The Chill 1: Description and style

1

Macdonald uses a spare style of writing, with little description. Many descriptions are couched in terms of similies:

Ross Macdonald wrote:

  • The hotel photographer: "a thin spry man wearing a heavy camera like and albatross around his neck"
  • Thomas McGee / Chuck Begley: "a man of fifty or so wearing an open-necked black shirt from which his head jutted like a weathered stone."
  • Madge Gehardi: "Her eyes were the colour of gin."
  • Laura Sutherland: "The front of her blouse curved out over her desk like a spinnaker going downwind."

It's a laconic style that seems characteristic of the hardboiled detective genre. 

Is this an effective style? Is it enough to paint a picture in your mind of people and places? Would you have liked more description?

Comments

  • 1

    One advantage of simile, metaphor, and analogy, is that each lets the reader form their own visualisation in their mind, while using the same language as everyone else, who might have a quite different picture, e.g. the weathered stone can be different for each reader, while the description remains the same. This lets the description be brief, so that action can take place, in both reading and gaming.

  • 1

    I really liked the style, I have to say. Normally I feel a little let down by terse description, but they key here is that though the descriptions are short, they are never dull. They are quite evocative, and the snap off the page, as if they were full of latent energy. A lot of the dialogue is like this, too, but much more acerbic.

    When gaming, I think the one-cool-sentence method of describing NPCs would be wonderfully effective - too short to be an interruption, but memorable enough to help people keep track of who is who. The more important a character is, the more description they get, which is a clue. Here's Mrs. Bradshaw, for example:

    A woman with a wide straw hat tied under her chin was kneeling shoulder deep among the flowers... She had a pair of clippers in her gloved hands. They snicked in the silence after our engines died.
    She rose cumbrously to her feet and came toward us, tucking wisps of gray hair under her hat. She was just an old lady in dirty tennis shoes but her body, indeterminate in a loose blue smock, carried itself with heavy authority, as if it recalled that it had once been powerful or handsome. The architecture of her face had collapsed under the weight of flesh and years. Still, her black eyes were alert, like an unexpected animal or bird life in the ruins of a building.

    I love that mental image of the 'snicking' in the silence. Tolkien used that to effect, too, when Sam 'weren't dropping no eaves' outside of Frodo's window.

  • 1

    Speaking of style, the dialogue is very wry. Is this what makes an investigator like Lew Archer 'hard boiled'? Is it his thick skin, or what is it. He's not especially one for fisticuffs, I didn't think. But he does doggedly stick his nose in. His conversations are quite adversarial, and he always seems to have to get the last word in.

    ARCHER: Is that your story? It isn't a likely one.
    BEGLEY: My story is wilder than that, but we won't go into it. You wouldn't believe me, anyway. Nobody else has.
    ARCHER: You could always try me.
    BEGLEY: It would take all day. You've got better things to do than to talk to me.
    ARCHER: Name one.
    BEGLEY: You said there's a young lady missing. Go and find her.
    ARCHER: I was hoping you would help me. I'm still hoping.
    p.22

    And another to illustrate the sparring nature. This one has great, short description of Helen Haggerty. 'Shining' doesn't even mean anything in the context of a haircut, but still manages to convey the idea of some kind of glossy bob - a haircut with bounce:

    The woman with the short and shining haircut frowned at the closed door. Then she gave me an appraising glance, as if she was looking for a substitute Bradshaw. She had a promising mouth and good legs and a restless predatory air. Her clothes had style.
    "Looking for someone?" she said.
    "Just waiting."
    "For Lefty or for Godot? It makes a difference."
    "For Lefty Godot. The pitcher."
    "The pitcher in the wry?"
    "He prefers bourbon."
    p.35

    Archer even gets the last word when he's not actually speaking!:

    (Archer to Godwin) "Is she guilty?"
    "I don't know."
    "Have you talked to her this morning?"
    "She did most of the talking. I don't ask many questions. I wait and I listen. In the end you learn more that way." He gave me a meaningful, as if I should start applying this principle.
    I waited and I listened. Nothing happened.
    p.89

    And this bit made me take notice - such were the times, I guess:

    "I'd feel less like a witch-doctor if I knew why electric shocks make depressed people feel better. So much of our science, or art, is still in the empirical stage. But the people do get better," he said with a sudden grin, too sudden to touch his watching, waiting eyes.
    p.88

  • 1
    edited September 7
    > @Apocryphal said:
    > Speaking of style, the dialogue is very wry. Is this what makes an investigator like Lew Archer 'hard boiled'? Is it his thick skin, or what is it. He's not especially one for fisticuffs, I didn't think. But he does doggedly stick his nose in. His conversations are quite adversarial, and he always seems to have to get the last word in.
    >

    A bit of context. Macdonald wrote a lot of books with this character. The early ones were standard hard boiled detective stories, with much simpler plots than this one, and more direct and physical resolutions. (But Archer was always more cerebral than Marlowe.) After about eight books, Macdonald got more interested in the psychological and social stories like _The Chill_, but he retained the narrative voice.
  • 0

    I liked his writing style - it kept me going at speed through the book when I didn't really care much for the characters or plot. It was nice to read an author whio every now and again weaves allusions to classic books and/or phrasing into his novels (Joe Haldeman, in a totally different genre, also does this).

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