Often regarded as one of the primary candidates to take over the mantle from Raymond Chandler following his death in 1959, Ross Macdonald’s series of detective novels featuring Los Angeles PI Lew Archer took the hardboiled genre out from the mean streets of Philip Marlowe’s Hollywood and into the homes and locked doors of the rich and wealthy. Often built around cases involving missing children, abandoned spouses and embittered lovers, Macdonald’s books deal with the conflicts between people closest to each other, and the destruction of family ties
(usually with a hefty doses of murder thrown in for good measure – we are still talking about hardboiled fiction, here…).
The Chill is no exception – my third reading of Macdonald’s work (behind The Drowning Pool and The Galton Case) – it begins with Archer being inconveniently assigned just before a vacation to locate the missing bride of a young male client, who vanished shortly after their wedding day, with the only clue being the arrival of a strange older man at their hotel the same day of her disappearance. After not too much work, he manages to trace the bride down to a Hollywood college, where she studies whilst working for the College’s dean’s mother. The case doesn’t stay closed for long, as the concurrent death of a college tutor soon complicates matters, with the bride’s apparent admission of guilt not helping matters. Deeper digging then draws Archer into a complex case involving three separate deaths spread across a twenty-year period, adultery, hidden marriages and the destruction of a child’s innocence. Several different strands tie up together in a surprisingly satisfying (if slightly far-fetched in a few places) conclusion.
It’s a relatively longer piece of detective fiction (for the time, anyway) – clocking in at 343 pages, but Macdonald throws up enough twists and revelations to keep the story flowing smoothly. The ending revelation (of which Macdonald was particularly competent at doing) was, to me anyway, unexpected and took a different turn from that which I was expecting. Which, all things considered, means ‘mission accomplished’ where this kind of fiction is concerned.
In many respects, Macdonald’s books can be seen as being somewhat maturer than those of his primary predecessors in themes they explore and the development of the characters. Lew Archer himself, for all his wise-cracking and developments as a character, is very much an observer of these relationships – rather than being the primary figure of attention, Archer often gives way for the secondary characters in the story to come into their own light – here, characters such as Dolly McGee (the missing bride herself, tormented over her mother’s alleged murder at her father’s hands) and Roy Bradshaw are well drawn-out and given satisfying backstories which creates a suitable depth to the plot and the events taking place.
Sadly, Macdonald’s works haven’t yet been given quite the same extent of circulation and re-publication as those by Chandler and Hammett (I’d say he sits nicely alongside James M Cain in that respect), but there are still enough to be able to deep into, and The Chill is definitely one to enjoy. It’s one of the few published under the Penguin Modern Classics label and has also recently been re-published in the “Ross Macdonald: Three Novels of the Early 1960s” collection.
(*Featured image borrowed from here)