Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Mess of Shadows

Novelist John Connelly on The Chill:

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 [Ross] 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.


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 [Connelly's detective hero] 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.
Of P.I. Lew Archer, Connelly says:
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.


Tulkinghorn said...

What a terrific f*cking appreciation of a wonderful book!

Almost makes me want to read Connelly's books, although I've read someplace that they are quite violent

David Chute said...

Plus it really is that good.

I've moved the Connelly I bought months ago to the top of the pile. The ones I read earlier were serial killer horror as much as or more than PI mystery -- and set in Maine, though he's Irish.

Tulkinghorn said...

For a while, in my twenties, when I was in the habit of making sweeping and unanswerable critical judgements based on no knowledge, I told everyone that The Chill was the best crime novel ever written.

Thank goodness I don't say things like that any more.

David Chute said...

There are too many vastly different sub-genres. How about The Best Hard-Boiled Private-Eye Novel?

Tulkinghorn said...

I think of the middle-aged Archer as too sweet and sad to be hard-boiled. But if I thought about it for a second, I'd probably say the same of Marlowe.