Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Drowning Pool (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Existentialism, they said. Henry Miller and Truman Capote and Henry Moore. André Gide and Anais Nin and Djuna Barnes. And sex - hard-boiled, poached, coddled, shirred, and fried easy over in sweet, fresh creamery butter. Sex solo, in duet, trio, quartet; for all-male chorus; for choir and symphony; and played on the harpsichord in three-fourth time. And Albert Schweitzer and the dignity of everything that lives."

This overlong quote - where Lew Archer describes conversations at a party that he attends - is so uncharacteristic for Ross Macdonald (the literary pseudonym of Kenneth Millar) that I had to include it in its entirety. This biting satire about the emptiness of party conversations sounds quite contemporary, especially the sex bit, and could happen at any "high-society" gathering in 2016 as well, even though The Drowning Pool, the second novel in the Archer series, was written in 1950.

Archer is hired by Mrs. Slocum who has intercepted an anonymous letter addressed to her husband: the letter accuses her of having an affair. The husband, retired and comfortable thanks to the wealth of his mother, spends time performing as an actor in an amateur theatre. Other main characters are the Slocums' 16-year-old daughter and the local chief of police, a friend of the family. The plot takes place in Quinto, a fictional town on the Pacific Coast, north of Los Angeles, and in nearby - also fictional - Nopal Valley, which is undergoing an oil boom. Archer spends some time in the Slocum's residence and the author is skillful in conveying the tense atmosphere of something just about to happen. And indeed, we soon have a murder, with Archer even briefly being a suspect. I have found the plot very interesting, perhaps because it is less complicated than in most other books by Mr. Macdonald , and the book - to use an awful cliché - is almost unputdownable.

There are three dramatic scenes in the novel: the first, a shooting scene, is horribly dated: to a contemporary reader it rings as false as the hard-to-watch scenes with James Cagney overacting in the 1930s and 1940s movies. But then, incongruously, the novel offers two fresh and truly great scenes. One depicts an ambush on a California highway that ends in a gruesome murder; not many authors of contemporary thrillers can write that well. I am unwilling to divulge the details of the other powerful scene, which the author calls - sarcastically yet aptly - hydrotherapy. Strong stuff, and the accomplished prose gives the whole scene and its aftermath a distinctly nightmarish quality.

I love the references to police corruption and ruthlessness of businessmen who will do any heinous deed to satisfy their avarice. With respect to greed and corruption things have not changed at all in the 66 years since the novel was published. I do not particularly like the ending because of a painfully macho scene, but overall The Drowning Pool is a very readable book, and a pleasant surprise as it much exceeds my expectations about the 1940s and early 1950s noir.

Three and a half stars.

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