Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Chill, which won a British Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger Award, begins with young Dolly Kincaid abandoning her husband the day after they are married. Alex Kincaid hires Lew Archer to find her, which Archer does effortlessly, but this turns out to be only the beginning of the story, involving a triple murder case extending back over many years. Young Alex, early in the story, remarks with awe to Archer: “It’s almost as though history is repeating itself.” Later, when someone says to him, “Anyway, it’s all past history,” Archer replies, “History is always connected with the present.” On another occasion, he compares his present problem with earlier ones, “which opened up gradually like fissures in the firm ground of the present, cleaving far down through the strata of the past.” The thematic and structural traits of The Chill place it in the Macdonald mainstream, a continuation of his contemporary Oedipal legend, but it is more complex than its predecessors, and it concludes with a stunning reversal that Archer happens upon only at the very end.
Dolly, the runaway bride, had witnessed the shooting of her mother years previously and testified against her father. Upon his release from San Quentin, he pleads his case to her, and she realizes that an unknown woman, not her father, had committed the crime. Rent by guilt, she flees her husband, Alex, and goes to a local college, supporting herself by assisting the dean’s mother. Within a short time, Helen Haggerty, a French professor who serves as Dolly’s adviser, is murdered, and Dolly finds the body. An emotional wreck, she is treated by a psychiatrist who had seen her as a child. Through therapy, she sorts out the confusions of past and present, resolving her doubts about herself and others.
Meanwhile, Archer travels from California to Nevada and Missouri...
(The entire section is 769 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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