Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

How on Earth Did I Get so Jaded*

HurriedChildhoodDuring the 1980’s, Tufts University Professor David Elkind wrote a groundbreaking book The Hurried Child. In it, he made the powerful argument that many of today’s children are put under an untenable amount of pressure to grow up too quickly. One example of this pressure (and we’ve all seen this I think) is media hype that presents children as ‘little adults’ and sometimes even sexualises them. Another is the tendency (although this certainly isn’t the case all the time) for parents, especially single parents, to treat their children more as confidants than as children. All of this, Elkind argues, can do real damage to children, and serves to rob them of those crucial years of childhood development. The book’s been through several editions and is still widely read, which suggests among other things that these problems haven’t gone away.

It’s not always easy to clearly define the boundary between responsibility that helps a child develop important skills, and responsibility and pressure that isn’t appropriate for children. I think we’d all agree that it’s beneficial for young people to learn to, say, be responsible for their schoolwork or their spending money. But, Elkind argues, pre-teens aren’t ready for adult pressure such as sexual attention, and they’re not served well by the enormous pressure that’s sometimes put on them to ‘be the best,’ such as you sometimes see at sport events. There are plenty of children too who are expected to help provide family income and this, Elkind argues, also hurries children.

This issue crosses socioeconomic lines too. Whether or not you agree with each of Elkind’s arguments (and I do recommend the book), it really does seem that many children in all social classes are pressured to grow up quickly. It’s true in real life, and we see that plot thread in crime fiction too.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes relies on a group of such children: the Baker Street Irregulars. Led by a boy named Wiggins, they’re a group of street children who help him with his investigations. They know London very, very well, and can often observe and get information without calling attention to themselves, so they’re quite useful to Holmes. Conan Doyle doesn’t portray them as living very unhappy lives, but it’s interesting to see how even in this more ‘clean scrubbed’ picture of pressured childhood, the boys respond very positively to Holmes’ leadership and interest in them.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of London bargeman William Thornhill. In 1806, when he’s caught stealing a load of wood, he, his wife Sal and their children are transported to Australia. There, they do their best to make lives for themselves. Thornhill comes to love the land he’s moved to, and therein lies the problem. Other people of course have been living on that land for millennia, and there are real cultural and other conflicts between the new arrivals and the people who’ve always been there. Thornhill would like to resolve matters peacefully, but that view is by no means uninanimous, so some terrible crimes are committed. The first part of this novel tells of Thornhill’s early life in London. Born to a very poor family, he soon learns that the family will not survive if the children don’t do as much as they can, as early as they can, to earn money. In that society, it’s taken in a matter-of-fact way, and allowing children to actually be children is a luxury that the poor simply cannot afford.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, DCI Tom Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look into the murder of financial advisor Dennis Brinkman. At first Brinkman’s death was thought to be a terrible accident, as his body was found under one of the ancient machines he collected. But his friend Benny Frayle is sure that he was killed, and won’t rest until his death is investigated. At first Barnaby and Troy aren’t convinced that this is a murder, but then there’s another death. Self-styled medium Ava Garrett dies of poison after a séance in which she saiid things about Brinkman’s murder that only the killer would be likely to know. Now Barnaby and Troy are faced with two murder cases. In one of the sub-plots of this story, we meet Ava Garrett’s pre-teen daughter Karen, who has had to grow up far too fast. They live in a not-too-well-kept council house along with Ava’s lodger Roy Priest, who’s also seen too much for his nineteen years. Ava is not a physically abusive parent, but she is self-absorbed and irresponsible. So it’s left to Karen and, when he can help out, Roy, to do the ‘adult work’ of managing the household. That’s not the reason for the murders, but it’s a clear example of a hurried child.

We also see one in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory. Gideon Davies has always had a rare musical ability and has become a world class violinist. One terrifying day though, he finds that he can’t play note. So he begins to work with a psychotherapist to get to the bottom of his musical block. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night in what looks like a hit-and-run accident. But as Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers soon learn, this was no accident. As the novel goes on, we see how that death is related to Gideon’s inability to play, and how both are related to a long-ago family tragedy. Part of the novel shows what the Davies family has been like, and how Gideon was pressured from a very early age to grow up because of his musical ability. And that pressure has a lot to do with the kind of person Gideon is now.

Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series, which takes place mostly in Bangkok, features American ex-pat Rafferty, a travel writer who is also fairly good at finding people who don’t want to be found. He’s married to Rose, a former bar girl, now the owner of an aparment cleaning company, who herself had to grow up too fast. He’s also in the process of adopting Miaow, a former street child who’s seen more during her childhood than anyone should have to see in a lifetime. Being forced to grow up too fast has had a profound effect on Rose and on Miaow and through them, on Rafferty. Although he does his best to provide a good life for both, there’s a hardness to them, especially Miaow, that comes from not having had the chance to be a child.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. She is academically gifted, and her dreams go far beyond the limits of her home in Alexandria, on New Zealand’s South Island. Her teacher, Ilsa Klein, has high hopes for her as well, and considers her a very promising student. Then everything begins to fall apart. Serena stops coming to class regularly, and when she is there, she doesn’t participate. It’s clear that something is wrong, and Ilsa wants to help, so she alerts the social welfare authorities. That turns out to be a mistake, as Serena’s mother is deeply resentful of that ‘interference.’ Then Serena disappears. Her sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington, where she lives, back to Alexandria to help in the search. To her it’s shocking that three weeks have gone by and nothing has been done to find Serena. As the story moves along, we see that Serena has had to grow up too fast, and so have her siblings. In part it’s because of the family’s dysfunction; in part it’s because of the family’s socioeconomic situation. There are other factors too. And they play a role in the events that happen in the novel.

There are a lot of other crime novels in which we meet children who are forced to grow up before they’re ready. It’s very hard on them, and certainly doesn’t aid in helping them to become fulfilled, productive adults. There’s an eloquent commentary on it in Denise Mina’s Garnethill, which takes place in Glasgow. In this scene, protagonist Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell is visiting her friend Leslie. Here’s what Leslie has to say about a neighbour’s child:
 

‘‘That’s wee Magsie,’ said Leslie. ‘She’s three and a half. Aren’t ye, wee teuchie?’
Wee Magsie kept her skirt over her face and giggled shyly, rocking from side to side.
‘Yes,’ said the biggest girl, who could only have been seven. ‘I’m her big sister and I’ve to look after her today.’…
‘See that?’ said Leslie. ‘They’re wee mammies before they stop being kids.’’

 

Which novels with hurried children have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, Denise Mina, Elizabeth George, Kate Grenville, Paddy Richardson, Timothy Hallinan

I Won’t Back Down*

DaresMost of us don’t want to appear weak in front of others. That’s arguably why people often don’t tell their troubles to a lot of people or admit their mistakes. That desire to appear strong and brave is also part of the reason people take dares and bets. Backing out of a dare or challenge can be seen as cowardly, so people go through with sometimes foolish and dangerous dares and bets to avoid that label. I’m sure you’ve seen it in real life, and that plot point runs through crime fiction too.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, we are introduced to Violet Smith, who’s taken a position as piano teacher/governness at Chiltern Grange. During the week, she stays there. At the weekend, she goes to London to visit her mother. Lately, she’s noticed that a strange man on a bicycle has been following her on the way to and from the train station. He’s never threatened her or even spoken to her. But she’s beginning to worry for her safety. She’s also curious about who the man is and what he wants. So she engages Sherlock Holmes to get to the bottom of the mystery. He and Dr. Watson investigate, and they soon find that Violet Smith is in great danger. Unbeknownst to her, she’s a pawn in a very high-stakes game, as the saying goes. And it all started because of the need to appear strong and not back down from a challenge, in this case, a card game.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook is the first in his Gideon Fell series. In this novel, Tad Rampole has recently been graduated from university, and has come to England at the suggestion of his mentor, who knows Fell. Rampole is on the way to Chatterham, where Fell lives, when he meets Dorothy Starberth. He’s smitten with her, so he takes a special interest when Fell tells him about the mysterious history of the Starberth family. For two generations, the Starberths were Governers of the now-disused Chatterham Prison. Even though the prison has been abandoned for a hundred years, the Starberths are still associated with it through a family ritual. Each Starberth heir spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. During the evening, the heir opens the safe in the room and follows the instructions inside it. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy’s brother Martin. He’s not particularly eager to take on this challenge; the Starberth heirs have a habit of dying suddenly and violently. But he doesn’t want to back down and appear a coward. So he goes along with the ritual. During the night he stays in the prison, Martin Starberth dies of what looks like a tragic accident. But Fell is able to prove that the death was quite purposeful.

Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death) features a group of residents who live in a hostel for students. The hostel is managed by Mrs. Hubbard, whose sister Felicity Lemon is, as fans will know, Hercule Poirot’s frighteningly competent secretary. Mrs. Hubbard’s concerned about a series of odd and seemingly meaningless petty thefts going on at the hostel, so Miss Lemon asks her employer to look into the matter. This he agrees to do, and he pays a visit to the hostel. That evening, one of the residents Celia Austin confesses to the thefts, so it seems that the matter is settled. But when she dies two nights later, it’s clear that there’s more going on here than thievery. Poirot and Inspector Sharpe establish that Celia was murdered, and begin to investigate. As they do, they discover that just about everyone in the hostel is hiding something. One of the things they find out, for instance, is that a few of the residents got involved in what seemed like a harmless bet. They were joking around about being able to commit murder without being caught. Jokes led to a bet, which led to poisons being in the hostel at the time of Celia Austin’s death. And no, that’s not a spoiler, ‘though it may seem to be…

Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body is the story of the murder of Sister Mary St. Anne, who was a part of the community at the Convent of St. Anselm. When her body is discovered at the foot of the convent’s basement stairs, Berebury Police Inspector C.D. Sloan and his assistant Constable William Crosby investigate. Their first interest is of course, the network of relationshps at the convent, and they interview all of the people who live and work there. But they don’t neglect other possibilities. For example, there’s Sister Anne’s family. Also, close to the convent is an Agricultural Institute. It wouldn’t seem that anyone there would have a reason to kill Sister Anne, but on Guy Fawkes day, some of the students follow the college’s tradition of burning a guy. This time, though, the guy is dressed in a nun’s habit and what turn out to be Sister Anne’s spectacles. So it’s very clear that someone at the school was at the convent. Sloan and Crosby find that that element of the mystery has to do with a prank and some students’ desire to take on a challenge.

And then there’s Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black. On New Year’s Eve, Sally Henry and Catherine Ross are on their way home from a party when they pass by the house of Magnus Tait, who’s generally regarded as a misfit and a strange person. Catherine dares her friend to knock on the door and although she’s reluctant, Sally doesn’t want to appear cowardly. So she agrees and the two go to the house. Tait invites them in, and finds himself accused of murder when Catherine is killed a few days later. Inspector Jimmy Perez is assigned to the case and interviews the people in Catherine’s life, including Tait. There is evidence against him, but Tait claims that he’s innocent, and Perez comes to believe him. It’s interesting in this novel to see how that simple dare gets Tait mixed up in the girls’ lives.

Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s short story Trick or Treat begins as a young boy goes up to the door of Crow House, which has a creepy reputation. He’s been dared to knock on the door and of course, he doesn’t want to back down, so he knocks. When he’s admitted, he finds a trick he couldn’t have imagined…

Most of don’t want to seem weak, so it’s only natural not to want to back down from dares, bets and challenges. But as crime fiction shows us, it might just be safer all round to risk that…

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Go ahead, pick a card. Dare ya! You’re not afraid, are you???
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of song by Tom Petty.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catherine Aird, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, John Dickson Carr

She’s Dead Serious About Her Family History*

Family SagasAn interesting book review at Cleopatra Loves Books has got me thinking about family sagas. Now, before I go any further, you’ll want to pay a visit to that fine blog. You’ll find all sorts of excellent, thoughtful reviews of crime fiction as well as some books from other genres too. It’s well worth a place on a bibliophile’s blog roll.

Right. Family sagas. Just about all families have their share of stories and ‘skeletons in the closet,’ and some of those stories have an effect for a very long time. Family sagas can be very effective contexts for crime fiction too, since some of those stories and ‘skeletons’ involve crime. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles concerns the ‘blueblood’ Baskerville family, which has had a home on Dartmoor for many generations. It’s said that the Baskerville family has been cursed since the 1600s, when Sir Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was infatuated. According to this tale, the family is haunted by a demon in the shape of a hound. In fact recently, the current head of the family, Sir Charles Baskerville, was found dead on the grounds of the Manor of Baskerville. Many people say the family curse was responsible, and now family friend Dr. James Mortimer is afraid for the new heir Sir Henry Baskerville. Sir Henry is due to come in from Canada soon, and Dr. Mortimer wants the matter settled before his arrival. Holmes is unable to leave London at the moment so he sends Dr. Watson in his stead. Between them they find that a curse had nothing to do with Sir Charles’ death…

Agatha Christie weaves in elements of the family saga in several of her novels. In Sad Cypress, for instance, Elinor Carlisle receives an anonymous note warning her that she could lose the inheritance she expects from her wealthy Aunt Laura Welman. Apparently someone’s been playing up to the elderly lady and the note hints that there’s an ulterior motive behind it all. Elinor isn’t particularly greedy, but she and her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy Welman travel to the family home at Hunterbury. There they renew their acquaintance with Mary Gerrard, daughter of Hunterbury’s lodgekeeper. They soon find out that Aunt Laura has become very much attached to Mary, and insists on altering her will to make a good provision for her; however, Aunt Laura dies before the will can be changed. Much to Elinor’s shock and dismay, Roddy becomes infatuated with Mary. In fact, Elinor breaks off her engagement with him. Then, not long afterwards, Mary dies of what turns out to be poison. Elinor is the most obvious suspect, and not just because of Roddy. There’s a fortune at stake as well. Hercule Poirot investigates and finds that Mary’s death has everything to do with a family saga. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow, Five Little Pigs and Crooked House

