Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Drowning Pool: Ross Macdonald

In this second Lew Archer novel by Ross Macdonald, the plot is complicated, with a large cast of characters. Archer's client is a woman who has intercepted a letter intended for her husband that reveals that she has been dallying with another man. She is concerned that her husband will see the letter, but even more than that, she does not want her mother-in-law to hear about it. Her husband's family was very well-to-do but at this point in time is living on a lovely estate on a relatively small fixed income and the mother-in-law controls the purse strings. The job she wants Archer to do is find out who sent the letter, and possibly prevent any future occurrences. When Archer visits the family home where they all live, the mother-in-law is drowned in a pool during a party.

The other characters include the client's teenage daughter; the chauffeur who is attracted to the daughter; the husband's friend, a playwright; and the sheriff who is a close friend of the family. Immediately the chauffeur comes under suspicion as the killer, but Archer is not convinced that he committed the crime. In his mind, just about anyone could be a suspect.

That is more of the set up and the story than I like to reveal about a novel, but there is plenty more to follow. The family is extremely dysfunctional, and there are various criminal elements involved. The initial setting is the southern California coast, in an area where oil is the prime source of money. Archer travels as far afield as Las Vegas looking for clues and evidence, and gets beaten up along the way.

Archer is one of those private eyes who won't give up, and gives the case his all. He goes above and beyond. The ending surprised me, and the book was a pleasure to read.

An example of the writing... which also demonstrates Macdonald's concern for the environment.
I was still chilly a half-hour later, crossing the pass to Nopal Valley. Even at its summit the highway was wide and new, rebuilt with somebody's money. I could smell the source of the money when I slid down into the valley on the other side. It stank like rotten eggs. 
The oil wells from which the sulphur gas rose crowded the slopes on both sides of the town. I could see them from the highway as I drove in: the latticed triangles of the derricks where the trees had grown, the oil-pumps nodding and clanking where cattle had grazed. Since 'thirty-nine or 'forty, when I had seen it last, the town had grown enormously, like a tumor. It had thrust out shoots in all directions: blocks of match-box houses in raw new housing developments and the real estate shacks to go with them, a half-mile gauntlet of one-story buildings along the highway: veterinarians, chiropractors, beauty shops, marketerias, restaurants, bars, liquor stores....
More had changed than the face of the buildings, or the number and make of the cars. The people were different and there were too many of them. Crowds of men whose faces were marked by sun and work and boredom walked in the streets and in and out of the bars, looking for fun or trouble. Very few women showed on the main street. The blue-shirted cop on the main corner wore his holster on the front of his hip, with the flap unbuttoned and the gun-butt showing.

After reading the book, my husband and I watched the film version with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. I was very surprised that the story had been relocated to New Orleans and surrounding areas. The setting was lovely and the decadent culture of the rich and the dysfunctional family fit in perfectly there. The story was not identical; some relationships had been changed. But for the most part the basic structure remained and the acting was very good. Melanie Griffith plays the extremely flirtatious daughter. As usual, the book is better, but the film is very entertaining.

Other reviews:




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Publisher:  Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 1996 (orig. pub. 1950)
Length:   244 pages
Format:   Trade paperback
Series:    Lew Archer, #2
Setting:   Southern California
Genre:    Mystery
Source:   I purchased my copy


29 comments:

  1. I'd heard of the film of course but stupidly had no idea it was based on a book... or what it was about as I don't think I've actually seen the film. Good review.

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    1. Cath, I don't think I had heard of this film or the first one, Harper, until my husband told me about them. He is more knowledgeable of films than I am. Too bad they did not do more films based on the Archer series, I think he was a good character.

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  2. Tracy, I have probably read only a couple of Lew Archer novels. I remember liking his character as well as Ross Macdonald's narrative style. The film will appeal to me only after I have read this book.

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    1. I agree, Prashant, I always read the book before I watch the film where possible. I have most if not all of the remaining books and plan to read them all over time.

