“What are you afraid of?” I demanded. “Don’t pretend to me, Jude. You’re scared to death. You’ve done something, haven’t you? Something wrong. Maybe something terrible. What is it?”
In the golden days of 1929, beautiful Judith Maynard held court over her admirers beside the swimming pool. Twenty years later, everything has changed for the Maynard family. Their father went broke and committed suicide, and siblings Lois and Paul are barely hanging on their decrepit country estate. Only Judith has remained the same, still lovely, still the center of attention.
Then Judith, too, begins to change. She abruptly divorces her rich, older husband. The darling of cafe society retreats to the isolated family house of her youth, shunning her friends and nailing her bedroom windows shut. Judith is terribly frightened of something, or someone. The swimming pool, once the site of girlhood triumphs, has become a special source of dread. When a dead body appears in the pool, mystery writer Lois must find out just what her sister is so afraid of. What she’s not prepared for is how far back into the past these sins will reach.
There’s nothing wrong with The Swimming Pool that couldn’t be solved by lopping off about a hundred pages. This dark tale of family secrets is fairly sharp considering that Mary Roberts Rinehart was almost ninety years old when it was published. Lois is a plucky protagonist who takes on most of the detection and even a few action sequences. Judith’s apparent descent into mental illness is real-world scary in a way few HIBK novels manage. Yet there’s no overlooking the fact that this book is more than three hundred pages long, without enough plot to sustain that length. Events that should be major climaxes are peppered throughout the book’s midsection, but somehow the story drags on and on, seemingly without end.
On the way back from Reno after Judith’s divorce, Lois strikes up a friendship with Terry O’Brien, who winds up renting their guest house for the summer. He claims to be a retired police officer, on leave to recover from war injuries. As Judith points out, however, the war has been over for years. She doesn’t trust O’Brien. Lois is more susceptible. On the one hand, he makes fun of her detective stories and lets her take the heat for his own evidence tampering. On the other, he has a habit of crushing her to his manly chest and saying things like, “I don’t want anything to happen to you, Lois. You’re—well, you’re a damned nice girl.” How can any woman resist that?
Lois always maintains a positive attitude—even when she really shouldn’t. When a strange man grabs her in the night, hissing threats, hits her on the head, and throws her into the swimming pool, she’s not too concerned. “I did not believe he was a menace,” she decides airily. “There had certainly been no murder in the man.” In fact, she even muses that the man must know she’s a good swimmer, rather than the more obvious conclusion that he simply abandoned her to drown. This ties in with a subtle air of misogyny surrounding the central plot. Men who physically attack women have excuses made for them, and are even somewhat sympathetic, while women are vilified for the crime of silence.
This seems to be unintentional on the part of the author, as The Swimming Pool is otherwise thoughtful about the interplay between gender roles and social class. Lois earns more than her brother Phil, but he still expects her to care for him and the household on top of her paid work. Later, she’s even saddled with another male dependent, as no one thinks it possible for her college-student nephew Bill to care for himself in his mother’s absence. (Bill has a swell time chasing the murderer. His mother, oldest sister Anne, is less thrilled. “I send Bill out here to get some good country air while I have to be away, and all at once there’s a killer around.”) All of this upheaval makes it impossible for Lois to write, putting the household income in peril. Only Judith is financially secure due to her divorce settlement. It’s clear, however, that she was essentially sold into marriage as a young woman and many of her present-day issues stem from this.
Of course, the Maynard women are not just women, but ladies. Despite the family’s ruin, they retain their privilege. After all, “the Maynards have always stood for the best in the city.” One witness instantly becomes more cooperative once she learns that Lois’s mother kept nine servants. Every member of the family is in danger of arrest at one point or another, but the police guard them from a distance rather than taking a Maynard into custody. As the shadows of the past sharpen into focus, Lois comes to realize that the family has been benefiting from their status for a very long time, in all the worst ways.
Mary Roberts Rinehart isn’t the mother of the Had-I-But-Known for nothing. The Swimming Pool is crammed with all the creepy scenes one could hope for—while the Maynards usually show a refreshing amount of common sense, they are nonetheless addicted to lonely nighttime walks beside the pool, with predictable results. Like many successful authors, however, it’s obvious that Rinehart was not getting the editing she needed at this late stage of her career. Nearly every scene outstays its welcome. Huge revelations are made, with no discernible effect on the story. The whole thing is as stretchy and impenetrable as taffy.
It’s a wonderfully complicated, twisting story that kept me entranced the entire time.
Rinehart created such a complex series of events that occurred over such a long span of time that I never found myself bored, though I do now understand why she is credited with creating the “Had I But Know” plot device.
Most Mary Roberts Rinehart books are of the had I but known variety and this one is no different except that what Lois and the rest of ’em should have known is so darned convoluted (secrets upon secrets upon coincidences that boggle the mind) that for a while I lost track of what it was all about even when I knew what it was all about.
Honestly, I don’t think I can recommend The Swimming Pool, although I wish I could. It just goes on for way too long, and by the end I felt like I’d been chewing my own arm off to escape a trap and had lost the will to live (not to be overly dramatic or anything).
The Swimming Pool is available from the Mysterious Press in ebook and audiobook formats in the US and UK, and also in paperback in the UK.