Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

Wouldn’t You Rather Have Your Precious Little Ingénue*

ingénuesOne of the character types we often associate with classic and Golden Age crime fiction (although this character shows up elsewhere, too) is the ingénue – the somewhat unsophisticated, inexperienced young woman. Ingénues aren’t necessarily unintelligent. In fact, many are quite bright. But they tend to be less worldly and more innocent than more experienced female characters.

There are a lot of them in crime fiction, too. Sometimes they’re unjustly accused of murder. Sometimes they’re guilty, and hide behind the ingénue façade. They can also make for effective love interests, among other things. Whatever role the ingénue plays, she’s an integral part of, especially, classic and Golden Age crime fiction.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that, in more than one of his adventures, he helps an ingénue. For example, in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, James McCarthy is arrested for the murder of his father, Charles. There’s evidence against him, too, as he was seen quarrelling with his father just before the murder. He claims he’s innocent, though, and his fiancée, Alice Turner, believes him. She’s convinced enough to go to Inspector Lestrade and ask him to look into the case again. Lestrade thinks he has his man, but he agrees to consider the matter more closely. He contacts Sherlock Holmes, asking him to examine the evidence and see if there are any other possibilities. Holmes acquiesces and he and Dr. Watson travel to Boscombe Valley, where the murder occurred. They find that the victim gave an important clue to his killer, but no-one understood it at the time of his death.

In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy, we are introduced to Hermione ‘Egg’ Lytton Gore. Although she’s ‘well born,’ she’s been rather sheltered, and hasn’t had a chance to travel or spend a lot of time in exotic circles. She and her mother, Lady Mary Lytton Gore, are invited to a cocktail party hosted by famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. During the party, another guest, Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Also present at the party is Hercule Poirot (and Mr. Satterthwaite, by the way). Poirot takes an interest in the case, and Egg persuades him to pursue it when there’s another, similar death. Egg is a smart young woman, and by no means a ‘helpless female.’ But there are ways in which she’s an ingénue, and it’s interesting to see how that impacts her character.

In John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, recent university graduate Tad Rampole takes the advice of his mentor and travel from his native US to England. While he’s there, he’s going to meet lexicographer and academician Dr. Gideon Fell. Rampole is on his way to Fell’s home when he meets Dorothy Starberth, whose family lives not far away. He’s immediately smitten with her, so he’s happy to listen when Fell tells him the story of the Starberth family. Several generations of Starberths were Governors at a nearby prison that’s fallen into disuse. And even today, there’s a Starberth tradition connected with the prison. Every male Starberth spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the now-ruined prison. As proof of presence, he opens the safe in the room and follows the instructions inside it. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy’s brother Martin, and she’s concerned about it. For many years, there’s been talk of a curse on the family; several of its male members have met with untimely deaths. Martin’s not overly eager to go to the prison, either, but he goes ahead with the plan. On the night of his birthday, Martin Starberth dies of what looks like a fall from a balcony. Gideon Fell isn’t so sure, though, and works to find out the truth. In this novel, Dorothy Starberth is smart and aware, but still has an air of innocence that one could definitely call ingénue.

So does nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill, whom we meet in Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil. In that story, Queen has taken a place in the Hollywood Hills to do some writing. He’s hoping for some peace and quiet, but that’s not what happens. Laurel visits him one day, asking him to investigate the death of her father, Leander, who died recently of a heart attack. Laurel is convinced that someone deliberately brought that attack on by sending him a series of macabre ‘gifts.’ At first, Queen has no interest in the case. But he gradually gets interested in the puzzle of what the packages may mean, and how they’re related. That’s especially true when he learns that Hill’s business partner, Roger Priam, has also been getting similar deliveries. For her part, Laurel is smart and capable. But there’s something a little innocent and young about her, and it adds to her interest as a character.

And then there’s Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses. One day, the police at one of the South London stations get an anonymous letter. In it, the author confesses to the murder of a vagrant whose body was found at an underground station. There’s very little in the letter that could identify the writer, so the police can’t really do much about it, even if it is genuine. And we soon learn that it is. The story behind the letter begins in 1966 South East London, where teenaged ingénues Bridget ‘Bridie’ and Madeline ‘Midge’ Dolan live with their parents. They’re as well-sheltered and protected as their parents can manage, but they still have an interest in the clothes, lifestyle and experimentation of the times. One Friday night, they wangle permission to go dancing at the Palais Royale, so long as their cousin Jimmy takes them and brings them back. Bridie and Midge are happy enough with this arrangement, and eagerly get ready for their big night. What happens that night is life-changing for several characters in the story, and it’s connected with the letter the police get decades later.

