The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald (review)

A few weeks ago I hit a bit of a reading slump; a couple of disappointments, one or two abandoned books and a terrible migraine left me craving something familiar and satisfying. Around the same, a conversation with Max (Pechorin’s Journal) reminded me of the brilliance of Ross Macdonald. So I decided to reread The Drowning Pool (which I’d read pre-blog) and write about it here. The Drowning Pool is the second in Macdonald’s series of hardboiled novels featuring private investigator Lew Archer. I haven’t read The Moving Target, the first in the series, but Max has reviewed it along with The Drowning Pool, and as ever his reviews are well worth a few minutes of your time.

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Rereading the opening paragraph of The Drowning Pool felt like curling up with a favourite glass of wine. It all came flooding back, and I knew I was in safe hands:

If you didn’t look at her face she was less than thirty, quick-bodied and slim as a girl. Her clothing drew attention to the fact: a tailored sharkskin suit and high heels that tensed her nylon-shadowed calves. But there was a pull of worry around her eyes and drawing at her mouth. The eyes were deep blue, with a sort of double vision. They saw you clearly, took you in completely, and at the same time looked beyond you. They had years to look back on, and more things to see in the years than a girl’s eyes had. About thirty-five, I thought, and still in the running. (pg. 1, Penguin Classics)

As the novel opens, Archer (our narrator) receives a visit from a visibly hesitant and frightened Maude Slocum. I love Macdonald’s description of Maude’s eyes in the passage above, the way her eyes hint at her troubled past; the things they’ve seen, not all of them good.

Maude is in possession of a poison pen letter intended for her husband, James, alleging her involvement in ‘amorous activities.’ Maude, clearly worried about the possible arrival of further letters, would like Archer to investigate but seems reluctant to reveal any details as to who might have sent this one. Initially, Archer is exasperated by the prospect of working in a vacuum with little to go on, but he agrees albeit reluctantly to take the case. It’s only as Maude is leaving his office that he succumbs, and we start to see a more sympathetic, compassionate side to Archer’s character. It’s a side I like very much indeed:

She stood up and I followed her to the door. I noticed for the first time that the back of the handsome suit was sun-faded. There was a faint line around the bottom of the skirt where the hem had been changed. I felt sorry for the woman, and I liked her pretty well. (pg. 9)

As Archer sets about his business by following James Slocum, he encounters various members of the family and their associates. There’s the Slocums’ somewhat troubled fifteen-year-old daughter, Cathy, who seems to be involved with Reavis, the family’s chauffer. The Slocums’ marriage is clearly strained, and there’s a feeling that James is attracted to the company of Mr Marvell, author of a play being staged by the local theatre group. We are also introduced to Maude Slocum’s mother-in-law, owner of the Slocum residence which happens to be worth a cool couple of million due to the oil residing beneath its grounds. The mother-in-law has, however, refused to sell even an acre of the property, leaving James and Maude highly dependent on her hospitality and a rather meagre allowance. There are one or two other key players in the story, but I’ll leave you to discover them for yourself should you read the book.

It’s not long before Archer finds himself embroiled in something more complex than an investigation into a poison pen letter. In the midst of a family gathering, the mother-in-law’s body is discovered in the swimming pool. Anyone could be a potential suspect, even Archer as he was the last person to talk to the woman before she died. The police quickly rule Archer out of their formal investigations, but he stays involved out of a desire to uncover the truth. As Max highlighted in his review, Archer is interested in truth, ‘the truth of particular things. Who did what when why. Especially why.’ (pg. 163)

That’s about as much as I’m willing to reveal about the plot. Save to say it’s well paced, and when the resolution comes, it illuminates certain scenes and interactions in the earlier sections of the book. Moreover, this plot feels somewhat less convoluted, more plausible than some of Raymond Chandler’s. As I mentioned in my review of Farewell, My Lovely, what I love about Chandler is his sharp dialogue, attitude and mood. His novels are powered by his irresistible prose style, and the storylines seem secondary to these stylistic aspects.

