THE DROWNING POOL (1950) by Ross Macdonald

Macdonald-Drowning-Pool-fontana-tieinThis is the second of eighteen books featuring Lew Archer, the California PI created by Kenneth Millar, first published under his soon to be shortened pen-name, ‘John Ross Macdonald.’ It was also the first of the series that I read, so I have always had a great sentimental attachment to it. It starts with a damsel in distress, albeit a very conflicted one …

I offer this review as part of the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog (for all reviews, click here); Bev’s 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘Murderous Methods’ category; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, which today celebrates the work of Ross Macdonald over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“Someone is trying to destroy me!”

Maude Slocum comes to see Archer when she opens a letter addressed to her husband (she says they regularly open each other’s mail). In it she is accused , in somewhat flowery language, of adultery, a fact she won’t confirm or deny but asks Archer to investigate none the less. She apparently has nothing to hide from her weak-willed husband James but is much more concerned of what would happen if the news reached her mother-in-law, Olivia Slocum. She holds the purse string and keeps them very tight indeed, her only concession being for Maude’s teenage daughter, Cathy. Despite her reticence, Archer likes Maude and so agrees to help.

“He had the authority of a man who had seen everything and not been changed by it”

Macdonald-Drowning-Pool-penguinOlivia’s property, out in Quinto in the Noval Valley, is sitting on vast oil deposits but she is unwilling to allow any drilling, incurring the wrath of Kilbourne, an unscrupulous businessman, On the home front, things are complicated. James, idolised by his daughter, is clearly gay and utterly ineffectual as a husband yet seems to need Maude at any cost. The chauffeur, Pat Reavis, has been hitting on Cathy and subsequently gets fired after one attempt too many. That night, after a minor psychodrama masquerading as a cocktail party, Olivia is found dead in the swimming pool and Reavis is the prime suspect. Archer tracks him down in Las Vegas and also finds a connection with Kilbourne, who is clearly a very dangerous man.

“I thought you were working for me?”
“I work for myself.”

Archer tries to bring Reavis back to town, even though he doesn’t think he killed the old woman but is attacked en-route by a masked gang. He survives, but Reavis is not so lucky, getting himself burned to a crisp. The local Chief of Police, Ralph Knudson, is happy to let the case end there but Archer knows that his corrupt deputy Franks is in Kilbourne’s employ and had Reavis killed.  Through Kilbourne’s deeply unhappy wife, Mavis, Archer gets perhaps too close to the oil magnate and barely makes it alive out of the hydro room, the eponymous ‘drowning pool’. Then another one of the Slocum family turns up dead in what appears to be either suicide or an exceptionally clever locked room murder – if not Kilbourne’s agents, then who is responsible, and why – and who sent the anonymous poison pen letter than started the whole story?

“… the Archer books, the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American” - William Goldman, writing in the 1969 New York Times Book Review

Macdonald-Drowning-Pool-pocketThis is undeniably an early work (incidentally, dedicated to Anthony Boucher) and the debt to Chandler in terms of plot and characters is patently obvious (especially The Big Sleep, which I previously reviewed here), especially in the equivalent characters for gangster Eddie Mars and his wife (the Kilbournes) and Rusty Reagan (more or less Reavis), while the solution to the murder certainly has much in common with it too. In addition some sections are over-written and as a result pretty unconvincing. At one point, after listening-in on a particularly brutal confrontation between the Slocums, Archer staggers away describing it as if it were an episode from the pits of hell. Religious metaphors and imagery abound but the novel can’t really support the weight.

“There was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the Ocean level wouldn’t cure”

Even if Millar is still feeling his way in the genre, what does impress already is his confident command of plot and feeling for character and place. It also makes for a fascinating read as it has so many of the elements that will later come to be recognised as being so distinctive to the mature Macdonald novels from the late 50s such as his focus on the despoilment of the natural environment (in this case by rapacious oil companies) and an early taster of his fascination with the Oedipal theme and feeling for the growing pangs of young people trying to find their place in the world when they come from a fractured or broken family background. The final solution to the crime is ingenious though, as Patrick pointed out at his blog, At the Scene of the Crime, not especially fair to the reader in terms of clues – but does this matter in a hardboiled mystery? The characters are vivid, the setting impressive, the themes strong and the plot very carefully constructed. A decent book that could have made for a pretty decent movie, but that’s another story (review of the 1975 film adaptation starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward coming next week).

