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.)