Returning to The Drowning Pool, what I admire about this one falls into three main areas. Firstly there’s the characterisation. Lew Archer possesses many of the typical traits of a gumshoe. He’s divorced and has an eye for a pretty woman; he likes a drink or two, and there’s a world-weary aspect to his character. But there’s something very endearing about Archer, too. I’ve already touched on his sympathetic and compassionate side, and here we see an intuitive side as he senses the damage and darkness in Maude’s past:

Her insecurity went further back than the letter she had given me. Some guilt or fear was drawing her backward steadily, so that she had to enthuse and emote and be admired in order to stay in the same place. (pgs. 37-38)

And it isn’t just Lew Archer’s persona that pulled me into this novel. Maude’s character is wonderfully realised; Macdonald seems to have a talent for painting lost or damaged individuals, people who have experienced sadness or loss in their lives. And like Chandler, he can convey a clear image of a character – along with a sense of their intentions – in two or three sentences:

A man in a striped linen suit and a washable linen hat was squatting on the pier near the top of the gangway. It was Melliotes. He straightened up, moved quickly to bar my way. He was built like a grand piano, low and wide, but his movements were light as a dancer’s. Black eyes peered brightly from the gargoyle face. (pg. 201)

Secondly, I love the way Macdonald evokes a sense of California, a place in which money and corruption live side by side. His descriptions are so vivid it’s almost as if the Californian landscape is a character in its own right. Max’s review contains a couple of fantastic quotes on the sprawling and potentially toxic spread of capitalism, its effects on the Californian environment, and we can sense the futility of it all:

A quiet town in a sunny valley had hit the jackpot hard, and didn’t know what to do with itself at all. (pg. 25)

Macdonald also uses imagery connected with the landscape and water (with a nod to the novel’s title) to reflect the deception and hurt lurking beneath the alluring surface of his characters’ world. The fiery red sunset spells danger ahead and Archer’s all set to get caught in the middle of it:

The water in the pool was so still it seemed solid, a polished surface reflecting the trees, the distant mountains and the sky. I looked up at the sky to the west, where the sun had dipped behind the mountains. The clouds were writhing with red fire, as if the sun had plunged in the invisible sea and set it flaming. Only the mountains stood out dark and firm against the conflagration of the sky. (pg. 44)

Finally, this wouldn’t be a satisfying hardboiled novel without a sprinkling of one-liners (or in some cases, two-liners). Here are a few that illustrate Archer’s tone:

She wasn’t too much of a lady to arrange herself appealingly in the chair, and dramatize the plea. There was a chance that she wasn’t a lady at all. (pg. 7)

A police car in that company seemed as out of place as a Sherman tank at a horse show. (pg. 45)

She turned and looked at me – the kind of look that made me wish I was younger and handsomer and worth a million, and assured me that I wasn’t. (pg.101)

The happy endings and the biggest oranges were the ones that California saved for export. (pg. 233)

Macdonald has created a nuanced investigator in Lew Archer, one that the reader can invest in and care for. I’m looking forward to seeing how his character develops over the course of the series as I’ve decided to carry on reading them in order. I’ll just have to forget that I read The Galton Case (mid-period Archer) last year and erase it from my mind. In the meantime, I can thoroughly recommend The Drowning Pool; just as satisfying, if not more so, the second time around.

The Drowning Pool is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.

36 thoughts on “The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald (review)

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, it was just what I needed at the time: a familiar friend, one I knew would deliver! It’s a book packed with quotable passages, but that’s good hardboiled for you…

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Ross Macdonald is worth a look if you (or someone you know) likes Chandler or Hammett. Things picked up in the second half of October when I read All Quiet on the Western Front and Bullfight (and November’s been good so far). I hope November is better for you as well!

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      If you like hardboiled, Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, for example, then Ross Macdonald is worth a look. Some of his later books are even better than The Drowning Pool (Max’s posts and comments mention this), but it’s a good one to try.

      Reply
  1. realthog

    What a wonderful account of this tremendous book. You’ve reminded me that I likewise haven’t read this book in far too long and really must dig it out for another visit. I’m surprised by the extent to which Macdonald seems to have fallen off the map of so many modern crime/mystery readers — I’ve noticed on other blogs that even quite widely read aficionados of the genre seem unaware of him, whereas back in the day that’d have been impossible: when he was writing he was kind of a colossus in the field.

    His wife, Margaret Millar, is another fave . . .

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Many thanks, John. Revisiting this book was like a tonic, just what I needed. I think I read it with a more analytical eye this time (with a view to blogging), and it stood up to the test.

