Novels: Pick Your Victim | Death in a Million Living Rooms
Selena Mead spy mysteries: Legacy of Danger | Selena Mead short stories not in Legacy of Danger | Is There a Traitor in the House?
Short stories, non-series: The Washington D.C., Murders | This One's a Beauty | The Day of the Bookmobile
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Legacy of Danger (collected 1970) (Chapters 4, 5, first part of 6, 9, 11, second part of 12, 13, 15)
Selena Mead stories
Commentary on Patricia McGerr / Pat McGerr:
The experimental idea in Pick Your Victim, not knowing who the victim is, was anticipated in part in Measure for Murder (1941) by Clifford Witting. However, this idea is not as central to Measure for Murder. The identity of the unknown victim is not the subject of a major mystery puzzle in Measure for Murder.
The first part is long: 60% of the book. The actual murder mystery second part is shorter, 40% of the book: basically a novella.
Admittedly, the strange relationship of the TV star and his ex-wife and current wife (Chapter 4) shows some inventiveness.
The woman writer Scottie's often nasty behavior, is seen in the context of an era in which neither writers nor women had much power. This woman is a jerk, or worse. But there is a feminist dimension in showing how her lack of power and security pushes her into such behavior. It is the only way she knows to protect herself or her career.
Career women workers in Pick Your Victim and Death in a Million Living Rooms are often seen fairly negatively. We are a long way from the feminist Role Models often seen in post-1970 books, films and TV. McGerr's women are shown sleeping with or married to men who might help their career. I have no idea how realistic or common this was in that era. It makes for depressing reading, though, while the dynamic feminist Role Models are often fun.
Both journalist heroines use their personal connections to get interviews. Both went to college: much less common among American women in 1951 than it is today.
The heroine gets access to the TV show under false pretenses. Today, this would likely violate ethics codes of journalism. One suspects it was also frowned on in 1951. It would cause ill will towards the magazine, too. The way the novel depicts the heroine's conduct is therefore implausible.
The acknowledgements say that local Washington radio and TV personalities Ruth Crane and Jackson Weaver insisted to McGerr that TV would be a good background for a mystery, and talked her into writing Death in a Million Living Rooms. Even by 1951, McGerr seems to have had connections to prominent Washingtonians. A fact not mentioned in the novel: Jackson Weaver was the voice of Smoky the Bear. Ruth Crane was a pioneer woman broadcaster. I wish McGerr had written a detailed non-fiction account of everything she saw during her research: it sounds fascinating in its brief description in the acknowledgements letter.
The fictitious TV show in Death in a Million Living Rooms is a comedy variety show, and a pretty low-brow one at that. Its star is compared to Arthur Godfrey and Milton Berle (start of Chapter 1), cornball TV hosts of the day. Fictitious accounts of 1950's TV seem fascinated by Arthur Godfrey clones: see the film A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957). Or the more briefly seen "hillbilly comedian" in Confessions of a Nervous Man (1953), an episode of Studio One directed by Paul Nickell. You would never learn from Death in a Million Living Rooms that 1950's TV was loaded with high-brow drama and classical music series.
Death in a Million Living Rooms use of television recalls in broad terms the use of radio in The Corpse Steps Out (1940) by Craig Rice. Both novels show a sleazy group of unscrupulous people in a sordid struggle for power. The characters in The Corpse Steps Out work on a music show made for radio; the suspects in Death in a Million Living Rooms make a comedy-show-with-music for television. In both works, the characters' nasty struggle for power is central, and depictions of the technical aspects of radio or television get pushed into the background.
Books that depict show business as full of corrupt, greedy, decadent people have a long history. They are still popular today. I confess this approach has little appeal to me.
Other crime writers were using a TV background the same time as Death in a Million Living Rooms:
The sleuth is an amateur detective, who solves the crime through reasoning. This is a core feature of the intuitionist school, of which the Van Dine school is a sub-category.
The notes contain the journalist heroine's record of the book's events. The investigation into why they might have been stolen, involves thinking about both the history of the notes themselves, and what they contain and don't contain. This retrospective look backward plays a role in other McGerr mystery puzzle plots.
The linking of the two apartments, anticipates the way heroine Selena and hero Hugh have their houses linked by a hidden rear path in Legacy of Danger. In both tales, this link helps people move from one locale to the other, while evading the eyes of watchers.
The heroine's apartment also has a distinctive architecture, being in a corner (middle of Chapter 8). This too influences the plot: thriller aspects, rather than any mystery.
