RARA-AVIS: Eudora Welty and the Underground Man

From: Frederick Zackel (fzackel@wcnet.org)
Date: 05 Aug 2009

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    Yes, we should talk about Ross Macdonald .


    Eudora Welty, yes, Her Southern Majesty Herself, wrote the following about Lew Archer, the fictional private eye created by Ross Macdonald, in her New York Times review of Macdonald's "The Underground Man":


    "As a detective and as a man [Lew Archer] takes the human situation with full seriousness. He cares. And good and evil both are real to him. ... He is at heart a champion, but a self-questioning, often a self-deriding champion. He is of today, one of ours. The Underground Man is written so close to the nerve of today as to expose most of the apprehensions we live with.


    "In our day it is for such a novel as "The Underground Man" that the detective form exists. ... What gives me special satisfaction about this novel is that no one but a good writer--this good writer--could have possibly brought it off. "The Underground Man" is Mr. Macdonald's best book yet, I think. It is not only exhilaratingly well done; it is also very moving."

    The Queen said it: Archer cares. If Macdonald gave nothing else to the hard-boiled genre in all his explorations into his own heart & soul ... he added compassion for both the victim & the killers.

    Too much of our genre is just cowboy bang bang. Harmless non-threatening entertainment.

    What makes Hammett & Spade so incredible is both guys walk in our shoes and we can walk in theirs. Just as Spade says his partner would have followed Brigid up the alley, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, so would have Spade. So would have Hammett.

    What makes Chandler & Marlowe so incredible is how each of them see how he is part of the nastiness, that the knight needs to be rescue himself.

    What makes Macdonald & Lew Archer so incredible is that each guy comes to know fear & pity: that there but for fortune go you & I.

    "He believed it was possible to raise the crime novel to the level of serious literature, yet maintain its popularity."


    That line comes from an essay from The Los Angeles Times about The Underground Man:


    The Golden State's most lasting contribution to modern fiction may turn out to be the hard-boiled private eye. Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade hung his shingle in San Francisco, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe hired out to clients in Los Angeles and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer solved crimes in what everyone understood was Santa Barbara.


    "They helped define California for others as a magnet for drifters, a rootless place where culture ran no deeper than suntans and where guilty secrets lay buried like land mines."

    ~ Jerry Jay Carroll, Special to The Chronicle, 1999


    "You smell like trouble to me," he said.


    In this noir mystery, Private Investigator Lew Archer is hired to track down a missing child but becomes embroiled in a baffling forest fire that threatens affluent Southern California communities.


    Lew Archer uncovers and entire secret history of wayward parents, wounded offspring, and murder. Along with its merciless suspense, The Underground Man possesses a moral vision as complex as that of a classic Greek tragedy.


    "a generation whose elders had been poisoned . with a kind of moral DDT that damaged the lives of their young."


    The Underground Man is an extremely subtle and complex story that in many ways epitomizes the best of Ross MacDonald's work. As always, Archer is far more concerned with unearthing the hidden motivations and relationships that underlie the events in the narrative than he is with merely catching and punishing the perpetrators of a crime.


    As the detective himself puts it, "The hot breath of vengeance was growing cold in my nostrils as I grew older. I had more concern for a kind of economy in life that would help preserve the things that were worth preserving


    The Underground Man, published in 1971, may well be the best of MacDonald's oeuvre, which would make it pretty much the best p.i. book ever written. It beautifully captures Southern California in the 60s.


    Like most of the later Archer stories, he serves not so much as the investigator of wrongs than an emissary to untangle the complex and poisonous relationships of the characters and try to avert impending tragedy. He is not so much interested in "who did it" as much as finding out what circumstances caused the situation he is now mixed up in.


    He's generally listed third in the triumvirate--Dashiell Hammett (The Father); Raymond Chandler (The Son); and Ross MacDonald (The Holy Ghost)--Mr. MacDonald is more properly recognized as the greatest of the private eye authors.


    The community of Santa Teresa is MacDonald's fictionalized Santa Barbara


    In 1964 a wildfire threatened the Millar home in Coyote Canyon. Ken stayed behind to fight the flames by hosing down his property.


    Macdonald was born in Los Gatos in 1915 and raised in Canada by his half-mad mother, Anna. Life was so hard that they begged on the streets for food. Anna once dragged him as far as the gates of an orphanage before changing her mind about giving him up for adoption. His wastrel father, a newspaper editor turned sea captain, died in the poorhouse. Macdonald had lived in 50 rooms by the time he was 16.


    Macdonald had a doctorate in English from the University of Michigan. He believed it was possible to raise the crime novel to the level of serious literature, yet maintain its popularity.


    He and his wife, fellow mystery novelist Margaret Millar, moved to Santa Barbara in 1946, to a house where she wrote in one room and he in another.


    Paul Newman's 1966 movie Harper enabled the pair to move finally to a house of their own on the Hope Ranch in Santa Barbara.


    He wrote 18 Lew Archer detective novels over 25 years including ``The Chill'' and ``The Underground Man,'' building readership until 1969, when critical mass was reached and Lew Archer zoomed to best-seller stardom.


    ``From him,'' mystery writer Sue Grafton says in an introduction, ``we finally understand that the crime novel could be as challenging, as astute and as rarefied as the sonnet.''


    Eudora Welty described his style as ``an almost unbroken series of sparkling pictures.''


    He died in Santa Barbara, California, after a protracted bout with Alzheimer's disease. He was just 67 years old.


    Hammett, Chandler & Macdonald took the hard-boiled California pee eye in new directions. Each one used the formula, the conventions of the genre , and took off in a different direction. Each one did it differently, and each one did it courage and conviction.

    Should we make it a quartet?

    Fine. Who else has taken the genre in new directions?

    Fred Zackel


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