There are a lot of other examples of ingénues in classic and Golden Age crime fiction, and in some historical crime fiction. Do you think there are still crime-fictional ingénues today? Which ones have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber, Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe’s Prima Donna.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Steph Avery

Part of the Story, Part of the Same*

Stories in Serial FormCrime writer and fellow blogger E. Michael Helms has taken the interesting step of sharing his Dinger, PI story in serial form. You can check out the first instalment right here. Dinger lives and works in post-WWII Las Vegas – a very effective context for the sort of noir stories that Helms writes. And while you’re at it, check out Helms’ terrific blog. And his ‘Mac’ McClellan novels. You’ll be glad you did.

The novel-in-serial-form has a long history, of course. And you’ll no doubt know that several famous novels were originally published that way. One of the benefits of the serial format is that it gets readers interested in what’s going to happen next. That builds circulation for the magazine that prints the story. And fans get to read a story in smaller doses as it were, a much less daunting prospect than a very long novel. For the author, the serial story allows flexibility as s/he sees how readers respond to the different instalments.

There’ve been many crime novels that were originally published in serial form. For instance, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which was published as a novel in 1868, began life that way in Charles Dickens’ magazine All The Year Round. The novel tells the story of the Verinder family, and the troubles that befall it when Rachel Verinder receives a valuable diamond, called the Moonstone, for her eighteenth birthday. The legend goes that there’s a curse on the diamond, and it certainly seems that way. First, the diamond is stolen from the Verinder home. Then, one of the maids goes missing, and is later found to have committed suicide. Sergeant Cuff is assigned to recover the diamond, and after two years, he traces what’s happened to it. Those who’ve read the novel will know that’s it’s broken into parts told from different points of view. It’s not difficult to see its origins as a story told in serial form.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will tell you that a lot of his work was published in serial form in The Strand Magazine and other publications. For instance, The Sign of the Four, the second full-length Holmes novel, was published in instalments in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. The novel’s focus is a pact among four prison inmates in India, and two corrupt prison guards, to share stolen treasure. That pact, and the treasure, have implications decades later and thousands of miles away in London, when a young woman named Mary Morstan begins receiving a series of pearls, one each year, sent by an anonymous donor who claims that she is ‘a wronged woman.’ When she takes her case to Holmes, he finds that long-ago link. And Dr. Watson finds a bride.

Margery Allingham’s first detective story, The White Cottage, was first published in 1927 as a serial in The Daily Express. It’s not one of her Albert Campion mysteries. Instead, this one features Chief Inspector W.T. Challenor and his son, Jerry. It all begins as Jerry Challenor is on his way to London. He happens to see a young woman struggling to carry a heavy basket. He pulls over and offers her a lift, which she gratefully accepts. She tells him her destination is the White Cottage, and Jerry takes her there. He starts on his way again, but pulls over to put the hood on his car when an oncoming storm threatens. He’s finishing the task when he and a passing police officer hear the sound of a shotgun. Shortly afterwards, the parlourmaid from the White Cottage runs up the road, hails the police officer and says there’s been a murder. The victim is Eric Crowther, and it’s not surprising that he’s been shot. He’s got a nasty history of finding out people’s secrets and using that knowledge as a weapon. So the Challenors have no shortage of suspects as they investigate.

The Daily Express was also the first home of Agatha Christie’s A Pocket Full of Rye. In that novel, wealthy businessman Rex Fortescue is poisoned, and Inspector Neele takes the case. Neele begins his investigation with the members of Fortescue’s family, and in this situation, that makes sense. The family was far from a happy one, and more than one member has a motive. But a family connection doesn’t explain the rye seeds found in Fortescue’s pocket. Neele’s trying to make progress on the case when there’s another murder. This time, the victim is housemaid Gladys Martin. Miss Marple takes an interest in the case, since Gladys used to work for her. In fact, it was Miss Marple who prepared Gladys for domestic service. As it turns out, this murder has its roots, as murders often do, in the past.

