Book Review : Ross MacDonald - The Drowning Pool (1950)
When you talk to non-mystery people about detective novels, you'll hear about the same two titles: Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. They are the only two novels that survived the twenty-first century in popular culture. Ross MacDonald is a name you'll hear in conversations with connoisseurs, but people can hardly remember his novels anymore. He was often hailed as the best pure writer of detective novels, so why isn't he better remembered today? I've read The Drowning Pool, one of his few novels still available in print today, hoping to find out if Ross MacDonald was indeed the best of them all.
In The Drowning Pool, Lew Archer is hired by a woman named Maude Slocum, who is being blackmailed by an unknown party. Archer temporarily relocated to a small city named Quinto for the duration of the investigation, where the Slocum matriarch is one of the important financial figures. It seems that everybody wants to please old lady Slocum with one hand and reach into her pockets with the other. It's a grim portrait, but not an extraordinary ordeal for a wealthy elder. That changes when Mrs. Slocum turns up dead, drowned in her own swimming pool. And everybody who's ever sniffed around her for money is a suspect.
The prose of Ross MacDonald definitely stands head and shoulders above the rest of detective novel writers. That dude crafted sentences with a pride and a purpose most writers simply don't have. MacDonald's apologist often say he was above the game of detective mysteries and I understand why they're saying that. He didn't just write mysteries. He wrote about the beauty and the moral complexity of living in California after World War II. The Drowning Pool is a Californian family drama, first and foremost. It's a little melodramatic, but self-serious literary writers who operate in the same wheelhouse like John Updike or Jonathan Franzen don't have anything on Ross MacDonald.
I can recognize the formal brilliance of a novel like The Drowning Pool, which democratizes a form of literature that was written for the "intellectual elite" of then, I thought it was a little insular for my own taste. Having this outsider figure unraveling a rich family's dirty laundry like this requires the situation to be at such a boiling point, things just happen to him left and right in detached pieces for him to put together. At some point, it just hurts the disbelief. The Drowning Pool, in many regards, felt like Ross MacDonald's Red Harvest, but it might've been a better novel without its protagonist Lew Archer. The idea is great, but a character that's in the known of what's going on would've made it less of a violent coincidences contest.
The Drowning Pool was my second Ross MacDonald novel. I've read The Chill, a couple years ago, and wasn't all that impressed then, either. Maybe it's just not my jam. There's an undeniable power to his prose and a purpose to his obsession with family secrets, but I find the overall picture to be ill-fitting a detective novel. What MacDonald did really fell between two chairs: it was a little too melodramatic to be a family drama, so it borrowed the working-class hat of the detective novel in order to alleviate some of its self-seriousness and it was too insular and bizarrely intimate to be a powerful mystery. And maybe that's why Ross MacDonald is remember for his prose more than for a particular novel.