Category Archives: Colin Dexter

And Everybody, Yeah, Tries to Put My Sloopy Down*

As this is posted, it’s 82 years since King Edward VIII announced his abdication of the British throne to marry Wallis Simpson. As you’ll know, their relationship was considered scandalous, and the couple took a great deal of criticism.

It’s a very famous scandalous marriage, but it’s hardly the only one. For a long time, people have disapproved of certain marriages, and that topic comes up in crime fiction, too. It’s no surprise, either, considering that that plot point can add an interesting layer of tension to a story.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, famous actress Jane Wilkinson wants a divorce from her husband, the 4th Baron Edgware, so that she can marry the Duke of Merton, with whom she’s fallen in love. She asks Hercule Poirot to convince her husband to agree to the divorce, and he pays a visit to Edgware. During the visit, Edgware says that he has already withdrawn his objection, and is willing for the divorce to go ahead. That’s odd enough, but when Edgware is stabbed that night, the case gets even more complicated. In the midst of it all, Poirot gets a visit from the Dowager Duchess of Merton. Now that Edgware is dead, Jane Wilkinson is free to marry her son, and she’s upset about that. To her, the actress is absolutely not a suitable wife, and she wants Poirot to stop the marriage. He can’t agree to that, which infuriates her. That visit doesn’t solve the crime. But it’s interesting to see how it sheds light on the characters involved.

Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour begins as Sir Clixby Bream prepares to step down as Master of Lonsdale College, Oxford. The matter of who will succeed him is not a trivial one, and he considers the question carefully. The two most likely candidates are Julian Storrs and Denis Cornford. They’re equally qualified, and each has behaved ‘properly.’ Both are married to women who’ve learned how to make their husbands look good, and both men have their supporters. Then, a dubious journalist named Geoffrey Owens starts digging around, and discovers that someone has a shady past – something that Bream would likely find unacceptable. When Owens is shot, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate. They find out that more than one person involved has a secret.

Megan Abbott’s historical novel (1950s) Die a Little introduces Lora King, a Pasadena, California teacher. She’s especially close to her brother, Bill, so when he meets and falls in love with Alice Steele, Lora wants to be happy for him. But it’s not long before she begins to have her doubts. Alice has a murky background, and some things about her make Lora uneasy. Still, the relationship continues, and Bill and Alice marry. Lora tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law for Bill’s sake. But the more she learns about her, the more concerned she is. At the same time as she is repulsed by Alice’s life, though, she is also drawn to it. Then, there’s a death. And Alice could very well be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s trying to help her brother, Lora starts asking questions. And she finds herself more caught up in the events than she’d thought possible.

In Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Colaba Conspiracy, locksmith Jeet Singh has been trying to ‘go straight’ since he spent time in prison. Now, he runs a legitimate key-making business from a Mumbai kiosk, and wants to stay out of trouble. But trouble finds him. He gets an opportunity to do a safecracking job, and at first, he rejects. Everything changes, though, when he gets a visit from a former lover, Sushmita. She tells him that her wealthy husband, Pursumal Changulani, has been murdered. He was killed in what looked like a carjacking gone horribly wrong. But evidence has turned up which shows that this was likely a planned assassination. Changulani’s children have never approved of his marriage to Sushmita, and are now saying that she was never officially his wife. If that is true, she can’t inherit any of his fortune. What’s worse, these same children believe that she hired the person who killed their father. Sushmita tells Singh that she is innocent, but can’t pay for a good lawyer. He agrees to help her if he can, and takes on that job he originally rejected. It’s not long before Singh finds himself drawn in much deeper than he had thought.

And then there’s M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth. He’s constable for the Highlands village of Lochdubh, and is quite content to stay there. He’s not professionally ambitious, and he likes the town he serves. Fans will tell you, though, that he’s not lucky in love. One of the regular characters in this series is Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, whose ‘blueblood’ parents have a fine local manor. Macbeth loves Patricia, and she cares very much for him, too. But their relationship is not exactly smooth sailing. One of the reasons for that is that her parents don’t think a ‘mere constable’ is a suitable match for her. Priscilla’s father, in particular, is determined that she will meet and marry ‘one of her own kind.’ And it’s interesting to see how those ideas of what is and isn’t a suitable match play a role in the series.