***** (3 fedora tips)

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46 Responses to THE DROWNING POOL (1950) by Ross Macdonald

  1. Sergio – You’re so right about the homage to Chandler here. Still, I think we see a hint of the later Millar. And as you say, I do like the characters and the plot elements. One of the great things about reading a series from the early works on is that you see how the author evolves over time. An excellent review as ever, for which thanks.

    • Thnaks Margot – and you are right, there is something fascinating about being able to track an author’s development, especially as with Millar / Macdonald where the transition becomes increasingly more marked. I did pick this one because of both the movie adaptation (review coming soon) and its mixture of debt to the past and nods to the future.

  2. Colin says:

    I got that Penguin reprint, and the handful of other MacDonald titles simultaneously issued, last year. Naturally, they remain unread – I’m beginning to sound like a scratched record here!
    It’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie adaptation but I recall getting a Chandler vibe off that too.

    • They’re worth getting anyway as Macdonald is a really sound investment (same goes for Margaret Millar – what an amazinf duo the Millars were). This is clearly an apprentice work, but full of good things. I’m reviewing the movie separately in about 10 days and I did enjoy it though not nearly as much as Harper (and I’m not just saying that because I’m such a william Goldman fan – have you ever read his novel Magic, which he later adapted for the movie with Hopkins?)

      • Colin says:

        No, can’t say I did. Although I do remember watching the Hopkins film an awful long time ago.

        • I just got the US Blu of Magic so may do a post on book and film in the new year (nothing much to do with Ross Macdonald but I get so easily distracted these days …). The book has this amazing opening section with a truly jaw-dropping twist at its conclusion that the movie simply can’t replicate (Goldman says so himself in the featurette on the disc). They are fascinating to compare but you would want to read the book first and then see the movie, which I was lucky enough to do – if you do it in reverse it can’t really work unfortunately. With Macdonald, what I find fascinating is that you get an early novel like Drowning Pool, which works well as a movie source as it has plenty of plot and a decent action climax but the later books, his best ones, would be much tougher to translate to the screen as the emphasis is entirely on mood and character though the plots are remarkably complex with great twists. Goldman in Adventures in the Screentrade talks about how he talked the producers into making a movie from Macdonald’s series and then started with his favourites in the series (like The Chill, also my favourite) and realised that he would have to start much earlier to make it work for the screen. He did later try and turn The Chill into a screenplay as a follow-up to Harper when it became a hit, but it never got made (I haven’t seen it but he did write a script that got as far as a revised second draft in 1967, details of which can be found in the writer’s paper listed here).

  3. justjack says:

    Chandler homage? When I read the first half dozen Archers, I thought I’d found lost Chandler manuscripts! And I say that as a good thing.

    But I stopped at The Doomsters (1958), because I could sense that the stories would become repetitive in their nature, and more claustrophobically focused on damaged families with dark secrets. I wanted to visit some Mean Streets, not a shrink’s couch. And that seemed to be the direction Ross Macdonald was heading for.

    Recently, however, I picked up a copy of 1971′s The Underground Man, and found myself enjoying it much more than I expected to. And then, I read (and loved) my first Travis McGee novel, and found myself not only liking it, but also recognizing the obvious debt that John D. MacDonald owes to Ross Macdonald. So now I don’t know what to make of the whole Archer series. Do I pick it up again? Or what?

    • Hi Jack, well I have very form views on Macdonald – he was a fantastic writer and you shoudl read him – end of story! I know what you mean about the way he switched gears from the late 50s and it is undeniable but it is also what made his work, finally, truly distinctive from that of Chandler and Hammett. My favourites of his books are those from the 60s that are a bit more psychoanalytical and involve variations on the oedipal theme – The Chill and Black Money and for me the height of his art, but all of his books between The Galton Case, in 1958, to his last, The Blue Hammer from 1976, are highpoints in the hardboiled genre – you can tell what a huge fan I am, can’t you? The Chill is magnificent.

    • On the subject of John D Macdonald (and author I plan to invest a lot more time on in 2014 hopefully), one of the reasons that Millar amended his pseudonym of John Ross Macdonald was because “John D” complained tht they might get confused int he marketplace and in fairness, as that was his actual name … So, if one had to pick a Travis Mcgee for neophyte to seel them on the whole series, what would it be?

