Recommended Reads: The Wycherley Woman

by Steven Powell

Ross Macdonald was one of the many pseudonyms of Kenneth Millar, creator of the fictional private detective Lew Archer, and one of the most important twentieth century American detective fiction writers. Lew Archer follows in the tradition of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe as one of the great literary detectives: he made his first appearance in The Drowning Pool (1950), and continued through many novels until The Blue Hammer (1976). In the late 1950s Macdonald adopted a radically different form of crime writing. His earlier work merely imitated the successful formula created by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. But Macdonald went on to write detective fiction focusing on social realism and serious psychological analysis of family secrets and their impact over generations, inspired in large part by Macdonald’s personal experiences. The Wycherly Woman (1961) stands as one of the best novels produced during this period. Despite his huge contribution to the crime genre, Macdonald has received very little publication in the UK–but with the power of the internet, and the weak dollar, now might be the perfect time to start your Lew Archer collection.

The Wycherly Woman begins with Archer visiting the mansion of the Californian millionaire, Homer Wycherly. Wycherly wants Archer to locate his missing daughter Phoebe, although he is reluctant to accept that Phoebe’s mother, his ex-wife Catherine, could help with the case. Character names are traditionally important in American literature, and crime fiction is no exception. Mike Hammer is blunt and violent; Sam Spade revels in digging up dirt and sleaze; and Lew Archer is analytical and precise. Interestingly, in two film adaptations of Macdonald’s novels both starring Paul Newman, Archer was renamed Lew Harper. The wealthy Wycherly family evoke images of a pack of witches–at times alluring and powerful, but always dangerous. Phoebe and Catherine Wycherly parallel each other as the good and bad witch of the family. Phoebe is a good looking, promising student with many friends. Catherine is an alcoholic gold digger, with a habit of humiliating herself in public. But when a crooked real estate agent who links the two Wycherlys ends up dead, one has to ask: is Phoebe really so good and Catherine really so bad? Only Lew Archer can find out.

Doubling is an important feature of the crime novel, and within the family context Macdonald exploits it to the full. Behind their wealth and privilege the Wycherlys’ fall from grace is viewed with a mixture of sympathy and defeatism by Archer. Here is a private eye who has witnessed every form of corruption imaginable, has lost any sense of idealism from the experience, and seems doomed to endure it. The only hope is that others will not have to. Archer philosophises on whether Phoebe can be saved with a mixture of cynicism and humour and sometimes in an hilariously overwritten PI style:
She looked like one of those sensitive girls who could grow up into beauty or hard-faced spinsterhood. If she grew up at all.

As the crime fiction novel has evolved into the gritty violent tales of James Ellroy or Eddie Bunker, Macdonald’s work has fallen out of fashion. But an historical re-evaluation is long overdue. Lew Archer is a private eye who wears his cynicism on his sleeve. Long after the central mystery of the story is solved, Archer remains lost as to the other mysteries of life: the distance that grows between people who love each other, the soul-destroying power of money, and whether a person ever stops paying for past crimes. The Wycherly Woman is a moving novel that will haunt you long after reading.


Steven Powell is writing a PhD at Liverpool University on James Ellroy.

7 thoughts on “Recommended Reads: The Wycherley Woman”

  1. HI

    Yes, Macdonald’s Archer is different from Spade and Hammer and Marlowe.

    But it isn’t just because he is analytical and precise; but also as he is more considerate. Spade hardly reveals his softer side; though when he does kill B.S. at the end he says that a man has to do something when a friend of his is killed and so on and so forth (albeit that he doesn’t mind having an affair with the wife of this friend, even when the latter was alive).

    As for Hammer, for all his love for Velda, he doesn’t really show any consideration for his clients. Further he behaves like a superman taking on the Mafia single-handedly in Vengeance is Mine. (Pronzini refers to this sarcastically and wistfully in Jackpot.)

    Archer is very much human, and more often than not he starts caring for his clients — a bit too much. And it isn’t a romantic or sexual liaison as well; mostly he behaves like a father-figure to the kids. Yes, in Sleeping Beauty and others he does have a sexual affair with his clients, but still his character is tempered with the sort of sobriety that is missing in the other hard-boiled private eyes.

    Finally, the Archer stories are stories of psychological trauma and dysfunctional families. This is not the case with the others. Yes, Big Sleep reveals the problems in the family; but it is only Macdonald that revels in a setting that is more reminiscent of Agatha Christie and others of her ilk, though it should be said that he religiously follows the cynical dialogues and the stories themselves are always set in the city and not the countyside.

