Are You Interviewing Me*

A lot of professions involve speaking to the public. And often that’s done through giving interviews. I’m sure you can think of plenty of famous people such as professional athletes, film stars, and political leaders who go in front of the cameras. It’s almost a job requirement, really.

But other people are sometimes interviewed, too. Some are fairly comfortable in front of the camera; others dread it. And, of course, some people are much more accustomed to being interviewed than others. Either way, the public interview can be an interesting plot point in a crime novel. And it can show a bit about a character, too.

If you follow sport at all, you’ll know that athletes, their managers, team owners, and so on are regularly interviewed for TV and radio, as well as other media outlets. We see a great deal of that in sport-related crime fiction, too. For example, Alison Gordon’s Kate Henry is a sportswriter who works for the Toronto Planet. She has a particular interest and expertise in baseball, and follows the Toronto Titans Major League Baseball team as they go to their ‘away’ games. She attends ‘home’ games, too, and is one of the members of the press who interview players and the management staff. There’s an interesting relationship between the press and the team. Each knows full well that they need the other. So, in general, the team and management staff try to be generous about giving interviews and information. They know that builds their public appeal. At the same time, members of the press try to be respectful. They know that they won’t get that exclusive interview/story if they’re seen as too pushy, or worse, untrustworthy. It’s a delicate balance, but when it works, it’s effective. And more than once, that relationship allows Henry to get information when she gets mixed up in murder investigations.

In John Daniell’s The Fixer, we are introduced to Mark Stevens, a former member of New Zealand’s legendary All-Blacks rugby team. He’s heading towards the end of his career, and wants to shore up his financial resources for his own post-retirement security and that of his family. So, he’s playing now for a French professional team. Then, he gets word that Rachel da Silva, who works for a Brazilian magazine, wants to interview him. She’s been sent to France to do an in-depth piece on rugby, the rugby live, and the sport’s popularity. She’s bright, attractive, and interesting, so it doesn’t take long for Stevens to be attracted to her. The feeling seems to be mutual, too, and all goes well at first. Stevens gets to promote the team and the sport to a wide audience, and da Silva gets her story and the recognition that goes with it. Then, da Silva introduces Stevens to a friend of hers named Phillip, who’s become quite wealthy through betting on rugby. Before Stevens knows it, he’s drawn into a web of supplying ‘inside information.’ He finds it hard to resist, because he wants  to ensure his and his family’s futures. It all starts to fall apart, though, when Phillip suggests that his ‘new friend’ fix matches. Now, Stevens has a choice to make. And no matter what he decides to do, it’s going to be very dangerous for him.

If you watch the news, especially crime news, you’ll know that there are sometimes interviews with convicted criminals. Sometimes they’re part of a larger story on the crime in question. At other times, the criminal wants to protest her or her innocence. And they certainly play a role in crime fiction. For instance, Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink features that sort of interview. In it, we are introduced to Johannesburg  publicity expert Lucy Khamboule. A few years earlier, she worked in journalism. At the time, she’d sent a letter to notorious convicted killer Napoleon Dingiswayo, asking for an interview. She never heard from him, and went on with her life. Then one day, she gets a telephone call from him. He wants to give her his story, and perhaps have her write a book about him. This is an opportunity Khamboule had only dreamed of; she’s always wanted to do a book, and this, she knows, will sell well. She arranges to go to the maximum-security prison where Dingiswayo is being held, and starts doing background work for the book. Soon after she begins her series of interviews, though, some violent and disturbing things begin to happen. Dingiswayo can’t be responsible, because he’s securely locked away. But if he isn’t guilty of the attacks, then who is? Before long, Khamboule begins to get too close to the story, which has its own consequences. She founds out the truth, but not without a heavy cost.

Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry highlights another important role that public interviews play in crime fiction. In it, Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson, travel to Melbourne, where Robertson grew up, with their nine-week-old baby, Noah. The flight is a nightmare, but everyone arrives. Then, on the way from the airport to their destination, disaster strikes with the loss of baby Noah. A massive search is undertaken, but no trace of the baby is found. At first, the press and public are very sympathetic to the parents. But it’s not long before whispers start that perhaps they had something to do with Noah’s disappearance. As a part of the search for answers (and to keep their own names as clear as possible), the two go in front of the TV cameras with a plea for their son’s safe return. Gradually, we learn the truth about what happened to Noah, and we see the role that interview plays in the story.

Fans of Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone will know that that novel, too, features a missing child. In this case, it’s four-year-old Amanda McCready. Dorchester, Massachusetts PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro are hired to find the girl, and reluctantly accept the job. They’re not sure what they can do that the police can’t, but they agree to at least try. At one point, there’s a scene in which Amanda’s mother, Helene McCready, is giving an interview to the press. That’s not so unusual in itself; it’s the expected plea for the child. But Helene’s reaction to seeing herself on television is unsettling. As she’s watching the recorded interview during a news broadcast, she points out ‘the best part,’ and talks about who’s present at the interview. It’s difficult for both PIs to deal with her, and it adds to the suspense in the story.

There are, of course, many, many examples of interviews with fictional police officers, too. Sometimes, they provide valuable information, or prompt people to contact the police. Other times, they’re nothing but trouble. Either way, they’re an important part of the genre.

On Another Note…

Talking of interviews….I’m privileged and excited to have been invited to be a part of writer, blogger, and podcaster Claire Duffy’s series, Writers Chat Writing! It’s a long interview (sorry for going on so, Claire!) (31 minutes), but if you’re interested in what we had to say about writing and the writing process, you’re welcome to check it out right here. CLaire’s a fabulous interviewer! Thank you, Claire!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carly Simon and Don Was’ Interview.

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Filed under Alison Gordon, Angela Makholwa, Dennis Lehane, Helen Fitzgerald, John Daniell

Hey Ho Let’s Go*

As this is posted, it’s the birthday of Stephen King. Even if you don’t care for his work, it’s hard to deny the impact it’s had. Even his debut novel, Carrie, is still very popular 44 years after its first publication (Did you know he threw that work into the trash originally? Goes to show the value of perseverance.) King has also done much to support other writers and the writing craft/process itself.

One of the factors that sets King’s work apart is arguably that he taps into our own deepest fears. Yes, there’s violence in his work, some of it brutal. But the real source of tension and suspense in the stories he writes is more psychological than anything else. And that can have a way of keeping a reader engaged in a story. Many of King’s stories are about ordinary people – people readers can identify with – who are drawn into horrifying circumstances.

King’s a master of that sort of context. Other authors, too, have used the premise of an ordinary sort of person who’s drawn into horror. We see it all through the crime fiction genre, and it’s interesting to see how it plays out.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, for instance, we are introduced to ten people, all of whom have been invited to stay at a house on Indian Island. None of these people is perfect – by any means – but they are all what’d you’d call ‘normal’ people (if there is such a thing). After dinner on the night of their arrival, each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Not long afterwards, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, there’s another death. Then another. Now, the other guests see that they’ve been lured to the island by someone who is not as ‘normal’ as it seems. That someone is trying to kill them all, and they’ll have to work to find out who that person is if they’re going to stay alive. In this novel, it’s the growing psychological horror as much as anything else that really builds the tension and invites the reader to stay engaged.

Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone is a bit like that, too. In it, we meet Eunice Parchman, who’s hired as a professional housekeeper by George and Jacqueline Coverdale. The Coverdales are well-off and well-educated; they’re ‘normal’ upper-middle class people. At first, the arrangement works well enough. But what the Coverdales don’t know is that Eunice Parchman has a secret – one she’s determined they won’t discover. Then, one day, she’s accidentally found out. That seals the fate of the entire family, and leads to tragedy. The tension in the novel starts building right away, as we’re told exactly what happens and why. Rendell continues to build the suspense as the Coverdales get closer and closer to disaster without really being aware of it.

Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit takes place in rural New England mostly on a property called Cabrioun, and the lodge associated with it. It used to be owned by French émigré Grimaud Désanat, but he died during a hunting trip some years earlier. Now, his widow, Irene, owns the property, together with her new husband, Frank Ogden. Along with family friend Luke Latham, the Ogdens own a business making specialty wood products. The kind of wood they need, though, is hard to find, and currently only available in a place called Onawa. That property was owned by Désanat, who didn’t want the place logged for twenty years. The business can’t wait that long, so the Ogdens and Latham have decided to hold a séance to contact the dead man and ask his permission to open the land to logging. The séance is duly held, and is creepy as it is. But the suspense builds even more when Irene is later murdered. There’s a real growing sense of horror as it appears that the death either has a supernatural cause, or the murderer is one of the people who attended the séance.

Pascal Garnier has also written several stories in which ordinary, ‘normal’ people have been drawn into situations that ended in horror. There’s the aimless young man who becomes a driver for a hit man in How’s the Pain?, and the widower who becomes obsessed with the widow of his dead wife’s lover in The Front Seat Passenger. There are other examples, too, in Garnier’s work. Although there is certainly violence in these stories, the real suspense, and even horror, comes from psychological tension, rather than the ‘shock value’ of violence.

That buildup of psychological tension, and tapping into very human fears is characteristic of several other authors, such as Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier. It’s also quite present in the film work of Alfred Hitchcock, among others. In their work, we also see the case of the ‘ordinary’ person inexorably caught up in a web of horror. Those premises and plot points can make for stories that really resonate with readers, in part because we can often identify with the characters. They’re frighteningly close to who we are, if I may put it that way.

I’ve only mentioned a few examples of this sort of story. I know you can think of many more than I can, anyway. Happy Birthday, Mr. King, and may you keep scaring the wits out of us for many more years.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop. King fans will know why I chose this one…

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Hake Talbot, Pascal Garnier, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Stephen King

Well Versed in Etiquette*

I don’t have to convince you that society keeps changing. And in many of the most important ways, that’s a good thing. As we go on, we hopefully evolve and transform for the better. One of the consequences of those changes is that the ‘rules’ we’ve lived by need to change, too – well, some of them, anyway.

And that’s where the complexity and sometimes difficulties can come in. The thing about established rules of etiquette is that everyone knows them. There’s a certain security in that, if you think about it. People know who they are, they know what’s expected of them, and so on. And not having those rules can make things awkward. For instance, who pays for a first date? Who asks for the date? When two people approach a door, who opens it? There are some basic answers to those questions (e.g., At least in the US, the person who gets to the door first and/or has hands free opens a door). But things aren’t always as straightforward any more as they were. And that can cause anxiety.

We see these changes in etiquette throughout crime fiction. Among other things, they give us a look at a particular time, place and socioeconomic context. For example, Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead was published in 1952. In it, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to look into the murder of a charwoman. Her lodger, James Bentley, has been convicted of the crime, and is due to be executed. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence thinks he’s innocent. So, Poirot investigates. In the process, he’s re-acquainted with Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, who’s in Broadhinny to work with up-and-coming playwright Robin Upward to adapt one of her books for the stage. She gets out of her car and discovers that she’s been sitting on her hat:
 

‘‘I never liked it much. But I thought I might have to go to church on Sunday and although the Archbishop has said one needn’t, I still think that the more old-fashioned clergy expect one to wear a hat.’’
 

Today, there are far fewer ‘rules’ about what to wear to religious services, one’s office, or even occasions such as weddings. It so often depends now on the context, on the people involved, and so on. That means the decision about what to wear can be complicated, even if it is liberating in a lot of ways.