In A Dark-Adapted Eye, her first novel as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell shares the story of the Longley family. The Longleys have always been a very respectable family – not a hint of grist for the ‘gossip mill.’ But in this case, appearances are, as the saying goes, deceiving. Many years ago, Vera Longley Hilliard was hanged for murder. No-one discusses the matter, but it’s haunted the family ever since. Then, journalist Daniel Stewart digs up the story and decides to write a book about the family and the hanging. He approaches Faith Longley Severn to help him with the work, since she’s a family member. She agrees and together they look into what really was behind the murder for which Vera Hilliard was executed. This novel is about the crime, but it’s also about the family, its history and its relationships.

One of the more famous family sagas is the story of the Vanger family, whom we meet in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist has just lost an expensive libel lawsuit against well-insulated and powerful Swedish industrial magnate Hans-Erik Wennerström. With his publication Millennium in danger of folding, he’s open to an offer from Henrik Vanger. Forty years earlier, Vanger’s grand-niece Harriet disappeared. Everyone thought she drowned, but Vanger has a good reason not to think so. He’s been receiving anonymous birthday gifts of dried flowers, just as Harriet gave him all those years earlier. Vanger offers to support Millennium financially, and give Blomkvist the information he needs to bring down Wennerström if Blomkvist will find out what really happened to Harriet. Blomkvist agrees and he and his research assistant Lisbeth Salander start exploring the Vanger family’s history and finances. And it turns out that this is quite a family saga…

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn has been working to support the political life of her friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. He’s got a very bright future in the party, and everyone’s looking forward to an important speech he’s scheduled to make. To everyone’s shock, he collapses during the speech and dies of what turns out to be poison. Kilbourn is grief-stricken at the loss of her friend, and decides to deal with that grief by writing a biography of Boychuk. As she does so, she begins to get closer and closer to the truth about why and by whom he was killed. She also learns quite a lot about the Boychuk family’s history and how it affected him.

Martin Edwards deals with family sagas and stories in several of his Lake District mysteries. For example, in The Hanging Wood, DCI Hannah Scarlett gets a call from Orla Payne, who wants to find out what happened to her brother. Twenty years earlier, Callum Payne went missing and no-one has ever found a trace of him – not even a body. Orla wants Scarlett and her team to look into the case, but unfortunately, she’s mentally fragile and is drunk when she calls, so Scarlett doesn’t make much of the matter. Then, Orla dies of what looks like suicide. Now Scarlett feels guilty for not taking that call more seriously, and begins to look into both Orla’s death and the the disappearance of her brother. That investigation turns up quite a lot of family history and a family saga that’s been going on for several generations.

When it comes to crime fiction, family sagas have to be handled deftly. Otherwise, the history of the family can take away from the story of the crime(s) that’s supposed to be at the heart of the novel. But when they’re well-written, family sagas can add a lot to a crime novel. And they can provide all sorts of useful and realistic motivations for murder. I’ve only mentioned some examples here. Your turn.

Thanks, Cleo, for the inspiration!
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Lucksmiths’ English Murder Mystery. OK, this is really a fun song if you’re a crime fiction fan. :-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Gail Bowen, Martin Edwards, Ruth Rendell, Stieg Larsson

But Try at Least to Pick a Selling Title*

BookTitlesWhen it comes to getting readers’ attention, a well-chosen book title can be at least as important as the cover is. So I thought it might be interesting to take a bit of a closer look at the titles of crime novels. After all, when we read a review and put a book on the TBR or wish list, it’s the title and/or author we try to remember.

Most authors know that a good title has something to do with the the story, and sometimes that’s done very cleverly. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s title The Adventure of the Dancing Men is attention-getting on the surface. It also has everything to do with the story. This adventure is about a woman Elsie Cubitt, who starts to get mysterious cryptic messages in the form of stick figures posed in various positions, as though they were dancing. The messages clearly frighten her, but she won’t tell her husband Hilton what they mean or why they’re being sent. So Cubitt asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate. The solution involves decrypting the messages, so the title turns out to be very much related to the story.

