THE WYCHERLY WOMAN                  Part Six




                                       A HOT TIME AT THE HACIENDA INN


            Macdonald was endlessly fascinated with the extremes of wealth and poverty in Southern California. In nearly every work of his maturity he takes note of the squalid migrant housing just over the hill from the luxurious homes and resorts of the rich.  He roots most of his crimes among the rich.  So when you see Archer pulling up to an elegant resort with its own golf course, you can be sure that evil is at your elbow.



                                                The Pause That Refreshes


             I want to take a moment to step outside my recounting of the narrative to express my admiration for what Macdonald has done so far, and what he will continue to do until nearly the end of the book.  He shovels clue after clue at the reader, confident you will not be able to put them together.  This is mystery writing at its best.  When I was writing my first book, The January Corpse, I expressed concern to my editor that I had given too much away.  She reassured me that the more clues you leave, the greater the pleasure of the reader when it’s all revealed. The goal is, at the end, for the reader to slap themselves on the forehead and say, “How did I miss that?”

As Spock said in Star Trek, “It is not logical but it is so.”



                                                      Back to the Action


            Although Archer has been using the name of Homer Wycherly, he drops it for no reason when he asks the desk clerk about Mrs. Wycherly—which turns out to be a stroke of luck, as we shall see.

  • Working off the description he was given by the bellhop at the Champion Hotel, he describes Mrs. Wycherly as a big platinum blonde wearing dark glasses. The clerk recognizes her and rings her room—she checked in under the alias of “Smith”—but there is no answer.  (BTW, the use of the name is not a lack of imagination on her part. “Smith” was Catherine’s maiden name).  Archer finds her in the bar:


“She was dressed and groomed like a woman who knew she was no longer attractive any more.  Her hair, bleached the color of tin, was tangled as if her fingers had been busy in it.  Her dark purple dress didn’t go with her hair.  She wasn’t a thin woman, but the dress bagged on her as if she’d been losing weight.”


  • Archer does his best to start a conversation. She’s already had too much to drink and her words are witty and morbid by turn.  Then she happens to brush against him and realizes Archer is carrying a gun.
  • The bar is closing and she wants to talk about the gun. She takes him back to her room.


It’s time for another of Macdonald’s sex scenes:


It was dark inside when she opened the door. She stood in the dark and let me walk into her. Her body trembled against me. It was softer and warmer than I’d supposed.

Her mind was harder and colder. “Have you ever killed anybody? I don’t mean in

the war. I mean in real life.”

“This is real life?”

“Don’t joke. I want to know. I have a reason.”

“I have a better reason for keeping quiet.”

“Come on,” she wheedled. “Tell Mother.”

She pressed herself against me . . . Her pointed breasts felt like soft bombs against me.

“I think you’re exciting,” she said in an unexcited way.


There are good reasons Macdonald writes the scene as he does, but I can’t help but note that this must be at least the sixth book where he has described breasts as weapons. It’s probably a good thing for Macdonald that women have just two.

  • The dialogue in her bedroom is noir at its best but I will leave the pleasure to you. When she gets down to business, Archer admits that he has killed before, and not in the war. In one of the few self-referential moments in the canon, Archer mentions an episode in The Moving Target. “Eleven or twelve years ago, I killed a man named Puddler who tried to kill me.”
  • She offers to pay him to kill Ben Merriman, the realtor. Yes, you heard right.
  • Her drinking catches up with her and she lapses into unconsciousness at a convenient moment for Archer. While she is out, he searches the room and finds a driver’s license for “Mrs. Homer Wycherly” and, among other things, a business card of Ben Merriman’s. (I didn’t know in 1960 that a woman could get a driver’s license in her husband’s name but that’s what the text says.)
  • Archer uses a liberal amount of ice water to rouse her. She claims not to remember asking him to kill anyone.
  • Archer addresses her as Mrs. Wycherly, revealing that he has penetrated her clever alias of “Smith.” He also reveals he is a private detective and that Merriman is already dead.
  • She tells him to get out but he refuses to leave unless she tells him where Phoebe is.
  • She denies knowing Phoebe’s whereabouts and lies that she hasn’t seen Phoebe since the divorce.
  • Eventually she admits that after the two of them left the ship, she dropped off Phoebe at the St. Francis Hotel and took a train home alone.
  • She says Phoebe told her she didn’t want to go back to Boulder Beach and her boyfriend, and that she wanted to get away, but she didn’t say where or even what she meant.
  • Archer can’t get any more out of her; when he leaves the room a man knocks him unconscious with a tire iron. And the evening was going so well . . .


The tire iron incident is nicely timed. Not only does it inject a further complication into the plot, it cuts off an interview that would have been even more productive if it hadn’t been interrupted. But sometimes you just get a tire iron to the head.







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