Ross Macdonald is best known for his series of detective novels featuring private investigator Lew Archer (named after Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, in Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon”).
Archer appeared in 18 novels and a dozen short stories, but “The Drowning Pool” is widely considered to be one of the best.
In “The Drowning Pool”, Archer is hired by a woman named Maude Slocum to investigate an anonymous letter that hints at an alleged infidelity. Slocum won’t tell Archer if the allegations are true, but she wants him to look into the matter regardless, because she says even the accusations alone are enough to destroy her family.
Out of curiosity more than anything else, Archer travels to the woman’s home in the seedy oil town of Nopal Valley. At a party where he’s introduced as a Hollywood agent, Archer gets a first-hand look at Maude Slocum’s dysfunctional family. There’s her husband James, a momma’s boy wannabe actor; her daughter Cathy, who vacillates between a coquettish schoolgirl and a hyperaware sex kitten; and her mother-in-law, Olivia, the millionaire matriarch of the family.
When the mother-in-law is found dead in the swimming pool, all fingers point to Pat Reavis, the family’s recently-fire chauffeur. Naturally, Archer knows there’s more to this than meets the eye, but he agrees to track Reavis down nonetheless, resulting in a jaunt through the Los Angeles nightlife scene, as well as a side trip to Las Vegas.
But if reading mystery novels has taught you anything, then you know things are never as they seem. Archer discovers the Slocum home is sitting on a major oil reserve, and Olivia Slocum’s refusal to sell to a company controlled by organized crime, may have had a part to play in the woman’s murder. But then, maybe not.
One of the best things about Lew Archer novels is that while they use the familiar tropes of the detective novel, the author is able to turn them on their head and do something completely unexpected. The end of this book comes a true surprise, and a shocking one at that.
Ross Macdonald helped define the mystery genre by bringing a psychological depth to the private investigator, and there is no better example of that than “The Drowning Pool.” Highly recommended.
“The Drowning Pool” was originally published in 1950 by Random House.