There are a lot of other examples of fictional marriages where there’s a lot of disapproval. It’s difficult to maintain a relationship under those circumstances, and it’s hard on everyone. But it can make for an interesting plot point.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Wes Farrell and Bert Berns’s Hang on Sloopy.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, M.C. Beaton, Megan Abbott, Surender Mohan Pathak

There Was No One There to Meet Me, And Your Clothes Were on the Floor*

Most of us have routines for doing things – routines that make sense and work for us. And those routines tell a lot about us. So, when they are interrupted, that, too, can give a lot of information. For example, say you come home, and your partner isn’t there, but the keys are, the door is unlocked, and the dog doesn’t come to greet you.  You can guess that your partner probably took the dog for a walk and both will be back soon.

Those conclusions aren’t, of course, completely foolproof. But they do give helpful information, and in crime fiction, they can be very helpful as a sleuth tries to put the pieces of a puzzle together. I started thinking about this after a really interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books. Her post (which you should read) was a review of how this works in one crime novel, but there are plenty of other examples. Here are just a few.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Commissioner Peterson breaks up a scuffle between some thugs and a man they had targeted. Their would-be victim runs off, dropping his hat and a goose as he goes. Peterson takes the goose home to his wife, who starts to prepare it for cooking. When she does, she discovers a valuable gem in its craw. Peterson takes the jewel and the hat to Sherlock Holmes, who starts by making some useful deductions just from the hat. Then, he uses what Peterson tells him to work out what the man’s routine would have been. That gives him valuable information about how the jewel got into the goose’s craw, and what happened to the man who had the goose. Fans of Sherlock Holmes will know that he frequently uses clues like that to work out the events of a crime.

So does Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot at times. In Murder in Mesopotamia, for instance, he is persuaded to interrupt his travels in the Middle East to investigate the murder of Louise Leidner. Her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, is leading an excavation a few hours from Baghdad, and she’s decided to join the team, although she’s not involved in the actual work of digging. One afternoon, she is murdered in her room. No-one is seen entering or leaving that room, so at first, it’s hard to tell exactly how the murder occurred. But Poirot uses the clues he has to work out what likely would have happened – what her routine would have been. That information gives some valuable clues about who would have killed the victim, and how the murder occurred.

Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn is the story of the murder of Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of the Oxford Foreign Exams Syndicate. This group oversees exams given in countries other than the UK that follow the British system of education. Quinn is poisoned one afternoon, and Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate. They soon learn that the members of the Syndicate are keeping secrets – things that Quinn discovered and that might have been worth murdering him to keep hidden. As a part of working out who killed the victim, Morse works out what his afternoon routine would have been like on the day he was killed, and that’s helpful. It’s not spoiling the story to say that another aspect of Quinn’s usual way of doing things proves vital to the case.

In Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, Tapani Lehtinen becomes concerned about his journalist wife, Joahnna. She’s been following a story and hasn’t been in contact with anyone for twenty-four hours. That’s very unlike her, and Lehtinen has good reason to be worried. The world in which this story takes place has fallen into chaos due to wars and climate change, and millions of refugees have gone north to try to make lives for themselves. Helsinki, the setting for the story, has been reduced to near-anarchy, and the police are spread so thin that they can do little to solve any but the most major of crimes. Lehtinen starts at Johanna’s office, and uses notes and other clues to work out that she left the office quickly to work on her story. Her boss isn’t much help, but he does say that she was working on a story about a man called the Healer. This man has been responsible for the murders of several people, such as CEOs of certain corporations, that he believes are responsible for the climate change which has so impacted the world. Lehtinen believes that if he pursues that story himself, he’ll be able to find Johanna, so he begins to track the Healer. That choice gets him into danger, and he learns that several people involved in this case are hiding things. But, in the end, he learns the truth.

Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime shows how those little routines can also be used to make a certain impression. In that novel, we meet Barcelona brothers Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez. Together, they own a PI business that’s just getting started. Borja is of the strong belief that people won’t be willing to hire PIs who aren’t successful, so the office is designed to look much more prosperous than it is. For instance, there’s a receptionist/secretary’s desk, even though the brothers can’t afford to pay a secretary. In order to give the illusion that they can, they leave a cardigan or a jacket on the chair. Sometimes, they leave a bottle of nail polish on the desk, to make it look as though their secretary just went to the restroom for a moment. Or, they leave papers and other things on the desk to make it look as though someone was in the middle of something, and just had to run out for a bit. It’s a clever ruse, and it convinces potential clients that the firm’s doing well.

Those little clues to routines can be very helpful to detectives who are trying to work out exactly how a crime occurred. But they can also be useful if a criminal wants to leave a false trail (right, fans of Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Mews?). Either way, they can add to a story.

