The Wycherly Woman by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"If there was a God, He worked in mysterious ways. Like people."
In my current "Reread Ross Macdonald" project I have read the very good
The Underground Man
published in 1971 and the not so good
The Way Some People Die
, which dates back to 1951, thus I have been eager to refamiliarize myself with the 1961 Macdonald's work, The Wycherly Woman. Well, while my rating is much closer to the lower of the previous two, at least the novel manages to escape the two-star ignominy.
Lew Archer is hired by Homer Wycherly, a rich businessman from California Central Valley, to find his missing 21-year-old daughter, Phoebe, who is a college student. In his search Archer is not supposed to contact Mr. Wycherly's ex-wife whom the client describes as an evil person bringing harm to anybody she comes in contact with. After talking to people who knew Phoebe in her college town Archer follows the missing woman's trail to Sacramento and Bay Area. The plot gets really complicated from then on and connections begin to emerge between Phoebe's disappearance, suspicious real-estate transactions, and blackmail. Archer finds a dead body of a severely beaten man. He also finds "the Wycherly woman" and - despite the promise given to his client - talks to her in a memorable hotel bar conversation. Eventually things escalate to further murders, and Archer has quite a handful of suspects.
Despite excessive complexities of the plot and some exasperatingly overlong passages - for instance, the conversation Archer overhears with the use of microphone attached to the sliding glass door - the plot sort of makes sense. The confession of the presumed multiple killer towards the end of the story - a cliché element of crime novels that I dislike so much - is forgivable here because we do not really know who the killer is. Macdonald is successful in conveying the message that nothing is really as we think it is, and that the same words, sentences, and whole stories may carry completely different meaning, depending on the context, and on the amount of the listener's knowledge. Also, I like the skill with which the author imbues the first part of the novel with the sense of mystery surrounding that Wycherly woman. I love the reference to "The Vision of Mirza". The ending is powerful.
Not my favorite book by the author, and not his best prose, despite some great passages including the beautiful first three paragraphs of the novel, which depict California Central Valley of the early 1960s. But the novel is certainly worth reading; were it written by someone else than Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald's real name), it would probably be considered a towering achievement.
Two and three quarter stars.
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