Monday, April 28, 2008

On THE CHILL by Ross Macdonald

Ross Macdonald, or Kenneth Millar, to give him his true name, described The Chill (1963) as having "my most horrible plot yet". It is, in many ways, an angry, haunted book into which he channeled his unhappiness at the time: disappointment at his best friend's divorce; his inability to get his book on Coleridge published; his dissatisfaction with academia; and his hurt at comments made about him by Raymond Chandler.

Chandler's presence has fallen like a shadow over Macdonald's posthumous reputation in much the same way that it did while he was alive. Chandler, the older writer, clearly saw Macdonald as a rival, and did his very best to belittle the younger novelist whenever possible, not recognizing that Macdonald was part of a progression, drawing on Chandler to create something new and move the genre forward, just as Chandler had earlier drawn on Hammett. After Chandler's death, Macdonald became aware of letters against him that Chandler had written, including one to James Sandoe published as part of Raymond Chandler Speaking that described Macdonald as a "literary eunuch" and criticised the "pretentiousness" of his phrasing. It's unlikely that Chandler would have been quite so vituperative had he not felt threatened both by Macdonald's writing and the critical acclaim he was receiving. (I would argue that Macdonald was the better novelist of the two, and certainly the better plotter. Chandler's rather haphazard approach to plotting is generally excused on the basis that he was more interested in character than plot, but that is to ignore the fact that it is not an either/ or relationship between the two elements. Or, as Macdonald once said: "I see plot as a vehicle for meaning.")

Macdonald/ Millar was born in Los Gatos, California in 1915, but was raised in Ontario, Canada. His father abandoned the family when Macdonald was young, leading to an itinerant early life spent living with his mother and various relatives. This probably explains something of his fascination with issues of family and domesticity in his novels, especially the prevalence of troubled young men. (Later in life, his own daughter, his only child, would prove to be similarly troubled, and he was cursed to outlive both her and his grandson.) The first full-length Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target, was published in 1949, but it would be fair to say that Macdonald initially viewed his mystery novels as a way to earn money and be published while he prepared to write a more literary novel about familial strife. It was probably only with the publication of The Galton Case in 1959 that Macdonald realised the Archer novels would enable him to pursue the themes that interested him the most, and were thus destined to be the body of work upon which his reputation would rest. Macdonald died in 1983, almost certainly of Alzheimer's Disease. One of the most moving moments in Tom Nolan's excellent biography of the writer sees Macdonald, his mind failing, struggling to use his typewriter, and being able to type only the word "broken" over and over again.

Originally entitled A Mess of Shadows, from a line in the W.B. Yeats poem, "Among School Children", The Chill takes some of its structure and imagery from Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner": a sad story told by a character seeking release and deliverance; a mist-shrouded environment; and the death of a bird, in this case a pigeon rather than an albatross.

Like all of Macdonald's work, this is a novel obsessed with the impact of the past upon the present. As Archer tells Mrs. Hoffman, "History is always connected to the present." Again and again, we are reminded of the resonance of old acts. Dr. Godwin's voice is "like the whispering ghost of the past". In Alice's house, Archer thinks that he looks like "a ghost from the present haunting a bloody moment in the past". And, in a wonderful image, Archer describes the questions raised by Mrs. Delaney as sticking "in my mind like fishhooks which trailed their broken lines into the past".

I would describe this book as a 'nearly perfect' crime novel, although this implies that Macdonald erred in some way in its creation. I don't think that's true. Its imperfections are deliberate, a testament to Macdonald's courage as a writer and his absolute refusal to fall back on sentimentality. While Alex Kincaid is another of Macdonald's troubled young men, tainted by the actions of an earlier generation, he is also something of a jerk, and it's difficult to feel a great deal of sympathy for him. By contrast, Macdonald kills off one of the book's most attractive characters disturbingly early, and in doing so accentuates the horror of the murderous figure that stalks the novel.

