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.