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Moira’s blog. It’s a valuable resource for all things fashion and culture in fiction, and what they say about us.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alvin Lee’s The Bluest Blues.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Antti Tuomainen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Teresa Solana

Intuition Takes Me There*

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot are very different characters in many ways. But they have in common that they believe in prosaic solutions to mysteries. Conan Doyle was fascinated by spiritualism, but his creation is strictly a man of science and logic. And, while Poirot respects the hold that the spiritual has on people, he, too, believes in straightforward solutions.

And, yet, there is such a thing as sensing something is wrong. Experienced detectives, for instance, can often tell when someone is lying. All sorts of details, some of them very subtle, alert the detective. And even people who aren’t ‘officially’ detectives pay attention at some level to those little hints that give them information.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, for instance, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver has been invited to plan a Murder Hunt – a bit like a scavenger hunt – for an upcoming fête at the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. She goes along with the plan, but all along, she senses that all is not what it seems. So, she asks Hercule Poirot to come to Nasse House, where the fête will be held, and he agrees. Here’s a bit of what they say to each other when he arrives:
 

‘‘I suppose you think I’m a complete fool,’ said Mrs. Oliver defensively.
‘I have never thought you a fool,’ Poirot said.
‘And I know what you always say – or look – about intuition.’
‘One calls things by different names,’ said Poirot. ‘I am quite ready to believe that you have noticed something, or heard something, that has caused you anxiety. I think it is possible that yourself may not even know just what it is that you have seen or noticed or heard. You are aware only of the result.’’
 

It turns out that Mrs. Oliver’s intuition, if that’s the word, is right. On the day of the fête, there is a murder.

Paul Thomas’ Death on Demand begins with several seemingly unrelated incidents, including three murders. The victims have nothing obvious in common, and the police don’t link the murders. Then, a strange thing happens. Christopher Lilywhite contacts the police, saying that he wants to talk to Sergeant Tito Ihaka, and only Tito Ihaka. What’s especially odd about this is that, five years earlier, Ihaka investigated Lilywhite on the suspicion that he hired a paid assassin to murder his wife. Ihaka was absolutely sure his intuition was right, but couldn’t prove it, and Lilywhite is a powerful person. So, Ikaha was banished to Wairarapa. Now, Ihaka’s boss, Finbar McGrail, wants him to return to Auckland and talk to Lilywhite. Ihaka agrees, and pays the man a visit. It turns out that Lilywhite has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and wants to tell Ihaka the truth. He did, indeed, hire a paid killer, and now he believes that same person is killing other people. The next day, Lilywhite dies, and Ihaka is on the trail of a multiple murderer. Ihaka is a very pragmatic person. But part of his skill as a detective is that he pays attention to all of the small, sometimes very subtle, things that link everything in a case. And that’s what helps him here.

Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? is the story of Yvonne Mulhern, who moves from London to Dublin with her husband, Gerry, and their newborn daughter, Róisín, so Gerry can take advantage of an attractive job opportunity. Gerry’s gone a lot, so Yvonne is left with much of the baby’s care, and it’s got her exhausted. And she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, so she doesn’t have much support. Then, she discovers an online forum called Netmammy, a support group for new mothers. There, she finds the camaraderie and connection she needs. Then, one of her online friends goes ‘off the grid.’ There’s nothing specific to alert her, but Yvonne begins to get concerned. So, she contacts the police. There’s not much they can do, though. Not long afterwards, the body of an unidentified woman is discovered in an empty apartment. Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle investigates, and finds that the dead woman’s profile is similar to that of Yvonne’s missing friend. Could it be the same woman? And, if it is, what does that mean for Netmammy? The case isn’t solved by what you’d call intuition. But that hard-to-define feeling that something is wrong contributes to the solution.

Of course, even a detective who has what people call good instincts gets it wrong sometimes. Just ask Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. He is a brilliant detective, and he is both smart enough and savvy enough to put the pieces of a puzzle together. He relies on his ‘gut feeling,’ and it does, in the end, lead him to the right answer. But in more than one novel (I’m thinking, for instance, of The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, and of The Jewel That Was Ours), he discovers that he’s wrong at first. Then he has to go back over everything to get to the truth.

Instinct, intuition, call it whatever you want to call it. Experience and observation often give us an awareness that we can’t always define. But they give us those hunches that are often worth heeding. It works that way for fictional detectives, too.

 

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? I’m always amazed at the intuition dogs use. The ones that own me always know, well before I park my car, that I’m about to come home. They’re always there waiting near the door.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon’s Intuition.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Paul Thomas, Sinéad Crowley

I Can See All Obstacles in My Way*

Murder investigations don’t always get solved quickly. In fact, in many cases, there comes a point where the detective runs low on (or even out of) ideas. It’s not always easy to admit that ‘I got nothing’ feeling, but it does happen.

