The Underground Man by Ross Macdonald
Penguin are re-releasing five of the works of Ross Macdonald in their Modern Classics series, thus alerting a new generation of readers to a treasure trove of American thrillers, written with a literary artistry which has all but vanished from the genre in recent years.
Don't equate artistry with flaccidity. Macdonald's tales are hardboiled, his characters strongly and sharply drawn, their conflicts hot-blooded.
But he writes about them with such skill that a character is impaled by a few words, a mood is captured, an emotion defined, an action frozen. For example:
"He nodded, then he cried. He nodded and cried, nodded and cried like a human pump."
"As she looked at me her eyes misted over like cold windows."
"She was pretty enough to make me conscious that I hadn't shaved."
"She went into deep thought. It sat prettily on her, softening the anxious angularity of her posture."
"He felt resentful and betrayed like a sailor who has come to the edge of a flat world."
Macdonald's private eye is Lew Archer. He is a lonely man, emotionally scarred but enduringly sensitive to others' hurt. He is an engaging and endearing figure.
The Underground Man deals with the abduction of a young boy, murder, betrayal, envy, the arrogance of the monied, the despair of the abandoned. In other words, what happens to people.
As the eminent critic Malcolm Forbes has observed: "Macdonald matters because of his ability to accurately depict the dire and dastardly things humankind does to itself and infuse them with a glorious poetic sensibility."
I relished Lew Archer when I first encountered him as the series ran to 1976 and I read him now with the warmth and intensified appreciation of one who meets a well loved friend after a long hiatus. In fact, as I read, the plot becomes subservient to the anticipation of the next verbal grenade to detonate with elucidation, or the phrase with resonates with insight.
Of course, when you enter Macdonald's America of the 1970s it's a trifle startling to find that marriage matters and a dollar tip is generous. It is startling in a different way to encounter conversation which is lucid, courteous yet vibrant. Yet the human tensions his novels depict with such flair and empathy are timeless and universal.
*Ross Macdonald is a pen name for Kenneth Millar who was born in California in 1915 and educated in Canada and at the University of Michigan where he also taught. He published his first novel The Dark Tunnel in 1944. He served as the president of the Mystery Writers of America and was given their Grand Master Award as well as achieving the Mystery Writers of Great Britain's Silver Dagger Award. He died in 1983. -- Prospero.
Rating: Five distinguished stars