      It’s interesting you feel he’s fallen off the radar of many crime readers and hardboiled aficionados. He was up there in the ’50s, but Chandler and Hammett seem much better known these days. I’m pretty sure I found Macdonald through Max’s blog, and there’s another guy I follow on twitter who rates Macdonald very highly – he’s read everything up to The Chill so far. Have you seen the film adaptation of The Drowning Pool? Worth a look?

      I haven’t read anything by Margaret Millar. Would you recommend anything in particular? I still have to get to Eric Ambler, but I bought a couple of his on the back of my Farewell My Lovely thread…so many books!

      Reply
      1. realthog

        Beast in View is perhaps a good Millar title to start with, but it’s hard to recommend since her novels tend to be ewach quite different from the last. The later ones show a bit of a falling-off, but I haven’t yet read one that I thought was a waste of time.

        I don’t like the two Lew “Harper” movies much, but I know others do. If you can find a copy of The Underground Man (1974), the pilot for the short-lived TV series Archer, you might enjoy it. For my money, Peter Graves makes a far better Archer than Paul Newman does.

        Reply
        1. jacquiwine Post author

          Thanks, John. I’ll take a look at Beast in View; it’s good to know you rate her work.

          I can’t quite see Paul Newman as the Lew Archer I know from the book. In fact, the image I have in mind is that of Macdonald (Kenneth Millar) himself based on the pic on the back cover of my Penguin edition. Curiosity is getting the better of me here so I might have to try one of the Newman films to see what I make of it. I hadn’t heard of the Peter Graves version at all, and it sounds worthy of investigation…Cheers.

          Reply
  2. Guy Savage

    Wonderful, isn’t it, when you start a book, sink into it, and know that it’s going to be really good. I have this one, but unread. I should start at the beginning…
    Have you seen the film of this?

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Absolutely, it was so good to revisit this (and you can guess the identity of one of my abandoned books!). Max has reviewed the first one, and The Drowning Pool is a step up by the sound of things. I haven’t seen the film version, but I’m going to check it out..

      Reply
  3. Richard

    I’m very glad you reviewed this (and liked it!), Jacqui, because I’ve been toying with giving The Moving Target a try after watching the Paul Newman film adaptation of it for the first time since I was a kid a year or two ago. I like what you share of the writing here, and Macdonald seems more appreciated today by bloggers I trust than I would have guessed a couple of decades back. I guess his writing has held up pretty well!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Richard. There’s some great writing in The Drowning Pool, and it was just what I needed at the time. Ross Macdonald to the rescue!

      If you’re thinking of reading The Moving Target, you might want to take a look at Max’s review (along with his post on The Drowning Pool). Max enjoyed the first one, and there’re some nice one-liners by the sound of things, but he thought it a bit derivative of Chandler. The Drowning Pool looks to be a step up from Target, tighter and better written. It sounds as if Macdonald took a little while to find his own style and voice, which is one of the reasons why I’m going to move through the Lew Archers in sequence from now on. In the meantime though, I’m going to watch the film version of The Moving Target as I’m interested to see how Newman holds up! He’s quite different to the image of of Archer I have in my mind (although that’s probably because I’m looking at Macdonald’s photo on the back cover). It sounds as if you enjoyed the film.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thoroughly enjoyable, and it sounds as if the books gets better as the series moves forward. He’s worth trying, especially if you like the hardboiled genre.

      Reply
  4. 1streading

    Having read a couple of MacDonald novels (The Galton Case and The Chill), he is exactly the kind of writer I would go to if I wanted to revive my reading spirits!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I know it might sound a bit odd, but a good hardboiled novel is a bit like comfort food for me! Loved The Galton Case; I thought it a notch up from The Drowning Pool (and it’s further into the series), but Pool was better than I’d expected on a second reading. I’ve heard good things about The Chill. Have you reviewed either of them? I’ll take a look at yours.

      Reply
  5. Emma

    I loved the Chandlers I’ve read and I’ll probably like this one. Great review. I find reviewing crime fiction rather difficult. It’s hard to give enough of the plot and avoid spoilers at the same time.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. It is difficult to review crime for exactly the reasons you say. In fact, I was thinking how difficult it’ll be for me to review the next Macdonald because I’ve poured quite a few of my thoughts on the author and Archer into this review!

      As you’ve enjoyed Chandler, I think you’d like Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels.

      Reply
  6. Elena

    I had never heard of the author, so I will think about giving it a try, even though hard-boiled crime fiction is not my thing.

