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the chill

11 november 2015

Ross Macdonald called The Chill "that basilisk of a book." If books could kill I would probably be dead after reading it, but its venom remains figurative, if potent.

The Chill shows Macdonald at the height of his prose powers, with dialogue and descriptions hard-boiled and subsequently deep-frozen. He called the story "one of my stronger single plot ideas," and it's very strongly focused, paring away its possibilities till it arrives at its central evil device. But it's also typical Lew Archer, full of headlong pursuit of one new character or lead after another, and the usual deeply-buried corrosive secrets. "I had handled cases which opened up gradually like fissures in the firm ground of the present," says Archer at one point (271). Yes, Lew, that would be all of them.

Newlywed Alex Kincaid buttonholes Archer on his way out of a courtroom with a job for the sleuth : trace Alex's wife, who skipped out immediately after the wedding. The wife isn't far away, as it turns out: she is hiding in plain sight on the college campus where Alex met her (the first of the novel's mysteries: why doesn't he just look around for her). But as soon as Archer is on the scene, dead bodies start to accumulate. Dolly Kincaid's maybe-father is a maybe-murderer. Dolly's advisor Helen, who'd tried to court Archer while securing his services as a bodyguard, is a definite murder victim. Both Dolly and Helen had witnessed murders in their youths – but these cases, far-flung in space and time, can't be related, can they? And can Archer solve them in a matter of a few sleepless hours, flying from LA to Chicago to Reno and back?

The plot spirals in on the real killer, and Archer nabs that killer on the final page. I won't spoil the plot, because it's indeed a good one, but I'll just say that Macdonald (and Archer, his first-person narrator) don't play entirely fair. At one point a key character is said to dwell in a much-lived-in house that shows its old money; they're an "institution" in the city of Pacific Point. But there's misdirection involved here, and Archer knows it: they're wealthy but they're not native to California, and thereby hangs the solution of the murders. This was a let-down for me; it didn't add up, and it's not a stray detail. But the writing is so strong that I'll certainly forgive it.

Macdonald, Ross. The Chill. 1964. In Archer at Large. New York: Knopf, 1970. 195-420.