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.