Sometimes titles are a little (or even very) unusual. For instance, Christopher Brookmyre’s title Quite Ugly One Morning isn’t your typical title. It has to do with an investigative journalist Jack Parlabane, who returns from Los Angeles to his native Edinburgh. He locks himself out of his flat one morning and ends up stumbling onto a brutal crime scene. That gets him drawn into the crime’s investigation and deeper into a web of greed and coverup than he imagined. What’s interesting is that although the title is unusual, it’s also closely related to the story itself. Admittedly, there are titles that are a lot more unusual than that one, but it should serve to show you what I mean.

Some authors ‘brand’ their series (or their publishers do) through the titles. I’m thinking for instance of Sue Grafton’s ‘alphabet series’ and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, which uses a different colour in each title. There there’s ‘Nicci French’s’ series in which each title includes a day of the week. I’m sure you know of other examples of this sort of ‘branding.’ That can make it easy for a reader to look for the next title in a series, and keep track of a longer series.

Authors are often advised to keep their titles short and fairly easy to remember, and that’s logical when you think about it.
Shorter titles can often look much neater and less ‘cluttered’ on a cover, and it’s easier for readers to keep them in mind. For a similar reason, authors are usually advised not to use subtitles, although of course, they’re out there.

As I thought about that, I wondered how long titles of crime novels actually are. So I decided to look more closely at that question. I looked at the titles of 215 crime novels – books that I’ve used for my ‘spotlight’ feature. So as you read on, do keep in mind that this is a limited data set. The total population of crime novels might show something different. I divided the books into three categories: books with two or fewer words in the title; books with three to five words in the title; and books with titles longer than five words. Here’s what I found.

 

Length of Book Title
 

As you can see, the great majority (131, or 69%) have titles of between three and five words. That includes words such as at, of, and the. And 70 (32.5%) have one- or two-word titles. Of my data set, only 14 (6.5%) had titles longer than five words. It makes sense to have short, crisp titles, so that finding didn’t particularly surprise me.

Crime novels of course deal with, well, crime, at least most of the time. And very often that crime is murder. So you’d think that most of the titles in the genre would reflect that, and that there’d be a lot of titles with crime-related words in them. So I decided to look into that question. I looked at the titles of 215 books that I’ve used for my ‘Spotlight’ feature to see what kinds, if any, of ‘murder-related’ words there were in the title. Here’s what I found.

 
Words in Titles

 

You can see clearly that most of the titles actually don’t mention murder, killing, bodies or weapons. In fact, 79% of them (169 books) don’t say anything about crime. Some of the titles (19/9%) do mention death, die, dying or another variant of that word. But as you’ll notice, comparatively few mention crime-related words such as blood, murder, knife, and so on. I wonder if that’s so that crime writers and readers can be a bit less obvious about our interest in these devious doings… ;-)

What’s your view about titles? Do you find yourself attracted to very unusual titles? Do you notice when a title is really short or long? Does that affect your interest? If you’re a writer, how do you decide what title you’ll choose for your work?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Concretes’ Fiction.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christopher Brookmyre, John D. MacDonald, Nicci French, Sue Grafton

Baby, Look at You Now*

BabyLookatYouNow

Yesterday I posted some pictures of famous crime writers when they were young, and invited you to guess who they are. As promised, here are the answers  :-)
 
 
 
Young and Adult Ngaio Marsh

Why, look! That adorable child became the one and only Ngaio Marsh!
 
 
Young and Adult Colin Dexter

And that fine young man grew into…..Colin Dexter!
 
 
Young and Adult Val McDermid

This little lassie could only be…Val McDermid!
 
 
Young and Adult Arthur Conan Doyle

This little boy is none other than…Arthur Conan Doyle! Elementary ;-)
 
 
Young and Adult Patricia Highsmith

This cheerful young lady blossomed into…Patricia Highsmith! Smiles on the outside, but what a skill at inner noir.
 
 
Young and adult Michael Connelly

And this serious young man? Well, when you’re Michael Connelly, you have a lot to think about! All those great plots and characters…
 
 
Young and Adult Agatha Christie

The devious mind behind that innocent face could only belong to…the ‘Queen of Crime,’ Agatha Christie!
 
Young and Adult Ian Rankin

Isn’t that a great ensemble? It’s being modeled for us by…Ian Rankin! Wonder if Rebus ever wore somthing like that…
 
 
Young and Adult Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton got an early start at reading. Doesn’t seem to have done her any harm…
 
 

And finally…
 
Young and Adult Arthur Upfield

That adventurous young man made the most of his travels in his books. Yes, it’s Arthur Upfield!
 

So… how did you do? Did you recognise that greatness for what it is? Thanks for playing! Happy Weekend!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer’s You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Highsmith, Sue Grafton, Val McDermid