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A Tribute to Jill McGown

One of my favorite writers, Jill McGown, died recently (April 6, 2007). To me, the underappreciated McGown is the epitome of the classic modern detective story writer, and she deserves to not only be remembered and appreciated, but read. She was born in Argyll, Scotland, to a fisherman and a secretary, and as she went through grammar school had Colin Dexter as a Latin teacher. She began writing her Lloyd & Hill books in 1983 and kept writing these wonderful books until very close to her death. The last one, Unlucky for Some, came out in Britain in 2004, in the US in 2005.

To me the classic modern detective story centers on a police man or woman (or often, a team) and the examples of this are many - Inspector Dalgleish, Inspector Wexford, Inspector Lynley, Inspector Morse, etc. They follow the classic form of the detective novel in that there are clues, the detective is smarter than the reader (usually) but the process of discovering whodunnit, rather than taking place in a drawing room, takes place in the police station. This format has allowed modern writers to include details of modern working life into their books, making them more relevant to today's audience.

Jill McGown's main characters, Lloyd and Hill, meet when the young Judy Hill is still married (unhappily). Both are obsessed with their jobs - Lloyd's approach is to find all the "little things" wrong with a case, while Judy's straightforward clear thinking usually keeps Lloyd on the right path. As the series goes on they become involved, married, and parents, but McGown continually plays with their ranks - sometimes Judy is of an equal or greater rank than Lloyd - and their ages. Judy is far younger, and it allows the author to include a very wide point of view.

There are several standouts in this fine series. A notable early title is Murder at the Old Vicarage (1988) which is a darker pastiche on the Agatha Christie novel, Murder at the Vicarage. One of McGown's great strengths as a writer is her character development, and as the series went forward, this became more and more finely tuned. Other standouts include Verdict Unsafe (1997) and Picture of Innocence (1998) and obviously she was on a tear at this point because my favorite of her novels, Plots and Errors, was published in 1999.

If she learned more than Latin from Colin Dexter, in Plots and Errors nowhere is the influence of the master more apparent. Dexter's careful plotting is certainly echoed here. Like most British writers, McGown is more than comfortable with Shakespeare, and Plots and Errors is loosely based on Hamlet. The precise structure of the book is presented in scenes and acts, and more brilliantly, much of the story is told backwards. After a prologue, McGown then goes back in time and brings the story forward to what the reader already knows. To me this is her best novel because it combines her genius with characters and a tightly wound plot that is one of the best I've ever read. And of course, the detective portion of the novel, Lloyd and Hill's investigation, is the thread of decency tying it all together. The modern detective novel makes us think, but it also ties up the loose ends and implies that bad deeds are righted, or at least avenged, in the civilized manner of the legal system.

Jill McGown was underappreciated in life - many times I would recommend her to fans of the modern British mystery and often they wouldn't have heard of her. Of course, once discovered, McGown is impossible to ignore or forget. As she has left us she at least leaves behind her wonderful books - I hope I have today converted a few new readers! If you like the modern British police novel at all McGown is not to be missed - she is to be savored. Celebrate her brief life by reading one of her fine novels.

Note: this essay first appeared on my blog, "Hey, There's a Dead Guy in the Living Room".

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