Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

When it was published in 1971, The Underground Man got more critical attention than detective fiction normally receives, including a front-page review by Eudora Welty in The New York Times Book Review and a Newsweek cover story. With his twenty-second novel (the seventeenth starring Lew Archer), Macdonald finally was given his rightful recognition as successor to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in the hard-boiled school and also was accepted as a serious novelist. Yet it is more than a breakthrough novel. The Underground Man also is Macdonald’s major achievement, the work in which his worldview—including social commentary, particularly on environmental and ecological matters—is given its fullest and most memorable expression. Though all the Lew Archer novels have multiple plots, the several story lines in this one are more skillfully developed and unified than is the case in the previous books. Recurring, too, is the theme of a corrupt society, but Macdonald’s portrait here is especially memorable, with Archer’s pursuit of the truth revealing the venality behind the facade of propriety.

Thus, echoes of previous Archer novels abound in The Underground Man—the primary one being the demonstration that the past usually has the answers to the mysteries of the present. Yet despite the shared similarities of style, tone, theme, setting, and method, it has a distinctive voice and quality and the perfect combination of timeless and timely themes.