THE DROWNING POOL Spoiler Alert
WHAT HATH ROSS WROUGHT?
It Has its Good Points
The first third of the book gives us a vivid and convincing portrait of a failed family—an overbearing mother who has destroyed her son, an absent father, a weak and self-deluded son, his frustrated wife, and a child who has grown up to be incapable of love for any of them. It’s a good dramatic situation that deserves a full exploration.
- The mystery has a clever element—that although we are strongly encouraged to think Reavis was the killer, it seems impossible.
- Macdonald has carefully hidden away the identity of the real killer.
- For all his shallowness, Reavis is a recognizable character and his motivations are completely plausible.
And Then There is the Rest
Schopen and Kreyling both take Macdonald to task for the lack of connection between the two plots of the book, and even an admirer like Wolfe notes the difference in quality between the two distinct stories.
The Drowning Pool lacks any semblance of structural unity. Macdonald tells one story to a certain point, nearly abandons it for most of the rest of the book, and wrestles the wheel back onto the roadway for the last few pages. Which is a shame, because he had a good story going. But, as the commentators noted, he lost his nerve and fell back on pulp fiction clichés to bring the book up to the required length. This failure is all the more surprising because in The Moving Target he had already shown his ability to write a full-length novel on family-centered themes.
The Structure of the Novel Isn’t The Only Schizophrenic Element
The book is riddled with implausible and unconvincing decisions:
- Why does Maude Slocum commit suicide? She is a tough woman who has endured a difficult marriage for years. She has no illusions about her husband. She is now about to be rich. She can divorce James and run off with Knudson or find a new man. She is young enough to have a full life, including more children. She knows she didn’t kill her mother-in-law so we cannot believe that her husband’s silly accusations make any difference.
- Why didn’t Kilbourne kill Archer at sea? Kilbourne was certain, after a long and thoughtful conversation with Archer, that Archer would not be corrupted. Kilbourne had no way of knowing that Knudson wasn’t interested in pressing an investigation of Reavis’ death, and it wouldn’t be up to Knudson anyway, because Reavis was killed outside his jurisdiction.
- What’s with this hydrotherapy clinic? Macdonald seldom wrote physical action scenes, except for some fistfights. This scene puts Lew Archer firmly in the realm of the action adventure hero. Macdonald later admitted the scene was a mistake and that he wanted to include it because something like that happened in Santa Barbara. By a sixth book, we expect an author to know that the fact that something happened is not a good enough reason to include it.
- Does the resolution of his relationship with Mavis make sense? Archer abandons her for no good reason. As far as we can tell she has committed no crime. She is strong, attractive, and very interested in Archer. For good measure, she saved his life. His treatment of her is unmotivated and casts him in a poor light.
- Why did Cathy Slocum kill her grandmother? Macdonald wrote himself into a corner here. If he allows us to understand that she hated her grandmother, the surprise is spoiled. He took the other fork, of withholding information. But Macdonald is dealing off the bottom of the deck. There has been no suggestion of any bad feeling, or any reason why there should be any. Even after we learn that Cathy killed her, we can’t understand why.
- Why did Archer give Gretchen the ten thousand dollars? Archer has no illusions that she is deserving or even that the money will do any good. Aside from one vague lead, she has not helped the investigation. The book could exist just fine without her at all. Archer spent a week and was nearly killed multiple times for $200. If he didn’t want the money himself he could have given it to a charity.
- Why the fistfight with Knudson at the end? Margaret Millar criticized her husband for this and she was right. It makes both of the men look foolish. Reading the last few pages, I am reminded of the 1958 Gregory Peck movie, The Big Country, where the outsider, Gregory Peck, reluctantly allows himself to be drawn into an equally silly fistfight with a cowboy. All you have at the end is a sense of futility
- What’s all this about Cathy wanting to be with Knudson now? This reversal is completely unexplained. And the death of her mother is no excuse since she was clearly so estranged from her mother that Cathy sent the poison pen letter in the first place.
“Schizophrenic” is too strong, but . . .
Macdonald was at least as much a man of contractions as the rest of us. His heart went out to the poor, to racial and ethnic minorities, to all the disadvantaged. He felt deep and sincere concern for the environment. He was an advocate for what we now call social justice.
With a couple of blind spots. One was women, as we have noted. The other was homosexuality. In his early and middle books, he seldom misses an opportunity to depict his gay or bisexual male characters as wimpy, effete, and slightly ridiculous. It’s a jarring note. And it’s all the more puzzling in The Drowning Pool because Macdonald had recently spent a year in close contact with W. H. Auden, whom Macdonald greatly admired. I don’t know how Macdonald squared that particular circle in his own mind. And I don’t know, if Auden read any of Macdonald’s books, what he made of Macdonald’s treatment.
A Sophomore Slump?
People’s actions sometimes tell us more than their words. Macdonald claimed to like the book, but I find Kreyling’s observation that Macdonald failed to include The Drowning Pool in any of his omnibus editions more persuasive.
Macdonald made his living by his pen, and he was forced to keep a relentless schedule of production to achieve any semblance of a cash flow. He did not have the luxury of putting manuscripts aside for months and wait for inspiration. He went with the ideas he had; and as his talents improve with practice, his ideas will steadily improve.
On to The Way Some People Die.
Macdonald may have felt the hydrotherapy clinic scene was a mistake, but it does have a couple of qualities that redeem it somewhat. First, of course, it ties in with the title. Second, it seems to be a way people who don’t know Macdonald can relate to him.
When I’ve tried to explain Macdonald to friends for the first time, several of them have known of the Paul Newman film of the book. I never saw it, but I do “remember” that scene from the movie – I must’ve seen the trailer for the film, or ads for it, or seen it included in something. So the scene was memorable cinematically (even if the film was a bust).
And if that’s the enduring image from the movie, I’m guessing it was something that grabbed the studio when they were considering adapting the novel for the screen. So while Macdonald may have later disowned the scene, it could have played its part in bringing him the $100,000+ he earned for the film.
Macdonald was lucky enough to have several of his books turned into movies, but not lucky enough that they were good ones. The Drowning Pool was the second best of the lot, Harper being a good (if loose) rendition of The Moving Target. People who saw The Drowning Pool without reading the book were probably better off, because the movie takes so many liberties that that the main commonalities are the title and the hydrotherapy scene.
There is a saying that bad books make the best movies. Macdonald wrote books about people talking, reflecting, and reasoning out conclusions. Movies work best when they can show something visual. Explosions, car chases, and protracted shootouts do not play much of a role in Macdonald’s work. I hesitate to say that his best books are unfilmable but I think there are reasons no one has tried.