… he moved like a man whose conscience was clear, or lacking.

The Drowning Pool, by Ross Macdonald

Raymond Chandler once said that Dashiell Hammett took crime out from the drawing room and back into the streets. Ross Macdonald in turn took crime out of the streets and into the hills and valleys of California.

I wrote about Ross Macdonald’s background and first Lew Archer novel here. It was a strong novel, but too derivative of Chandler and Hammett. Macdonald hadn’t found his own voice yet.

In The Drowning Pool I’d say he’s already much closer to finding that voice. I liked Moving Target enough to buy the sequel, but The Drowning Pool is better written and tighter and a distinct style is emerging which isn’t just a rerun of Macdonald’s inspirations.

There’s a line early in The Drowning Pool which though a little overwrought captures something key to the hardboiled crime genre: “Sex and money: the forked root of evil.”

Sex and money. There’s more to the hardboiled genre than that, but in terms of the crimes the genre explores those are the only two motives that matter. That’s Hammett’s legacy. The plot may be tangled, but what drives events is very simple indeed.

The Drowning Pool opens with Lew Archer being hired by a beautiful woman (naturally) who has received a poison pen letter alleging infidelity. Archer takes the case, and investigating the woman’s family finds a husband who may prefer other men, a mother-in-law who controls the family purse strings and keeps that husband emasculated and dependent on her, a daughter perhaps unhealthily fond of her father and family friends not all of whom seem all that friendly.

Archer also learns that the whole family are sitting on a fortune in oil. A fortune nobody can get to as long as the mother-in-law (who owns the land) refuses to sell up. When she is found floating face down in the family pool the question isn’t who benefits from her death, it’s who doesn’t.

I’m not going to talk further about the plot. It’s well crafted and satisfying and the various twists and turns are convincing. The plot is what makes this an easy read, it’s what keeps the pages turning, it’s not though what makes it worth reading.

What makes it worth reading is the sense of place, more particularly the sense of California. I said in my writeup of The Moving Target that I was impressed by how vividly Macdonald brought California to life. That’s if anything even more true in this novel. Here Archer goes for a swim in the sea:

I turned on my back and floated, looking up at the sky, nothing around me but cool clear Pacific, nothing in my eyes but long blue space. It was as close as I ever got to cleanliness and freedom, as far as I ever got from all the people. 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. They couldn’t touch the ocean. They poured their sewage into it, but it couldn’t be tainted.

And here, later on that same page, Archer reflects on the oil town that’s sprung up not all that far from that beach:

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 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, There was a new four-story hotel, a white frame gospel tabernacle, a bowling alley wide enough to house a B-36. The main street had been transformed by glass brick, plastic, neon. A quiet town in a sunny valley had hit the jackpot hard, and didn’t know what to do with itself at all.

That’s a long quote above, but I think it’s a great one. The town’s expanding, sprawling, it’s capitalism made physical in steel and glass. It’s America changing as it always has changed, with the orange groves and the farms making way for yet another gold rush. It’s money, one half of the forked root of evil, and it’s irresistible.

As so often in the hardboiled genre, there’s a sense of corruption under a glittering surface. California is beautiful, the sea and the sky are both blue, but you don’t need to dig very deep or go very far before you find something much darker. Like the pool itself the surface of California is inviting, but it’s far from the whole story.

The underwater lights of the pool were on, so that the water was a pale emerald depth with a luminous and restless surface filming it.

And with that, there’s not a lot more to say. Macdonald tries less hard here than in the first novel with the zingy one-liners. He still manages a nice line in short sentence descriptions (there’s a couple of examples below) but he’s not trying so hard to mimic Chandler’s polish and the snap of Marlowe’s comebacks. It makes for a less forced style and plays better to Macdonald’s own strengths. Here’s those examples:

There were dark crumbs on the oilcloth-covered table beside the burner, and some of them were moving.

… my hood was still hot enough to fry the insects that splattered it.

I could easily have found more.

