October 23, 2014 | Rome, Italy | Sunny 14°C
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Bios & Memoirs


War Music

Christopher Logue's personal "Iliad" recharges Homer and makes the ancient actual.

Death Sentence (L'Arrêt de mort)

Blanchot's seminal "novel" is about the act of creation itself, and its costs.

Talking to Ourselves

Andrés Neuman's slender but astute novel examines death from three sides.

The Unknown Quantity

Hermann Broch's novel of the life and times of a 1920s mathematician is sadly overlooked.

Can't and Won't

Lydia Davis has a problem: she can't not display her ingenious bravura.

Open City

What's most impressive about Teju Cole's debut is its modulated darkness.

Never Love a Gambler

Irish writer Keith Ridgway is beautifully uncompromising in his pitch-perfect thug chronicles.

Scenes From Village Life

Amos Oz's interlocking stories are parables for a brilliant, haunted nation.

The Third Policeman

Irishman Flan O'Brien managed to introduce Disney to Swift in a comic vision of death.

Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner's 2011 debut set a fine tone for postmodern irony, but it grows repetitive.

The Underground Man
By Ross MacDonald
Penguin Modern Classics, 1971 (2012). 320 pages

Canadian-American Ross MacDonald (1915-1983) wrote detective stories in the finest tradition of a form that burst to prominence in the Dashiell Hammett 1920s and was later exalted by the likes of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler. MacDonald's talisman's gift to the terse-minded genre was divorced, middle aged detective Lew Archer, who unlike some of his predecessors combined toughness with quiet compassion and non-noirish reluctance ("I sometimes served as a catalyst for trouble — not unwillingly…")

Archer's home ground was mostly California, and some of MacDonald's better books, including this one, were sensitive to the social seizures that gripped the postwar United States, culminating in the 1960s. "The Underground Man," which while rotating around linked murders, is also about parents from the Hammett era — ages 40-to-60 — unable to fathom the thinking with wayward children alienated from values that depended on the covering up family secrets, particularly the more sordid sexual ones.

These are the secrets Archer bumps up against when he tries to track down a teenage blonde and her young boyfriend who have inexplicably absconded with a five-year-old boy.

When the boy's father is found murdered, the plot thickens, with the private lives of the adult principles shown to spew "a moral DDT that damaged the lives of their young." All the while a forest fire rages, a metaphor for people smoked out, exposed, undone, part of an innate savagery that Archer tries to contain but knows he cannot. "The hot breath of vengeance was growing cold in my nostrils as I grew older," he confesses. "I had more concern for the a kind of economy in life that would help preserve the things that were worth preserving." It is this depth of vulnerability and ironically uplifting resignation that makes Archer unique, and MacDonald, Kenneth Millar in life, consistently worth reading.

Reviewed by Book Staff
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