The Blue Hammer
by Ross Macdonald
Knopf, 270 pp., $7.95
The Family Arsenal
by Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin, 309 pp., $8.95
It’s hard for sophisticated people to like something simple without overrating it, as the case of Ross Macdonald shows. Like those of his masters, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Macdonald’s “tough” detective stories have been getting considerable attention and praise from serious readers, and, though I’ve read all twenty of the Lew Archer novels, most of them more than once, I’d recommend more caution in judging them. Even an addict can see that they follow a formula, are unevenly written and less than convincing in their efforts at social and psychological commentary. Yet the genre itself still pleases, and if a good and imaginative thriller like Paul Theroux’s The Family Arsenal puts a piece of routine tough stuff like The Blue Hammer in its place as literature, it’s clear that they have something important in common.
Under his real name, Kenneth Millar, Macdonald began in the 1940s as a writer of what now seem embarrassing melodramas about Axis espionage or the adventures of returning service men. The invention of Lew Archer in 1949 led to a better subject, the ironies of contemporary, affluent life in California, an apparently new and free world in which the privileged and the deprived could yet be shown, as Archer’s investigations proved, to have common and appalling roots in the past. But World War II remains the source of trouble in many of the Archer books. The Blue Hammer hinges upon a murder in 1943, when a soldier home on leave kills his half-brother in the Arizona desert and takes over his name, his wife, and his (undeserved) reputation as a promising young artist; and many of the other novels also reach back to that dark time when men and women, dislocated from familiar identities and sound commitments, took the fatal step into error whose consequences have dogged them ever since. I suspect that Macdonald would not be displeased, or surprised, by a comparison to the Greek tragedians on Troy.
Archer himself is a resolutely neutral, even neuter, figure. He lives modestly and alone, seldom has much money, does without extra-professional friends or interests. (He claims to know nothing of arts of letters, for example, though Macdonald, who does know about them, sometimes forgets this.) His personal reticence still permits glimpses of an unsettled childhood on the West Coast, service with the Long Beach police in the Thirties, a stint with Intelligence during the war, a painful divorce. He is modern man reduced almost to pure function, the solving of mysteries, though a moralizing softness quivers within his hard-boiled shell.
You know where you stand with Archer, that is, and if he’s a less interesting character than Chandler’s Marlowe or the various heroes of Hammett, no great loss is incurred; one of the pleasures of the genre is its alluring suggestion that actions matter more than agents, that “why” means less than “how.” An Archer story, properly, subordinates “character” to the details of the problem at …