  4. TracyK says:

    Well, since Drowning Pool is the 2nd in the series, I may get to it in 2014. I hope to do that. My goal is to read more Raymond Chandler, some Ross MacDonald, and some John D. MacDonald. I have read both MacDonalds before but don’t know which ones.

    Looking forward to the movie review, of course.

    • Thanks TracyK – I also plan to read some John D. Macdonald as I know very little of his output (in fairness he has always been a bigger name in the US than elsewhere and I have only read his novels in translation so far, and that was a very long time ago indeed). As I was saying to Jack, with Ross Macdonald I would personally reccomend The Chill as perhaps his finest, but really any of his Archer novels from the 1960s is a beauty. There is a big difference between his earlier books in the late 40s and early 50s and his mature worok from the late 50s onwards. Really look forward to reading what you think of his books. Chandler of course, to me, is of the true greats so …

      • TracyK says:

        Good to know about the differences between the output in the 1950′s vs later books. Thus if the early don’t appeal, I will know to move further on.

        • Be really curious to know what you make of them – I’d plunge right in with The Chill – if that doesn’t do it for you (which would be a crying shame), then try The Ivory Grin or The Way Some People Die from the earlier period (that’s my advice, for what it’s worth).

          • TracyK says:

            The Chill is one I just got at the book sale, so might be a good start. Also I have a copy of The Ivory Grin with a great skull cover (that I got from the same book sale a few years ago). So you are saying order doesn’t matter in reading these?

          • You’ve got two terrific books there TracyK – The Chill maybe his masterpiece, written at the height of his powers as a storyteller – Ivory Grin is one of the best of his earlier book which are more plot orientated, recognisably in the traditional hardboiled PI mould; his later work is still brilliantly plotted (The Chill has a final twist that will take your breath away I’ll wager) but has more emphasis on character psychology. Otherwise, beyond the development of the author’s style, there is no need to read any of them in chronological order as he practically never makes references to earlier titles in the series -certainly no need to worry about spoilers and there are no continuing characters other than Archer himself. Hope you love them both!

          • TracyK says:

            Thanks very much, that is very helpful. And so I will bother you with another question. What about the Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe books? does order matter at all? I want to read some in conjunction with the movie adaptation, and some more be more easily available to me than others (the films).

          • Hi TracyK – the Marlowe books don’t really need to be read in any order until the very end – Playback (which I reviewed way back when here) is the last and least of the books and should be left until last as it might put you off reading the other. In terms of internal chronology though it makes no difference whatsoever though of course the style alters – the earlier books (The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely and Lady in the Lake) are wonderfully fresh but, based as they were on short stories, can feel a bit fragmentary. The High Window, The Little Sister and The Long Good-bye are better plotted and mellower – I think they are all wonderful though … Really hope you enjoy these – I read them first over 30 years ago and have never looked back!

          • TracyK says:

            All very useful information. Thanks very much.

          • My pleasure TracyK.

  5. Patrick says:

    Sergio, although you’re right that hardboiled mysteries aren’t often as concerned about “playing fair”, Ross Macdonald usually did a pretty good job, which is why I pointed it out on my blog. That being said, I was far more upset about the scenes near the end that seem like they’re taken out of a James Bond novel, complete with water torture (albeit good ol’ American water torture, not that darned Chinese one)! I liked this book most when it was about the central family, and when it focused on that it could be downright poetic.

    By coincidence (brought to you by the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler), my old review is reprinted today in Kevin Tipple’s blog to fit in with the Ross Macdonald theme of FFB.

    • Thanks Patrick – I had no problem with the action climax – as you say, it’s unusual in Macdonald and the genre in general but I thought it was handled well and was not implausible. But I agree, Macdonald is stronger on the family dynamics which served his later style so successfully – wow, we reviewed the same book on the same day – must be a first!

  6. You’re right about Ross Macdonald following the Raymond Chandler play-book in THE DROWNING POOL. Macdonald’s later novels establish their own unique style. I’m with you on THE CHILL being Ross Macdonald’s best book.

  7. Patti Abbott says:

    I added your earlier review of THE GALTON CASE, one of the books not reviewed today. Hope that’s ok.

  8. Kelly says:

    I haven’t read very much Ross MacDonald, so I’m glad to get the crash course through FFB. I noticed that several people chose THE DROWNING POOL, so it will be neat to read the different perspectives.

