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The Underground Man

(Lew Archer #16)

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  1,729 ratings  ·  158 reviews
As a mysterious fire rages through the hills above a privileged town in Southern California, Lew Archer tracks a missing child who may be the pawn in a marital struggle or the victim of a bizarre kidnapping. What he uncovers amid the ashes is murder -- and a trail of motives as combustible as gasoline. The Underground Man is a detective novel of merciless suspense and trag ...more
Audio CD, Library edition
Published October 1st 2001 by Blackstone Publishing (first published January 1st 1971)
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Average rating 3.94  · 
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 ·  1,729 ratings  ·  158 reviews

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Bill Kerwin
May 20, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Another fine Lew Archer novel--perhaps the finest. Once again, troubled young people haunted by the past are implicated in a murder, and solving that murder will involve bringing the past to light.

Although I don't think the resolution of the plot is quite as effective as some of the others (The Galton Case, The Chill, The Goodbye Look, for example) the imagery that structures the narrative is profound, resonant and organic. Toxic pollution is a powerful metaphor here (DDT and the birds, psyched
Jul 15, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Lew Archer became a witness of a quarrel of a couple on the brink of a divorce related to their son. His mother reluctantly let his father to take the little guy to visit her mother-in-law. Shortly after they departed there was an announcement about forest fires right where the husband with his son were headed.
Forest fires
Worried about her son, the wife asked Archer to check on his safely. This seemingly innocent request resulted in Archer uncovering a trail of seemingly unrelated dead people - from both t
Cathy DuPont
Apr 14, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Cathy by: Jay
"What the hell?" This kept going through my mind from the beginning to the end of this book.

Reading along merrily (well, perhaps merrily isn't the best word) and zap, I didn't see that one coming.

Then getting confused with the characters, who's who, and in the next sentence or two Macdonald drops a short line reminding the me, the reader, exactly who that guy is. Macdonald reads my mind. Well, maybe not but he certainly seems to write for the reader, me anyway.

I love hard-boiled because they'r
Carla Remy
Oct 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The books of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer series are always somehow very pleasant to read, and solid, satisfying mysteries as well. This one has a background of fire and rain, with a big forest fire (Southern California).
Sep 02, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Most detective novels take place in rooms. They are about people talking in various room with clues being teased out, lies and dissembling revealed, alibis smashed, emotional breakdowns occurring, all leading up to the nervous and tense confrontation between pursued and pursuer. Okay sometimes these rooms are on the Orient Express, or they’re on an ocean liner. And sometimes a murder occurs outdoors so the investigators get to chat about what’s taking place in the open air, but mostly the poundi ...more
Anthony Vacca
Mar 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An eerily sentient wildfire coiling its way through southern California, the angry son of a long-missing ship captain found in an open grave with a pickaxe in his brain, the emotionally distraught wife and now missing son he left behind, the story told to this possibly kidnapped child of a parent-eating monster, a pair of young people with a stolen boat and a lot of emotional baggage, an escaped con with a toupee as bad as the ideas he has for an easy buck, a slow-witted gardener and his dominee ...more
Sep 16, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is vintage Ross Macdonald: rich society, double crosses, disturbed youth, dirty secrets all set in the Southern California "ghetto" (his word, not mine). The enigmatic, faceless PI Lew Archer reveals in this book he was once married. But that's it. But Lew is a good guy to have around in a tight jam. Sometimes I felt this one read like the author's autobiography. Quick read. Lots of characters to keep track of in the fast moving plot. Sometimes on this re-read the similes get in the way of ...more
Nov 22, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mystery-crime
Eudora Welty praised this novel highly in a NYT review, which kicked off a long correspondence with RM recently published in Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald. The letters are quite good. I wish Macdonald's novels were as good as his letters. That would be something. At the risk of contradicting Miss Eudora, whose work I worship, I always feel slightly disappointed in RM's novels. They're good, just not as good as I expect them to be. Still, this ...more
Dec 19, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I love Ross MacDonald. This book had all of the standard MacDonald elements--a complicated web of familial and sexual relationships, extramarital affairs, multiple murders, horribly corrupt rich folk--both old money and nouveau riche--all magnified by the mentally disturbed adolescents who inherit the sins of their fathers and mothers. I know it sounds depressing but it's great fun. Fun like opening the paper to a new Blagojevich or Monica Lewinski type scandal every morning for a week or two. P ...more
Jun 25, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5 - Too convoluted - too many names, too many twists and turns - to my taste.
(I listened to this story: don't - that is if you want to enjoy this as a puzzle of detection rather than a crime adventure show. Read - unless you don't mind continually halting the audio to (mentally or actually) jot down names and dates and data or brood over the story for a while.)
But Macdonald delivers, as is his wont, an original plot that makes sense, with his hallmark nifty twist in the tail and no loose en
Krok Zero
Feb 04, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: winter-08-to-09
You know that famous Faulkner quote about how the past isn't dead, in fact it isn't even past? Ross Macdonald took that idea to heart more than just about any other novelist. His detective novels are stunningly intricate webs of murder, deceit, and corruption in which all the above sins are passed on from generation to generation among cruel rich families. Call it tragedy-noir, or just call it brilliant and moving. Ross Macdonald is the man. This one is a good place to start if you're looking fo ...more
A smart and well-written mystery set in southern California at the beginning of the '70s, with a good flavour of the era.
Oct 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The 16th(!) Lew Archer book by Ross Macdonald and it may be my favorite. I really liked the sense of urgency and tension. Short version: Lew befriends a small child who is his neighbor one morning. That evening the child goes missing while a wildfire slowly consumes the California countryside. The clock was really ticking on this one and the strain of it pushes Archer to the tipping point. This is one case that he can't mess up. The mystery is excellent and the writing top notch. I literally cou ...more
Clay Kallam
Nov 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mysteries
I try to be very sparing when it comes to five-star ratings, but "The Underground Man" is Ross Macdonald at his finest -- and that's saying something.