Complicating this situation further: several of the original stories have been reprinted in anthologies. And apparently not always under the same title they first had in magazines.
Legacy of Danger was published in book form by Robert B. Luce, Inc., a publisher of liberal political material in Washington DC. The book jacket has a simple, but odd and unusual look, that just doesn't look like most other book jackets I've seen. Designer: Wendy Cortesi.
McGerr's mystery technique in the Selena Mead stories often focuses on the flow of information. What do people know, how did they learn it, how can info be passed along through secret codes, and so on. The spy background is a natural for enabling plots like this, because top secret information is part of the spy genre.
McGerr's stories show some affinities with her earlier work, Pick Your Victim (1946). In that novel, the detectives had to search backwards over a long flashback narrative to sift out clues and identify leads. In the first tale "Legacy of Danger", Selena has to search back over her husband's last night, to find clues to the enemy agents who had him assassinated. There is also an emphasis, in both works, on looking at little bits of behavior to gain clues to a person's mental state and orientation.
Orczy. The title Legacy of Danger refers to the espionage position Selena inherits from her murdered husband. This is a trace of an even older tradition, the Edwardian one of a heroine working as a detective because of the man she loves, as in Orczy's Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (1910).
Another Orczy tradition in the tales, perhaps coincidentally: people despise and ridicule agent Hugh Pierce in his mild-mannered secret identity as a painter, just as Orczy's hero the Scarlet Pimpernel was despised in his secret identity. So were countless heroes with secret identities that followed Orczy, such as Zorro and Superman. Legacy of Danger might be reflecting this tradition as a whole, rather than showing a specific influence from Orczy.
Van Dine. Selena Mead is a gifted amateur working with professionals. This evokes the tradition of S. S. Van Dine and his followers.
Selena Mead works as a journalist. This intellectual job links the tales to the intelligentsia and creative figures that often figure in the Van Dine school. So do such settings loved by the Van Dine School as show biz (Chapter 11) and a museum (Chapter 15).
Hugh Pierce is involved with abstract art: something for which he is ridiculed by wealthy business people. Modern Art and Modernism in general were at their height of prestige among American intellectuals in the 1960's. It is unclear how deeply committed Hugh is to abstract art.
The strong, pure puzzle plotting found in many Selena Mead stories, is typical of Van Dine school writers. But puzzle plots are also found in many other schools and traditions of detective fiction.
Had I But Known. There are traces in Legacy of Danger of the Had I But Known school of so-called "woman's writing", in which the heroine is always sensitively emoting over everything. Normally this drives me nuts, but here the heroine's feelings are limited to grief over the death of her husband, which is very understandable, and she soon settles down to rise admirably to the occasion. (Mixed metaphors can be fun.)
Had I But Known (HIBK) writers regularly wrote books set in Washington DC, often with government intrigue backgrounds. Legacy of Danger is possibly part of this tradition.
Scientific Detection. SPOILERS. Several of the puzzle plot tales in Legacy of Danger have solutions that involve technology. This links Legacy of Danger to the tradition of Scientific Detection. However, gadgets and gizmos are common in spy tales, and some of the high tech gadgets in Legacy of Danger might simply reflect this. Still, the science in "Murder in Red" and the technology in "A Time to Die" seem closer to Scientific Detection, than anything in the spy tradition.
The heroine of Scarecrow and Mrs. King regularly goes to a headquarters office full of spies, and meets spy organization officials there. By contrast, Selena Mead never goes to any spy building or office in Legacy of Danger. She talks to individual spies in person, in neutral surroundings, or on the phone. Neither she nor the reader get an inside look at the spy organization Section Q in Legacy of Danger. This perhaps underlines her amateur and outsider status. It separates her from the spy organization as a group.
We meet undercover spies from Section Q several times. They tend to be in roles without high social status, although respectable. But they emphatically do not show up disguised as big-shots like bankers or generals or millionaire playboys. Instead, sometimes they show up as servants or working class support staff. Among other things, this tends to contrast them with Selena and the suspects, who are members of elite society.
In her writing, Patricia McGerr's skill at describing institutions and the business side of upper class life is apparent: In Pick Your Victim, it is life in a Washington foundation called SUDS; in Legacy of Danger, it is the upper reaches of the Government and espionage. McGerr's storytelling is less cynical and far more appealing in the later work, however.
