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To be a great detective one must also be a protagonist. A dynamic sort of character who makes things happen just by being himself.
-Philip Kerr, A Quiet Flame



The Blue Hammer (1976) was the last of the Lew Archer novels, the finest private eye series of all time, and, perhaps fittingly, includes between its lines an insightful thesis about the genre and the men who populate it. The basic plot of the mystery involves a missing painting by a long-missing and presumed-dead artist, but, as fans of Ross MacDonald will anticipate, neither the living nor the dead are who they're supposed to be. The investigation follows the formula of convolutions, beatings, murders and doomed romances that Mr. MacDonald established, along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. But we can string together a number of interstitial comments from the text to arrive at the interesting argument that the author is making about the form.

Early in the book, a character inquires about Archer's personal life and is surprised that he doesn't even know if his wife, from a marriage that ended twenty five years ago, is still alive:
"Haven't you tried to find out?"

"Not recently. I prefer to find out about other people's lives."
This suggests a lack of curiosity about himself, but later, an encounter with the leader of a religious cult produces the following conundrum:
"You seem to be a man engaged in an endless battle, an endless search. Has it ever occurred to you that the search may be for yourself? And that the way to find yourself is to be still and silent, silent and still?" [...]

They were questions I had asked myself, though never in just those terms. Perhaps, after all, the truth I was looking for couldn't be found in the world. You had to go up on a mountain and wait for it, or find it in yourself.
Here we have to ponder the possibility that the compulsion that drives these investigations is, at least in part, really an attempt to avoid self-knowledge, the seemingly selfless willingness to be beaten, battered, bruised, or even killed in order to help others disguising a selfish retreat from potentially difficult truths about oneself. And one of those truths intrudes later on:
Like other lost and foolish souls, Fred had an urge to help people, to give them psychotherapy even if it wrecked them. When he was probably the one who needed it most. Watch it, I said to myself, or you'll be trying to help Fred in that way. Take a look at your own life, Archer.
And it's not just that lives get wrecked in the process, but some are lost altogether:
"What's the matter?" Mrs. Brighton said.

"I hate to see people die."

"Then you picked a strange profession."

"I know I did. But every know and then I have a chance to prevent a killing."

And every know and then I precipitated one. I tried to keep that thought and the thoughts of Betty from coming together, but the two thoughts nudged against each other like conspirators.


Nor can they help but butt against one another in the reader's head: in the end, is Lew Archer a precipitator or a preventer of killings? And if his investigations ultimately right old wrongs and result in some kind of justice, is the collateral damage along the way then justified?

It hardly seems coincidental that MacDonald was asking these questions at the low point in the Cold War, just as America ended its disastrous adventure in Vietnam. The zeitgeist weighed heavily on the side of the idea that, no matter how white the knight, the quest for cosmic justice might extract a higher cost than it was worth. As previously in the series, Mr. MacDonald's fiction perfectly captures the mood of its time.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

Ross MacDonald (3 books reviewed)
Private Eyes
Ross MacDonald Links:

    -Ross Macdonald (1915-1983) - Pseudonym for Kenneth Millar (Kirjasto)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Ross Macdonald (IMDB.com)
    -Ross MacDonald (Thrilling Detective)
    -Ross MacDonald (Stop You're Killing Me)
    -The Ross Macdonald files (Karl-Erik Lindkvist)
    -BIBLIOGRAPHY: ROSS MacDONALD/KENNETH MILLAR:
    -Ross Macdonald (Wikipedia)
    -Ross MacDonald (1915-1983) (The Literary Encyclopedia)
    -PROFILE: The last testament of Ross Macdonald (Leonard Cassuto, 11/2/2003, Boston Globe)
    -PROFILE: THE CASE OF THE BROKENHEARTED FATHER: A troubled teenage girl. A dark night. A dead child. Investigating the real-life tragedy that haunted Ross Macdonald. (DAVID BOWMAN, Salon)
    -TRIBUTE: Fifty Years with Ross MacDonald (J. Kingston Pierce January Magazine)
    - EXCERPT: from Ross Macdonald: A Biography By TOM NOLAN
    -ESSAY : Stranger No More (Tom Nolan, January Magazine)
    -ESSAY: Tarnished Gold: Tracking Lew Archer Reveals Insights Into California's Soul (Tom Nolan, WestWays)
    -ESSAY: Ross Macdonald (Tom Nolan, BookSense)
    -ESSAY: Archer Takes the Case: A veteran MacDonald reader picks his favorite three Archer stories (Karl-Erik Lindkvist, January Magazine)
   
