The Blue Hammer (Lew Archer Series #18)by Ross Macdonald
The time is the 1970s; the place, Southern California. The stolen canvas that Lew archer has been hired to retrieve is reputed to be the work of the celebrated Richard chantry, who vanished in 1950 from his home in Santa Teresa. It is the portrait of an unknown woman-and on its trail Archer moves with edgy competence among the intrigues of dealers and collectors.
The time is the 1970s; the place, Southern California. The stolen canvas that Lew archer has been hired to retrieve is reputed to be the work of the celebrated Richard chantry, who vanished in 1950 from his home in Santa Teresa. It is the portrait of an unknown woman-and on its trail Archer moves with edgy competence among the intrigues of dealers and collectors. Until suddenly he finds himself drawn into a web of family complications and masked brutalities stretching back fifty years through a world where money talks or buys silence, where social prominence is a murderous weapon, where, behind the plausible facades of homes not quite broken but badly bent, a heritage of lies and evasions pushes troubled men and women deeper into trouble...
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Chapter 1I drove up to the house on a private road that widened at the summit into a parking apron. When I got out of my car I could look back over the city and see the towers of the mission and the courthouse half submerged in smog. The channel lay on the other side of the ridge, partly enclosed by its broken girdle of islands.The only sound I could hear, apart from the hum of the freeway that I had just left, was the noise of a tennis ball being hit back and forth. The court was at the side of the house, enclosed by high wire mesh. A thick-bodied man in shorts and a linen hat was playing against an agile blond woman. Something about the trapped intensity of their game reminded me of prisoners in an exercise yard.The man lost several points in a row and decided to notice my presence. Turning his back on the woman and the game, he came toward the fence."Are you Lew Archer?"I said I was."You're late for our appointment.""I had some trouble finding your road.""You could have asked anybody in town. Everybody knows where Jack Biemeyer lives. Even the planes coming in use my home as a landmark."I could see why. The house was a sprawling pile of white stucco and red tile, set on the highest point in Santa Teresa. The only things higher were the mountains standing behind the city and a red-tailed hawk circling in the bright October sky.The woman came up behind Biemeyer. She looked much younger than he did. Both her narrow blond head and her pared-down middle-aged body seemed to be hyperconscious of my eyes. Biemeyer didn't introduce us. I told her who I was."I'm Ruth Biemeyer. You must be thirsty, Mr. Archer. I know I am.""We won't go into the hospitality routine," Biemeyer said. "This man is here on business.""I know that. It was my picture that was stolen.""I'll do the talking, Ruth, if you don't mind."He took me into the house, his wife following us at a little distance. The air was pleasantly cool inside, though I could feel the weight of the structure surrounding and hanging over me. It was more like a public building than a housethe kind of place where you go to pay your taxes or get a divorce.We trekked to the far side of a big central room. Biemeyer pointed at a white wall, empty except for a pair of hooks on which he said the picture had been hung.I got out my notebook and ball-point pen. "When was it taken?""Yesterday.""That was when I first noticed that it was missing," the woman said. "But I don't come into this room every day.""Is the picture insured?""Not specifically," Biemeyer said. "Of course everything in the house is covered by some insurance.""Just how valuable is the picture?""It's worth a couple of thousand, maybe.""It's worth a lot more than that," the woman said. "Five or six times that, anyway. Chantry's prices have been appreciating.""I didn't know you'd been keeping track of them," Biemeyer said in a suspicious tone. "Ten or twelve thousand? Is that what you paid for that picture?""I'm not telling you what I paid for it. I bought it with my own money.""Did you have to do it without consulting me? I thought you'd gotten over being hipped on the subject of Chantry." She became very still. "That's an uncalled-for remark. I haven't seen Richard Chantry in thirty years. He had nothing to do with my purchase of the picture.""I hear you saying so, anyway."Ruth Biemeyer gave her husband a quick bright look, as if she had taken a point from him in a harder game than tennis. "You're jealous of a dead man."He let out a mirthless laugh. "That's ridiculous on two counts. I know bloody well I'm not jealous, and I don't believe he's dead."The Biemeyers were talking as though they had forgotten me, but I suspected they hadn't. I was an unwilling referee who let them speak out on their old trouble without the danger that it would lead to something more immediate, like violence. In spite of his age Biemeyer looked and talked like a violent man, and I was getting tired of my passive role."Who is Richard Chantry?"The woman looked at me in surprise. "You mean you've never heard of him?""Most of the world's population have never heard of him," Biemeyer said."That simply isn't true. He was already famous before he disappeared, and he wasn't even out of his twenties."Her tone was nostalgic and affectionate. I