REVIEW: The Chill – Ross Macdonald

Penguin Modern Classics paperback cover (image from Amazon)

Penguin Modern Classics paperback cover (image from Amazon)

Lew Archer is hired by a young man, Alex Kincaid, to find his wife Dolly, who has suddenly disappeared. They had not known each other long, and Alex has not been able to persuade the sheriff’s department to take her disappearance seriously. Archer takes the case, and in fact finds Dolly quickly, but of course complications arise. She’s been seriously disturbed by a visit from a man from her past, and then the death of her college professor, Helen Haggerty; in fact, she claims hysterically that she caused Helen’s death. Kincaid and Archer aren’t convinced, but Archer realises that Dolly may know more about the crime than she’s revealing, and he hopes that by installing her in a home run by Dr Godwin, who once treated Dolly for psychological issues several years ago, she may come to be able to remember more clearly what happened.

It’s revealed that Dolly’s father has just been released from prison, and he claims that, despite his daughter’s testimony at the trial, he did not kill his wife. Archer discovers that Helen’s death may be linked to another crime in Bridgeton, near Chicago, Helen’s home town, many years before, and eventually straightens out the complicated ties which bind the characters together, and finds out what happened and why.

The Chill is something of a change from the last book reviewed. The plots of Macdonald’s books often turn on long-hidden secrets and past crimes, and this is nicely done in The Chill. The twisted relationships between members of families are investigated and there are contrasts between Helen’s relationship with her father, a former cop, and Dolly’s with hers, as well as Dean Bradshaw’s (he’s the dean of the college where Dolly studied and Helen taught) with his mother. Everyone is lying, for what seem like them to be good reasons, but Archer is able to pick the truth, through perseverance and diligence.

He has a rather tetchy relationship with the local law enforcement officers, particularly since the sheriff’s department is convinced that Dolly killed Helen, and think that Dr Godwin, abetted by Archer, is deliberately sheltering a murderer. Macdonald, through Archer’s voice, presents the characters dispassionately; they are well-rounded and realistic (sometimes horrifyingly so), and even those, like Helen, who appears only briefly in the flesh before her death, seem like a real person with a personality of their own. None of these people are stereotypes. The characters are memorable, and Archer is both cynical about others’ motives while also willing to see the good in them.

Macdonald also has a great way with descriptions, both of people and places:

‘Come in if you want. It won’t do any good. He’s gone.’

I’d already guessed it from her orphaned air. I followed her along a musty hallway to the main room, which was high and raftered. Spiders had been busy in the angles of the rafters, which were webbed and blurred as if fog had seeped in at the corners. The rattan furniture was coming apart at the joints. The glasses and empty bottles and half-empty bottles standing around on the tables and the floor suggested that a party had been going on for some days and might erupt again if I wasn’t careful.

(p62 Penguin Modern Classics paperback)

I prefer Macdonald’s writing to Chandler’s, with whom he’s often compared: it’s not as showy, but more precise, and his books are much more tightly plotted. I don’t think I’ve ever read a bad book by him.

Published by: Penguin (2012, originally published 1963)

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This entry was posted in 2013 New Reads, Crime fiction, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to REVIEW: The Chill – Ross Macdonald

  1. Great choice Ela – I consider this one of the great masterpieces of postwar crime fiction and along with BLACK MONEYand maybe THE UNDERGROUND MAN the pinnacle of Macdonad’s writing. I remain devoted to Chandler but their different achievements in the genre remain equal for me.

    • Ela says:

      Thanks, Sergio! It’s nice to have these reissued in the UK. Previously I’ve had to get imports – apart from ‘Black Money’ which was published as one of the Orion Crime Masterworks series, and which started me off on my love of Macdonald. I think it’s a shame he’s not as well known as Chandler (though I do like Chandler’s novels and must get my copies back from my sister-in-law in Germany!).

  2. Cristian C. says:

    There are several of your reviews that I re—read a lot—namely, those about Mrs. Christie, MacDonald, Mrs. Sayers—MacLean—Stephenson and Gibson—and Stoker. Also those about Heaney, Coupland, Fforde, Pullman, M. Lewis, etc.. I like them very much.

    When I began reading Mrs. Christie I knew, from her reputation, she was supposed to be bleak and very scary—so I read her as such—therefore, I have been disappointed, later, to find the humorous sides of the adaptations, I didn’t wish any humor, and was accustomed not to notice any in the few novels I had read, all Poirot novels, plus ‘… And then …’—though the one, the adaptation I mean, with Mrs. Novak, about a murder from revenge, seen first on a Russian TV post, fitted my ideas and expectations—the dreaded portrait, etc.. But then, I feel the same about most Doyle adaptations, where the humor spoils, for me, the story—never bleak enough, it seems (yet I liked a Holmes parody with Caine—and Lysette A. in a small role). But perhaps for me most crime fiction is set in Rue Morgue. I can read a humorous crime novel as a humorous novel; otherwise, I expect straight thrills. I may wish to read a humorous novel; when I want to read a crime novel, the humor isn’t very enjoyed by me, I guess.
    Perhaps unrelated, I liked the Russian adaptations of English classics (the Kim Novak movie wasn’t Russian, but dubbed).

    • Ela says:

      Thanks for the kind words.

      I find it interesting that you assumed Christie’s works were “bleak and very scary” since in the UK they don’t have that reputation at all. Some of her ghost stories are very unsettling – The Lamp, for example, or The Last Seance – but in most of her detective novels there is some humour. It’s often not as broad as it’s often played in adaptations, but the novels are not wholly serious by any means: Poirot’s style of dress and fussiness are often played for amusement value, for example.

      I don’t think that Doyle’s Holmes short stories contain much humour, and most adaptations have been, I think, quite faithful. I think there needs to be humour in a crime novel, if only to release the tension a little – it can’t be unrelentingly bleak all the time, or it would be unreadable. At least, that’s my view of the genre!

      • Cristian C. says:

        I didn’t know there were ghost stories by Mrs. Christie. But my experience with her literature is very limited—having read only six books by her—and I do not remember which were the last two. But the first three made a very deep impression on me—two Poirot mysteries, and ‘Ten Little’ (in Romanian, the book still goes, as far as I know, by her previously most known title—it’s true in Romanian the word hasn’t pejorative or racist connotations, it simply means black person)—then, for 17 yrs., I read nothing by her, then I picked a Miss M. novel (‘Bertram’), and I enjoyed it—I was 29 by then—and I do not remember the plot, detective, or at least title of the last two books by her that I have read. That reputation of bleakness of hers was gathered from a couple of adults who spoke to me about her, when I was a kid.

        When I was a kid, the only Poirot for us Romanians was Ustinov—and the only Miss M., Mrs. Lansbury. I would like to be able to say Rathbone is my favorite Holmes, but I didn’t find those movies very enthralling, very engrossing; as a curiosity, I once saw Scott (‘Patton’) as Dupin.

      • Ela says:

        It’s more usually titled ‘And Then There Were None’ nowadays, in English, and the island has been re-named.

        I like Ustinov as Poirot. Though he doesn’t much physically resemble Poirot as described in the books, he gets the characterisation nicely.

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