Friday, April 13, 2012

FFB: The Drowner - John D. MacDonald

This week the gang of reviewers who make up Patti Abbot's Friday's Forgotten Books feature salute the prolific creator of Travis McGee and a pioneer in "Florida noir" – John D. MacDonald. Please be sure to check out the other reviews listed on Patti's blog here.

The Drowner (1963) is the closest to a pure detective novel among the handful of MacDonald's books I've read. True, the Travis McGee books have elements of a detective novel, but for the most part I find them to be more suspense and crime with minimal detection. The Drowner features a real private eye, a questionable death, secrets galore and plenty of suspects. And being a MacDonald novel it also has a healthy dose of sex. In fact sex and "sinning" are at the root of the intriguing plot.

Paul Stanial is a former cop grown jaded in his new career as private investigator. He is weary and disgusted with the daily routine of peeper jobs. Armed with a camera and holed in up in seedy motels snapping incriminating photos of adulterous couples in an endless parade of divorce cases has left him empty. He asks for something challenging, something that will make use of his talent and skills he acquired as a top cop so many years ago. He gets more than he wished for when his boss hands him their most recent case.

Barbara Larrimore hires Stanial to determine if someone killed her sister Lucy Hanson, an expert swimmer. That she drowned accidentally is unbelievable to Barbara. Couple this with a series of letters that hint at sketchy business deals and she can only suspect foul play even if there is no mark on body to suggest a violent death. It seems that Lucy was entrusted by her older lover, real estate mogul Sam Kimber, with a secret and large sum of money. In one of the letters she confesses to Barbara that she was tricked into revealing Sam's confidence to a mysterious unnamed third party. Barbara is sure that third person is the one who killed Lucy.

Stanial passes himself off as an insurance agent who represents a company that suspects Lucy committed suicide. A double indemnity clause in Lucy's fictional insurance policy would pay double for accidental death but if suicide was the true cause, then nothing would be paid out. Taking into consideration Lucy's expert swimming and armed with this phony scenario he hopes he will be able to get people to discuss openly the third possible cause of her death – murder.

UK 1st hardcover edition (Robert Hale, 1964)
The list of possible suspects include Kelsey Hanson, Lucy's drunken Lothario of a husband who strayed once too often; Sam Kimber, Lucy's lover and a businessman with some shady dealings; Gus Gable, Sam's accountant who wants to protect Sam from the IRS and police; Angie Powell, Sam's Amazonian secretary who plays the role of a righteous Christian girl to an uncomfortable extreme; Angie's monstrous mother Mary who puts Steven King's Margaret White to shame in her own private war against the sin of sex; and several frivolous and swinging couples who make up Kelsey's sex obsessed friends and whom Lucy collectively despised. Sex is everywhere in this story -- the characters attitudes about sex, and the casualness of sexual relations keep cropping up in the investigation. Paul and Barbara take advantage of this when they concoct a dangerous plan to trap the killer by using Barbara as a sexual decoy. Their plan goes horribly wrong in the book's thrilling climax when we discover exactly how the killer managed to murder Lucy.

MacDonald's mastery at regional dialects and excellent dialog is on good display. Also on display is his fondness for character monologue and didactic speeches. Nearly everyone in the book suffers from logorrhea. Characters talk for page long paragraphs at a time. Only occasionally, when Barbara and Paul have scene together or when Paul and the laconic Sheriff Walmo exchange ideas, do we get anything resembling real conversations. The monologues are often engaging when we get to read flavored speech from someone like Willard, a Florida hick who knew Lucy, but when an intellectual like Shirley, one of Kelsey's girlfriends, is interviewed we get a speech sprinkled with fodder of the intelligentsia.

Overall, this was a good example of what the detective novel was evolving into by the mid 1960s. There is a the examination of clues surrounding a puzzling death, ample amount of character study, all mixed with trenchant social criticism of the swinging 60s. There is even an experiment with narrative structure in that while we mostly follow Paul and Barbara in their sleuthing, at the midpoint we are treated to the revelation of the killer who makes contact with one of the suspects then dispatches that person with relish. Then MacDonald spends an entire chapter explaining the psychology and motives of the killer. At that point the book switches from a whodunit to a cat-and-mouse thriller as we watch the killer try to outwit and undo Paul and Barbara before the unmasking. The action scenes are kept at a minimum in this book but -- almost to make up for their dearth -- are piled on in a suspenseful and violent finale.


  1. Excellent review, and I appreciate that you put it in context for the era. I'm a shameless JDM fanboy, so always pleased to see his work return!

    I really love that second cover - which edition is that?

  2. Jared -

    Thanks for stopping by. Haven't heard from you in a while. There's a caption for the second cover. It's from the 1st UK edition.

    The list is not yet up at Patti's blog, but I expect this week to be as diverse as when we had "DEW Day" celebrating Donald E Westlake/Richard Stark/ Tucker Coe, etc.

  3. Excellent review of one of my favorite JDM novels. You're right about THE DROWNER featuring real detection. JDM's later works focused more on suspense, but I'm fond of his works like THE DROWNER that actually followed the template of traditional detective novels.