And then there’s James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, which was first published as a serial in Liberty Magazine in 1936. Insurance salesman Walter Huff finds himself in Hollywoodland one day, and decides to pay a visit to a client, H.S. Nirdlinger, to try to get a policy renewal. Nirdlinger isn’t at home when Huff arrives, but his wife, Phyllis is. Huff is immediately smitten with her, and she does nothing to discourage him. Before long, they’re having an affair. Then, Phyllis tells Huff that she wants to kill her husband. She’s decided to take out an accident policy so that she can benefit from his death. Huff is so besotted with Phyllis that he goes along with her idea, even writing the right sort of policy for her. The two plot the murder carefully, and the night for it finally arrives. When the deed is done, though, Huff finds it very hard to cope with the guilt he feels at having killed a man. And it’s not long before he learns he has more problems than just that guilt…

Stories have been told in serial form for a very long time, and it’s not hard to see why. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Balkan Beat Box’s Part of the Glory.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, E. Michael Helms, Margery Allingham, Wilkie Collins

Try to Realise It’s All Within Yourself*

Mind FocusLife can get very stressful at times, especially when one’s faced with a challenging task. It helps to clear one’s mind and focus, to drive away the clutter. And there are dozens of different ways to do that. An interesting guest post on author and fellow blogger Sarah Ward’s blog has got me thinking about what people do to help them focus when they need to accomplish something. The discussion on the post is about music (and you’ll want to check it out for some great musical ideas!). There are a lot of other ways to focus, too, and we see them in crime fiction just as we do in real life.

Any fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes can tell you that he is a skilled violinist. At times, he plays for others’ (read: Watson’s) enjoyment. But he also uses the violin as a way to clear his mind and ponder an investigation. And as we learn in A Study in Scarlet, when he’s doing that, Holmes doesn’t really play songs. Instead, he
 

‘…would close his eyes and scrape carelessly at the fiddle which was thrown across his knee.’
 

The result may not be musically appealing, but it does help him to concentrate.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he sometimes builds houses of cards (and does jigsaw puzzles) to clear his mind when a case is particularly challenging. For example, in Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Poirot is faced with a difficult investigation. Reverend Stephen Babbington was poisoned by a cocktail at a small party hosted by famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. Babbington had no enemies that anyone knew of, and certainly no fortune to leave. So it’s hard to understand why anyone would have wanted him to die. Then, not long afterwards, Harley Street specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange was poisoned at a dinner party at his home. Many of the same people were present at both occasions, and the murder method is nearly identical. So the two deaths are likely connected, but it’s hard to see how. One day, Hermione ‘Egg’ Lytton Gore, who’s mixed up in the case, goes to visit Poirot. When she arrives, she sees him building a house of cards with a deck of Happy Families cards. Poirot explains to her that he does this because it stimulates his mind. And in this case, his house of cards turns out to provide him with an important clue, too.

Some fictional sleuths run as a way clear out the mental cobwebs. For example, Kate Rhodes’ Alice Quentin is a dedicated runner. She’s a psychologist who often works with the police, so her job can be quite stressful. She also has a very difficult past, so she’s got her own personal issues to face. Running frees her mentally, and helps her to clear her mind. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. In Crossbones Yard, the first Alice Quentin novel, she’s on an evening run through London when she discovers a body at an old graveyard that used to be used for prostitutes. A body in a graveyard isn’t such a surprising find, but this body is quite new. And it turns out that this death might very well be related to the recent release of convicted killer, and to a set of previous killings.

K.T. Medina’s Tess Hardy, whom we meet in White Crocodile, also uses running as a way to free her mind and clear out the clutter. She’s a member of MCT, a charity mine-clearing agency, and has seen her share of danger. One day, she gets a call from her abusive ex-husband Luke, who now works as a mine clearer in Cambodia. He has a completely different attitude now to the one she’s accustomed to; he’s more balanced, but most importantly, he’s afraid. Something about the place has unsettled him. There’s not much time to find out what it is, though, because two weeks later, he’s dead. Tess travels to Cambodia to look into what’s happened to him, and finds herself drawn into a dark mystery. Young women are disappearing, and abandoning their babies. Some of them are discovered murdered. Tess’ habit of running doesn’t solve the mystery of the murders, but it does add an interesting layer to her character.

Along similar lines, in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we meet secondary school teacher Ilse Klein, who swims as a way to focus herself and clear her mind. Originally from Leipzig, she and her family moved to New Zealand during the ‘Iron Curtain’ years to escape the Stasi, the dreaded East German secret police. Now, she lives and works in the small town of Alexandria, on South Island. She gets concerned when one of her most promising pupils, fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, loses interest in school. She misses a lot of classes, and when she is there, doesn’t participate. Ilse voices her concerns to the school’s counseling service, but that backfires when Serena’s mother refuses to cooperate. Then, Serena goes missing. Ilse’s decision to take an interest in Serena’s well-being has consequences she couldn’t have imagined.