looked at her husband's face. It was red with anger, and his eyes were confused. I edged between them, facing his wife."Where did Richard Chantry disappear from?""From here," she said. "From Santa Teresa.""Recently?""No. It was over twenty-five years ago. He simply decided to walk away from it all. He was in search of new horizons, as he said in his farewell statement.""Did he make the statement to you, Mrs. Biemeyer?""Not to me, no. He left a letter that his wife made public. I never saw Richard Chantry again after our early days in Arizona.""It's not for want of trying," her husband said. "You wanted me to retire here because this was Chantry's town. You got me to build a house right next to his house.""That isn't true, Jack. It was your idea to build here. I simply went along with it, and you know it."His face lost its flush and became suddenly pale. There was a stricken look in his eyes, as he realized that his mind had slipped a notch."I don't know anything any more," he said in an old man's voice, and left the room.His wife started after him and then turned back, pausing beside a window. Her face was hard with thought."My husband is a terribly jealous man.""Is that why he sent for me?""He sent for you because I asked him to. I want my picture back. It's the only thing I have of Richard Chantry's."I sat on the arm of a deep chair and reopened my notebook. "Describe it for me, will you?""It's a portrait of a youngish woman, rather conventionalized. The colors are simple and bright, Indian colors. She has yellow hair, a red and black serape. Richard was very much influenced by Indian art in his early period.""Was this an early painting?""I don't really know. The man I bought it from couldn't date it.""How do you know it's genuine?""I think I can tell by looking at it. And the dealer vouched for its authenticity. He was close to Richard back in the Arizona days. He only recently came here to Santa Teresa. His name is Paul Grimes.""Do you have a photograph of the painting?""I haven't, but Mr. Grimes has. I'm sure he'd let you have a look at it. He has a small gallery in the lower town.""I better talk to him first. May I use your phone?" She led me into a room where her husband was sitting at an old rolltop desk. The scarred oak sides of the desk contrasted with the fine teakwood paneling that lined the walls. Biemeyer didn't look around. He was studying an aerial photograph that hung above the desk. It was a picture of the biggest hole in the ground I'd ever seen.He said with nostalgic pride, "That was my copper mine.""I've always hated that picture," his wife said. "I wish you'd take it down.""It bought you this house, Ruth.""Lucky me. Do you mind if Mr. Archer uses the phone?""Yes. I do mind. There ought to be some place in a four-hundred-thousand-dollar building where a man can sit down in peace."He got up abruptly and left the room.chapter 2Ruth Biemeyer leaned on the doorframe, exhibiting the profile of her body. It wasn't young any longer, but tennis and possibly anger had kept it thin and taut."Is your husband always like this?""Not always. He's worried these days.""About the missing picture?""That's part of it.""What's the rest?""It may be connected with the picture, as a matter of fact." She hesitated. "Our daughter, Doris, is an undergraduate at the university and it's brought her into contact with some people we wouldn't normally choose for her. You know how it is.""How old is Doris?""Twenty. She's a sophomore.""Living at home?""Unfortunately not. Doris moved out last month at the start of the fall semester. We got her an apartment in Academia Village on the edge of the campus. I wanted her to stay here, of course, but she said she had a right to her own life-style, just as Jack and I have a right to ours. She's always been very critical of Jack's drinking. Mine, too, if you want the exact truth.""Is Doris into drugs?""I wouldn't say that. Not deeply, anyway." She was silent for a while, imagining her daughter's life, which seemed to frighten her. "I'm not too crazy about some of the people she goes around with.""Anyone in particular?""There's a boy named Fred Johnson, whom she's brought to the house. Actually he's a pretty ancient boy; he must be at least thirty. He's one of those perpetual students who hang around the university because they like the atmosphere, or the pickings.""Do you suspect he could have stolen your picture?""I wouldn't put it that strongly. But he is interested in art. He's a docent at the art museum, and taking college courses in that field. He was familiar with Richard Chantry's name, in fact he seemed quite knowledgeable about him.""Wouldn't that be true of local art students in general?""I suppose so. But Fred Johnson showed unusual interest in the picture.""Can you give me a description of Fred Johnson?""I can try."I opened my notebook again and leaned on the rolltop desk. She sat in the swivel chair facing me."Color of hair?""Reddish blond. He wears his hair quite long. It's already thinning a bit on top. But he compensates for that with his mustache. He has one of those big bristly shoebrush mustaches. His teeth aren't very good. His nose is too long.""What color are his eyes? Blue?""More greenish. It's his eyes that really bother me. He never looks straight at you, at least he didn't at me.""Tall or short?""Medium size. Five foot nine, perhaps. Quite slender. On the whole he isn't bad-looking, if you like the type.""And Doris does?""I'm afraid so. She