I have been reading the Lew Archer series more or less from start to finish, and "The Underground Man," written in 1971, is the best so far, with Macdonald's combination of Southern California noir, complex plotting and carefully controlled craft in full effect. Consider this paragraph, from the first page of the book:

"It was a bright September mo
Jan 12, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Another compelling and extremely well-written entry in Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer series of detective novels. This one, in concert with Macdonald's ongoing theme, revolves around an old family secret that comes back to haunt those lucky enough to have survived the events of the secret. Macdonald is simply one of the best writers of this sort of fiction, a writer with poetry and heartbreak and melancholy in his soul who conveys those attributes without undue cynicism and with an unobtrusive but ...more
Marvellous story! I really like the way all parts of the puzzle fit together, and one is kept in suspense till the end to find out who the murderer is.
Jun 20, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I don't know if this is Macdonald's "best", but it's my favorite by my favorite mystery writer. I think it was in Colm Toibin's "The Blazing Heather" where the main character, a judge, says something along the lines of "people want mercy, but all I can give them is justice". Macdonald's private eye Lew Archer doles out the mercy, often in spite of himself. Compassion. What a concept. And it all holds up pretty well, fifty years after it was first published.
Perry Whitford
May 22, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The first novel I've read by Ross Macdonald, this was the second book I had read with the title of The Underground Man. The first one, about an eccentric Victorian Duke, was a very different book altogether.

I came to this book with the expectation that Macdonald and his detective Lew Archer were the closest heirs to Raymond Chandler and his peerless creation Philip Marlow, so I was really looking forward to this book.

Mind you, I had previously read a book by Robert B Parker (Pot Shot) with the s
Harry Connolly
Oct 26, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Lew Archer is moving into the seventies, trying to keep up with changing times, and so are his characters.