Many people choose meditation as a way to focus themselves. And there are studies that suggest that meditation is associated with a stable heart rate, lower incidence of stress-related illnesses, and lower levels of depression, among other things. Whether those studies are actually correct, millions of people find personal benefit in meditation. Certainly John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep does. He is a member of the Royal Thai Police, and lives and works in Bangkok. He is also a dedicated Buddhist who continually strives to move towards enlightenment. That process involves mental and physical discipline, for which Sonchai needs a clear and focused mind. And for that, he engages in regular meditation. To a great extent, he meditates as a part of his commitment to the Buddhist Eight-Fold Path. But meditation also helps him to keep the clutter at bay, so to speak, as he works on his investigations.

Whether it’s music, puzzles, running, meditating or something else, people do need a way to focus their minds and clear out the ‘static.’ And it’s interesting to see how different fictional sleuths go about it. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Within You Without You.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Burdett, K.T. Medina, Kate Rhodes, Paddy Richardson

So If You’re a Redhead, a Blonde or Brunette*

Physical AppearanceOne of the many benefits of reading is that it allows us to use our imaginations. In fact, I think most readers probably don’t want every detail provided to them. Not only does that get tedious, but it can also be insulting. So authors tend to leave some things to the reader’s imagination.

But what about physical descriptions? Should the author give a lot of detail about what a main character looks like? Do readers want to know whether a character is short or tall, heavy or slender, dark-haired or blond/e? Many people would say they want to know at least a bit about a main character’s physical appearance. But of course, there’s the risk of giving so much detail that it becomes burdensome.

Some authors have provided quite a bit of information about character appearance, and that has its advantages. It’s easy for the reader to conjure up the image the author intended. And the author can make a character distinctive (e.g. Dennis Lyndes’/Michael Collins’ one-armed PI Dan Fortune). And that sets a character apart from others.

For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle was quite specific about Sherlock Holmes’ physical appearance. Fans know that Holmes is,
 

‘…rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.’
 

This description and a few other details that come up in the stories has made Holmes as iconic a physical presence as anything else.

The same may be said of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. As Captain Hastings describes him,
 

‘He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible.’
 

Poirot’s luxurious moustache and his sense of the sartorial have also provided readers with a very clear visual image of what he looks like. So, casting directors have had a very specific ‘look’ they’ve wanted for those who’ve portrayed Poirot on the screen (with all due respect, David Suchet is Poirot. Just sayin’). Christie’s Miss Marple isn’t described in quite as much detail, but Christie makes it clear what she looks like.

There’s also Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Fans will tell you that he’s well-known for his bulk, his large head, and his yellow silk pyjamas. Of course, Wolfe has linguistic idiosyncrasies, too, that make him distinct. But even if you consider just his physical attributes, it’s easy for readers to develop a solid mental image of what he looks like and how he moves. I know, I know, fans of Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley.

On the other hand, though, there are plenty of fictional sleuths whose appearance isn’t described, or is only briefly alluded to, with few details. One of the most famous is Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar. Tamar is a former Oxford don, who now serves as a sort of mentor to a group of young London lawyers. Granted, this series is only four books long. But within that span, we are never even told Tamar’s sex, let alone other physical details. It’s left completely up to the reader’s imagination what this character really looks like.

There’s also little given about Peter Temple’s Jack Irish. We can get a very rough approximation of his age (not in his first youth, but at the same time, not in late middle age, either). We also know that he’s a ‘regular guy,’ so he’s not a formal dresser. But we’re not given detailed information about what he looks like.

We aren’t told an awful lot about what Michael Dibdin’ Aurelio Zen looks like, either. We know that he’s Italian, and that he’s based in Rome. And we can make a few probably logical guesses as to his general appearance. But we don’t really get a lot of information about it. So it’s left up to the imagination.

And some readers like it that way. They prefer to make up their own minds as to whether a character is tall or short, has long or short hair, is heavy or not, and so on. Other readers want more detail than that. In fact, on an interesting note, when I was planning this post, I found there were many more instances of characters who are described, at least somewhat, than of those who are not. That makes sense, when you consider how much we rely on physical appearance to help us identify people. In fiction, physical appearance can also be an important element of character development.

Where do you stand on this? Do you like to have a lot of detail about what a character looks like? Do you prefer no detail at all? Perhaps you’re the sort of reader who’s happy with vague description (e.g. tall and middle-aged, with a slight beer gut). If you’re a writer, how much detail do you provide?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s (It’s) Hairspray.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dennis Lynds, Gladys Mitchell, Michael Collins, Michael Dibdin, Peter Temple, Rex Stout, Sarah Caudwell

Is My Timing Right?*

TimingAn interesting post from FictionFan, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews, and the comments we exchanged, have got me thinking about timing. Many different sorts of things can affect what we think of a book we’re reading. There’s the obvious things such as plot, characters and so on. There’s also the matter of personal taste. We’re all different in the sorts of stories we enjoy.