likes Fred Johnson much too well to suit me.""And Fred liked the missing picture?""He more than liked it. He was fascinated by it. He gave it a lot more attention than he gave my daughter. I sort of got the impression that he came here to visit the picture instead of her.""Did he say anything about it?"She hesitated. "He said something to the effect that it looked like one of Chantry's memory pictures. I asked him just what he meant. He said it was probably one of several Chantrys that hadn't been painted directly from a model, but from memory. He seemed to think that added to its rarity and its value.""Did he mention its value?""He asked me how much I paid for it. I wouldn't tell him—that's my own little secret.""I can keep a secret.""So can I." She opened the top drawer of the rolltop desk and brought out a local telephone directory. "You wanted to call Paul Grimes, didn't you? Just don't try to get the price out of him, either. I've sworn him to secrecy."I made a note of the dealer's number and his address in the lower town. Then I called the number. A woman's voice answered, faintly exotic, faintly guttural. She said that Grimes was busy with a client but would be free shortly. I gave her my name and said I would drop in later.Ruth Biemeyer whispered urgently in my free ear, "Don't mention me to her."I hung up. "Who is she?""I believe her name is Paola. She calls herself his secretary. I think their relationship may be more intimate than that.""Where's her accent from?""Arizona. I believe she's part Indian."I glanced up at the picture of the hole that Jack Biemeyer had made in the Arizona landscape. "This seems to be turning out to be an Arizona case. Didn't you say Richard Chantry came from there?""Yes, he did. We all did. But we all ended up here in California."Her voice was flat, betraying no regret for the state she had left nor any particular pleasure with the state she lived in now. She sounded like a disappointed woman."Why did you come to California, Mrs. Biemeyer?""I suppose you're thinking about something my husband said. That this is Dick Chantry's town, or was, and that was why I wanted to settle here.""Is that true?""I suppose there's some truth in it. Dick was the only good painter I ever knew really well. He taught me to see things. And I liked the idea of living in the place where he did his best work. He did it all in seven years, you know, and then he disappeared.""When?""If you want the exact date of his departure, it was July 4, 1950.""Are you sure he went of his own accord? He wasn't murdered, or kidnapped?""He couldn't have been. He left a letter to his wife, remember.""Is she still in town?""Very much so. As a matter of fact you can see her house from our house. It's just across the barranca.""Do you know her?""I used to know Francine quite well, when we were young. She and I were never close, though. I've hardly seen her at all since we moved here. Why?""I'd like to have a look at the letter her husband left behind.""I have a copy. They sell photostats of it at the art museum."She went and got the letter. It was framed in silver. She stood above me reading it to herself. Her lips moved as if she was repeating a litany.She handed it over with some reluctance. It was typewritten except for the signature and dated July 4, 1950, at Santa Teresa.Dear Francine,This is a letter of farewell. It breaks my heart to leave you, but I must. We have often talked about my need to discover new horizons beyond which I may find the light that never was on sea or land. This lovely coast and its history have told me what they had to tell me, as Arizona once did.But as in Arizona the history is shallow and recent, and cannot support the major work that I was born to do. I must seek elsewhere for other roots, a more profound and cavernous darkness, a more searching light. And like Gauguin I have decided that I must seek it alone. For it is not just the physical world I have to explore, but the mines and chambers of my own soul.I take nothing with me but the clothes on my back, my talent, and my memory of you. Please remember me with affection, dear wife, dear friends, and wish me well. I only do what I was born to do.Richard Chantry.
Meet the Author
Ross Macdonald's real name was Kenneth Millar. Born near San Francisco in 1915 and raised in Ontario, Millar returned to the U.S. as a young man and published his first novel in 1944. He served as the president of the Mystery Writers of America and was awarded their Grand Master Award as well as the Mystery Writers of Great Britain's Gold Dagger Award. He died in 1983.
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I am such a Ross MacDonald fan and especially Lew Archer. This story really had me guessing almost to the end. It's a lovely cat and mouse game that the author plays with his reader. I just wish his family had let someone fill in and continue Lew's character like Robert B. Parker's family did with his books. Darnnit...you just get so attached to these characters and it's hard to let them go.
Ross McDonald was a brilliant writer...the Lew Archer series is an absolute must read for fans of the hard-boiled detective genre. At times poignant, at times laugh-out-loud funny, his books are mysteries written like poetry. You may also enjoy: anything by Raymond Chandler, the Trav McGee series by John D. MacDonald, the James Bond series by Ian Fleming, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and the very early works of Robert B. Parker.