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George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

The Drowning Pool

cover image By: MacDonald, John Ross (pseudonym of Kenneth Millar) (male)
Publisher: Pocket Books, Inc. (821)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 333: PS3525 .I486 D76 1950
Contributor: J. Lukin


Era: 1950s Author as on Cover: John Ross MacDonald Geographic Locale: Los Angeles, California and wealthy suburbs -- Nopal Valley and Quinto; Las Vegas, Nevada Date of Publication: 1950  |  Original Date: 1950 Setting: seamy urban realms, an upper-middle-class suburban home Motives: greed, murder

Plot Summary

Threatened by an unknown party who seeks to expose her adultery and destroy her marriage, affluent Maude Slocum seeks the aid of private investigator Lew Archer. Archer is frustrated by his client's reticence and tries aggressively to investigate the Slocum family and their hangers-on. Before he has learned much about the family's various dysfunctions, Maude's mother-in-law is murdered. Archer wonders whether she was killed for her oil-rich land, and he begins to investigate connections between the Slocums' chauffeur and a powerful oil magnate. For daring to tangle with such an influential businessman, he is twice kidnapped, given a front-row seat at a lynching, and tortured by a sadistic physician and his feral nurse. Meanwhile, Maude is destroyed by her discovery of the truth about the murder. Ultimately, Archer can only watch the vortex of madness and death that engulfs many of the characters and hope that the sole honest cop on the case will pick up what pieces are left.

Major Characters

Lew Archer adult male, approaching middle-age, tall, gray-eyed, thin-faced, former cop, professional private investigator

Ralph Knudson adult male, 30s, tall, tough, burly, blonde, Nopal Valley chief of police

Patrick Murphy Ryan a.k.a. Pat Reavis, adult male, early 20s, tall, handsome, curly dark hair, chauffeur and ne'er-do-well

Walter Kilbourne adult male, middle-aged, with an enormous head, a huge torso and short limbs, smooth-bodied oil magnate

Melliotes adult male, short, broad, agile, gargoyle-faced, a defrocked physician who gives a mean water cure

Mavis Kilbourne adult female, young, ash-blonde, fine features and a killer body, wealthy seductress

Maude Slocum adult female, beautiful, dark-haired, 35 years old, living on "an income" in a wealthy suburb

James Slocum adult male, homosexual, late 30s, tall, handsome, with a chest too thin to support his large, beautiful head

Olivia Slocum adult female, 55 years old, handsome, hair dyed red, a vain woman of property

Cathy Slocum adolescent female, 15 years old, physically and intellectually precocious

Level of Violence

one death by drowning, one by an intentional overdose, two by shooting, plenty of physical scuffles, with Archer knocked unconscious by bad guys about four times and subjected to torture by hydrotherapy. Violence is described vividly but without enjoyment.


both men and women are seen as virtuous when they resist seducers and as doomed when they acquiesce to sexuality. Slocum's homosexuality is not subjected to moral condemnation, but is presented as an illness for which his clinging mother is culpable.

Gender Roles

although Archer is placed in peril by a dangerous seductress and the Slocum family owes its troubles to a priggish matriarch, plenty of good women -- young and old, wealthy and working-stiff -- appear in the novel. Indeed, there are more trustworthy women than men; and women are seen as more prone to forgivable iniquities involving love than to harsh crimes of violence.


all the characters are European-Americans. The Irish chauffeur is a chiseling, lecherous thug. Archer is contemptuous of people who express ethnic prejudice.

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

people drink socially and smoke cigarettes to relax.

Law Enforcement

we meet one honest cop and one thug who got his job through patronage and does dirty work for the oil business. The latter is presented as an anomaly.

Subject Headings

California - Los Angeles/ Nevada - Las Vegas/ Murder/ Archer, Lew/ Detectives, Private/ Greed/ Wealth

Psychological Elements

the violence of events causes Slocum to lose his reason and retreat to a private reality. Olivia Slocum is suspicious but not quite paranoid. Melliotes and his hebephrenic nurse, Miss Macon, are sexually aroused by torturing Archer. A few characters suffer from the Return of the Repressed, the repressed being hatred for themselves and others. One character was "born into it innocent [then,] weaned on hatred and schooled in a quiet hell where nothing was real" thanks to her grossly dysfunctional family, which is presented according to Macdonald's psychoanalytically orthodox views. Archer remains a spectator throughout, but moves from cynical detachment -- "there was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn't cure" -- to a sense of engagement, responsibility, and a little guilt, determined to see things resolved out of loyalty to his job and his unredeemed client.

Film Adaptations

The Drowning Pool, 1975, Warner Brothers