ROSS MACDONALD – The Drowning Pool.

ROSS MACDONALD The Drowning Pool

Bantam, paperback reprint; movie tie-in edition, 1970s. Hardcover first edition: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950. Many reprint editions, both hardcover and soft.

   I wasn’t thinking very much about it, so when I picked this book up and started to read, I found myself caught up in a small time warp, which caught me by surprise, but it was one of my own making.

   I’ll explain.

   On both covers, front and back, there are a dozen or more color shots taken from the movie, released in 1975. Lots of photos of Paul Newman, in other words, in all kinds of situations, plus a handful more with Joanne Woodward in them — all rather tiny, but the immediate effect was to put me in a mellow 70s sort of mood, when both Paul and Joanne were much younger, and so was I.

ROSS MACDONALD The Drowning Pool

   So when I hit page 9, where Lew Archer stops at one of those old-fashioned motor courts that consists of small cottages that the owner walks you down to and lets you inspect the accommodations before you register, it was jarring, and it immediately sent me back to the copyright page only to discover that — whoa! — the book came out in 1950.

   It wasn’t a 1970s book, at all. (And it took only a little more effort to look up the fact that The Drowning Pool was only the second novel that Archer appeared in; the first was The Moving Target, from 1949. Where does the time go?)

   We don’t learn a whole lot about Archer’s background in this book. Previously married and now separated, or perhaps more likely, divorced, that’s about all we learn about him — except for his strong standards of right and wrong. Beware to the client who hires him and changes her mind. Once hired to do a job — in this case, to discover who sent a woman with an already shaky marriage a letter that threatens to tell all — he’s in it to the end.

ROSS MACDONALD The Drowning Pool

   Beginning with a marriage on the rocks, Archer’s slow but methodical investigation expands to include a daughter who at 15 is too young to attract the such serious intentions from the family chauffeur; her grandmother, the matriarch of the family; a police chief who is obviously smitten with Archer’s client; a weak-kneed husband who never had to work a day in his life; and oil — which means money, trouble, and murder.

   It’s a complex case, laid out by Macdonald in simple fashion. It would have been easy to make a tangled mess of the various threads of the plot darting here and there — Archer is on the road a lot, and in serious trouble more than once — but the telling is clean, straight-forward, and filled with enough picturesque similes and metaphors to fill a book.

   Here are just a few — I can’t resist:

   Page 77:   “For an instant I was the man in the [distorted] mirror, the shadow-figure without a life of his own who peered with one large eye and one small eye through dirty glass at the dirty lives of people in a very dirty world.”

   Page 79:   [talking to a very young prostitute] “Her breasts were pointed like a dilemma. I pushed on past.”

ROSS MACDONALD The Drowning Pool

   Page 82:   “[Graham] Court was a row of decaying shacks bent around a strip of withering grass. A worn gravel drive brought the world to their broken-down doorsteps, if the world was interested. A few of the shacks leaked light through chinks in their warped frame sides. [The office] looked abandoned, as if the proprietor had given up for good.”

   Right now I don’t remember much of the movie, whether it followed the book very well or not, but either way, I think I’ll always have Paul Newman in mind when I read any of the Archer books. This one is a good one, and while all the clues point one way, except for one or two puzzling gaps, which — as it turns out — are nothing to be concerned about. Macdonald knew what he was doing, and any loose ends are firmly nailed down, solidly, to perfection, and with no seams showing.

— August 2002 (slightly revised)