-ESSAY: Learning from Lew (Gary Phillips, January Magazine)
    -ESSAY: It's Personal: the Compassionate Miossions of Ross MacDonald and Lew Archer (Kevin Smith, January Magazine)
    -INTERVIEW: The Case of the Split Man: an interview with Tom Nolan (J. Kingston Pierce January Magazine)
    -PROFILE: Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar) (William Marling, Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction)
    -PROFILE: Gumshoe in paradise - Santa Barbara, California (Peter Fish, September 1999, Sunset)
    -PROFILE: Ross Macdonald: A Brief Biography (Classic Crime Fiction)
    -ESSAY: Ross Macdonald’s Marked Copy of The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Study of Influence (Robert F. Moss)
    -ESSAY: Ross MacDonald, The Holy Ghost (Nuclear Typewriter)
    -ESSAY: Exit Lew Archer; Enter Lew Harper? (Ron Miller, THE MYSTERY CLASSICS: BOOK & FILM)
    -ESSAY: Maestros of Murder: Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald (Roy Meador, BookSource Monthly)
    -ESSAY: "Tecs of the Times": A History of Private Eye Fiction (Neil Albert, MysteryNet)
    -ESSAY: The mystery as novel of manners - society's reflection in mystery stories (Linda Bridges, 1/20/92, National Review)
    -BOOK SITE: The Novels of Ross Macdonald by Michael Kreyling (South Carolina University Press)
    -ART: Caricature of Ross MacDonald (David Levine, This drawing originally appeared with Tough Guys, September 30, 1976, NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: "ross macdonald" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The Ivory Grin by Ross MacDonald (jcc55883, AOL Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Find a Victim by Ross MacDonald (Howard Dratch, Blog Critics)
    -REVIEW: of The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald (William Marling, Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction)
    -REVIEW: of The Underground Man by Ross Macdonald (William Marling, Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction)
    -REVIEW: of The Underground Man (TC, Mystery Guide)
    -REVIEW: of The Underground Man (jcc55883, AOL Journal)
    -REVIEW: of The Underground Man (Richard Schickel, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of Sleeping Beauty by Ross MacDonald (jcc55883, AOL Journal)
    -REVIEW : of Sleeping Beauty (Joe Hartlaub, Book Reporter)
    -REVIEW: of The Blue Hammer by Ross Macdonald (Thomas R. Edwards, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Lew Archer: Private Investigator by Ross MacDonald (James Clar, Crime Scene Scotland)
    -REVIEW: of Strangers in Towm: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries. By Ross Macdonald (Scott Veale, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries By Ross Macdonald (J. Kingston Pierce, January)
    -REVIEW: of Strangers in Town (Michael Carlson, Shots)
    -REVIEW: of Meet Me at the Morgue by Ross MacDonald (Janet Julian, Kliatt)
    -REVIEW: of Ross MacDonald: A Biography by Tom Nolan (Terry Teachout, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Ross MacDonald by Tom Nolan (Jerry Jay Carroll, The SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Ross MacDonald: A Biography by Tom Nolan (Roger Miller, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: of The Novels of Ross Macdonald by Michael Kreyling (Tom Nolan, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Novels of Ross MacDonald by Michael Kreyling (Dennis Lythgoe, Deseret Morning News)

MARGARET MILLAR:
    -ESSAY: The mystery of Margaret Millar: why are her novels out of print? (Jon L. Breen, April 18, 2005, The Weekly Standard)

LEW ARCHER NOVELS:

- The Moving Target (1949)

-The Drowning Pool (1950)

-The Way Some People Die (1951)

-The Ivory Grin (1952)

-Find a Victim (1954)

-The Name Is Archer [Short Stories] (1955)

-The Barbarous Coast (1956)

-The Doomsters (1958)

-The Galton Case (1959)

-The Wycherly Woman (1961)

-The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962)

-The Chill (1964)

-The Far Side of the Dollar (1965)

-Black Money (1966)

-The Instant Enemy (1968)

-The Goodbye Look (1969)

-The Underground Man (1971)

-Sleeping Beauty (1973)

-The Blue Hammer (1976)

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