When we first meet Doctor Blues, he is indulging in self-pity. He realizes that his life has been wrongly led, but, paradoxically, rightly led within the wrongness. As his wife puts it, he is like a ship that is steaming ahead, but is listing badly.
Moments of fantasizing aside, Doctor Blues is Prof. George Montrichard, a witty, articulate student of ancient man. He teaches at a small New England college, having gained fame and enemies within his field when an inspired guess turned out to be right. He questioned V. Gordon Childe's thesis that the megaliths of Western Europe were hillbilly versions of Egyptian mastaba tombs, and suggested that the European material might be earlier than the Egyptian. Radioactive carbon dating proved him right, but he has been drifting along ever since.
At the moment Montrichard is agitating for a year's sabbatical leave, so he can write his Book. But he is slivered down by academic politics (including the suspicion that he has written poison pen letters), and he is also suffering doubts and questions.
Montrichard's largest problem, which provides much of the detail and ambiance of this book, is that his inner self usually does not know what his outer self is doing. As a result, he cannot see himself as others see him, and he is repeatedly shocked and bewildered when he is told bluntly that he does not rate. Somewhat susceptible to alcohol (it is hinted), he is liable to wild, erratic outbursts that he sometimes remembers--but differently than others do. Imperceptive, insensitive, selfish, though an amiable and decent man, he is in a way a failed picaro: he does not have the power to bring into existence his perception of himself as hero.
Behind Montrichard stands a still larger problem. That is metaphysical identity, which the author explores in various ways. What is the identity of Montrichard, really? Or of his wives', one divorced, the other half estranged? On a different level, what is the identity of the murderer who left a young woman's corpse at Mystery Hill? Could it have been a Montrichard? And how about Mystery Hill itself? A conglomeration of ruined stonework that really exists in southern New Hampshire, its owners and fans consider it several thousand years old, although most archeologists regard it with skepticism. And, as the identity last resolved, there is an academic impostor, who, oddly enough, turns out to be the firmest self in the book.
In a vague way, Montrichard is or would like to be a mythic figure with a mysterious birth and curious life circumstances. He believes he was fished out of the sea as an unknown baby, and that his foster father died in a bizarre situation that is as sinister as a sacrifice. Montrichard is also tied to the megalithic world--his first insight, later Mystery Hill, finally Ireland.
Smith reveals Montrichard in essentially three situations. First, and much the most interesting, is Montrichard's entanglements in his college, together with flashbacks to his childhood and youth. His reflections are inventive and amusing, sometimes in a slapstick way. A good subtle touch is Smith's parody of academic writing, with paragraphs composed of strong lead sentences, followed by filler detail.
In the second situation, Montrichard suffers the humiliation of learning that the police and perhaps his colleagues are able to perceive him as a sex or ritual murderer, when, due to his egotism and big mouth, he becomes the chief suspect in the Mystery Hill murder. The author handles this material in the manner of a straight mystery story, but with the difference that Montrichard does not solve the crime, nor does anyone else.
The final and weakest section comes in Ireland, where Montrichard is supposed to be gathering material for his book, but finds nothing and does nothing beyond becoming the focus for a horde of progeny, wives, ex's and once-removeds who descend on him. At this point, Montrichard begins to see life and himself more realistically, and the result is a resigned despair at the future.
The publisher seems to consider this book as in some way an Everyman story exposing the spiritual dilemma of modern man, perhaps offering a way out via dissociation. Considered as such a book, "Doctor Blues" is not successful, for the union of mythic and real is weak. No note of universality emerges; Montrichard is an individual, indeed, a comic individual. But if "Doctor Blues" is not profound, it is clever and imaginative, filled with a lot of good detail and language-delights. Read on the level of comedy, and not pseudo-philosophy, it will offer hours of pleasure.