    And by the way, the first novel featuring Archer is Moving Target (1949). Drowning Pool is the second novel.

  2. Hi Krishna, thanks for your comment.

    Your point is well taken I think, but I have a couple of points. Firstly, Spade doesn’t kill Bridget at the end of The Maltese Falcon (I assume this is who you mean when you say B.S.); maybe you’re mixing up the end of this book with I, The Jury. I agree Archer is more considerate though. Could that be related to his historical context?

    The second is to develop your point about dysfunctional families. Chandler’s novels often feature dysfunctional families. Apart from The Big Sleep, they feature strongly in The High Window, The Little Sister (the family aspect is even present in the title), and The Long Good-Bye. And that’s ignoring Marlowe’s own conspicuous lack of family, which could in its own way be seen as symptomatic of the hardboiled novel’s concern with fracture and alienation.


  3. Hi

    Thank You. Frankly, did not expect a reply.

    Yes, I meant Brigid. And regarding the killing, what I meant was that he sends her to her death — the prison. Though I guess am assuming too much, when I inferred that she would be sent to the chamber. What do you think? She deserves it; but in a Hammett world that is overpoweringly gray, wouldn’t she be able to buy justice? I don’t know.

    As for dysfunctional families — the point about Marlowe strikes a chord. However, isn’t that the case with most detectives? I mean there are very few with a normal life. Rendell’s Inspector Wexford being the only one that springs immediately to mind. Pronzini’s Nameless Detective (though a collaboratory author had given away his name as ‘Bill’) and Spillane’s Hammer’s affair with his secretary are, I guess, border-line cases of the dysfunctional family syndrome. Please let me know if you can think of others.
    Holmes and Poirot, and even Dupin are eccentric people. Even Marple isn’t married, though Christie implied somewhere (if my memory serves me right) that Marple had an affair when she was young with an army guy who was killed or something. Father Brown and Sergeant Cuff and Hitchens’ Sader are all stuck in

    And regarding Archer being more considerate amongst HB writers, I think it has more to do with Macdonald himself. He hails from a fairly settled background, and though his daughter did have problems, he doesn’t have the kind of drunken problems that Chandler has or had to face McCarthy witch hunts like Hammett or come to terms with his sexual orientation like Highsmith or Woolrich.

    Of course, it also helps that Macdonald was writing in a period that, though coinciding with the anti-communistic wave, did not have problems that were universal — as was the case during the Depression.

    Spillane is the only one that comes as being similarly concerned about other people. For instance, in Kiss me Deadly, he takes on the Mob almost for the sole reason of what they do to a chance acquaintance.

    Yes, Highsmith’s novels, like This Sweet Sickness does show a lot of understanding and consideration for the love obsessed protagonist, it also portrays the ‘normal’ people like the protagonist’s friends in a manner that is hardly complimentary — thus showing that she was more concerned about the underdog, and more importantly the non-conformists.


  4. Hi Krishna

    Of course Marlowe is not unique among detectives in being alone. There are plenty of duos too: Holmes and Watson, Morse and Lewis, Dupin and the unnamed narrator, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. The great husband and wife (and dog) team was a Hammett creation in The Thin Man. Miss Marple is an archetype in British fiction (and British society) of the mid-twentieth century; many women found themselves unmarried or widowed in the aftermath of WW1 and then WW2 and Marple is on the face of it one of them. Anyway, even in the absence of actual families, many detectives have strong domestic routines. It is often the violation of their domestic spaces that spur them to action.

    Do you think Hammer is really concerned for others? Sure he has a moral code (not that far from Spade’s really) but I read his pursuit of gangsters in KMD and of his friend’s killer in I, the Jury as more vengeance than altruistic self-sacrifice. It occurs to me that in I, The Jury the Bellemy sisters might be seen as a ‘dysfunctional family’ but Hammer’s experience with Charlotte in the same novel might imply that family life and normal adult relationships are somehow no longer possible in their pre-war sense.


  5. Rather than reading the Archer stories solely as mysteries, thrillers, entertainments, and detective stories (though of course they can exist solely on that level for readers who are interested in them as such), we’d do ourselves a favor to consider them in a few other ways as well. In the massive reference work World Authors 1950-1970, published by the H.H. Wilson Company, Macdonald wrote that The Galton Case and Black Money “are probably my most complete renderings of the themes of smothered allegiance and uncertain identity which my work inherited from my early years.” Of course, in Black Money the smothered allegiance occurs between the lovers Ginny Fablon and Tappinger.

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