There are a number of references to President Kennedy. The unnamed President who is briefly seen (end of Chapter 7) definitely seems to be portrait of President Kennedy. Selena expresses sorrow over Kennedy's assassination (start of Chapter 8). Later she works on a fund-raiser for the Kennedy Center in Washington (Chapter 14). However Kennedy's policies and politics are not discussed. These episodes can be seen as a patriotic tribute to a President of the United States, rather than any sort of political commentary.
Legacy of Danger is relentlessly anti-Communist. Communist spies are the villains in many of the tales. Aside from this, the tales do not discuss domestic politics of the USA, and there are no liberal, conservative or radical characters or politics. And the Vietnam War is never mentioned, even though it was raging during the entire 1963-1970 period when Legacy of Danger was written. Legacy of Danger is clearly designed by its author to be "light entertainment", a book that can be read with enjoyment by readers of many political persuasions. Legacy of Danger is NOT a vehicle for its author's political ideas, whatever those might be. Political ideas are just not discussed in it. Even Communism is not investigated as an ideology or as a political system; rather, Legacy of Danger simply shows Communist spies and regimes as threats to the Free World. And spies and traitors working for the Communists are usually motivated by financial gain, rather than ideology.
Powerful men in the capitalist United States who turn corrupt occur regularly in McGerr. Examples are in "Fellow Traveler", "Fox Hunt for Selena", both of which go into detail about the motives and weaknesses that might cause such corruption. The non-series "This One's a Beauty" looks at an attorney who uses his wealth and skill for venal ends. These stories are not explicitly political. But they do suggest there might be a great deal of corruption and malice among the sort of elite men who run the country.
"Selena's Black Sheep" and "This One's a Beauty" suggest that rich young from wealthy families might be spoiled, weak and morally diseased.
But the world of Legacy of Danger is otherwise not notably feminist. It's an elite world of the rich and powerful. Almost all of the women in it are either the wife or daughter of some distinguished man. Few of these women have any personal accomplishments or careers. This is probably a realistic account of the 1960's power elite. But it does strip the world of any feminist dimension.
Aside from Selena, woman's labor is rarely shown in Legacy of Danger. We rarely see working women with jobs. We don't see women raising children or cooking meals for their families at home, either. Occasionally women servants appear, such as Selena's cook in "Latin Lessons" and the elderly maid in "Murder in Red". The unsympathetic nurse in "A Time to Die" is one of the few women with a non-servant's job. Pepita in "Latin Lessons", a politically active woman from an unspecified background, might also represent a non-elite woman who achieves on her own.
In the opening, Selena's Big Choice is about which of two rich, eligible young men she will marry. Both she and her wealthy family think of Selena's life as entirely consisting of being wife to some man with a career.
Rich people tend to corrupt everything, and one suspects that an upper class point of view in Legacy of Danger has distorted values for women. Marriage to a rich man is a soft berth, and a viable option for a handful of upper class women. But most women are working class or middle class. Such women, married or single, face a lifetime of hard work. They need values that maximize and support their labor in jobs and in the home. In other words, feminist values. The upper class values in Legacy of Danger are remote from their needs.
Chapter 15 of Legacy of Danger lays it on the line about gender roles: Boys in the Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology like the space program exhibits, girls want to see the dresses! This does not gibe with my childhood memories of the 1960's. Both my mother and father were ardent supporters of the US Space Program. My sister loved the air adventure TV show Sky King, in part because the hero's niece Penny was also a pilot.
"Match Point in Berlin" (1968) is the source of most - but not all - of the opening of Legacy of Danger (Chapters 1-3). This is more a thriller than a mystery puzzle. I found it dull. The tale is a sort of prequel to the Selena Mead saga, being set in an earlier part of her life than the rest of the series. It takes place in 1955, while most of the Selena tales are set in the mid-1960's. It is also much longer than many of the other Selena short stories.
The first of the Selena Mead short stories to be written, "Legacy of Danger" (1963), makes up Chapter 4 of the book Legacy of Danger. It is perhaps the best tale in that book. It is a full-fledged puzzle mystery.
"The King Will Die Tonight" (1963) is likely the source of Legacy of Danger, Chapter 5. This tale has a sound puzzle.
This seems to be the second-published of the tales. It seems to be the one that establishes details of Section Q and how it operates, including its use of Q-passwords. It also sets Selena up in her job as journalist for Background magazine. The stories "Legacy of Danger" and "The King Will Die Tonight" thus serve as "pilots" for the series, establishing the premises of the stories to follow.