Arguably, Macdonald is the first great psychological novelist that the genre produced. While Chandler tends to look for sociological explanations, Macdonald instead looks inward at the dynamics of families, and in particular the wrong done to children, especially by overprotective mother figures. In this sense, The Chill falls into a group of Macdonald's books that touch upon Oedipal nightmares.

And then there is Lew Archer himself. He remains one of the most enigmatic of detectives. Throughout the series, we learn almost nothing about his past, apart from the fact that he was once married, which gives him a sense of loneliness and dislocation. We are offered few, if any, of the little day-to-day details of his existence which have become the stock-in-trade of the modern detective hero: no cute sidekicks, no dogs, no quirky tastes in opera or cars. For Macdonald, such elements would have served only as a distraction from the central fact of Archer's existence: he is a profoundly moral being, with a near-limitless capacity for pity and empathy. He is neither as tough, nor as cynical, as Chandler's Philip Marlowe. In The Barbarous Coast (1956), Archer notes: "The problem was to love people, to serve them, without wanting anything from them." It is an extraordinary statement of intent, perhaps even more so now than it was over fifty years ago. In many ways, the society that he inhabits is unworthy of Archer, although he never sees himself in those terms. He is not self-interested. Instead, his interest is directed at the lives of others in an attempt both to understand their actions and undo the harm that has been done to them by others. His innate goodness may explain some of the hostility that has been directed toward him by subsequent critics and writers who mistake cynicism for realism, and confuse sentimentality with genuine emotion.

I chose this novel to start the Book Club on my website for a number of reasons. First of all, there's Macdonald's huge influence on me as a writer, and Archer's influence on the creation of Charlie Parker. I would not be the novelist that I am without the influence of Macdonald.

But I also chose it because I think it is one of the great American mystery novels, worthy to stand alongside the best of Chandler, Hammett, Highsmith, or any other mystery writer that one cares to name, with a killer twist at the end almost unequalled in the genre. Others may argue for The Galton Case, or The Underground Man, or The Doomsters as the apogee of Macdonald's work. I think they're wrong. The Chill is the finest jewel in Macdonald's crown.


Ali Karim said...

Great post and I agree about the shadow that the Lew Archer novels cast. The Chill is excellent, but I still have a great deal of fondness for THE GALTON CASE


Rob Flumignan said...

Fantastic. I thought I was the only person alive who believed Macdonald a better writer than Chandler. Thought there might be something wrong with me. And THE CHILL is one of my favorites of the genre. I'm going to have to go back and reread it now.


Anonymous said...

there's a book club now?

Storm214 said...

Enjoyed the flow of the writing as much as the content of the article. Not an easy balance to achieve.

I confess I have never read any MacDonald or Chandler or other 'classic' older crime writing. Do I get sent to the back of the class for having Walters, Cornwell, Rendell and Rankin on my shelf?

I have ordered a copy of The Chill and will comment when I've read it. Always assuming it arrives before next year...

I do believe publication of The Reapers is imminent. Why does it feel like Christmas Eve? Drum roll...?

David Baynham said...

So glad to see an assessment of Ross Macdonald. Not just a great mystery novelist but an excellent writer whose books will never age. Most of his books are in print or being brought back into print by Vintage Crime. Yes, better than Chandler. It's time for a rediscovery of Macdonald!

Josephine Damian said...

Alert the media! It's official!

Stuart Neville, my Prince of Darkness, and the writer formerly known as "Conduit," has landed an agent - and not just any agent - but literary powerhouse and legend, Nat Sobel.

His agency, Sobel Weber Associates, New York, represents a few scribes you might have heard of: James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia, American Tabloid), Joseph Wambaugh (The Choirboys, The Onion Field, Hollywood Station), Pulitzer winner Richard Russo (Nobody's Fool, Empire Falls, Bridge of Sighs), F.X. Toole (Rope Burns - adapted for the screen as the multi Oscar winning Million Dollar Baby - and Pound for Pound), Robert Jordan (the Wheel of Time series), Tim Dorsey (the Serge Storms series), and many more.

Oh, Nat also loves him some cats. My kind of guy.