In the end, crime fiction is moral fiction. The people Archer encounters are motivated by sex and money, that’s why their actions lead to misery and death. Archer himself though is something quite different. The key difference for me between hardboiled and noir is in the morality of the protagonist. In noir, the protagonist is one more person driven by sex or money or both. In hardboiled, everyone else may be like that, but the detective isn’t that smart. He’s motivated by something else, something more noble, something which frankly the world he’s in has no use for. The hardboiled detective is motivated by the desire for truth, whatever the price, even if the price is paid by him. He’s a paladin, a paragon of virtue in a virtueless world. I’ll leave Archer the final word:

“I don’t know what justice is,” I said. “Truth interests me, though. Not general truth if there is any, but the truth of particular things. Who did what when why. Especially why. …”

The Drowning Pool. That’s the Vintage Black Lizard press imprint, a series I’m very fond of as the covers are generally good, the layout clear and the paper and bindings of good quality.


Filed under California, Crime, Hardboiled, Macdonald, Ross

20 responses to “… he moved like a man whose conscience was clear, or lacking.

  1. I read On the Road because I hoped Jack Kerouac had described California and I was disappointed. It seems I should have chosen Ross MacDonald instead.
    I see you have a category “California”, I’ll look for ideas there.
    Did you write anything on the crime fiction genres ? I’m getting lost in the nuances between “noir”, “hardboiled” (which sounds more like an adjective for potatoe cooking than for books) and “pulp” and probably some others I haven’t heard of yet.

  2. I haven’t written on the genre generally. I may do someday.

    On California, Fante is supposed to be excellent. I’ve only read one of his Bandini quartet so far, and it’s the three after that first one that are about California, but apparently the sense of place is fantastic.

  3. I have two or three Fante at home but I read them along time ago. I should re-read one of them.
    On California, there is also This Book Will Save Your Life by AM Homes. It’s funny, you may like it.

  4. I’m sold on this one Max. I have a serious noir addiction, plus there’s a film version of this.

    When was this written?

  5. 1950, the film apparently stars Paul Newman and was made in ’66 so has the potential to be good.

    I’ve started from the beginning, apparently his best novels are still a few years away. I’ve also heard though that some themes get overused, particularly Freudian ones. I’ll have to wait and see on both counts.

  6. Thanks Max. I saw the film years ago and don’t remember much about it to be honest. I enjoy patching the book and the film together.

  7. leroyhunter

    Great review Max. Doesn’t that long quote about the town recall a scene in The Crying of Lot 49? I’m certain there’s a similar “overview” passage when Oedipa sweeps in off an interstate, to the town with the military factory and the electronic music bar…

    You’re right about Fante as well, and of course there’s Ellroy, his LA quartet has a fantastic sense of setting.

    I’ve read 3 Macdonalds now and I’m pretty well sold. Unlike you, I didn’t have the discipline to follow the sequence so I jumped around a bit, but I’ve settled into the order now and will maybe go back to the earlier books (this one included). I didn’t read Chandler in order either but I didn’t think that a loss.

    What do you make of the developing Archer character? You could be critical and say he’s *too* much like Marlowe, but I like the way he doesn’t (so far) have any of the ostentatious quirks that writers seem to have to imbue detectives with to create precisely that separation from Chandler’s template. Your comment that “he’s motivated by something the world he’s in has no use for” is spot on…that makes him very appealing I think.

  8. I’ve been contemplating a Chandler revisit for this fall. You make a powerful case that I should make it a Chandler-Macdonald project, since I have not read Macdonald. Thanks.

  9. It does rather remind of that Leroy, though I rate Pynchon higher as a writer presently.

    The question on character’s an interesting one, because on reflection it brought out a flaw I hadn’t written about above.

    Macdonald’s famous for his psychological subtlety, but for me that’s not yet apparent (that’s not really a surprise, I had heard it manifested slowly over time as the series progressed). The characters here, Archer included, are highly recognisable ones. You’ll recognise them all from countless film noirs.

    There are beautiful women, rich, fat and decadent men, dangerous young men on the make, the combination works well but individually each is from central casting.

    In a genre nove, and this is a genre novel, that’s not a weakness and is probably why I didn’t really notice it until you asked about Archer. Fittingly, Archer is the most interesting. There’s a disgust in him, a revulsion with the world he inhabits that makes him somehow appealing. He is Marlowe-light still at this stage, but less showy and that’s good because it’s less derivative.

    Kevin, my only caution to you would be that you might want to wait until I’m further into the series. The better ones do come later, and while I’m definitely enjoying Macdonald he’s not yet up there with Chandler for me.

    There are authors who are excellent within their genre and whom one can recommend to any fan of that genre. That’s where Macdonald is for me presently. Then there are writers who transcend their genre, often who change it forever after by the works they write within it. Those writers can often be recommended to non-genre fans. Chandler for me is in that category.

