(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Patricia McGerr’s stories featuring the intrepid Selena Mead are stylish, entertaining, cerebral puzzles. Although there is much action and the character development of these stories is quite good, their chief appeal lies in their intellectual challenge to the reader. In each of the episodes, Selena is faced with a problem that must be solved through brains, not brawn. Is the handsome young congressman who courts her a Russian agent or an innocent dupe? Is the vacationing scientist planning to defect behind the Iron Curtain? Which of several trusted aides and family members is plotting to assassinate the visiting monarch? Selena must analyze the words and actions of all these suspects and set hastily devised intellectual traps for them. The reader is challenged to outthink Selena and the criminal. Written in the 1960’s, the Selena Mead series presented the reader with a strong, resourceful, intelligent female spy who solved cases by using her brains at a time when James Bond was the model espionage hero and female characters in typical espionage novels were disposable ornaments who distracted the macho agent from his bloody feats of derring-do.

The Selena Mead stories, however, are not McGerr’s most original and creative efforts. McGerr will be best remembered as the author who reworked the whodunit into the “whodunin,” a plot in which the identity of the killer is known from the start but the identity of the victim remains a mystery until the very end. The reader is invited to decide which character out of a large cast is the most likely to be murdered. In yet another twist on conventional plotting, McGerr presents a murderous wife whose suspicious husband sent for a detective just before his untimely and most unnatural demise. The murderess must then determine which of several new acquaintances is the detective who has come to prove her guilt. Like the Selena Mead stories, these unconventionally crafted novels have a strongly feminist undertone.