked about the novel, which is that it creates a picture of late 60s/early 70s California in which what’s happening to the people happens also to the landscape. The novel is set in southern California where a forest fire is raging, threatening to destroy houses and neighborhoods. This is a place where people have begun to build where they probably shouldn’t, in areas that nature is going to try to reclaim in one way or another. As the fire rages and mudslides threaten and people try to figure out how to respond, this gets echoed by chaos on the social and moral level in the stories of cruel and incompetent parents, deceitful spouses and lovers, and the general atmosphere of secrets and lies.
There’s something deeply wrong at the core here, and the detective, Lew Archer, can only do so much to help things out. In fact at times he seems to cause more harm than good by dragging to light old secrets that end up causing more conflict. As he is zipping around California trying to find a young boy who’s been kidnapped and trying to piece together everyone’s story, the police and firefighters are busy trying to contain the fire, and all of them seem at the mercy of forces much larger than they are. The firefighters can only hope that the wind blows in the right direction, and Archer can only hope people will tell him the truth and he can do his job without becoming a victim himself. My book group noted the fact that Archer doesn’t seem to be all that great at questioning people and hasn’t figured out much more than is told to the reader, so there’s little sense in the book of any comforting presence or of anybody who has things under control. All anybody can do is to keep trying to figure out the truth and keep trying to straighten things out and hope for the best.
Several people in the book group said that while they liked Macdonald, Raymond Chandler is better. I have yet to read Chandler, and I see that I should, particularly since he often comes up in our discussions. The relative merits of Macdonald and Chandler are obviously up for debate, but at the very least I will have something equally good to look forward to when I finally get around to reading one of Chandler’s books.