And so Lew Archer gets ready to investigate. He rides to the scene but Death hitches a ride on the way, and very soon a body is discovered. The multimillionaire matriarch of the Slocum family, who kept rule over her son and his family with an iron fist, is found dead. She’s been drowned in the swimming pool. But was it an accident? Did she simply slip? Or was it murder?
Well, it’s a mystery novel and Mrs. Slocum was a multimillionaire, so you do the math. What surprised me about this book is that although it is very much written in the Chandler mould of hardboiled mysteries, it is still a quintessential Ross Macdonald novel. We have a bickering family, the loss of a parent/grand-parent, a child resenting her mother (while worshiping her father)… all these things threaten to tear a family apart. (Sometimes, Lew Archer seems like more of a family therapist than a detective.)
This sharp characterization is not limited to the main players. Even such a minor character as the local chief of police is wonderfully drawn out. Sometimes he seems to be a classic thick-headed official who hates everyone else as a matter of course (a.k.a. Raymond Chandler’s favourite kind of cop)… and eventually you find out why he behaves the way he does at times. It’s an incredibly powerful scene. There’s an Italian with a French accent (what kind of geneticist came up with that?) who owns a bar, and even though we only see him for a handful of scenes we feel a certain connection with him.
In fact, there’s only one thing seriously wrong with this book and that’s the plot. It’s odd, seeing how it’s a Ross Macdonald novel. Usually, he stretches things to a point of practically over-plotting. But the first half of the book is very slow—it seems like a novel of character, like a quiet domestic affair that should be solved by Archer’s staying with the Slocum family and investigating things. This slow pace seems just right for the tone of the novel… but in the third act, the book abruptly changes pace and introduces international criminals, gang murder, and everything short of bestiality. In fact, one of the book’s last scenes seems like something directly from a James Bond movie! It’s very jarring, and doesn’t seem at all like Lew Archer’s style.
And although generally speaking detectives who pull conclusions out of a hat annoy me, I can’t say that Lew Archer left me feeling that way. The Drowning Pool is a very well-written book that captures the drama of a murder and the effect it has on a family struggling to keep together. When it focuses on this family, the book is positively poetic. But when it decides to throw in some distracting action-oriented stuff, it stumbles hard. The book reads like Ross Macdonald struggling to throw off Raymond Chandler’s influence on the hardboiled mystery. Much of the time he seems to be succeeding but occasionally, Chandler penetrates through everything and spoils it. It’s a mixed bag—it’s very Ross Macdonald-like material but written in a style that just isn’t suited to it. The book has masterpiece potential, but in the end, it is forced to settle for “pretty good” status.