In Chapter I of The Blue Hammer, Ruth Biemeyer hires Lew Archer, private detective, to retrieve her stolen painting, a portrait of a young woman. In Chapter XLIII, he returns it. The very triteness of that notion for a mystery story enhances the reader’s awareness, chapter by chapter, of the complications of a far more interesting plot. Mrs. Biemeyer tells Archer that the painter, Richard Chantry, has been missing since 1950. Most of the characters Archer will encounter will give a reason for believing Chantry is now alive or dead, will guess where he is living or how he died.
As events seem to support one theory over another, Archer, like the reader, will move toward or away from each possibility. Macdonald, who has written twenty-five books since 1944, the first four under his real name, Kenneth Millar, and eighteen mysteries through the voice of Archer since The Moving Target (1949), knows that readers of the genre delight in the constant reassessment of the probabilities latent in each shifting possibility.
And the milieu in which those possibilities arise is not only the Southern California coastal urban landscape Archer covers, from hilltop mansions to mean-street hovels, but the psychological labyrinth formed by the relationships among his clients, his leads, his suspects, and his guilty targets. The reader follows at a rapid pace Archer’s physical movements from place to place, wondering, Where will he go next? Who will he seek out next? What risk will he run there? What clue will he learn that will propel him to another place, another interesting character?
Though Macdonald is a master of pace, it is not violent action which galvanizes his plot. It is the shuttling back and forth among the characters to learn more about their relationships, the introduction of new characters and new strands to the web of connectedness, that keeps Archer and the reader in urgent motion. In the first eleven pages, we become interested in the Biemeyers, whose marriage is unstable; in their daughter, Doris, who is on drugs; in Fred Johnson, Doris’ boyfriend, who may have stolen the painting; in Paul Grimes, the dealer who sold Mrs. Biemeyer the painting; in Paola, his part-Indian daughter; and in Francine Chantry, the painter’s wife, who lives “on the other side of the barranca that separated the two estates like a deep wound in the earth,” a metaphor packed with symbolic implications about all the relationships.
It is to experience Macdonald’s mosaic technique of constructing character relationships that we read his ficition. Except for Fred, all the characters in The Blue Hammer came, originally, from Copper City, Arizona. We analyze each character as he interacts with many others; we identify with Lew Archer, and come to know him intimately, as he interacts with and analyzes all the characters. We read Macdonald not to solve a crime at the end, but to behold the web. The mystery of identity is made lucid for each character, and all time and space are compressed in the completed picture. From each character, Archer collects a piece of a time-bomb, and he is the fuse for the long-dormant explosion of the buried past in the dying present.
Macdonald uses a characteristic technique of fragmented, interrupted, delayed, repeated interviews to move his plot forward. Archer visits the large, grim Johnson house, a sad parody of three other still elegant houses in the story, where Gerard, a half-crazed wino, greets him. Gerard will prove to be William Mead, Mrs. Chantry’s lover, who killed her husband Richard and assumed his identity. Mrs. Johnson (Sarah Mead), a nurse, locks Gerard in the house...
(The entire section is 1506 words.)