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.
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.