In The Blue Hammer, Ross Macdonald layers plot elements like a painter applying oils. Macdonald displays typical authorial flourishes (rich Californian heiresses with evil daddies) and adds some new elements ('70s counter-culture finds Arhcer eating something called a "natureburger") all enmeshed in one of the richest, most intricately entangled plots he ever wrote.
It was to be his last book, and in it one can already feel that maybe Lew Archer is about ready for retirement. He's settling old scores, and finding new, quite possibly true, love -- something he's never done on any of his cases before -- and reflecting more deeply than usual on the nature of life, work, and the whole dirty business.
The case revolves around a missing painting stolen from a rich woman's home, supposedly the work of an artist who disappeared twenty-five years ago. The twists and turns come fast and loose and almost immediately: the painting was borrowed for analysis by an art student, a friend of the woman's daughter, who is sure it's a fake. The portrait then disappears from the young man's house, which turns out to be a foreboding gray fortress manned by his creepy mother, a nurse who keeps her alcoholic husband under lock and key. More twists ensue: the very shady art dealer who sold the painting in the first place is found bleeding and bludgeoned in the street. With his last breath, he names his killer: the missing artist.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. What follows is a twisting highway of stolen identities, love, murder and revenge that leads Archer from California to Arizona and back again, all revolving somehow around this missing artist. It's such a spellbinding read -- it really is one of those books you can't wait to get back to when you're away from it.
There's something profoundly affecting about the characters in this novel, the way they're all saddled with the unfortunate results of lifetimes of bad choices. Many of them live in situations they hate merely because they've made mistakes in the past that there's no way to fix, leading to a lifelong compromise. Some of them are tragic, like the art student who steals/borrows the painting. The "boy," Fred, is really a thirty-one year old man, emotionally stunted by poverty and a lifetime with crazy parents. He isn't even finished slogging his way through college, scrimping and saving to get by. Archer initially dislikes him but eventually takes pity on him. The man-child is a complex and tragic figure, while his mother is a loathsome creature but one who's suffered almost enough to justify her twisted actions -- almost. Perhaps Archer wonders what might have happened if he'd ever had a son? There seems to be a subtext of maternal betrayal and paternal longing running throughout this unusually tender and poignant novel.
As with other Lew Archer novels I've read, this one is indeed a very tightly circumscribed universe. Coincidence appears to abound because everyone seems to know each other, everyone seems to be part of the same social circle. It imparts an incestuous vibe that just increases the spine-shuddering disgust these characters inspire. Then there are a number of other characters who are just plain selfish, grasping, and opportunistic, and they're the ones who end up saddled with lifelong burdens in this self-contained universe that seems to take care, and punish, of its own.
Incidentally: wait till you find out what the blue hammer is.