Elizabeth Linington Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Elizabeth Linington was a successful author when she turned to mystery fiction in the 1960’s. Within a few years, critics were calling her the “Queen of the Procedurals.” Linington never intended to write a series, let alone four. While writing a suspense novel, Case Pending, under the Dell Shannon pseudonym, she needed a police officer to develop the plot, and thus Lieutenant Luis Rodolfo Vicente Mendoza was born. According to Linington, “he rose up off the page, captured me alive, and dismayingly refused to let me stop writing about him.” Mendoza was Linington’s most important series character.

Linington’s early police novels, written under her own name and as Dell Shannon and Lesley Egan, had not yet developed into the procedural formula. Instead, in the early books in the Mendoza series and to a degree in the Ivor Maddox series and the Vic Varallo series, the protagonists are great detectives who happen to be police officers. In the great detective tradition, an individual acting more or less alone solves the mystery through his analysis of people and visible clues. These detectives include such figures as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Lord Peter Wimsey. It is not necessary to be a police officer to be a great detective; in these novels, the police are often shown to be unintelligent, stubbornly wrong, and an impediment to the solution of the case.

The early books in the Mendoza series are in this tradition; nevertheless, Mendoza, like Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn, happens to be a police officer. Many of the recurring characters who support Mendoza appear in Case Pending, but the emphasis is less on police procedure than on Mendoza’s uncanny hunches and his reading of people. The pattern continues in The Ace of Spades (1961) and Extra Kill (1962). In Extra Kill, Mendoza remarks:With all the laboratories and the chemical tests and the gadgets we’ve got to help us, . . . like everything else in life it always comes back to individual people. To people’s feelings and what feelings make them do or not do. Quite often the gadgets can give you an idea where to look, but once in a while you’ve got to find out about the people first—then the gadgets can help you prove it.

The early books also lack Linington’s later, characteristic multitude of cases—a major difference between a great detective and a real police officer. The great detective may confront a number of seemingly unrelated cases, but ultimately there will be a connection and usually a common perpetrator. Police officers, however, cope with a number of cases simultaneously, and the true police procedural will, as it develops, have fictional police officers take on more cases. In the early works, there is basically one case—usually two or more seemingly unrelated cases turn out to be related. In Extra Kill, for example, Mendoza discovers that a confidence man and a police officer have been murdered by the same person.

Finally, in her early works, Linington gives more space to character development than in later books. The early novels are traditional, with full character development of police officers, witnesses, suspects, and criminals. With the later increased caseloads, the length of the books remains the same, but the details about both people and cases decline.

In no other mystery subgenre are the supporting characters as important as in the police procedural, which by definition requires that mysteries be investigated and resolved much as are actual cases—with teamwork. Linington establishes her ensemble of supporting players in the early books. Each is given certain easily described physical characteristics and idiosyncrasies—these become an abbreviated description in subsequent works. In the Mendoza series, for example, these include Mendoza’s fastidiousness, detective Art Hackett’s dieting, detective George Higgins’ cautious wooing of a fellow officer’s widow, and detective Tom Landers’s perpetual youthfulness.

The greatest character development is in the Mendoza series. Mendoza is unique in two respects: He is Mexican American, and he is independently wealthy. When he first appeared in print, Mendoza was the only ethnic minority hero in a series of this kind in the United States. Nevertheless, Mendoza’s ethnic background appears only in his use of Spanish words and phrases in conversation. There is no other indication of values, beliefs, or ideas significantly different from those of his Anglo-American associates. The author uses brief interjections and comments in foreign languages to indicate ethnic background: Mairí MacTaggart, Mendoza’s housekeeper-nanny, speaks Gaelic; Vic Varallo, Italian; and César Rodriguez, Spanish.

Mendoza’s wealth makes him even more unusual. Because of his early poverty and his police career, which predates his inheritance, he is saved from being merely a wealthy dilettante. Although he sometimes wonders why he stays with the “thankless job” and occasionally talks about retiring, he...

(The entire section is 2075 words.)