Sunday 5 November 2017

The Drowner by John D. MacDonald

Ah, now... this is one of my all time favourite John D. MacDonald novels and if you're thinking of dipping into the master's work, it's an excellent starting point.

It's a murder mystery, but a vividly different one. In its device of an insurance investigator for a hero it recalls The Brass Cupcake, although in this case our hero, Paul Stanial, is a private eye using the ruse of an insurance investigation to cover his real task.

He has been hired by the sister of a woman, Lucille Hanson, who drowned under mysterious circumstances. The description of the drowned Lucille has eerie echoes of All These Condemned

And the sequence where her drowning is recounted from a god's-eye point of view is reminiscent of a scene in Hannibal by Thomas Harris where the reader is invited to creep into Hannibal's lair and observe the monster at rest...

But Lucille's sister isn't buying the notion of accidental death, and she's right not to...

So she hires Stanial to find out what really happened at that isolated lake on a hot, silent afternoon.

MacDonald expertly evokes the "noontime simmer of May in Florida" outdoors and the "cold clinical breath of the air-conditioning" inside. Later the sound of the air conditioning in his motel makes our hero "feel as if the room were in transit, on some strange vehicle moving steadily through the night."

It's in his characterisation where MacDonald really scores, though. Lucille's lover (and a suspect in her murder) Sam Kimber, is one of his finest creations. He's a ruthless man who's grown rich from dodgy land deals and has good reason to grin with a "wicked amiability." 

And then there's Shirley Feldman the university student, all of 19 years old, who is sleeping with Lucille's ex-husband. She is a great character, vain and pretentious: "Does it sound too impossible for me to say I have a much better mind?"

Or Betty Schaud, a secretary, who has "all the social charm of the attendant in the gas chamber." 

Or Kelsey Hanson, Lucille's lunk of an ex husband who "made love as if he was trying to get a berth on the olympic team."

But most of all, the villain of the piece, Angie Powell is a fabulous invention. (We learn quite early on that Angie is the killer, and move from mystery to suspense, so this isn't a spoiler.)

Angie is a gorgeous young woman, "a wide screen projection of a girl." Healthy, smart, athletic and hard working she's a fixture in her local bowling team and a regular church goer.

She's also a monster, created by the horrific abuse wreaked upon her in childhood by her religious fanatic of a mother — who, in fairness, is the real monster, I guess.  But it's Angie who kills, and then kills again and again, to cover her tracks.

Angie is an amazing creation. And I strongly suspect that she and her hideous mother were the direct inspiration for Carrie White and her horrid mom in Stephen King's Carrie.
In praising MacDonald's characterisation so extensively I don't want to suggest there's any weakness in the plotting or the narrative here. The novel moves with impressive and startling swiftness — making adroit and extensive use of dialogue (and correspondence) to tell the story.

I love the way MacDonald relates his tale through a variety of techniques, from a multiplicity of viewpoints. (Don't try this at home unless you're a very skilled, experienced or gifted writer.)
I really can't fully convey how terrific a novel this is without revealing so much that I'll spoil the experience of reading it. So instead I'll just urge you to do that — read it.

And end on the sobering observation that John D. MacDonald wrote dozens of such books, in the form of disposable mass market paperbacks. And that the creation of such agreeably compact masterpieces of popular fiction seem to be a lost art form.

(Image credits: The Cosmopolitan magazine cover (featuring the original serialisation of the novel) is from the wittily named Ephemera Forever. The book covers are from Good Reads.)


  1. While compact stories are returning, they are doing so only as eBooks, which the publishing world has decided are just as good for readers but far more profitable for them than mass market paperbacks ... and why almost none of the harcover and TPB books our these days ever get a mass market printing. I miss the mass market books. The bigger ones are too big to carry with you, too heavy to read while lying in bed (seriously, if you drop one, you could break your glasses), and too expensive. And while eBooks eventually come down in price (usually), eReaders have their own problems, including being too expensive to leave on a table to save your place while you go get something. (Unattended technology is catnip to thieves. Only your friends ever steal your books.)

    Also, I find myself going back to older books more and more, simply because I don't WANT to invest the next 47 days reading a series of 1500-page doorstop masterpieces to get a single story. I want to read a story in an evening or two, enjoying it and letting it end when it's time to do so.

    *sigh* Now I have to go yell at some kids to get off my lawn.

    1. Hey James — fascinating and germane thoughts, all! I hope you got those pesky kids off your lawn ;). Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. There was an episode of the sixties anthology series ' Kraft Suspense Theatre' that was based on this novel. It was called 'The Deep End'.

  3. Thanks Roy, I had no idea! Now I'll have to try and track it down. I wonder if they did justice to the book?