Scott Kirkpatrick of the National Theater in Washington makes a cameo appearance. He seems to be a real person, referenced by this otherwise fictional tale.
"Latin Lessons" (1964) is perhaps (a guess) the source of Legacy of Danger, first part of Chapter 6. This tale has a sound mystery puzzle plot. It shows us Selena at home, a bit more than the other tales.
"Question, Mr. President" (1963) is likely the source of Legacy of Danger, end of Chapter 6 and Chapter 7. The President in the story is apparently a portrait of the real President Kennedy, and depicts him at one of his popular news conferences. The conference is fun, and offers a bit of ingenuity as a communication device. But the story lacks a puzzle plot. And its depiction of an Asian ruler as a lecher is borderline stereotyped. Not recommended.
Real reporter Merriman Smith of the UPI makes a cameo appearance at the news conference.
"Fellow Traveler" (1965) is perhaps (a guess) the source of Legacy of Danger, first half of Chapter 8. This unsubstantial tale has a simple puzzle plot. However, its one clue is far-fetched and unconvincing (SPOILER: There are such things as indoor tennis courts, which would ruin this clue).
"Holiday for a Lady Spy" (1964) is likely the source of Legacy of Danger, second half of Chapter 8. This simple story is a mild tale of international intrigue, without a mystery puzzle. It is best for some light-hearted moments, including a slightly surreal opening outside Buckingham Palace in London.
"The Secret of Carthage" (1964) is likely the source of Legacy of Danger, Chapter 9. This tale has a vivid background depicting tourist attractions in Carthage in North Africa. Its simple task for the heroine, "track down a mystery man", is perhaps too simple to be called a full "mystery puzzle". But it does hinge on a solid clue.
"Murder in Red" (1964) is likely the source of Legacy of Danger, Chapter 10. The mystery puzzle depends on a cliche idea for its solution.
"Ballad for a Spy" (1965) is likely the source of Legacy of Danger, Chapter 11. This has nice mystery, centering on ingenious ideas for spy communication. It is also a fun look at that craze of the era, folk singing. This is a portrait from the outside: is is not an expert view from someone experienced in folk songs. But it offers an enjoyable time capsule of the era. It is also refreshing to read a Selena tale set among ordinary people, rather than the powerful elites of so many of the stories. SPOILER. Aspects of folk singing are worked into the spy communication ideas.
Chapter 11 also includes, at its start and end, some "bridge material", that was not part of "Ballad for a Spy", but which seems instead to have been written especially for the book Legacy of Danger. Like other bridge material in that volume, it tends to concentrate of the personal life of the characters. It extends their characterization and shows their relationships. I like the bridge material in Chapter 11, and in general think the bridge sections improve Legacy of Danger.
"Truth or Consequences" (1965) is perhaps (a guess) the source of Legacy of Danger, the first half of Chapter 12. It offers a brief tale of international intrigue. It lacks a puzzle plot, and is none too creative as a whole. It has a bit of very mild ingenuity at its end. Not recommended.
"A Time to Die" (1966) is likely the source of Legacy of Danger, second half of Chapter 12. This is unusual for the Selena Mead stories, in being a pure mystery tale, rather than a spy story. "Time of death" mysteries form a small but distinguished tradition in mystery fiction: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) by Dorothy L. Sayers, "Last Man to Die" (1963) by Ellery Queen. McGerr shows ingenuity at working such a time-of-death mystery into a political intrigue context. Most previous writers relied on wills instead, to provide a story background.
"Fox Hunt for Selena" (1964) is likely the source of Legacy of Danger, Chapter 13. Despite the title, the story makes clear that this so-called "fox hunt" is not actually chasing a fox, or any other animal. (No animals were harmed in making this story, as the phrase goes!) The tale seems a bit skimpy and underdeveloped: it could use more characters and more elaborate background. But it does have a fair play puzzle plot, soundly constructed.
Chapter 14 of Legacy of Danger tells about intrigue at a costume charity ball. It is festive, and oddly entertaining, but lacks substance. There is no mystery puzzle.
Chapter 15 of Legacy of Danger is about a struggle to communicate secret information. There is a small puzzle, about making contact. The tale is pleasant without being classic. The story maximizes ideas about passwords running through Legacy of Danger based on the letter Q. Its puzzle is also about such passwords.
"Selena's Black Sheep" (1965) is likely the source of Legacy of Danger, Chapter 16. This story lacks a puzzle plot. Its tale of intrigue and blackmail is intricate, but none too creative. This story shows us Selena's father. Unfortunately, like most of Selena's rich, conventional family, he just doesn't seem that interesting.
