Sunday, June 8, 2014

Ross MacDonald – The Chill

So what did I read to decompress from 26 Shamus entries? I thought a quality private eye book would be a good idea. In addition to freeing me up to enjoy P.I. fiction again, it would be a "control" of sorts, to tell me if I was too harsh on the bad Shamuses, or too forgiving of bad writers. 
I chose The Chill, a 1964 novel by Ross MacDonald.  For one thing, MacDonald is often considered the logical successor to my two favorite p.i. writers, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. For another, I've had The Chill on my wish list and in my book box for some months, so it was time to crack it. 
I have to admit, I've tried a few Ross MacDonald/Lew Archer stories in the past--The Drowning Pool, which seemed a little odd, The Galton Case, which I don't recall very well, The Zebra-Striped Hearse, which I remember enjoying, and The Far Side of the Dollar.  I was a little disappointed with all of these. They lacked the crisp snap of Hammett, and the intoxicating prose of Chandler. (Or is that intoxicated?)  They were grey books. Lew Archer was a grey, boring fellow. But what impressed me most after two or three is that in all the books, all the characters Archer came in contact with were all related. At some point in their pasts they all had the same father, and if a younger character was screwing a character of an older generation, chances are the older one was a parent. (If two younger characters were screwing, they were siblings.)
But I gave The Chill a fair try, just like I gave the talking-Chihuahua-zombie-p.i.s a chance.  The first thing I noticed about this book was that night after night, it put me to sleep in a trice, and I'd spend half-an-hour, reading, re-reading, and failing to comprehend whatever page or paragraph I was on. 
The plot wouldn't have passed muster even with Chandler.  Too confusing.  Too many characters. And the passage of time between (off-stage) murders was never clear.  Would it have been less confusing if it hadn't kept putting me to sleep? Yes, I imagine so.  Is that a selling point?  No, but in the book's favor, it was light, easy to carry on the Metro, and didn't hurt much when it would fall on my chest. 
The setting was some melancholy suburban L.A. locale, not well-known enough for me to recognize, but not interesting enough for me to get up and look at my atlas.  The characters were melancholy academics, a nice touch, along with So. Cal. shrinks. Archer made intuitive leaps or at least I thought they must be intuitive, because there didn't seem to be enough known about the characters to make deductions. There was little or no evidence about any of the murders.  They all occurred in melancholy voids, away from witnesses.
I was so unmoved by this book, I had to google it to see why it's so well thought of.  I found an excellent blog post by no less a doctor of crime fiction than John Connolly.   
Imagine my surprise to learn that The Chill takes its structure and plot from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." I didn't see that, but Connolly mentions a "dead pigeon," rather than an albatross. I seem to have missed the dead pigeon, too.  (If I read on a Kindle, could I search for "pigeon?")
Well, I agree with many of Connolly's comments, but Connolly says "I would describe this book as a 'nearly perfect' crime novel. . . . The Chill is the finest jewel in Macdonald's crown."   Some of this is hard to argue.  That's Connolly's opinion, and he explains how he came to these conclusions. 
For me though, The Chill was a crushing disappointment. There was a true paucity of action. Scenes were primarily dialogue, and much of the dialogue was dancing around the truth.  It seemed to me hard for the reader to distinguish truth from falsehood, and Archer is a total enigma. There was no way to tell how he was reacting to the dialogue.
But the biggest problem for me is my belief that in good detective fiction, change and movement must be manifested in action.  I ain't sayin' I need a car chase, but character development must be externalized.  There must be sensory details that I the reader can share with the dick.  The moment of recognition must be manifested in action. 
In The Chill, everything was manifested in melancholy.    


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Shamus Awards

It was my honor this year to be one of three judges for the Shamus Awards, Best Paperback Original Novel. Shamus Awards, of course, are awards for writing in the private eye sub-genre, which happens to be my sub-genre. My fellow judges were Jan Grape and Reed Farrel Coleman,, both of whom put up with me admirably.

The judges received 26 books, direct from publishers. One of the first odd things I noticed was that publishers sent books that were clearly not p.i. novels, and others that were iffy at best. The p.i. we’re looking for is supposed to be a crime solver not employed by a police or government agency. However, he (or usually she) should be someone paid for his work. I think this is a key point that people should be able to understand. Like a sonnet has 14 lines, a private investigator does work for pay. 

A second thing I noticed is that there are some bizarre books being published.  For example, two entries featured a dead private eye, yes, a zombie. Three more had ghosts in varying roles. And then there was the talking Chihuahua private eye.  Eight of 26 books were “not my cup of tea,” my new polite way of saying I didn’t think the author wrote well. I suppose that’s a matter of taste, but I was being asked to judge, wasn’t I?

Of the remaining 18 we found four the three of us agreed were perhaps better than the rest. I had two others I liked that Jan and Reed didn’t think much of and they had one they were both quite fond of that was low on my list.  I thought being new, I could give a little for the sake of consensus, so I did. 

It was an interesting experience but I had a steady stream of required reading for two and a half months. I got to the point where I was really not looking forward to another private eye novel. I suppose it was a good experience, to see what’s in the market, but I don’t think I’ll do it again for a while. 

The winner? I’m going to leave that for the Private Eye Writers of America to announce. It was a good book, well-crafted, and I have no regrets about selecting it.