The Chill by Ross Macdonald

16386133Lew Archer, having just completed a successful investigation, is hired by a young man, Alex Kincaid to find his wife. Only married for a short time, his wife, Dolly, has vanished into thin air. Archer finds her incredibly quickly, only to find that Dolly is implicated in the shooting of her college professor, Helen Haggerty, a crime that she claims that she is responsible. Confined to a hospital by a nervous breakdown, it seems that the police have their suspect.

Archer is less convinced. Who was the stranger who alarmed Dolly so much before the crime? And, as he looks into the background of the people involved, it seems that there is more than one murder to be investigated. Other similar shootings have taken place over the years and Archer becomes convinced that one hand is responsible – a dangerous hand whose work might not be over.

Hardboiled, noir. Not my sort of thing, it has to be said. But Sergio, in the comments for my review of The Skin Collector, expressed his horror at my ignorance of Macdonald and recommended I start with this one. My brief experiences of it have never endeared it to me – the violence often inherent in the central character puts me off for a start. But, although Macdonald is cited in places as the “heir” to Chandler and Hammett, this is a slightly different kettle of fish.

Similarities are obvious – everything is written from the point of view of Archer and he’s a private detective. But (and I admit that this from my limited experience of the genre) he doesn’t go around leading with his fists or his gun, and the female characters are as well-constructed as the male ones. Archer’s voice is distinctive – while he is motivated by doing the right thing, he is practical enough not to investigate when someone isn’t paying him to do it. When his funding abruptly ends, he does go and search out a new employer rather than getting on the first plane out of there, which I thought was a nice blend of common sense and morality.

The structure of the novel is typical of what I expect – Archer talks to people one at a time, some people reveal more second time around – and he works out the big picture. Rather similar to The Cuckoo’s Calling, in fact. The difference here is that the ending doesn’t involve anything monumentally stupid.

In fact the ending really impressed me. While the majority of the conclusion is revealed gradually over the final section, there is a deeply impressive sting in the tale – something that was in plain sight but that I completely missed. Very clever indeed, and something that will be bringing me back for more.

This novel is from 1964, roughly halfway through the canon, and it seems that Macdonald started in the traditional noir style and then consciously found his own voice – according to Wikipedia in 1958 with The Doomsters. While I doubt I’ll look at the earliest work, this is an impressive mystery and I look forward to reading something else from Macdonald soon. Highly Recommended.

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12 comments

    • The ending is stunning in it’s simplicity and cleverness. Took me completely by surprise even though it makes sense. And the deviousness of one character was really quite chilling – a great read. Which one next then?

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      • So glad this went so well chum – I would recommend either BLACK MONEY or THE FAR SIDE OF THE DOLLAR – truth is though that any of the books he published between THE GALTON CASE in 1959 and THE UNDERGROUND MAN in 1972 see the author at the peak of his powers.

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  1. Great review. I have only read the first book in the series. I enjoyed it very much. Now you have remind me that I still have to read some other. My understanding is that Archer’s series can be read out of chronological order. Each book is pretty much independent. Therefore The Chill seems a good book to read next.

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  2. Well, Steve, if you, a fellow non-hardboiled fan, give it such a positive review, then I think I might just give this a try. Especially since it doesn’t seem necessary to have read previous books with Archer.

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  3. Looking forward to “The Chill.” I’m a big RM fan and have read nine of his novels, most recently “Black Money,” which I liked less than most others. My favorite is “The Instant Enemy,” which no one rates as No. 1.

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  4. Neither Marlowe nor Hammett’s detectives lead with their fists or their guns. They use them as a last resort. I think you’ve got them confused with Mickey Spillane and other lesser writers who followed in the wake of those two giants.

    I’m not trying to sway anyone who doesn’t like hardboiled detective fiction in general — different strokes, and all that. But I don’t like to see those authors misrepresented.

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