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  3. I've not ever read any of MacDonald's books and I can't remember if I've seen the movie. My husband probably has. He has watched a lot of older movies late at night when he can't sleep or can't go back to sleep. I like the sound of this one. Actually, I like the sound of a lot of the books that you feature. Perhaps it's time that I turn my mystery reading to a few more vintage books. :-)

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    1. Well, I am always wanting to read the newer books that you are reviewing, Kay, so we are even. There are so many good books, it is hard to choose or keep.

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  4. Ah, Ross Macdonald. When I was first reading his books, I read the first, then skipped this for some reason and read the third or fourth, and so on. I didn't get back to this until much later, and I still haven't read them all, though I'd like to. Things dribble in from the library, or I see a review of something, and I tend to forget the excellent books I NEED to read. So thanks for the reminder.

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    1. I feel the same way, Rick, I have only read the first two of the Chandler books yet and I want to read all of those also.

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  5. I like Ross Mcdonald's writing, and the Lew Archer character, Tracy, so it was good to see this one reviewed on your blog today. Mcdonald was good at weaving together disparate plot strings, wasn't he? And at depicting dysfunction. And I think both are done well here.

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    1. I am just glad I finally got around to this one, Margot, and now I can read some more of Macdonald's books. I do like the Lew Archer character.

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  6. I have the book - unread of course and will now keep an eye out for the film thanks. Maybe 2019 will be the year I eventually read something from this author. Glad you enjoyed it

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    1. And when you read one of Ross Macdonald's books, Col, I look forward to seeing your opinion of it.

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  7. I binged on Ross Macdonald mysteries in the early 1970s. I was impressed by his style and the focus of his plots. Excellent review!

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    1. Thanks, George. It is possible that I read a couple of Ross Macdonald's books when I was younger, George, but if so, I could not say which ones. And I am enjoying them now. Proximity to LA and the Southern California coast at this point in my life may help a lot.

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  8. I enjoyed the film when it first came out--loooooong ago--one of two in which Newman played Archer (renamed "Harper" for copyright reasons, I suppose). Similar characters, with Pamela Tiffin doing the Melanie Griffith "Lolita" role. Around that time I read several Macdonald novels, but am not certain which ones. I recall the writing was snappy, with good dialogue and descriptions, but the plots seemed overly complicated with similar conflicts among the characters. Your review revives this impression for me perfectly, Tracy. Might be time for me to revisit Macdonald.

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    1. We watched Harper for the first time about 10 years ago, Matt, then watched again after I read The Moving Target in 2014. (So, time to watch it again.) This was our first viewing of The Drowning Pool. I remember when I read The Ivory Grin by Macdonald I thought it overly complex, but the first two books did not bother me in that way. I do think he examines similar conflicts in the books I have read. I picked up a lot more of them at the book sale last weekend, so I am read to try more.

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    2. I heard several times many years ago that the reason they changed Archer's name to Harper was because Paul Newman had by then made some very successful films whose titles started with aitches: "Hud" and "The Hustler," so superstition won out.

      With regard to the movie versions of Macdonald's first two Lew Archer novels, and for whatever my opinion is or isn't worth, I think "The Drowning Pool" was good but that "Harper" ranks as one of the best private eye films ever made.

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    3. Thank for that information, Barry. Since I it has been a few years since I watched Harper I don't remember a lot, but I think it is better movie of the two. Paul Newman is great to watch in just about everything, though, and I did like the New Orleans setting for The Drowning Pool, even though I don't know why they felt the need to change the location.

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    4. Hello Tracy and Barry --

      In his introduction to the DVD of Harper, Robert Osborne confirms your story: Paul Newman had asked for the detective's name to start with H, in line with his other "H" film title successes. I thought it sounded a little out of character for the generally humble Newman to ask for the change, but then William Goldman in his excellent commentary adds that the filmmakers couldn't use the Lew Archer name, but only the plot of The Moving Target due to character series rights. So Paul Newman's ego wasn't involved, he was just picking up an opportunity for an H-friendly name.

