Crime on Campus–The Chill by Ross MacDonald

First edition of Crime Novel The Chill

I’m new to Lew Archer. In fact, this is the first Ross MacDonald novel I’ve ever read. I’d heard about Archer before, the nebulous protagonist of MacDonald’s crime novels, heard that he liked poetry. I got that much from this book, a well read man who knows classic literature and allusions, but there was little else on display about the man. Pithy observations sprinkled with allusions, and a confidence that is supported by a knowledge of the law and of his job, round out Lew Archer from The Chill.

Archer is testifying in a previous case when he is approached by Alex Kincaid, a young man who is worried about his missing wife. Turns out they were married in a hurry after only a few weeks of acquaintance and she disappeared on their wedding night after a visit from a strange man with a beard. Kincaid hires Archer to find his wife and after a chat with the strange man–who turns out to be the girl’s father–he finds her readily on a local college campus.

He learns that she enrolled under a false name and pretenses and that she befriended a young female language instructor who also recently came to campus. She hits on Archer and he follows her home to interview her about the flighty bride. She professes fear for her life, that her past is catching up with her, after a call from strange voice that “sounded like Bridgeton.”

Archer leaves her to follow up with his client, Alex Kincaid, when the truant bride shows up with blood on her hands in a nervous breakdown. She claims she did it, that she killed her friend. Archer, along with the dean of the college, returns to the language instructor’s home to find her shot in the head, dead. Did Kincaid’s bride kill her like she said? What about the voice from Bridgeton? And what was the involvement of the bride’s father who just got out of prison for allegedly killing his wife?

MacDonald handles all of these questions handily. He uses the broadly incongruous landscape of southern California to paint a picture that ranges from the mountains to the coast and involves lots of old women from Chicago and the surrounds. There are plenty of twists and turns, and the final reveal comes actually as a surprise. Plot wise, MacDonald is obviously a master.

Archer’s character is straightforward and not terribly complex. MacDonald keeps to the philosophy of show don’t tell by staying away from Archer’s past and anything that smacks of backstory for the man. His character is revealed solely by the choices he makes and the observations and deductions he develops. He is hardboiled, sure, but not as fun as Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade. He’s a better detective, though, and open minded, unlike many of the other characters in the novel.

MacDonald’s prose is sparse, not spattered with adverbs or particularly heavy on adjectives. He tells things how they are, like a beat reporter from back in the day. He does use the occasional metaphor, and to good effect, without overburdening the story with too much in the way of sophistication. Banter is kept to a minimum and perhaps the best word to describe his writing is: spare.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Chill and I look forward to reading more Lew Archer novels in the future. I would recommend MacDonald heartily to anyone looking for a hard boiled noir without the weight of pulp nor the intensity of James Ellroy. It’s an easy read and, except for a large number of characters to keep track of, not too taxing on the mental floss.

Because this is my first review, I’m going to be generous and give this ****. I may regret that decision as I get more experience at this, but I enjoyed the book and it inspired me to read more in the genre.

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