    I hope you’re feeling better, Jackie. I hit a kind of slump this week as well, but I’m luckily coming out of it – slowly, mind you – today.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      He’s worth a look, Elena, but this does have all the characteristics of hardboiled. I’d be interested to hear how you get on if you decide to give it a try.

      I am feeling better now, and thanks for asking. I’m sure we all experience these slumps every now and again, but I’m glad to hear you’re back on the up.

      Reply
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  8. Max Cairnduff

    It’s great isn’t it? And I know what you mean about safe hands.

    That second quote is particularly lovely in a way, the compassion of it. Macdonald though is I think a compassionate writer. It’s full of wonderful quotes too, as you show.

    I agree he’s really strong on character and on evocation of California. Nice point too on the use of water imagery.

    I must read more Macdonald, but then I must read so much of so much…

    Great review, I really enjoyed being reminded of this one, and thanks for the shoutbacks to mine.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Max, and you’re very welcome – it was one of your posts that put me on to Macdonald in the first place.

      It is a good one, even better second time around to be honest, and it was definitely a case of ‘right book, right time’ for me. There’s just something very telling about Lew Archer’s character in that second quote and its position near the end of the first chapter makes it stand out in a way. I really like the compassion and empathy in Macdonald’s writing. Much as I love Chandler’s style, there’s something different to Macdonald on an emotional level, and I want to see how Archer’s character develops as the series moves forward. The evocation of California is wonderful too, and you nailed the best quotes in your review!

      I have the next two in the series: The Way Some People Die (which you’ve reviewed, I think) and The Ivory Grin, the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard editions. I’ll get going on them again next year, maybe some more Chandler and Elmore Leonard too (Rum Punch is in my review pile).

      Did you ever get around to watching either of the Lew Archer film adaptations, the Paul Newman ones? I rented Harper (based on The Moving Target) the other week and thought it was okay, decent fun, but Newman’s completely different to my image of Archer (albeit from The Drowning Pool). Newman’s Archer (or Harper as he’s called here) is more of a player than Macdonald’s character – you know, trying to act all cool and smooth, but not quite succeeding. Harper was made in 1966, and it’s very ‘swinging sixties’ in places, which feels at odds with the early 1950s period of the novels. It does feature Lauren Bacall though, always a bonus. You’re going to tell me you loved it now…

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        Yes, Chandler for me is a writer for prose, Macdonald for character, not that I’m knocking Chandler’s characters or Macdonald’s prose there.

        I have reviewed Way, Ivory Grin will be my next. I’ve not seen any of the films. I might well enjoy it from the description, but probably as its own thing rather than as an adaptation.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s the way to approach Harper, to view it on its own terms. I got too distracted by comparing it to my impression of Archer from the books. Let me know if you get around to watching it.

          Reply
  9. Elizabeth

    Rather than reading the Archer stories solely as mysteries, thrillers, entertainments, and detective stories (though of course they can exist solely on that level for readers who are interested in them as such), we’d do ourselves a favor to consider them in a few other ways as well. In the massive reference work World Authors 1950-1970, published by the H.H. Wilson Company, Macdonald wrote that The Galton Case and Black Money “are probably my most complete renderings of the themes of smothered allegiance and uncertain identity which my work inherited from my early years.” Of course, in Black Money the smothered allegiance occurs between the lovers Ginny Fablon and Tappinger.
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2014/12/ross-macdonald-black-money.html#.VJtkdsAFB

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s interesting. I haven’t read Black Money, although I started with The Galton Case by accident. Having now decided to read the Lew Archers in order I’ve tried to wipe Galton from my mind, but I’ll read it again once I reach that point in the sequence!

      Reply
  10. Elizabeth

    Here’s a situation that arises continually in the Lew Archer novels: someone Archer is investigating is surprised to learn how much he knows about them. In Black Money Kitty Hendricks voices this surprise in virtually those very words –“How do you know so much about me?” Usually, though, the knowledge Archer has obtained when this question comes up turns out to be peripheral – that is, it doesn’t bear directly on the solution to the case but is just a part of the hopelessly tangled morass of action and information Archer is working his way through. In the novels that most critics and scholars seem to feel comprise the mature Macdonald style – The Galton Case through The Blue Hammer – the reader is constantly being thrown off the scent this way.
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2014/12/ross-macdonald-black-money.html#.VLdYidKUc7U

    Reply
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