THE WYCHERLY WOMAN Part Twenty
The Wycherly Woman is an angry book.
Phoebe is driven by self-loathing at a level so deep we wonder if the hopeful ending to her part of the story is realistic. Certainly, she has been through so much that we want to believe that better times are ahead. Just maybe Bobby is up to the challenge.
- The hidden driver behind much of the action is Helen Trevor, whose hatred begins with herself for not giving her husband a child and then spreads out to encompass everyone she knows. The venom in her poison pen letters is no pretense. She is speaking straight from her black heart.
- Homer is a deeply angry, even violent, man. Fortunately for him, lack of opportunity and his own ineffectiveness prevent him from directly hurting anyone. (We will leave his bad parent for Phoebe’s psychiatrist to unravel.)
- Catherine Wycherly is so angry and disappointed with her lover that it results in her own death, plus unintended damage to her daughter.
- All these examples pale when we consider Carl Trevor. Even before Archer knew the story of Trevor’s early love affair with Catherine, Archer speculated on how the stress of living with Helen had knotted his arteries. Trevor turned his anger first against himself and then outwards, killing people he hated as well as someone he loved. In the end, after killing Stanley, he is so emotionally exhausted that he leaves the satchel containing $50,000 behind. His anger has burnt him out.
Carl Trevor Reconsidered
The commentators explain Trevor’s unwillingness to divorce Helen on material grounds, that his failure is a critique of the misplaced values of capitalism. I think that’s facile. His fears of impoverishment are baseless and he is no fool. Trevor would emerge from his divorce with half his considerable property; and Catherine is hardly destitute. Trevor’s problem is a failure of nerve. A lifetime with Helen has worn him down to the point where he cannot seriously entertain the possibility of happiness with any woman. Ross Macdonald had spent 21 years with Margaret when he wrote this book. His marriage and his troubles with Linda wore him down to the point where the most common word used to describe him in his middle and later years is “sad.”
Macdonald famously said that Archer is him, but he is not Archer. The same applies to Trevor.
Let’s Not Forget that it’s a Heck of a Mystery
I have my own idiosyncratic test for a mystery. One, does it keep the reader off balance until the end; and two, does it do so with the minimum amount of information?
On the first part, Macdonald succeeds brilliantly. Repeatedly, Archer learns new facts. But they don’t point in any one direction. Phoebe disappeared months ago. She was seen after the day of her disappearance. Catherine appears to be very much alive. The origin of the poison pen letters remains obscure until very near the end. Merriman, a likely suspect of . . . something . . . turns up dead. So does his confederate Stanley. Was there a third member of the gang who turned on the first two?
The key to understanding the mystery requires a shift in Archer’s gestalt, a shift that never happens without considerable help. He never realizes the impersonation until it’s rubbed in his face by Phoebe’s confession. Archer’s quest isn’t so much for the solution as it is for the person who can tell him the solution. At least he succeeds in that.
The plot also succeeds brilliantly on my second test, presenting the information with economy. Aside from some scenes to flesh out minor characters, there is nothing that isn’t essential to the plot.
I once was forced to read a Miss Marple book for a mystery book class. About halfway through I encountered the line, “Sally saw Jeoffrey kissing Barbara in the belfry.” Is Sally Jeoffrey’s wife? His sister? Is Barbara Jeoffrey’s wife? Girlfriend? Is Jeoffrey a priest? I had no idea how to react to the information. At that moment I realized how Agatha Christie did it. She introduces you to the entire population of a small English village. Navigating her novels is an exercise in Where’s Waldo?
When I decided to write my first mystery, The January Corpse, I decided that the reader deserved better. I wrote the book with the absolute minimum number of characters. This is a lot harder than it looks because there are fewer places to hide. Ross Macdonald created a book that demands close attention to every detail—and rewards the reader at the end.
I hope this blog encourages you to enjoy The Wycherly Woman for yourself and to recommend it to others. Macdonald may have had his personal reasons, later in life, for regretting it, but they don’t detract from a layered and rewarding reading experience.
Next we will discuss a book that nearly everyone agrees was one of his finest efforts, The Zebra-Striped Hearse.