After reading several crime/mystery novels, it was refreshing to read one that opened with real momentum, and that felt honestly earned. Archer is searching for a kidnapped boy in the midst of a California wildfire. The authorities have too much going on to offer much help, and Archer has to do the fictional PI's work of digging through every character's lives to work out the truth of the c
Nov 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: orgasmic
The Lew Archer novels are all about pace. They move slowly, gathering more and more dirt as the trail leads further and further back through the years and what happens is you get dragged along in all these knots of guilt and grief and regret, until you become a witness to these generations of failure. Sometimes the murders feel like lesser crimes than the cycle of damage that the parents pass on to the children.
This was brilliant, not so much for the complex, maybe convoluted unravelling of the
Jim Davis
I have been reading the Archer novels chronologically but haven't enjoyed the last two as much as the earlier novels. Archer is growing older and has become, in my opinion, less interesting. The novels are becoming much less "hardboiled". I've read that Macdonald has been adding "more literary themes and psychological depth" to his stories as the series progresses. I guess I fell that these additions are just slowing things down and making them more convoluted. None of the characters, including ...more
Dec 17, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mysteries
This book was a little slow-moving at first, but then picked up speed around the second half. MacDonald is a really methodical writer, so even though his plot is convoluted (in a fantastic way), he untangles each thread enough so that you're confused, but still curious. This book also serves as a great portrait of life in late-sixties Los Angeles, and offers a pretty unflinching portrait of "The Greatest Generation" and the Baby Boomers (basically, everyone's up to no good). I greatly enjoyed th ...more
Apr 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: crime
Another book about adventures of private detective Lew Archer, the most important event in the book is a large forest fire in California. Archer struggles with a fire trying to unravel the mystery of the murder. As usual, solving the mysteries of the past is the key to understanding the current killing. Perhaps the most interesting in the novel is the gradual discovery of the past, Archer like an archaeologist digs up slowly to discover new secrets and to explain them. The book keeps good pace, ...more
Sep 15, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Late Lew Archer, full of painful family psychology and tortured family trees, but ameliorated by Archer's calming and empathetic presence. This one has a forest fire and its aftermath weaving in and out of the drama, to great effect.
I always get lost reading these, I imagine everyone does, but this was the first Archer where I lost the thread early and never really had any idea what was going on. I was probably just distracted
Sian Lile-Pastore
Oct 18, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This a slow-burner, that gets more and more complicated with more and more characters as it goes along. I really loved the beginning chapter where Lew (the private eye) is feeding peanuts to the birds... And I liked the setting of LA and San Francisco, with forest fires burning in the background.

While it wasn't necessarily my kind of book, it kinda got under my skin, and I found myself wondering how Lew was getting on.

The writing is sparse and subtle and just all round classy.
Lukasz Pruski
Nov 09, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"[...]Ross Macdonald, a mystery novelist who didn't so much transcend the genre as elevate it, showing again (like Hammett, Faulkner, Collins, Dickens, Greene, and many others since Poe) how the crime story can at any time become art." Tom Nolan, in Ross Macdonald: A Biography

Indeed, Ross Macdonald's prose can reach the level of high literary art. The first chapter of The Underground Man (1971) is magnificently written - pure, classic Macdonald: sparse, minimalistic, economical prose. On just si
J.B. Siewers
May 01, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: i-own-it
Fantastic written, smooth and flows, maybe a we bit of too many characters but great detective fiction
Dec 14, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this in a couple of days. There is a lot to appreciate in the novel - Macdonald's short but sharp social commentary. Hilarious tongue in cheek dialogs. Lecherous descriptions of women. Liberal use of similes. The opulent but empty lives of the old rich - all of them are drunk most of the time and live in huge houses (eg.The Crandalls lived on a palm-lined street in a kind of Tudor manor with a peaked roof and brown protruding half-timbers). The plot is well ..... deliberately preposterous ...more
Sep 29, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: macdonald-ross
finished this one today, good story, not great, good, okay. the characters bled into each times it was not easy distinguishing one from another. yeah, sure, a closer reading avoids that problem...that, or a character list at the git-go. at times i thought...ummm, reads like a screenplay, not that i've read many screenplays, maybe none at all in fact. mucho dialogue, some action, sure. a few of the characters stand out, fritz, was that his name? see what i mean? kelsey. too, there was ...more
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Ross Macdonald is the pseudonym of the American-Canadian writer of crime fiction Kenneth Millar. He is best known for his series of hardboiled novels set in southern California and featuring private detective Lew Archer.

Millar was born in Los Gatos, California, and raised in his parents' native Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, where he started college. When his father abandoned his family unexpectedly,

Other books in the series

Lew Archer (1 - 10 of 20 books)
  • The Name Is Archer
  • The Moving Target (Lew Archer #1)
  • The Drowning Pool (Lew Archer #2)
  • The Way Some People Die
  • The Ivory Grin (Lew Archer #4)
  • Find a Victim
  • The Barbarous Coast
  • The Doomsters
  • The Galton Case
  • The Wycherly Woman

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