Ross MacDonald (Kenneth Millar) didn't write easy novels. I've yet to read a Lew Archer book whose plot could be described in just a few short sentences. It's like trying to tell someone the plot of Inland Empire. This novel, from 1961, about mid-point in the series, proves no different. Basically I can give you a rundown of the first half of the book just to give you an idea of the tangled thread of menace that saturates the Archer novels.
Homer Wycherly hires Archer to find his missing daughter, 21 year old Phoebe. Phoebe was last seen 2 months prior, when Homer was scheduled to leave on a transatlantic cruise. Phoebe was on the ship with him, when Catherine Wycherly (Phoebe’s mother and Homer’s ex-wife – The Wycherly Woman of the title) shows up and causes a scene. According to Homer, Phoebe left the ship with Catherine and is not seen again. Homer insists that Archer not contact Catherine Wycherly, that she is out of the family and couldn't possibly have anything to do with Phoebe's disappearance.
Archer smells bullshit with regards to Catherine Wycherly, but promises Homer to not contact Catherine, unless the case leads to her. Archer begins by going to Boulder Beach College, where Phoebe attended classes. He meets Phoebe's landlady, Mrs. Doncaster. Mrs. Doncaster didn’t approve of Phoebe, whom she considered to be a spoiled child. Archer then talks to Dolly Lang, Phoebe’s roommate. Dolly informs Archer that Phoebe had been seeing a boy named Bobby. She also tells Archer that Phoebe’s parents had received a set of letters from an anonymous sender spilling that Catherine Wycherly was having an affair. Dolly says that Phoebe blamed herself for the letters but didn't let on why. Homer admits to reading the letters and destroying them, telling Archer they have nothing to do with Phoebe.
Archer then goes to San Francisco, against Homer's wishes, where he tracks down Catherine Wycherly’s last known address to an abandoned, gated house. The house is empty but before Archer can explore any further he’s chased off by a gun toting tough guy. He then goes to talk to Carl and Helen Trevor. Helen is Carl’s sister. Helen tells Archer she knows nothing of Phoebe’s whereabouts, nor of Catherine Wycherly’s whereabouts. Good riddance too, Helen adds. Archer learns from Helen that Catherine had recently sold her house (the Mandeville House) by hiring a shady realtor Ben Merriman, and hasn’t been seen. Carl Trevor gives Archer recent photos of Phoebe. Archer pays a visit to Merriman’s office where he runs into Merriman’s wife, who hasn’t seen Merriman. Archer learns that Ben Merriman is the same gun-toting goon who had earlier chased him off Catherine’s property. A goateed hipster shows up demanding to see Merriman, and says that Merriman has been been messing around with his girlfriend Jessie. Mrs. Merriman kicks him out. Archer drives back to the Mandeville house and this time finds Merriman’s beaten and bloodied body inside it. Now the shit is really starting boil. He returns to Merriman’s office where he learns that Merriman fleeced the house’s owner Captain Mandeville by underselling the house to disk jocky, who in turn sold it for a large profit to Catherine Wycherly. Captain Merriman further tells Archer the he believes Catherine Wycherly has been staying at The Champion Hotel.
See what I mean by plot? But we ain't done yet!
The Champion Hotel is a dump. Archer discovers that Catherine Wycherly has been staying there until just the previous night, when she departed suddenly with another unidentified man. He investigates Catherine’s room and see’s Phoebe’s name scrawled on a dusty window. He bribes the bellman and learns that Catherine left with another man for a place called the Hacienda Inn. He also learns that Catherine had a visitor who she fought frequently fought with. The bellman identifies Ben Merriman from picture Archer shows him. Archer then shows him a picture of Phoebe, but the bellman can't admit to having ever seen her.
So, Archer goes to the Hacienda Inn where he finds a drunken Catherine in the lobby bar. Catherine strikes up a conversation with Archer and Archer plays along. Then Catherine notices Archer’s gun and tries to hire him to kill Ben Merriman. The two of them go back to her casita where she puts the move on Archer. Instead of reciprocating, Archer rebuff's her advances. Sullen and bitter, she passes out drunk. Archer revives her and tries to learn where Phoebe is. She doesn’t know and doesn’t seem to care, and she denies wanting to have Ben Merriman killed. Archer leaves the room and is jumped by a goon wielding a tire iron.
All of these events have only brought us to the halfway point of the novel. That Ross MacDonald can lay down a plot like this, over and over almost entirely through dialog, while keeping the pace both suspenseful and readable, is testament to his skill as a novelist. MacDonald is often compared to Raymond Chandler (who isn't?) and Dashiell Hammett, but outside of California as a setting their novels, there really is no comparison. MacDonald's books, especially from the late 50s on, are much deeper and better structured. The decay of the family through past sins is the common theme of the novels, Bad guys and murder are only side ingredients to the inevitable fall of innocence through hubris and corruption. Sounds all English major, doesn't it?