Among other things, Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates gives readers a look at post-World War II Japan. In it, Imanishi and his team investigate the murder of Miki Ken’ichi, whose body is found under a Tokyo train. As Imanishi and his co-workers ask questions and follow up on leads, they interact with several other characters. Through this, we see the rituals of the time regarding going to someone’s home, giving and receiving things, and so on. Life has changed drastically in Japan since that time. And Natsuo Kirino’s Real World shows that. That novel takes place in modern Tokyo, and features four teenagers, who are part of the young culture. It’s interesting to see how many of the older rules of etiquette (e.g. interactions between the sexes) have changed. But at the same time, there are still some elements of old-fashioned etiquette that remain (e.g. bringing a small gift to someone’s home as a way of thanking or making apologies).

Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret brings up another sort of ‘etiquette’ question. In it, Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig is helping her friend, Denise Wolff, put together an alumni reunion to coincide with the University of Alberta’s Homecoming events. The reunion is intended for members of the English Department, so the list of invitees is long, but not so long as to preclude personal invitations. And that raises the question of how the alumni should be invited. On the one hand, a personal, paper invitation is still considered the most appropriate. On the other, that can get costly, and most people do have email accounts. So, why not send the invitations through email? In the end, that decision is voted down in the interest of creating a better impression with an actual paper invitation. But, the response card also includes an email address, so that invitees can respond that way if they wish. It’s an admittedly small part of the plot, but it shows how these etiquette rules aren’t as ‘hard and fast’ as they once were.

And then there’s Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead, the first to feature Cardiff Detective Constable (DC) Fiona Griffiths. She gets drawn into the investigation of the murders of an occasional prostitute, Janet Mancini, and her six-year-old daughter, April. One of the other people on the team is Detective Sergeant (DS) David Brydon. He and Griffiths are attracted to each other, and neither is in a current relationship. So, there’s nothing, really, to hold them back from dating. But the problem is, Griffiths doesn’t know how to do ‘the dating thing.’ She doesn’t really know the etiquette for what to wear, how to make the right sort of small talk, and so on. It’s made all the more complicated because the rules aren’t really ‘hard and fast.’ They’re changing as society changes. This isn’t a major plot thread, and it’s certainly not the reason for the murders. But it does give some interesting insight into how confusing dating can be in today’s world.

And that’s the thing about those comfortable rules of etiquette. They can be very limiting, and I think most of us would agree that it’s good riddance to a fair share of them. But some of them are comforting and add a measure of security when we’re interacting. And they certainly show up in crime fiction.

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Killer Queen.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Harry Bingham, Janice MacDonald, Matsumoto Seichō, Natsuo Kirino

I Have a Thick Skin*

Life teaches most of us to develop a thick skin, as the saying goes, at least professionally. Criticism isn’t always fun, and dealing with it takes skill. And it helps – a lot – to have a thick hide. Having one doesn’t mean you enjoy criticism, or think it’s fun. It means you learn not to take it personally.

In crime fiction, having a thick (or thin) hide can add a really interesting layer of character development. It can also add to a plot, if you think about it. After all, a thin skin can lead to all sorts of interesting conflict and suspense.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, for instance, we are introduced to Elsa Greer (later, Lady Dittisham). She is one of the five people ‘on the scene’ on the day that famous painter Amyas Crale is poisoned. His wife, Caroline, is the main suspect, and there’s plenty of evidence against her. In fact, she is arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter. A year later, she dies in prison. Sixteen years after the murder, the Crales’ daughter, Carla Lemarchant visits Hercule Poirot. She is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to clear her name. Poirot agrees, and looks into the matter. In order to get to the truth, he interviews the five people most closely concerned (including Elsa), and gets written accounts of the murder and the days leading up to it from each one. We soon learn that Elsa was Crale’s mistress, a fact which certainly came out at the trial. She’s described as ‘hard boiled,’ and tells Poirot that she didn’t care about the insults she got from people who thought of her as a ‘home wrecker.’ In fact, she developed a tough hide about all that sort of thing, even though ‘ladies’ were supposed to shrink from public criticism. On that level, she’s an interesting character.

Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel also has a very thick skin. Like most of us, he doesn’t think criticism is fun. But he doesn’t take it personally, and fans of this series knows that he gives as good as he gets, as the saying goes. In fact, that’s one thing that Peter Pascoe, Edgar Wield, and the other members of Dalziel’s team have to learn. When you work with Dalziel, you have to have a thick hide. He’s hardly gushing in his praise, and he doesn’t mince words when he dresses people down. It takes Dalziel’s staff some time to get used to his forthright ways, and not take it personally. When they do, they learn that he is also loyal to them, and willing to take on ‘the top brass’ on their behalf if necessary.

Another character with a thick skin is Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. And for him, that’s a job requirement. His boss is Nero Wolfe, who can be very caustic in what he says, and isn’t afraid to say it. But many people think of Archie as an employee in name only. Really, he’s more of a partner, even though Wolfe pays his salary. Archie has learned not to take Wolfe’s diatribes personally, and he’s not afraid to give it right back, as the saying goes. He’s one of the few people whom Wolfe doesn’t intimidate. Archie’s not overly intimidated by the police, either, and doesn’t take their remarks to him personally. Sometimes, he even gets himself into trouble because he doesn’t react in an ‘appropriately’ humble way when the police lay into him. In fact, fans of this series know that some of the funnier lines in these novels come from Archie.

Of course, not all fictional characters are thick-skinned. And sometimes, characters can hide that thin skin beneath false bravado. For example, in Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town, we are introduced to famous director Peter Alan Nelson. On the one hand, he is a well-known director, and every word he says counts. He’s waited on hand and foot, and is very accustomed to getting his way. But he doesn’t handle demurrals or criticism well at all; underneath, he has a thin skin. He does not like to be wrong, and doesn’t deal well with objections. Years earlier, he was married to Karen Shipley, and they had a son, Toby. The marriage ended, and Karen and Toby left. Now, Nelson wants to re-establish a relationship with his son, and he hires Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole to find them. At first, Cole demurs. After all, there are any number of reasons that these people might want to go on with their own lives. But Nelson insists, and a fee is a fee. So, Cole tracks Karen and Toby down, and discovers that they’re living in a small town in Connecticut. It seems like a straightforward case – until he also discovers that she’s mixed up with some very dangerous Mob types…

And then there’s Louise Penny’s Yvette Nichol. When we meet her in Still Life, she’s recently been named to the Sûreté du Québec, and she’s thrilled about it. She’s also determined to ‘make good,’ as much because of her personal situation as anything else. So, when she is appointed to work with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache on a murder case, she does everything she can at first to ingratiate herself with him. But she is new at her job, and knows a lot less than she thinks she does. What’s worse, she has a thin skin and doesn’t deal well with criticism. She’d rather blame others than reflect on her own actions. When she makes mistakes, as we all do, Gamache tries to counsel her and help her become a productive part of the team. She won’t listen to him, though, in part because she can’t deal with criticism. That causes all sorts of problems which, as fans know, are part of a story arc in this series.

For most of us, it’s important to develop a thick skin, at least in our professional lives. We all have to handle criticism, and sometimes it can hurt. It’s healthy to learn deal with it in ways that don’t debilitate us. Some fictional characters can do that well – some can’t…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joy Ike’s Nomad.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Louise Penny, Reginald Hill, Rex Stout, Robert Crais

In the Spotlight: Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels are as much ‘windows’ into a particular profession as they are anything else. Those sorts of novels can give the reader real insight into what it’s like to be a member of that profession. That’s the sort of novel Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.

Another Margaret isn’t the first in in MacDonald’s Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig series, but it cycles back to the first, The Next Margaret, so it gives the reader a different sort of look at the series. Craig is a sessional lecturer who works mostly in Edmonton. This means that she doesn’t have the job security or other advantages that tenured faculty members have. But she does love campus life, and she’s been teaching English for twenty years, since she got her own M.A. She’s never quite managed to get a tenure-track position, so she makes ends meet by teaching for several area schools, depending on their needs for a given term.

