(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Like many other Macdonald novels, The Underground Man takes place primarily in the fictitious Santa Teresa, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Santa Barbara, where Macdonald lived for thirty-five years. Also typical is the fact that the action ranges widely throughout California.

Early in the book, Lew Archer becomes involved in the entangled affairs of a well-to-do Santa Teresa family split in marital disputes. Leo Broadhurst, scion of the clan, had vanished fifteen years earlier, leaving his wife for another woman, but then seemingly deserting the second woman as well. His son, consumed for years by the desire to find his father, finally advertises for information in a newspaper, but his reward offer succeeds only in dredging up the past and does not locate Broadhurst.

One reward seeker is Albert Sweetner, an escaped convict who had been a foster child of Edna Snow, onetime Broadhurst housekeeper. Sweetner’s return revives a long-past scandal involving a teenage girl who is now a married woman. While the past closes in on these people and others, threatening their present lives, a raging forest fire also endangers them and their property and gives a sense of urgency to Archer’s need to resolve the growing mystery—the flames are on the verge of destroying evidence.

During the few days that the action of the book covers, Archer learns that Broadhurst was a womanizer whose wife shot him; as he lay dying, Edna Snow finished him off with a knife—both exacting delayed revenge. By the end of the novel, events have moved full circle: The mystery of Leo Broadhurst’s disappearance is solved, but his son dies in the process. Albert Sweetner also is killed, and another character commits suicide. There are positive futures for some others, but Lew Archer is the only one unchanged. He has not even made much money from his efforts. More than in any other Macdonald novel, the characters in The Underground an have “all the years of their lives dragging behind them.”...

(The entire section is 830 words.)

The Underground Man Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Underground Man, like many of Ross Macdonald’s novels, is set in the fictitious community of Santa Teresa, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Santa Barbara, where Macdonald (in real life, Kenneth Millar) lived from the late 1940’s until his death in 1983. As is typical of Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels, however, the action also ranges widely to other locales up and down the state of California.

While feeding peanuts to squabbling jays outside his apartment in West Los Angeles, private detective Lew Archer becomes caught up in the entangled affairs of the Broadhursts, a well-to-do Santa Teresa family that is split by marital disputes. Leo Broadhurst, scion of the clan, vanished fifteen years earlier, supposedly leaving his wife for Ellen Strome Kilpatrick, but then deserting his mistress as well. Stanley Broadhurst, consumed by his desire to find his father, places an advertisement in a San Francisco newspaper, succeeding in dredging up the past but failing to locate his father. Among the reward seekers is Albert Sweetner, an escaped convict who once was a foster child of Edna Snow, formerly a housekeeper for the Broadhursts. Sweetner’s return revives a long-buried scandal in which he and Fritz Snow, then teenagers, were accused of getting Marty Nickerson, also a teenager, pregnant. She is now Mrs. Lester Crandall and mother of Susan, a college girl who becomes involved first with Stanley Broadhurst and then with Jerry Kilpatrick, the rebellious son of Brian Kilpatrick and his former wife. Jerry and Susan steal a boat and then a car as they flee parents and all other authority figures in a frantic odyssey with six-year-old Ronny Broadhurst in tow.

While the past of the Broadhursts and the others is starting to close in on them all and threatening their present, there is also a raging forest fire that endangers their lives and property and gives an even greater sense of urgency to Archer’s need to resolve the developing mystery, since the flames could destroy vital evidence. The...

(The entire section is 832 words.)

The Underground Man Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Richard Layman. Hardboiled Mystery Writers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2002. A handy supplemental reference that includes interviews, letters, and previously published studies. Illustrated.

Bruccoli, Matthew J. Ross Macdonald. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984. Describes the development of Macdonald’s popular reputation as a prolific author of detective fiction and his critical reputation as a writer of literary merit. Includes illustrations, an appendix with an abstract of his Ph.D. thesis, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Schopen, Bernard A. Ross Macdonald. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A sound introductory study, with a chapter on Macdonald’s biography (“The Myth of One’s Life”), on his handling of genre, his development of the Lew Archer character, his mastery of the form of the detective novel, and the maturation of his art culminating in The Underground Man. Provides detailed notes and an annotated bibliography.

Sipper, Ralph B., ed. Ross Macdonald: Inward Journey. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Cordelia Editions, 1984. This collection of twenty-seven articles includes two by Macdonald, one a transcription of a speech about mystery fiction and the other a letter to a publisher which discusses Raymond Chandler’s work in relation to his own. Contains photographs and notes on contributors.

Skinner, Robert E. The Hard-Boiled Explicator: A Guide to the Study of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985. An indispensable volume for the scholar interested in tracking down unpublished dissertations as well as mainstream criticism. Includes brief introductions to each author, followed by annotated bibliographies of books, articles, and reviews.

South Dakota Review 24 (Spring, 1986). This special issue devoted to Macdonald, including eight articles, an editor’s note, photographs, and notes, is a valuable source of criticism.

Speir, Jerry. Ross Macdonald. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. Serves as a good introduction to Macdonald’s work, with a brief biography and a discussion of the individual novels. Includes chapters on his character Lew Archer, on alienation and other themes, on Macdonald’s style, and on the scholarly criticism available at the time. Contains a bibliography, notes, and an index.

Wolfe, Peter. Dreamers Who Live Their Dreams: The World of Ross Macdonald’s Novels. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1976. This detailed study contains extensive discussions of the novels and a consideration of the ways in which Macdonald’s life influenced his writing. Includes notes.