Friday, May 9, 2014

The Magrs Method of Book Reporting: The Chill by Ross Macdonald

Encapsulate the plot in one sentence?

Private eye Lew Archer is hired to find a runaway bride - a college student framed with the death of her professor and linked to two more murders in the past.

What year/edition was this book published?

This is a "Vintage Crime/Black Lizard" reprint from the late-1990s; the book was first published in 1963.

What's your verdict?

So-so. My reasons for reading this were more interesting than the book, although when I finished it, I understood why it might have been so highly recommended.

Two months ago, I rented a DVD of the film Harper, starring Paul Newman as private eye Lew Harper. The movie is an adaptation of The Moving Target, the first Lew Archer novel written by Ross Macdonald. In the DVD commentary, screenwriter William Goldman talked about how the plan for a second Lew Harper film immediately following would  have been an adaptation of The Chill, which Goldman thought was the 2nd-greatest American detective novel of all time, behind The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Newman turned down the opportunity to film Chill, though he later reprised the role of Harper in The Drowning Pool.*

Goldman's praise for The Chill got me curious, since I've encountered Macdonald's novels before on library shelves and could never decide which one to read - each book, in summation, seemed to have the exact same plot or plot threads; only the covers kept them from appearing identical. All Lew Archer ever did was track down missing persons. As a detective, he could deliver a witty remark as good as any, but his investigations were always a series of endless question-and-answer sessions. It's only in the final pages, when Archer sifts through the lies and makes his conclusion, that we're impressed at all, but the journey there could've used a shortcut or three.

As the novels progressed, Archer's cases resembled American hard-boiled noir fiction in a superficial sense and had more in common with Agatha Christie whodunits, particularly her cold case mysteries, aka, "Murders-in-retrospect". The Archer books often feature wealthy/upper middle-class families torn apart by crime and buried secrets uncovering the truth behind awkward/complex behavior among family members. In The Chill, a secret marriage is the link to the three murders and the true culprit is not revealed until the final two pages.

The surprise twist at the end of this book is probably what caught Goldman's imagination and made him want to adapt it into a screenplay; prior to reading it, I was beginning to suspect he felt that way because at the time of adapting The Moving Target into Harper, Chill was the latest entry in the series and must have felt like a breath of fresh air compared to the more conventional Target, which may explain why his script added new elements that are more in line with Chill, such as the close ally of Harper who turns out to be knee-deep in the mystery while pretending to be a vaguely disinterested party.

Upon reaching the end, my final thoughts were that it could've been better; I can imagine Goldman's script for Chill would've integrated the info-dumps with the characters better and heightened the suspense by highlighting the double and triple-crosses among the culprits, because there were many. In the end, the book ends in a way that will have you scratching your head, going, "That's it? His wife was pretending to be his mother?"  And why didn't he build up that reveal more?

What surprise did the book have, if any?

...maybe I'm bored...but I'm convinced Macdonald had a different solution in mind, which would've been controversial for a mystery novel at the time of publication. There is a passage that vaguely leaves room to imagine Roy Bradshaw could  have had a relationship with the too-good-to-be-true Dr. Godwin, of whom Macdonald devotes a lot of time setting up for a fall that never happens. All that remains is a bit that suggests an idea that might've been dropped before writing the last thirty pages.

Give us a good quote?

Of course. Check out the gallery below.

*The reason why Archer's surname was changed to "Harper" was because Ross Macdonald's agent was trying to negotiate with Warner Brothers to buy the film rights to all the Archer books, insisting that they didn't have the rights to the Lew Archer character unless they did so. Warner's adapted "The Moving Target" and changed the last name to "Harper" anyway. The adaptation of "The Drowning Pool" followed suit.

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