When it does happen, the sleuth needs to get past that sticking point. And there are any number of ways in which an author can use that situation. Sticking points can add tension to a story. And, when they’re done well, they’re credible. Exploring how the protagonist gets past being stuck can make for an interesting character layer, too.

Sometimes, the detective gets to the truth by chance. In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of the 4th Baron Edgware. His wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect. She wanted to divorce her husband so that she could marry someone else, and she’d even threatened his life. But she claims that she was in another part of London at a dinner party at the time of the murder. And there are 12 other people who are prepared to swear that she was there. It’s a baffling case for Poirot, and he doesn’t know how the pieces fit together at first. Then, he and Hastings happen to overhear a comment made by someone coming out of a cinema. That comment gives Poirot a new way of looking at the case, and that’s exactly what he needs to solve the mystery.

There are also times when the sleuth gets past a sticking point when something seemingly trivial triggers a new idea. For example, in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team are stymied in their investigation of the murder of Roseanna McGraw. She was killed when she went overboard a ship during a tour of Sweden, and, since her body was dredged up from a lake, there’s not much evidence to suggest any particular person as the killer. And, since she wasn’t Swedish, it takes time to identify her, since her records aren’t on file. Even after she’s identified, there’s very little that the detectives can use as leads. All of these complications hold up the case for quite some time. Then, Beck gets a new idea from a simple postcard and a comment. He and his team contact all of the other passengers and ask to see any photographs they’ve taken. That idea gives Beck vital information that goes a long way towards solving the case.

Lawyers can sometimes get past a legal logjam by ‘doing the homework’ and finding a possibly-obscure point of law that’s relevant, and that can help them win their case. That’s what happens in Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case. Berlin attorney Caspar Leinan is taking his turn on standby for legal aid when a new case comes in. Fabrizio Collini lived peacefully in Germany for years after immigrating from Italy. Now, for apparently no reason, he’s murdered a man named Jean-Baptiste Meyer.  He does nothing to defend himself; in fact, he admits that he shot the victim. But he says very little else, and Leinan can’t find any evidence of a motive, nor much of anything else that he can use. But, German law requires that all defendants be represented by an attorney. What’s more, Leinan believes in the idea of everyone deserving a fair trial. And, truth be told, he wants to make his reputation and win this case. So, he digs in. It’s not easy, though, because Collini won’t be of any help, and the witnesses have little to offer. At a loss, Leinan decides to do more background research. When he does, he comes across an obscure point of German law that spurs him on and helps him to defend his client.

There are times when a sleuth finds that simply talking to people – or, rather, mostly listening to them – can help when there’s a sticking point in a case. That’s what Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache finds. He is a member of the Sûreté du Québec whom we first meet in Still Life. In that novel, he and his team travel to the small town of Three Pines when beloved former teacher Jane Neal is killed. At first, her death looks like a terrible accident, but Gamache isn’t sure of that. He’s a bit held back by what seems to be a lack of motive. But he observes, listens, and talks to people in the town. And, little by little, he finds that there are people who could have had a motive for murder. And, in the end, it’s that sort of conversation that helps put him on the right path.

Sleuths can also break through to a solution to one case if there’s another case that linked. Of course, sleuths don’t want people to be killed as a rule. But when there is a second murder, and it can be linked to the original murder, this can help point the sleuth in the right direction. Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine is a bit like that. So is Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour. For that reason, a skilled sleuth will sometimes keep even a ‘cold’ case open enough to put the pieces together if there’s another murder.

There are other ways, too, in which a sleuth gets past sticking points. It takes perseverance and an openness to what people say, to new ideas, and so on. And, when the plot point is done well, sticking points and sleuths’ approaches to them can add to a novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Colin Dexter, Ferdinand von Schirach, Louise Penny, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

You Studyin’ Hard and Hopin’ to Pass*

Most students, whether they’re in secondary school or in college/university (and beyond), go through the challenge of taking final exams or other high-stakes exams. It can be a nerve-wracking experience, especially if you tend to ‘freeze up’ at exam time. And then there’s that tension as you wait for results. Whether it’s high school/private school entrance exams, graduate school and law school entrance exams, or something else, getting through those tests can take a toll.

