Few private eye novels would open, as The Drowning Pool does, with a poison-pen letter quoting from Shakespeare's sonnet 94 ("Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds"), but in Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer series urbane literary allusion is par for the course. Macdonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar, published his first Archer novel in 1949, after completing a PhD on Coleridge at the University of Michigan. The Drowning Pool, set in California and first published in 1950, is Archer's second outing and the most formally assured of the series.
After investigating an anonymous note accusing the wealthy Maude Slocum of adultery, Archer dives deep into a case that turns murderous when Maude's domineering mother-in-law, Olivia ("She had enough ego to equip a dictator and leave enough over for a couple of gauleiters"), is found dead in her swimming pool. Is oil magnate Walter Kilbourne, desirous to drill for black gold on the Slocum estate, responsible or is the killing merely a domestic spat gone wrong?
Macdonald unfurls his plot with the unforced majesty of an incoming Pacific tide, though it is in his laconic descriptive prose that he equals Chandler or Hammett. His evocation of Kilbourne's shadowy fiefdom – "The place was as noisy as a funeral parlour at midnight, and I liked it just as well" – in the LA hills testifies to a prescient postwar cynicism about American corporatism, while his description of a club's faded grandeur echoes with chiastic irony: "The photographs that lined the panelled walls were signed by all the big names and the names that had once been big."
A noirish, centrifugal amorality pervades Archer's world and The Drowning Pool does not conclude nicely or neatly. Yet this narrative ambiguity affirms the complexity of Macdonald's fiction, for as Archer observes bitterly at the denouement: "The happy endings and the biggest oranges were the ones that California saved for export."
Good book, though I can't agree that it's the 'most formally assured of the series'; it tries too hard to be Chandleresque. Some of the later novels are much better: The Far Side of the Dollar, The Chill and The Goodbye Look, for example; however, I much prefer the movie version to Newman's first outing as Lew Archer (Harper, on screen) in Harper, based on Macdonald's The Moving Target, largely because his performance is less stylised. There were rumours of a new Archer film starring Hugh Laurie (ulp!) a couple of years back, but nothing seems to have come of them.