Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Blue HammerThe Blue Hammer by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"My chosen study was other men, hunted men in rented rooms, aging boys clutching at manhood before night fell and they grew suddenly old."

"The Blue Hammer (1976) is the eighteenth and last novel in the unforgettable Lew Archer series, by far the best series of detective novels ever written by an American. Archer, a wise, compassionate, and deeply humane private detective, is quite the opposite of the clichés of "hard-boiled" PI's, invariably one-dimensional and moronic. Only Nicolas Freeling's Van der Valk ranks as a comparably interesting character.

Archer is called to the Biemayers' residence in Santa Teresa (the fictional Southern California town modeled on Santa Barbara) because a valuable painting has been stolen from their house. It is suspected that the picture is by Richard Chantry, a well-regarded painter who had disappeared from Santa Teresa 25 years ago. Biemayers' daughter has recently moved out of the house and may be in contact with some disreputable people, such as Fred Johnson, a "perpetual student", who might have been the thief. Archer begins his inquiries with a visit to the store owned by a local art dealer and also talks to Fred and his parents. Soon a man beaten to death is found and the case explodes.

"[T]he case has enlarged enormously since they had hired me," says Archer just the next day. Indeed, the inevitable connections emerge with the events in the deep past (dating back to the early 1940s), and everything seems to be revolving about the missing painting and the identity of a woman who sat as the model. The plot involves more murders and becomes enormously complicated. Eventually though - as usual in Macdonald's novels - Archer realizes "that the thirty-two-year case was completing a long curve back to its source."

While not the best book in the series, The Blue Hammer is probably a little better than average. Lew Archer's late-middle-age maturity and wisdom offset some sloppiness by the author. Mr. Millar (Macdonalds's real name) tries to artificially create tension by rearranging the building blocks of the plot instead of allowing the story to flow naturally. The writing is superb in some passages, for instance the first few pages offer great prose, sparse and economical with not a single word wasted, but some dialogues and summaries of the plot (presumably for the forgetful reader) later in the story are subpar. Too much reliance on coincidence shows again, particularly in the Mrs. Brighton thread.

During his investigation Archer meets a much younger woman to whom he is instantaneously attracted but the romantic thread reads flat and forced despite some unforgettably beautiful passages like:
After a while I could see the steady blue pulse in her temple, the beating of the silent hammer that meant that she was alive. I hoped that the blue hammer would never stop.
This is not only the last novel in the series, but the very last piece of serious writing done by Mr. Millar. His terrible illness (Alzheimer's disease) was already causing the first symptoms.

I have now finished re-reading (25-45 years after the first time) all eighteen books in the series and reviewed them here, on Goodreads. I still believe the series ranks at the very top of the crime/mystery genre, along with the Van der Valk and Martin Beck cycles. Macdonald's often breathtakingly beautiful prose, his sharp eye for Southern California landscapes and mores, and the compassionate and merciful character of Archer, full of human decency and goodwill towards all people, the best friend anyone could have if only he were real, all combine to make the Lew Archer series a literary masterpiece, one that clearly transcends the limitations of the genre.

Why then have I not rated any Lew Archer books with five stars? Why not the top rating for The Underground Man , with its first few pages of utterly magnificent, lean prose? Why not the universally praised The Chill ? I think it is the matter of endings: obeying the classical rules of the detective genre Mr. Millar spins almost impossibly complex webs of plot whose untangling usually comes at the expense of plausibility. I wish the author - at least once - did not provide the solution to the crime.

Three and a quarter stars.

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