Ross Macdonald's The Chill

Ross Macdonald greatly admired Dickens’s success in achieving both popular and critical acclaim. Although Macdonald wrote for well over a decade before being recognized, he is one the few detective writers whose work also achieved such success. The Times named Macdonald one of its 50 Greatest Crime Writers. (See my post on The Goodbye Look for his other awards). By 1971, readers had bought five million copies of his books. Macdonald’s Lew Archer private detective novels are particularly loved by readers and are still very popular today. The Times claims that, “the Archer books are darker, more complex and – in some opinions at least – better written than those of Hammett and Chandler; and Macdonald (real name Kenneth Millar) went on to be a key influence on writers such as James Ellroy and James Lee Burke” (Berlins 2008).

Macdonald’s 11th Lew Archer mystery – The Chill – is an intriguing story of murder, deception, and family drama. When Alex Kincaid’s bride, Dolly, suddenly disappears, Lew Archer agrees to help in the search. But once Alex finds the missing wife, the mystery deepens. Dolly is connected with more than one murder and Archer must delve into her past to solve the mystery.

Macdonald is well known for his complex plots. “To me, the essence of the novel is its structure,” admits Macdonald. “I get ideas that can only be worked out intricately. There is no way, for instance, that I would have written The Chill except in terms of that complex plot. It covers the whole lives of a number of people. There’s just no other way to tell the story” (Grogg 1973, 217). His narratives contain multiple stories that ultimately converge, ending in surprising reversals (Moss 1998, 641). These endings force readers to reassess their earlier views and ideas. The conclusion of The Chill is particularly dramatic and unexpected.

The past and the present are intricately intertwined in Macdonald’s novels. In The Chill, Lew Archer is forced to delve further and further into past events to solve the murders. As he reminds us, “History is always connected with the present” (135). Although characters try to hide, repress, and ignore traumatic experiences in their pasts, their lives are inevitably haunted and/or destroyed by these experiences. The past erupts into the present causing turmoil and catastrophic events.

The detective’s role in a Macdonald novel is to mine the past for clues to the mystery. “I had handled cases which opened up gradually like fissures in the firm ground of the present, cleaving far down through the strata of the past,” Lew Archer tells Dr. Godwin (96). In fact, Archer often “sounds more like a therapist than an investigator as he patiently elicits information on the traumas that lie buried in the psyches of clients, victims and assorted suspects” (Porter 2003, 110).

The characters, not the detective, should be the focus of the story, according to Macdonald:
Archer is a hero who sometimes verges on being an anti-hero. While he is a man of action, his actions are largely directed to putting together the stories of other people’s lives and discovering their significance. He is less a doer than a questioner, a consciousness in which the meanings of other lives emerge. (1973, 23-24)
Macdonald is as interested in the sociological ramifications of crime as he is the psychological investigation. He is skilled at using the detective genre as a vehicle for penetrating social and cultural analysis. Observing that people cannot know one culture without having experienced another, Macdonald adds,
I have certain advantages from having been brought up in two cultures, Canadian and American. They’re closely related but, nevertheless, they’re different enough so it’s like looking through binoculars as compared with looking through a telescope. You see things in more depth. (Grogg 1973, 215)
An F. Scott Fitzgerald admirer, Macdonald writes about the obsessive pursuit of the American dream. He depicts upper-middle class Americans at mid-century, and uses murder as the objective correlative of spiritual death (Grogg 1973, 222).

Macdonald has said that readers like “a rapid story clearly told, but also with some depth” (Grogg 1973, 216). The Chill is a powerful story that does just that. It is not surprising that it was chosen as one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century.

Berlins, Marcel. “The 50 Greatest Crime Writers.” The Times. April 19, 2008.

Grogg, Sam, Jr. “Ross Macdonald: At the Edge.” Journal of Popular Culture 7, no. 1 (1973): 213-22.

Macdonald, Ross. The Chill. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963.

------. “The Writer as Detective Hero.” In Crime Writing. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1973, 9-24.

Moss, Robert F. “Ross Macdonald (1915-1983).” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks, vol. 2: 633-50. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998.

Porter, Dennis. “The Private Eye.” In Crime Fiction, edited by Martin Priestman, 95-113. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.