"The Drowning Pool” by Ross Macdonald (published by Penguin Books)

Gumshoe follows familiar noir tropes

Here is a reissue for the second of the 18 books by American author Ross Macdonald featuring private eye Lew Archer, and it’s hard not to disagree with learned opinion that, Initially at least, Archer was similar to (if not completely derivative of) Philip Marlowe, the pioneering, wisecracking sleuth created by Raymond Chandler in the 1930s.
8. October 2023 5:30

The novel, first published in 1950, opens in classic hard-boiled fashion, with a well-dressed woman, Maude Slocum, hesitantly approaching Archer in his “plain, small, square” office in Los Angeles. If you simply substituted Marlowe’s name for Archer’s in this first chapter, you could almost be reading an opening to one of Chandler’s, perhaps “The Big Sleep” or “Farewell, My Lovely”. And like Marlowe, Archer used to be a policeman, five years on the Long Beach force. Slocum has come to him on the recommendation of a cop.

Apart from the near-identical scenarios, there’s similar dry humour. Slocum hovers in doubt at Archer’s doorway, unsure whether to tell him her embarrassing problem – “I [Archer] let the silence stretch out. She had knocked and I had opened the door. Undecided or not, she couldn’t expect me to lift her over the threshhold.”

Or, “She wasn’t too much of a lady to arrange herself appealingly in the chair, and dramatize the plea. There was a chance she wasn’t a lady at all.” Archer is free with his banter and they joust back and forth. An effective noir writer must have a nice line in one-liners (or in some cases, two-liners).

Slocum eventually hires the detective to find out who sent an anonymous note to her husband, which she luckily intercepted first. It read: “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds. Can you possibly enjoy playing the role of  complaisant cuckold? Or are you strangely unaware of your wife’s amorous activities?”

Archer is reluctant to take on the job because Mrs Slocum won’t tell him if she is being unfaithful or not. He can’t work in a vacuum but he will take the assigment if she lets him do it in his own way. She wants the culprit found before any more notes arrive. She doesn’t want a break-up and divorce, mainly because of their teenage daughter, though we later learn that her husband is a “fairy”.

We can trust Lew. He’s used to “Peeping on fleabag hotel rooms, untying marital knots, blackmailing blackmailers out of business. Dirty, heavy, hot work on occasion”.

Now, it’s time for Macdonald’s plot to thicken, and when Archer goes to the Slocums’ place to do a little snooping and earn his retainer, a body is found at the bottom of their swimming pool. It’s the husband’s mum, Maude’s domineering mother-in-law Olivia, who never approved of Maude as a suitable wife. The couple live with her in the LA suburbs and she’s sitting on oil deposits but she won’t allow it to be extracted. Meanwhile, Olivia holds the purse strings, tightly.

So, suicide can’t be ruled out yet but most likely it’s murder, and there are enough suspects to keep readers going. We have a whodunit on our hands.

Investigation on our part reveals that American-Canadian writer Macdonald (real name Kenneth Millar, 1915-1983) was cleverer than we are at The Budapest Times, for we discover that the poison-pen letter is actually quoting from William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 (“Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds”).

The thrills, and the one-liners, keep on coming. Here are a few more that illustrate Archer’s cynical and witty tone:

A police car in that company seemed as out of place as a Sherman tank at a horse show. / 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. / The happy endings and the biggest oranges were the ones that California saved for export. / I always eat oyster stew when I wear my pearls./ He smiled bleakly, as a monk might smile over the memory of an ecstasy. / Reavis looked at me like a grateful dog. Which I was observing for rabies. 

There’s plenty more like those. And crime writers seem to like to take a dig at their environment (Carl Hiaasen, John D. MacDonald, for instance). Macdonald about the United States West Coast: “They had jerrybuilt the beaches from San Diego to the Golden Gate, bulldozed super-highways through the mountains, cut down a thousand years of redwood growth, and built an urban wilderness in the desert… There was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn’t cure.”

Archer’s voice and style is a major asset in this entertaining thriller full of plot twists. The story rattles along as a bunch of family secrets emerge and mix with the oil company’s efforts to drill on their land.

More death, abduction, hired gangsters, questionable women, official police – If you can keep up with it all, you earn The Budapest Times Golden Magnifying Glass Award.

While there’s a lot in common with Chandler’s Marlowe, in the next 16 Archer novels up to 1976 (we haven’t read them), Macdonald forged a reputation for picking up the baton dropped by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and taking the gumshoe genre to new heights. Indeed, elevating the detective novel to the level of literature, according to opinion.

Anyway, disenchanted these dicks may be, nonetheless they unbend enough to try to offer some justice for put-upon underdogs, and that’s a good theme.

A 1975 film adaptation of “The Drowning Pool” starred Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. This latest release of the book is one of 10 titles in a new Penguin Modern Classics Crime and Espionage Series by British, American, Belgian and Japanese authors published between 1928 and 1978.

The others are “Beast in the Shadows” by Edogawa Rampo (1928), “Journey into Fear” by Eric Ambler (1940), “In a Lonely Place” by Dorothy B. Hughes (1947), “The Franchise Affair“ by Josephine Tey (1948), “The Night of the Hunter“ by Davis Grubb (1953), “Maigret and the Headless Corpse“ by Georges Simenon (1955), “Call for the Dead“ by John le Carré (1961), “Cotton Comes to Harlem” by Chester Himes (1965) and “SS-GB” by Len Deighton (1978). Another 10 vintage titles are coming this October.

Macdonald was president of the Mystery Writers of America in 1965, and he received awards from The British Crime Writers Association. In 1981, two years befor his death, he received The Eye, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America.

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