"Campaign Fever" shows Selena and Section Q interfering in domestic United States politics. Perhaps for this reason, it was not included in Legacy of Danger. Legacy of Danger almost entirely shows villains, especially Communist agents, threatening US security. Such threats are non-controversial as targets for counterespionage. Interfering, with however good intentions, in US politics, would be far more controversial and even radical. It could be interpreted as an interference with democracy - or even as an attack on democracy.
"Caribbean Clues" has Selena on a cruise ship, like both the opening passage in Legacy of Danger and "Fellow Traveler" in Legacy of Danger.
Is There a Traitor in the House? seems inferior to Legacy of Danger, and to the best uncollected Selena Mead short stories. It has some modest merits, but mainly it is not a classic. The first half (Chapters 1-4) is pleasantly readable. It contains some good sketches of both the main characters, and some briefly seen witnesses and observers. It conveys lots of Washington politics atmosphere. The thriller finale (Chapter 10) is none too believable - but at least it is audacious.
The depiction of Washington and politics in Is There a Traitor in the House? might echo in broad ways popular mainstream works like Allen Drury's Advise and Consent (1959) and Gore Vidal's The Best Man (1960).
Much of the politics in Is There a Traitor in the House? is distinctly old-fashioned, with a 1950's or even a 1930's feel. Political parties are trying to come up with presidential and vice-presidential candidates. "Political king-makers" run this behind the scenes. (No, McGerr does not actually include a "smoke-filled room".) Political columnists have inside scoops. The male protagonist congressman was sent to Washington on a "reform ticket", just like the hero of a 1935 Warner Brothers movie melodrama. This is a whole way of political life that was about to vanish under the pressure of the 1960's and the upheaval they brought.
SPOILER. But on one modern subject, McGerr shows courage. Selena Mead is a Southerner, from an ancient patrician Virginia family. But we learn that she is a supporter of Civil Rights (Chapter 3). This is a startling and controversial taking of a stand, in 1964. The support is depicted obliquely: she is gently chided for it by an anti-Civil Rights Southern senator. But the book makes clear that Selena is on the other side of this argument than the senator.
Is There a Traitor in the House? does spend a little more time looking at whether some US traitors might be ideologically motivated. The good guys examine briefly whether the congressman's cynicism might have led him to become a Communist (Chapter 2).
Unfortunately, there is not much investigation of the crime. Actual detective work in Is There a Traitor in the House? is rare. The killing is much mentioned. But the good guys don't do much work to solve the crime.
SPOILER. At the end, the killer is revealed not through any sort of detective work or investigation. But because a villain kidnaps Selena Mead! The villain reveals all, talking to the captured Selena.
So Is There a Traitor in the House? has a murder mystery - but it doesn't really have a detective or show detection solving the mystery. This is drastically different from, and inferior to, Legacy of Danger, in which Selena Mead is a full-fledged detective in the traditional sense, solving mysteries.
Choosing a villain this obvious does have some advantages: one has to admit that the choice of villain is logical. And that the choice is fairly clued by the story.
An odd subplot involves a house to which the congressman invites Selena (Chapters 2, 4). Information about the house is vague and unspecific. The house turns into a mini-mystery: Where is it? What are the facts about it? McGerr does a decent job with this, thickening the puzzle, then eventually coming up with logical explanations. The subplot is an example of a "mystery with solution" that does not involve crime.
SPOILER. Selena ingeniously uses one of the devices for communication (Chapter 10). Means of communication are a big theme running through the Selena Mead tales.
There is a mystery puzzle: interpreting the killer's message, and using it to figure out where his next crime will be. Such message interpretations recall the "dying message" subgenre. Unfortunately this puzzle is not especially creative.
Plot aspects recall stories in Legacy of Danger:
The bookmobile of the title, takes books to shut-in people who could not otherwise get to the library. It is a great idea - and one in common use today. However, I am not used to hearing this sort of activity called a "bookmobile". Historical note: when I was a kid, the term "bookmobile" did not refer to such a service. Instead, in Lansing, Michigan USA the bookmobile was a bus filled with books from the library. It would drive around, parking in school parking lots. Local kids would walk or bike to the bookmobile, and check out books. I loved it. The Wikipedia article on Bookmobile describes this sort of Bookmobile, not the service-for-shut-ins described in "The Day of the Bookmobile".