Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The ChillThe Chill by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"I [...] sat on a bench at a bus stop, and read in my new book about Heraclitus. All things flow like a river, he said; nothing abides. Parmenides, on the other hand, believed that nothing ever changed, it only seemed to. Both views appealed to me."

The Chill (1964) is the eleventh - out of eighteen - Lew Archer novel by Kenneth Millar, writing under the pseudonym of Ross Macdonald. It is one of the best entries in the series and deservedly received the Silver Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers' Association. In fact, before I undertook the "Re-read Macdonald" project I had considered it the author's best novel. Yet the current read of The Chill has been a slight disappointment and I now believe that The Underground Man should be regarded as the author's top achievement. Nevertheless, The Chill certainly is one of the top novels in the mystery/crime genre: a very well-written book with a great plot and a satisfying ending. It just falls a bit short of a masterpiece.

A young man, Alex Kincaid, hires Lew Archer to find his wife Dolly, who left Alex - without explanation - after less than one day of marriage. Just before disappearing Dolly had a male visitor, a man named Begley, and Archer is able to quickly locate the missing woman by tracing the man's steps. Dolly happens to be a student at a small private university in Pacific Point, a fictional coastal California town. She also has a part-time job driving a rich widow, Mrs. Bradshaw, in her Rolls. Mrs. Bradshaw's son is the dean of the college, yet despite his position he seems to be completely under his mother's thumb. Archer soon discovers deeper and more troubling connections between Mr. Begley and Alex' wife so that finding her turns out to be just the beginning of a monstrously complicated case that involves three murders.

There is a well-known photographic technique that uses three layers in a picture: foreground, middleground, and background; each of these layers should provide some interest to the viewer. Ross Macdonald uses a similar approach in this novel. While the usual structure of his mysteries involves two time frames: past and present, where some dramatic events from the past - betrayal, childhood trauma, murder - cast shadows on the present, here we have three time frames, separated by intervals of about ten years. The events from about 20 years ago affect the events 10 years later, and events from both these frames impact the present.

In addition to the outstanding plot The Chill features some highly accomplished writing whose quality far surpasses the usually unconvincing prose of the mystery genre. My favorite is Chapter 12, where Archer talks with Miss Jenks: the vivid prose and well-captured dialogue makes me feel I have personally known the woman. There are many memorable passages in the novel: let's have two more wonderful Macdonald's quotes:
"I got a quick impression of him: a man of half-qualities who lived in a half-world: he was half-handsome, half-lost, half-spoiled, half-smart, half-dangerous. His pointed Italian shoes were scuffed at the toes."
And what about the following gem:
Time seemed to have slowed down, dividing itself into innumerable fractions, like Zeno's space or marijuana hours."
Unfortunately, some weaker fragments can be found as well, for instance the rooftop scene in an Illinois town, where Archer flies trying to untangle the web of past events. The scene reads like a script for a really bad movie.

I am not a fan of surprising endings in mysteries, but one has to admit that the monster plot twist offered by Macdonald in The Chill is well designed and not ridiculous, unlike most final plot twists in other books, including several works by the same author.

Four stars.

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