As this story begins, Craig’s teaching courses for Grant McEwan University. Then, her friend, Denise Wolff, asks for her help with a major University of Alberta alumni reunion event to coincide with Homecoming Weekend. Craig agrees, and soon gets drawn into the process.

Then, Denise tells her a disturbing piece of news. A new novel, Seven Bird Saga, is about to be published. The author is Margaret Ahlers, the extremely reclusive writer on whom Craig did her master’s thesis twenty years earlier. And that’s what’s so upsetting about the news. Ahlers died years ago, and Craig has the feeling that this isn’t an innocent case of a manuscript stuck in the back of a filing cabinet for years.

As the big event gets closer, we learn how Craig first came to the university’s master’s program, and how she developed an interest in Ahlers’ work. At this point, the timeline follows Craig’s study of Ahlers’ writing, her work under Dr. Hilary Quinn, and her growing questions about Ahlers, who remains frustratingly difficult to find.

Then, we learn the truth about Margaret Ahlers, and the timeline returns to the present day, as the preparations for Homecoming go into full gear. As the time gets closer, Craig becomes more and more convinced that someone who may be attending the reunion knows more than it seems about Ahlers, and this could pose a danger to Craig, who has too many questions about this new book.

The weekend gets underway, and many alumni and former professors (as well as current faculty members) gather. And that’s when disaster strikes. In the end, we learn the truth about the new book, but not before there’s a murder.

This story takes place in an academic setting, and readers get a look at what it’s like to be a sessional instructor/lecturer. Different countries and universities have different names for such faculty, but whatever you call them, it’s not an easy life. There are no retirement accounts, health care plans, and so on. And the work can be catch-as-catch-can, depending on enrollment, number faculty sabbaticals, and the like.

Readers also get a look at campus politics. There’s a great deal of pressure to find a research niche and publish – regularly – within it. There’s also a lot of pressure to appeal to students, to get grading done quickly, and so on. Anyone who’s ever taught in higher education will find this familiar.

The setting is Edmonton and the Peace River area, and MacDonald places the reader there. As Craig goes to her classes, to the alumni events, and just around town, readers get a sense of what the city is like, and how it’s changed over the years. This is a distinctly Canadian novel.

Another important element in the novel is the timeline, which is actually two timelines. MacDonald integrated an earlier novel, The Next Margaret into this novel. The earlier novel tells the story of Craig’s pursuit of her degree, and her search for Margaret Ahlers. That story is ‘sandwiched’ within Another Margaret. Readers who prefer only one timeline will notice this. It’s worth noting, though, that it’s clear throughout the novel when given events are taking place.

The story is told from Craig’s point of view (first person, past tense), so readers learn quite a bit about her character. She is single, but has a long-term relationship with a local police detective, Steve Browning. Readers who are tired of angst-ridden sleuths who have dysfunctional relationships will be pleased to know that this is a strong one. Neither is perfect, but their bond is solid. Craig is hard-working and practical. She does get ‘burned out’ at times, but she’s smart, capable, and not the ‘damsel in distress’ that can put many readers off.

The solution to the mystery itself may require a little more suspension of disbelief than some readers might prefer. And, in its way, it’s quite sad. But readers who like to know whodunit and whydunit will be pleased that there aren’t any ‘loose ends.’

There is also wit woven throughout the novel. For instance, here’s what Craig says about catching up with other alumni:
 

‘Really, my need to know what people were doing usually limited itself to fictional characters.’
 

And there are several pointed observations about the academic life.

Another Margaret is really two stories in one. It tells one story within the context of telling the story of what happens years later. It features a strong past/present connection, a close look at the academic life ‘from the fringes,’ and features a protagonist whose curiosity about an author gets her into more than she imagined. But what’s your view? Have you read Another Margaret? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 25 September/Tuesday, 26 September – Among Thieves – John Clarkson

Monday, 2 October/Tuesday, 3 October – Crocodile on the Sandbank – Elizabeth Peters

Monday, 9 October, Tuesday/10 October –  Close Quarters – Michael Gilbert

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Filed under Another Margaret, Janice MacDonald