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Going 'Underground'

February 25, 2013 - Lee Smith
I see I have not been blogging. As the editor, I’ve just admonished myself. And if Meg Alexander is back in the game, I better be too.

While I await the end of winter, doing some conditioning for the golf season, I’ve been reacquainting myself with the works of Ross Macdonald. He is the author of the hard-boiled series of detective novels featuring Lew Archer. I’m currently re-reading “The Underground Man,” to which I was first introduced in a college course. It was a great course, on mystery/detective fiction, featuring everything from Agatha Christie and P.D. James, to Hammett and the aforementioned Macdonald. We even got to watch “The Maltese Falcon” in class. Nice!

Anyway, Macdonald’s books have the formula down: The detective takes his clues from interview to interview, gets lied to, unmasks the lies, and meets interesting and immoral characters along the way. The key to reading this type of work, if you want to figure out what’s going to happen, is to note the questions that are left unanswered, and then use your supposition. In any case, resolving the mystery isn’t necessarily the best part of the story.

What distinguishes Macdonald’s work is what reviewers note about it: It moves beyond “simple” detective fiction to deeper truths about humanity. Lew Archer is a good, honest guide — honest about others and himself.

Macdonald’s stories are set in 1950s, '60s and '70s Los Angeles, the perfect backdrop for the sin he reveals. By sin, I mean actions people take to deny their own realities and, of course, to use others for their own ends.

Interested? Start with “The Underground Man.” The resolution is creative as well.

 
 

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