  9. Richard says:

    I’ve read all of Chandler, Hammett, all of John D. MacDonald’s McGee novels. I wonder why I only managed to read a handful of RM. Drowning Pool is one of the ones I have not read, and frankly your review doesn’t encourage me much. The plot smells slightly of an early Erle Stanley Gardner Perry Mason novel, though the RM would have come first, I think, and I can’t think which one. However, I’ll read Drowning Pool, and some others, in the year to come. I also had started to re-read the JDM McGee books, got through the first four and then got sidetracked.

    I’m starting to panic over the number of unread books here, and the long list of things lined up beyond them.

    • Hi Richard – interesting to compare it to Gardner – god know, he’d published a bunch of them by the late 40s (I think the first came out in 1933 or even 1932) so quite possible, isn’t it? I do love the idea of an unconqrable TBR – what would be the point of getting to the bottom?

  10. Yvette says:

    I’ve read most of Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer books, Sergio. Discovered them late in life. THE DROWNING POOL was on the list but it’s been a few years and you know how THAT goes. I only remember the episode of the guy being burned to a crisp in Las Vegas. Maybe it’s time to reread a bunch of Archers. My first was THE GALTON CASE which I loved.

    Lately I’ve wasted a bunch of time with mediocre mysteries which I’ve basically either skimmed or stopped reading part of the way in. I hate when that happens. But luckily I’ve also been immersed in some great non-fiction.(Thank goodness for that.) I may decide at some point to only read vintage mysteries from now on. Life’s too short to bother with crap. And boy is there a lot of that out there.

    • We live in a culture with way too much junk, Yvette, couldn’t agree more – luckily for me there are bloggers out there like you with great taste to keep me on the straight and narrow!

  11. Richard says:

    @ Yvette, sometimes I think I could just go through the novels and stories of MacDonald, Hammett, Macdonald, Chandler, Gardner, Pronzini, Halliday, Muller, (maybe) Grafton. Mix ‘em up and pull one at random, then another, until all are read, then consider repeating, or doing the same thing with a dozen favorite SF-F authors, then return to the hard-boiled playlist again.

    • I know what you mean Richard – I used to have to watch myself with certain authors like Graham Greene as I would suddenly find myself utterly hooked and unable to read anybody else …

  12. Sergio, I’d like to do what Richard says — read a large number of hardboiled fiction that’d also include Spillane, Ball, McBain, Leonard, Block — and, If I may say so, not sit down and review them afterward. Although a comparison of these authors would be beyond me, I see shades of similarity in their work both in terms of content and a crisp writing style. Each of these writers has experimented with noir fiction in his or her own way. What about women authors of hardboiled novels?

    • Fair point Prasahnt – from the 40s the best known female authors who occasionally dabbled in the hardboiled genre would have included Leigh Brackett (I reviewed her late masterpiece The Tiger Among Us here), though she is probably better known for her science fiction stories and screenplays (including the Bogart version of The Big Sleep and such westerns as Rio Bravo not to mention the original draft of The Empire Strikes Back). There are also the novels of Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (I reviewed her The Girl Who Had To Die here). From the 1940s I would also recommend the work of Dorothy B Hughes and Craig Rice and from the 50s Ross Macdonald’s wife, the major suspense writer Margaret Millar (I reviewed her The Fiend here and the earlier Do Evil in Return here); and then Patricia Highsmith (surely one of the toughest suspense writers who ever put pen to paper).

  13. Richard says:

    Sergio, I left this over on my blog, but you may not have seen it there.
    I think the double vision-like feel I get sometimes is the result of complicated plots laying twists and turns over scenes from which I’d gotten an impression now altered by new information, giving the scenes a layered feel as I read the book. For instance, in this book there were some scenes set in Lake Tahoe / Reno. They could be laid one on top of the other like transparencies and read bottom to top independently of the rest of the book to create a separate way to look at the events which occurred in that location.
    I’m probably still not making any sense…

  14. Richard says:

    by “this book” in the above, I mean Zebra-Striped Hearse, which I reviewed. Answer on my blog, okay?

    • Gotcha Richard – for some reason your comment on your blog didn’t come through as a reply but as a new post – while I get automated alerts to responses I don;t get these for standalone comments – WordPress can be very weird sometimes!

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