But it’s something a lot of people go through, so it resonates with many of us. With that connection, and with all of the tension that surrounds exam time, it’s little wonder that high-stakes tests and exams play a role in crime fiction. There are plenty of examples in the genre; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, we are introduced to the Reynolds family. One afternoon, thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds is present at the preparations for a Hallowe’en party to be held that evening. There, she boasts that she has seen a murder. No-one believes her, but she insists that it’s the truth. Later that evening, she is drowned in an apple-bobbing bucket. Detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver is at both the preparations for the party and the party itself. She asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and he agrees. As part of his investigation, he talks to the members of her family, including her sixteen-year-old sister, Ann. At the time of the murder, Ann is preparing for her A-Level exams, and is thoroughly immersed in her studies:
 

‘They went upstairs to where Ann, looking rather more than her sixteen years, was bending over a table with various study books spread round her.’
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Despite her focus on her work, Ann was at the party, and is able to confirm what Poirot’s already heard. And she adds some interesting information about her sister’s character to what Poirot knows.

Because there’s so much at stake, important examinations are treated very seriously, and those responsible for creating and administering them are supposed to work under strict regulation. That topic comes up in Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. In it, we are introduced to Quinn, who is the only Deaf member of Oxford’s Foreign Examinations Syndicate. This group is responsible for all exams given in other countries that follow the British education system. Quinn was by no means a universal choice to join the group, so there’s already tension. Then one day, he is poisoned. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the crime, and, of course, take an interest in the other members of the Syndicate. And they find that Quinn knew some things about members of that group that weren’t safe for him to know.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, ten-year-old Kate Meaney has the dream of becoming a detective. In fact, she has her own agency, Falcon Investigations. She spends a great deal of time at the newly-built Green Oaks Shopping Center, where she suspects there will be a lot of crime. She’s quite content with her life, but her grandmother, Ivy, wants more for the girl. So, she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate refuses at first, but is finally persuaded by her friend, Adrian Palmer. He even promises to go with her to the school, for moral support. When Kate doesn’t return from Redspoon after the exams, there’s a massive search for her. But she is never found. Some twenty years later, Adrian Palmer’s sister, Lisa, is now working at the mall. One night, she happens to meet Kurt, who is a security guard there. They form an awkward sort of friendship, and, each in a different way, return to the past. As they do, we find out what happened to Kate.

The real action in Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic begins when Cassandra James, who works in the English Literature Department of St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge, pays a visit to Department Head Margaret Joplin. She’s there to pick up a group of student exam papers. When she arrives, though, she finds that Joplin is dead, and the papers are scattered everywhere, and in various stages of ruin. The shock of Joplin’s death is hard enough, especially when it turns out that she was murdered. But there’s also the problem of the papers. There’s going to be a real problem if the papers can’t be located and rendered readable, and James doesn’t want to face that. She’s going to have to, though, because with Joplin’s death, she is named Department Head. As the murder investigation continues, the exam papers become one of several challenges that James is going to have to face. And it’s interesting to see, from the faculty perspective, how exam papers are supposed to be handled, marked, and so on.

And then there’s Natsuo Kirino’s Real World, which takes place in contemporary Tokyo. In it, Toshiko Yamanaka is preparing to go to a ‘cram school’ session to help her prepared for college entrance exams. They are extremely rigorous, and even a lot of extra tutoring and assistance don’t mean a student will do well. It’s a cause of a lot of stress. As she’s getting ready to leave, Toshiko hears a loud noise from the house next door. She wonders if all’s well, but on the way to cram school, she sees Ryo, the boy who lives there. He seems fine, so she doesn’t think much more about it. Later, she hears that Ryo’s mother has been murdered. The police stop by to talk to her, and it’s soon clear that they have Ryo on their suspects list. She decides to cover for Ryo and lies to the police about having seen him. Soon, Toshiko and her friends are drawn into this murder case, and things spin quickly out of control for all of them.

There are other novels, too, that touch on high-stakes exams such as entrance exams and other major tests. They do cause stress, and they have a lot of impact on people’s lives. So, it shouldn’t be surprising they come up in crime fiction.

I can’t resist closing this post with a bit from Kathryn Fox’s Malicious Intent. Everyone who has ever taught will likely appreciate it. In this scene, freelance forensic pathologist Anya Crichton is giving a university lecture on forensics:
 

‘Put the word ‘forensic’ in a lecture’s title and it pretty much guaranteed a full house. Anya introduced the day’s topic and a croaky voice from the back row interrupted.
‘Excuse me, but will this be in the exams?’
The most predictable question had taken all but thirty seconds to be asked.’

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chuck Berry’s School Days.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Colin Dexter, Kathryn Fox, Natsuo Kirino