I wrote a little thing for Simon and Schuster’s?Dark Pages crime fiction site, on Ross Macdonald’s Underground Man. I’ve cross-posted it here for archiving purposes.
I always like an author photograph on the back of a book. I like to look into the eyes of the person who spent so many weeks and months with the characters I?ve just spent a few days with. I like to look for clues in their expression as to how much of their own personality inhabits the people they?ve created. Stephen King?s eyes are gleeful and warm, James Lee Burke?s world-weary and lined. And Ross Macdonald, the subject of the words that follow, looks like the kind of man who could put up a shed, drink bourbon at lunchtime, talk a suicidal teenager off a roof after dinner, and discuss Shakespeare knowledgeably with Harold Bloom before bed. A true North American Renaissance man.
Which is exactly how I?d describe Macdonald?s hero Lew Archer. Across eighteen tight but elegiac novels, Archer strides around California like a well-read and ultimately-kind avenging angel. He writes fantastic women (unlike Chandler), and sympathises with those younger females who have lost their way (Macdonald himself had a well-publicised sequence of problems with his own daughter). He punches out bad guys, but has well-stocked bookshelves. And unlike Chandler?s Marlowe, who burned bright but sudden and seems frozen in a pre-war frame, Archer carried on investigating right through the 50s and 60s, while America changed around him. He never grumbles about that. I picture an ageing Marlowe downing martinis in a down-at-heel LA bar in 1968, snarling at the hippies, while Archer heads off to a Jefferson Airplane gig to see what all the fuss is about.
I?m going to recommend a late-period Archer novel for that reason.?The Underground Man?(not to be confused with Mick Jackson?s book of the same name) has a mysterious forest fire threatening a well-heeled Los Angeles suburb above the ground while family secrets threaten to undermine everything from below. It?s exciting and hard-boiled and tough, but it?s also warm, literate and ultimately kind. Which is how I like to imagine Ross Macdonald himself.