And how did Stuart get on the Uber agent’s radar? I’m going to steal a bit of Stuart’s thunder and reveal to my blog peeps that Mr. Sobel scouted him on the Internet. That’s right – a big name agent was scouring the online crime magazines and plucked our man from obscurity. (of course I’ve been singing Stuart’s praises loud and clear since last fall when I first read his work in Agent Nathan’s Bransford’s writing contest). To those of you that don’t believe agents are poking around the world wide web looking for The Next Big Thing – here’s your proof. Here. Is. Your. Proof.

So do stop by and give a big shout out to the literary world’s best and brightest rising star!

*shake my booty*

Having already read Stuarts’s manuscript (it already holds the distinction of being only one of four books I liked well enough to finish this year) GHOSTS OF BELFAST, I can tell you it’s nothing by clover ahead for this blessed son of Northern Ireland.

TomH said...

“His Adam’s apple throbbed like a grief in his throat.”

How do you recede from the imagery of that? What initially appeals to me about Millar’s writing is indeed his insight to the human condition. His unique style seems inevitable. Commentary of empathy can never be avoided and his psychological observation seems always on point.

Writing as John Macdonald and then John Ross (before finally settling on Ross Macdonald) displays a personal level of compassion and (that word again) empathy, and serves as admirable nod to the fellow author in the family. Personal tragedy overshadows the written word and is unavoidable. And the biting words of an envious author with an axe to grind must be seen as having set the stage for personal doubt.

In all fairness to Chandler, I would say that his novels translate incomparably to the screen, and that he entirely deserves credit as a father of film noir. But we’re talking apples and oranges here, and… screenplays.

I enjoyed so many of Ross Macdonald’s novels that I find it difficult to compare. But I would agree on The Chill.

Unknown said...

I have pretty much all of Ross Macdonald's books on my shelf. I have read every one of them several times. I discovered Lew Archer quite accidentally in 1993. Ever since, I have been looking for similar modern-day writers, wholly in vain. He seems to have been one of a kind.

The ending of The Chill is truly masterful, it gave me the shivers the first time. I also am partial to the Zebra-striped hearse and the Far side of the dollar.

I guess RM's pull for me is the slow unveiling of family secrets that happens in book after book. Archer actually does very little deductive reasoning as such. There is a lot of legwork, and sometimes the plot is moved along by putting him in the right place at the right time. As a reader we don't mind. We are breathless to learn of people's motives, inter-relationships, and most importantly the relationship between long gone events and the present. In the meantime Archer's nobility and humanity - and not clever feats of deduction - suffices.

Harley Mazuk said...

I didn't agree with the praise for this book, though I'm humbled by how much you got from it John, that I missed. See

Michela Alda said...

Hi, I love your blog.
I'm a devout fan of Ross McDonald, I've read, and re-read, many of his books and loved them all.
I've just re-read The Galton Case and got my husband to read it too.
There's a book I particularly love, but I cannot remember its title: it's the story of two brothers, one an exceptional painter... the other a fake.
Can you help me?
Thanks a lot.

Unknown said...

In studying the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald I’ve tried to identify certain characteristics, themes, motifs, images – call them what you like – that crop up frequently throughout the various books. I don’t claim that the following are particularly important or have any special significance or meaning; nor do I say this is a comprehensive list. They are simply some things I’ve noticed in more than one of the novels. Some of these appear in quite a few of the Archers. In time I hope to post the results of reading through each of the books individually while searching for these ‘repeaters’.

Robin said...

I agree with your estimation of Macdonald/Millar, & of The Chill in particular.

As an aside on the theme of haunting, I would add the name of Stevens' boat, on which McGee is holed up - the Revenant!

The psychology in this novel is acute - from the more explicitly psychoanalytic (the oedipal theme, but also neat touches such as Bradshaw writing Tish in the margins of the Yeats poem about Maud Gonne in the collection he gives to Laura) to the brutal harshness of Hoffman's lacerating guilt.

I was also delighted by the little riff on presocratic philosophy, so lightly handled - which further hints at some of the underlying reality of Macdonald's fictional universe.