The un-Festive Season: Ross MacDonald

The Wycherley Woman by Ross MacDonald

published 1961


‘…What was Phoebe wearing?’

‘A skirt and a sweater, both brown. A tan coat, kind of a polo coat. High-heeled brown shoes. Brown leather bag. Phoebe always dresses simply.’


This book is hilariously un-seasonal. It is very clear that it takes place at the beginning of the year, that Christmas has just happened. There is a mention of the feast of the Epiphany: cheering you think?

“She was feeding the spirits of the dead…crying and calling on them….It was the day before the Feast of the Three Kings – a bad time to call the dead.”

 A rich man has come home from a winter cruise – it lasted two months from November – and found that his daughter has disappeared in that time. He hires series PI Lew Archer to find her, but with some absurd constraints as to what avenues he can pursue.

This is standard Archer territory – missing daughters, rich families. This time it is the Bay Area around San Francisco. He doggedly goes on his way, investigating, trying to work out what happened. Phoebe Wycherley came to see her father off on the cruise, and Archer has to find out if she has been seen since. And there is another Wycherley woman – Phoebe’s mother, estranged from her father and maybe in trouble of her own. Archer says:

“Right now she’s wandering around with a bad case of postmarital neurosis, babbling about death and murder. Wycherley’s going to pieces too – I just talked to him on the phone. And I’m supposed to put it together and make it all come right in the end.”

With each of MacDonald's books, I like to find a quotation which I claim could appear in any of his books, and this is a classic example.

I first read MacDonald many years ago, knowing that many people are big fans of his style. I was unmoved by him then - I thought the books were fine but I didn’t hunt them down. Re-reading now (partly because some of the books turned up when I moved house – I had to decide whether to keep them or not and reading them seemed a good way to find out) I like them much better than before. His writing is impeccable, his characterisations beautifully done. Before, I thought Archer was too much the standard private eye, same as all of them, yawn, good man in a dirty world, forever trying to solve the world’s problems. Now, those features pull me in, and I love the linear way in which he interviews people one at a time, one after another, adding something on each time. Yes the same tropes and themes turn up in all the books, but that – I finally see – is part of the attraction. There are some horrible characters here, but MacDonald and Archer convince you that the good people (or some of them) might just get through, by a whisper.

This is a good one despite some slightly unlikely plot devices. Here’s one of my more nuanced complaints: I feel there is one thing you can’t/don’t guess because it seems impossible that Archer hasn’t caught on to it.

A good melancholy read, as sad as the seasonal mist rolling in from the Pacific ocean, sad as the character whose room smells ‘of incense and widowhood’. Your January probably isn’t as bad as that of some of the people here…

One intriguing moment: a colleague of Archer’s says

‘The family was all ready to fly apart... You know those chocolate apples from Switzerland that fall into pieces when you tap them?’

‘The question is who tapped Phoebe.’

In the UK we have long enjoyed Terry’s Chocolate Oranges that fall into segments when tapped – never heard of the apples. Chocolate oranges were introduced in 1932 apparently, and surely a feature of every Christmas from then till now, so there’s a final seasonal touch.

The top picture is from the Clover Vintage Tumbler.

The other photograph – by Toni Frissell, held at the Library of Congress – was taken in January 1961 and to me has very much the look of a Ross MacDonald female character talking. Wycherley Woman or another one.




  1. I've always liked the Lew Archer stories, Moira. There is melancholy in them, as you say; even when there is what you might call a happy ending - it isn't really happy if that makes sense. But I like Archer's character, and I do like the California settings in the stories. They're depicted quite well, I think.

    1. Melancholy is a very good word for them. And it is very encouraging that you think the settings are authentic, as you would know!

  2. Although I haven't read any Ross MacDonald (I'd like to, this sounds interesting but there are none in my local library) I have heard of the Terry's chocolate apple. They were made from 1926 to 1954, by which time the chocolate orange had become more popular. And there was a short-lived chocolate lemon from 1979 to 1982 apparently.

    1. ... but according to Archer's colleague, these were made in Switzerland. Terry's are/were based in York.
      Of course, characters in a novel aren't under oath, but might the character's inaccuracy be supposed to reveal something about their character and methods?

    2. I assumed that one of the Swiss companies must have made a similar version, though I've never seen one. I used to work in York just before the Terry's factory closed, and the smell of chocolate oranges being made was lovely.

    3. I LOVE to get extra info like this, especially when it's such a minor part of the novel that I chose to feature...
      I thought I'd made a connection - Nestle are a Swiss confectionary company, but I think it is Rowntree's (also of York?) that they swallowed up. I remember when I was a child, an uncle in retail explained to me that there were originally just 5 sweet manufacters operating in the UK, and they had then reduced to 3 through mergers...

  3. I remember reading my father's paperbacks as some of my earliest grown-up reading. Ross MacDonald was one of them. You've made me curious to borrow a few from the library, starting with this one. Terry's chocolate oranges one of my favorite things, to this day. It might have been the Christmas I spent in Switzerland but I remember a chocolate apple, the foil was green. Both photographs wonderful, always enjoy seeing photographs by Toni Frissell.

    1. Thank you, yes, I have a theory that there was a certain kind of book on Dads' bookshelves, and we all have a memory of, or a pull, to them! I've been re-reading a lot lately - trying to decide to get rid of books - and Ross M emerged from the pack as a real winner.


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