Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On "The Underground Man" by Ross MacDonald ****

About two years ago, I read about fifteen American pulp mystery novels in a row. I hadn't read too many of that genre, just a few of the British classic mystery writers, like Conan Doyle and Christie, and a couple of the better-known Americans, Chandler and Hammett. Some of the more interesting writers on that list of books proved not to be from the bigger names, though they were classic books in their own right, often with classic movies based on them. I came actually to enjoy the genre, which I'd never been big on before. What did I like? It wasn't so much the mystery. It was often the writing (Chandler himself said he was more into the writing than the story, at one point, as I recall reading somewhere)--spare, clipped, precise. And it was also often the attention to the seedy underbelly of society or to particular portions of society one doesn't hear about often (circuses). Most were not mysteries in the classic sense at all--there were no private detectives, just people struggling with murder or kidnapping or trouble. In the case of Ross MacDonald, a writer who was left off that initial list and who I just finished reading a book by for the first time, he does deal in detectives. But like so many of those other writers, he has a knack with the language and with exposing interesting portions of society one doesn't think about--or more precisely, pitting different portions of society against itself: rich people, poor people, hippies, artists, and so on. And he writes about Los Angeles, and about a detective, who like most, is rather lonely--both things I can identify with (not the detective part--the L.A. part and the lonely part). I found this first book quite enthralling. Sadly, he had to wrap it all up, and that's when it started to fall apart for me. Everything came together--and a little too easily. I guess I'm more for the mysteries in which nothing really is solved--like Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49.

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