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Mystery Monday – The Undergound Man


The Undergound Man by Ross Macdonald

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


Ross Macdonald’s complicated plots hinged on PI Lew Archer’s investigations into family backgrounds. Social class, economic hardship, mental illness, and substance abuse pressure families, leading moms to snap, dads to disappear, and kids to dabble in trouble. Macdonald’s stories are all virtually the same, but the concise style plus the social and psychological insights keep us fans reading these uniquely American tragedies.

In The Underground Man, Archer is hired by a distraught mother whose child has possibly been kidnapped by two crazy, mixed up teenagers. Set in about 1970 in California, two specters haunt the setting. The psychedelic drug LSD drives kids to places their minds probably shouldn’t go. Environmental damage is caused by deforestation and wildfires and subsequent landslides as well as oil spills and chemicals  such as DDT. Referring to DDT damaging the eggs of seabirds, he mentions “a generation whose elders had been poisoned … with a kind of moral DDT that damaged the lives of their young.” Indeed, the moral rot and cowardice among the California rich go far beyond one character’s bald advice to small business owners, “The rich never pay their bills.”

The wonder of Macdonald, though, is his Agatha Christie-like talent at misdirection. We readers get so immersed in the calamities that these families must face that the reveal of the perp comes as a complete surprise. Whatever that literary magic thingy is that keeps us reading, engrossed, Macdonald, like Dickens, Christie and Gardner, had it in spades.








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