(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In calling her Lloyd and Hill books classic whodunits, Jill McGown emphasized the fact that they were written in the tradition established by the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, who is credited with inventing the detective story in 1841, when he published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” By the time the term “whodunit” was coined in 1930, the conventions of the genre had long been established. Typically, a murder is committed; a detective becomes involved in the search for the murderer; all the clues essential to the solution of the crime are presented to the reader; the author deliberately misdirects the reader without concealing any important clues; and finally, the detective identifies the criminal and explains how the clues that were presented led inexorably to the conclusion. Clearly, the whodunit emphasizes reason, rather than emotion, and therefore characterization is far less important than the plot itself.

McGown followed these rules scrupulously, but as a modern writer, she felt free to make some adaptations. For example, many of her predecessors paired a brilliant, eccentric detective with a well-meaning but somewhat obtuse friend; one example of this pattern would be the mysteries by the Golden Age writer Agatha Christie in which Hercule Poirot masterminds the investigation and Captain Arthur Hastings serves as his aide and his confidant. In McGown’s mysteries, though Chief Inspector Lloyd is of higher rank, Judy Hill is not a mere second-in-command. In fact, in some of the books, A Shred of Evidence (1995), for example, Lloyd takes a backseat, and it is Hill who is primarily responsible for solving the crime. The fact that the two operate as equal partners underscores the idea that women are now supposed to have the same opportunities as men. Therefore it is appropriate that Hill, who is at the beginning of her career, should be anticipating future promotions, while Lloyd, who has already established his reputation, looks forward to retirement. It is true, of course, that theory and practice are not always the same. To her credit, McGown showed the two partners often disagreeing about the direction a case should take and even more often arguing bitterly about their own future goals, whether as individuals or as a married couple.

By venturing to explore the inner lives of her sleuths and of her primary suspects, McGown departed from the conventions of the traditional whodunit. She was interested at least as much in human nature and in human relationships as she was in presenting an intricate plot. Most critics applaud this alteration of the pattern, for they believe that novels such as hers hold the interest of modern readers better than the admittedly entertaining but essentially superficial mysteries on which they are...

(The entire section is 1135 words.)