Sunday, March 04, 2012


When Maude Slocum walks into Lew Archer’s office, it looks like another typical case. She’s intercepted a nasty letter that was intended for her husband’s eyes—one that would cast more than a shadow of doubt on her fidelity as a wife. As it happens, her husband James will be a very rich man one day (when his mother dies) and she isn’t particularly keen on going through divorce proceedings. Plus, there’s a child to consider: Maude’s daughter Cathy. Maude went through a divorce as a child and doesn’t want Cathy to experience the same things.

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.)

The characters, as usual for Macdonald, are wonderful. They are all superbly realised. The elderly Mrs. Slocum is not simply a cackling old witch (which is always a danger with characters of her type). However, she really is far too protective of her son James, a man who is weak-willed and spineless. He depends on others and even though his relationship with Maude is a shambles, he has no idea what he would do if she decided to leave. This, as well as his relationship with an “artsy” sort of man at a local theatre, leads Maude in a fit of frustration to accuse him of being a “fairy”. (The inference is clear.)

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.

Add to that the fact that the mystery is simply disappointing. It makes sense— in fact, the solution is perfectly plausible. You don’t doubt the explanation Macdonald gives you— but you do begin doubting whether Lew Archer is human. Because short of omnipotence I have no idea how he tumbled to the solution of the mystery. How did he know Didit did it? Magic, I suppose. You never find out and I couldn’t even make a proper guess.

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.


  1. Nice review Patrick - I think that you are correct in your overall analysis in that it is easy to see that it is a very early Archer novel and the integration of plot and theme is just not as sophisticated as it would become. The movie version, if you ever catch up with it, is enjoyable enough and well worth a look (though not as good as HARPER), though it takes a few liberties with the source material.

  2. Early Ross Macdonald (THE DROWNING POOL is the second book in the Lew Archer series), was stylistically influenced by Chandler, as Macdonald himself admitted, and as were the styles of many other writers of hardboiled mysteries--e.g., Howard Browne in his Paul Pine novels, and the vastly overrated and annoying Robert B. Parker in his Spenser series.

    "Harper" is a film I'd rate as among the greatest private eye films ever. One writer referred to Paul Newman in the lead as "the greatest Marlowe that never was." Although I've always been a huge Bogart fan, I have to agree that Newman could have been one hell of a great Philip Marlowe.

  3. "and the vastly overrated and annoying Robert B. Parker in his Spenser series."

    Wow, don't hold back, Barry! Would love to hear more on this!

    BTW, Drowning Pool was a disappointment to me too, much preferred Ivory Grin, which was brilliant.

  4. Good review, Patrick, but I can't help but feel that I haven't missed out on much when I was unable to locate my copy of the book – even though you attached the "pretty good" label to it.