  10. Leroy, as an addendum, you probably know but I have a writeup of The Crying of Lot 49 under the Pynchon and California categories elsewhere on the blog.

  11. I just discovered that Macdonald grew up in Kitchener, Ontario — where I was born and spent the first 13 years of my life — so I now have an additional incentive. I’ll keep on eye on your posts, Max.

  12. leroyhunter

    Max, it was your Lot 49 review that lead me to reread the novel earlier this year. Am not sure how highly I rate Pynchon, I liked Lot 49 but have found the only other of his I tried (Gravity’s Rainbow) a frustrating experience – ultimately abandoned.

    I agree with you that as yet I don’t see Macdonald being on a par with Chandler. But I like him and plan to get through the Archer series.

    I like your distinction between noir and hardboiled, interesting in the context of the current furore about The Killer Inside Me. I’ve yet to read any Thompson but I have one at home, along with a James M Cain. By strict definition Macdonald and Chandler are thus hardboiled, but I’ve never thought of the latter that way. I tend to just think “detective” and the hard in hardboiled seems more suited to the more extreme stuff like Thompson. Splitting hairs I know. The viewpoint is a more worthwhile way to distinguish.

  13. Your quotations suggest that this is a well-written book although from a writer I have not heard of before. Alas, “They couldn’t touch the ocean. They poured their sewage into it, but it couldn’t be tainted”, this is a rather topical statement at the moment.

  14. Tom,

    If you go to my first Macdonald review I link there to a good article at the Guardian which sets out his context. It was that which got me reading him.

    And yes, it is rather topical presently isn’t it?

  15. So much to comment on here, Max. Firstly, thanks for the reminder about Macdonald. I’m sure I must have discovered (or re-discovered) him through your review of The Way Some People Die as that’s the one sitting on my ‘to-read’ pile. I’d missed your review of The Drowning Pool though, probably because I hadn’t discovered your blog until a year or two after this review, but I have read the book. Like Leroy, I’ve jumped about a bit with Macdonald, but now wish I’d starting reading them in sequence to track the progression in Macdonald’s writing and Archer’s character. I started with The Galton Case, which looks like mid-period Archer, followed by The Drowning Pool (#2 in the series). There’s no logic behind this; they’re just the two which happened to catch my eye in bookshops.

    You’re so right about the way Macdonald captures as sense of California in these novels: the changing landscape, its inhabitants, the corruption. (Your quotes, especially the second one, just leave me wanting to read The Drowning Pool all over again.) It’s one of the things I loved about the book, along with Lew Archer’s character of course. It’s still early days for me, but I get the feeling that Archer is less flawed and possibly more incisive than Marlowe.

    Love that quote about justice and truth at the end of your review, I can recall it from the book.

  16. Jacqui,

    Sorry for the late reply to your comment. I don’t think you have to go in order, arguably you shouldn’t as the earliest ones plainly aren’t as strong as the ones that followed. He takes a while to find a clear voice.

    I’d forgotten that second quote, it is a good one looking at it again, no wonder I liked it so much. “A quiet town in a sunny valley had hit the jackpot hard, and didn’t know what to do with itself at all.” That’s hardboiled prose.

  17. Pingback: The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald | JacquiWine's Journal

  18. No worries, Max. I’ve only just noticed your reply! As you’ll see, I ended up rereading The Drowning Pool a few weeks ago and it was just what I needed at the time to lift me out of a reading slump. I’ve referenced that second quote in my review, it’s a blinder.

    I think I will read them in order now as I’m interested to see how he develops (and I have The Way Some People Die on the shelf). It’s good to have a few things to look forward to.

  19. Hello Max. I was delighted to find your reviews of The Moving Target and The Drowning Pool on your site. I only discovered Ross MacDonald last month, but his writing and description are so strong that I’d love to eventually read all the books in the series.

    I’m hoping it’s all right that I have linked to your review in my own blog post about The Drowning Pool. If you don’t wish this, just let me know and I can revise the post. But I want to send readers your way if possible, as I’ve been enjoying your reviews and your website. All best wishes — Jason H


  20. Jason, thanks for your comment. Ross MacDonald is tremendous isn’t he? You encourage me to revisit him, which is long overdue.

    I’m always happy to have people link to any of my posts. I’ll read yours with interest, though possibly not for a week or so since I just started a new job and am a bit offline presently.

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