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Mark S. Bacon

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Ross Macdonald’s ‘The Chill’ — Convoluted, complex or chilling?

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It wasn’t until recently that I discovered Ross Macdonald named his detective Lew Archer after Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer.

Makes sense. Many critics identify Macdonald as the literary heir of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, as the writer who polished and redefined the classic detective hero.  Macdonald said Chandler was one of his (other) main inspirations. He took Philip Marlowe and added a layer of psychosocial depth. But not right away. 

According to a variety of writers, the early books in Macdonald’s 18-novel series were more hard-boiled, cynical. Later, perhaps after his sixth novel, according to today’s mystery critics, Lew Archer developed a stronger social conscience distancing him from Spade and Marlowe.

Debatable. Sam Spade has a code which he explains or demonstrates more than once in The Maltese Falcon.  In one of the final scenes, Spade says,

“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

Hammett explored the theme of duty more extensively in another book, The Glass Key. But regardless, a number of Macdonald’s later books examined the responsibilities and consequences of personal relationships, especially family relationships gone bad, skeletons, black sheep, sometimes covering more than one generation.  To solve his crimes Archer looked at family and community allegiances and probed the psychological makeup of suspects and victims.

The psychological element in crime is twisted and turned and studied in The Chill, Macdonald’s 11th Archer novel. One of the initial suspects is even kept under the care of a psychiatrist for much of the book.  The plot moves from one suspect to another with a string of three murders, one dating back twenty years; another, ten years; another, two hours.  Are they connected?  That’s one of many questions Archer has to answer.

Alex Kincaid hires Archer to help him find Dolly, his wife of less than 24 hours.  The couple, in their early 20s, were spending their honeymoon at a Southern California beach hotel when Dolly disappeared.  Rebuffed by indifferent local police, Kincaid spends almost two weeks searching for Dolly in vain. Archer finds the runaway bride after only a day’s work, but the trouble for Archer and his client is only beginning.

Paul Newman was Lew Harper, not Archer, in two films made from Ross Macdonald novels.

The story takes place in a fictional Southern California city, Pacific Point, where Archer finds Dolly attending classes at a local college and chauffeuring part time for a wealthy woman. Shortly after he finds her and reunites her with her husband, Dolly suffers a mental breakdown, and confesses to shooting her college advisor, Helen Haggerty. 

Archer had met the unmarried Haggerty at the university when he was looking for Dolly.  She poured on the charm and invited Archer up her nearby house for a drink.  She tells him she’s received telephone death threats and fears for her life. She asks him to spend the night. He turns down the attractive woman’s offer.  As he drives back to his Pacific Point motel he tells himself there was “no right  thing to do—only sins of commission and omission.”

Here’s where it gets complicated, and complications soon pile on. When Archer hears Dolly’s confession, he drives back to Haggerty’s home to find her dead in a pool of blood.  In the dark he fails to stop a man running from the house.  The stranger manages to drive away, but Archer makes note of his Nevada license plate number.

From here Archer follows leads—family connections of Haggerty and Dolly—that take him to Reno and a small town in Illinois.  He suspects the murder of Haggerty and of Dolly’s mother twenty years ago are connected.  It’s a confusing spiral, but it all makes sense in the end.

As you’re sorting out the complex story, Macdonald entertains you with philosophy and bits Chandleresque humor:

Some men spend their lives looking for ways to punish themselves for having been born, and Begley had some of the stigmata of the trouble-prone.

 _ _ _ _

“You’re entitled to your opinion,” she said, as if I wasn’t.

_ _ _ _

“What are you trying to do, trap me into a mistake?”

“It’s an idea. [I said] What sort of mistake did you have I mind?”

One Goodreads reviewer said the book is “extraordinarily complex but never convoluted.”

Maybe. The last sixty pages make you think, remember. Pour over the clues, the conversations that Archer has in Pacific Point and Reno and Illinois. Is the resolution far fetched? Not really.  Archer solves it by the process of elimination.

 

Ross Macdonald taught us how to do it

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Private investigator Lew Archer walks into the mob boss’s house. “It looked as if the decorator had been influenced by the Fun House at a carnival.” Then Archer says something to irritate the boss.

“His fresh skin turned a shade darker, but he held his anger. He had an actor’s dignity, controlled by some idea of his own importance. His face and body had an evil swollen look as if they had grown stout on rotten meat.”

These are the words of Ross Macdonald from his Lew Archer series, “the finest series of detective Ross-Macdonald---Way-Peoplenovels ever written by an American,” according to William Goldman in The New York Times Book Review.

I’m a Ross Macdonald beginner, having only read a sampling of his work—and I’m hooked. It’s easy to rave about his exquisite way with words. He pounded a typewriter the way Heifetz played the violin, Reggie Jackson swung a bat. He belongs in the company with the best American detective writers, and some would say, with the best American writers period. Continue Reading →

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