But another, subtler, factor in how we feel about a book is arguably the timing of when we read that book. For the reader, timing can have an impact in several ways. For instance (and this is the sort of thing FictionFan and I were ‘talking’ about), if you read a book when it first comes out, it may feel fresh and new. That can add to your enjoyment of a novel. That’s especially true if the novel adds an innovation to the genre, or in some other way digresses from it. But if you read it later, after other, similar books have been released, you may feel quite different about it.

One example that comes to my mind is Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. At the time the novel came out (1988), the psychotic-serial-killer motif wasn’t a major factor in mainstream crime fiction. That novel arguably made room in the genre for that sort of story. Since then, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, there’ve been many, many novels with crazed serial killers. Some are better than others. But it’s not a new and innovative theme any more. I wonder how that’s impacted readers who hadn’t previously read The Silence of the Lambs. Would they regard that novel as the trend-setter that it arguably is? Would they see it in a different way?

There’s also the sub-genre that’s recently (in the last few years) been called domestic noir. Of course, there’ve been many novels in which marriages fell apart, and people weren’t what they seemed. But novels such as Julia Crouch’s Cuckoo, S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, and Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner have brought the domestic noir novel to the forefront of current crime fiction. And that raises (at least for me) the question of what today’s readers might think of books such as Margaret Yorke’s Speak For the Dead, which was published in 1988. In that novel, Gordon Matthews marries Carrie Foster, and on the surface, all starts well. But each one has a dark past. Matthews was recently released from prison for killing his first wife, Anne. The way he and his lawyers tell the story, it was a case of manslaughter, and Anne was a promiscuous, alcoholic shrew who pushed her husband too far during an argument. But is that the truth? For her part, Carrie is a former prostitute who gets back on the game a few years after they marry. As the story of their marriage, and the tragedy that follows, goes on, we see a real example of domestic noir. Would readers who’ve experienced plenty of domestic noir see this as a taut, fresh look at a marriage? Would they see it as stale?

There are other ways to look at timing, too, of course. If you’ve just finished reading a series of bleak, ‘hardboiled’ crime novels, you might be ready for something lighter. So work such as Carl Hiaasen’s or Chris Grabenstein’s might appeal. Neither author writes ‘sugar coated’ crime fiction, but there is plenty of wit in it. At another time, though, you might think those very same novels too comic, and perhaps too absurd. The same is true for cosy mysteries. If you’ve just been reading a lot of light crime fiction, you might find work like Julie Hyzy’s White House Chef series too light. On the other hand, if you’ve been reading a lot of dark crime fiction, that same series might really appeal.

Timing matters for authors, too. For instance, after the commercial success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, many other novels with a similar domestic noir theme were released. I’m sure you could list more than I could. On the one hand, the success of Gone Girl allowed those other novels more exposure than they otherwise might have had. Publishers were more willing to take a chance on them, and people were more interested in the themes. On the other hand, do readers think of those other novels as ‘me, too?’ Do they look at them with fresh eyes? This raises questions for the author. Is it a good idea to pick up on a theme that’s had some success, so as to hopefully get more exposure?  Is it a matter of ‘me, too,’ or is it a matter of ‘there’s a market for this sort of book?’ Or is it something else?

And then there’s the element of when in one’s life one reads something. Perhaps you started your crime-fictional journey with classic and Golden-Age crime fiction such as Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, or Anthony Berkeley. Since then, let’s say, you’ve branched out and gotten very interested in the modern hardboiled PI novel (Timothy Hallinan, for instance). Would you still see the work of, say, Arthur Conan Doyle in the same way if you re-read it?

There’s a strong argument that timing has an effect on what we think of what we read. Do you see that with your own reading? Do you ever go back and re-read a novel at another time, just to see if your first impression was lasting? If you’re a writer, do you think about timing when you choose your themes, contexts and so on?

Thanks, FictionFan, for the inspiration. Now, may I strongly suggest that the next stop on your blog round be FictionFan’s excellent blog. There, you’ll find fine reviews, interesting observations, and real wit. And Mr. Darcy.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Foreigner’s Hot Blooded.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Carl Hiaasen, Chris Grabenstein, Elizabeth Haynes, Gillian Flynn, Julia Crouch, Julie Hyzy, Margaret Yorke, Ngaio Marsh, S.J. Watson, Thomas Harris, Timothy Hallinan