      Goldman, by the way, is a great raconteur on the commentary track, and I particularly love his anecdote about a Lauren Bacall ad lib that irritates him as the screenwriter: the line for Mrs. Sampson to Harper as written is "I hear you're good at finding things. My husband is missing." Goldman notes that the lines tell you much about that character; she sees her husband as a "thing," an object rather than a loved one. But Bacall's delivery in the movie runs: "I hear you're good at finding things. You're sitting on my robe."

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  9. https://billcrider.blogspot.com/2013/11/ffb-drowning-pool-ross-macdonald.html

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    1. How did I miss that? Thanks for the link, Todd. I will add it to the post. And I did not know that Bill had written his doctoral dissertation on the Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald.

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  10. Hi Tracy! Very nice to see your review of The Drowning Pool here. I have The Way Some People Die (#3 in the series) on its way through interlibrary loan, and I'm really enjoying what I've read so far of MacDonald's characters and prose. I think his detective character is really successful because he is empathetic as he deals with broken, corrupt, or shallow people while he searches for a solution. He also doesn't give up easily, as you point out, which is another admirable trait. (I'm a sucker for the tenacious underdog, from Columbo to Nicolas Freeling's Piet Van der Valk.)

    And thanks for linking to my review. Now I have to get myself going on Victor Canning, thanks to your reviews reminding me to do so! There always seems to be a new book and author on the horizon, ready to be read....

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    1. Hi Jason. I hope I get to The Way Some People Die Soon. I do want to read the books in order, not so much because the detective changes but to see the progression of Macdonald's writing. (I did read The Ivory Grin first though.) I love Columbo too, we have watched all the shows at least twice, most three times. But I have not read any of Freeling's series, although I have a lot of his books.

      I hope you like Victor Canning's books, some of them are wonderful. I have not found one I did not enjoy. But so far I have stuck with crime fiction / espionage books.

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    2. Looking very forward to a Victor Canning title or two. I will almost certainly gravitate at first to the crime-plot spectrum before sampling his global espionage titles.

      Fun to hear that you have a lot of Nicolas Freeling books; he is one of those authors who seem to have many yellowing paperbacks cluttering up used book places. I definitely prefer the earlier Inspector Van der Valk series to the later Henri Castang run, and Van der Valk IS a series you want to read in order (and see if you can make it through without plot spoilers, which are lurking on other review sites). I will also say that I think Freeling -- like Gladys Mitchell -- is an acquired taste. One either likes his writing greatly or plain can't read him. I also conversed with a collector who knew of Freeling from crime conventions and thought the author was rather opinionated and prickly as a person. Not a great surprise. At any rate, his books are from the Simenon/Wahloo-Sjowall school of realistic crime drama, but they hold many intriguing surprises in plotting and prose for those who are receptive to them. Cheers --

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    3. Thanks for all that information about Freeling, Jason. I don't know why I have put off reading his books, although I do like to read series in order, and I did not get the first one until a couple of years ago. I do hope I like them.

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  11. Love, love, LOVE the books of Ross MacDonald. It may be time for a complete reread since I don't remember any of them in detail. MacDonald's books major in Dysfunctional Families.

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    1. Yes, Yvette, and I love to read about Dysfunctional Families. Of course, the ones he meets makes my family and others I know look tame by comparison. I do hope to read all his books.

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  12. I have read this, and seen the film, but a long time ago. I remember enjoying both very much. I never became a big reader of MacDonald, and often think I ought to make good on that.

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    1. I may be repeating myself here, Moira, but I am especially interested in reading his books (and Margaret Millar's) because they lived in Santa Barbara for many years and sometimes use it or nearby areas as the setting. I also want to read the biography by Tom Nolan.

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