Category Archives: Deon Meyer

Keep the Fire Burnin’*

Adding InterestIn an essay titled The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler wrote:
 

‘When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.’
 

He wasn’t offering this comment, really, as a piece of advice. Instead, it was written within the context of discussing his own writing process, and what he would do to move a plot along.

For Chandler, the ‘man with the gun’ was an effective way to move a story forward. He usually wrote hardboiled stories, in which a series of unexpected dangers (such as people with guns coming through doors) make sense. And we certainly see that plot point used effectively in lots of well-written thrillers. For instance, Deon Meyer’s Devil’s Peak features a thriller plot that weaves together the stories of former freedom fighter Thobela Mpayipheli; DI Benny Griessel, who’s got his own issues and challenges; and Christine van Rooyen, a prostitute who’s trying to free herself (and her daughter) from the unwelcome possessiveness of a client who’s from a dangerous and powerful family. Meyer develops the characters over the course of the novel. But the plot is also moved along by means of frightening and jolting events that keep the pace going.

Of course, not all authors write thrillers. And those ‘man coming through the door with a gun’ events don’t work in every kind of crime fiction. There are other ways, though, to move a plot along and keep the interest going. Many crime writers use the ‘second victim’ plot point. Certainly Agatha Christie used it. In novels such as Lord Edgware Dies, Three Act Tragedy, and several others, there’s a first murder. Then, another body is discovered (sometimes more than one other body). And by no means is Christie the only author to use this plot point. Colin Dexter used it in Death is Now My Neighbour, among others of his novels. And there are dozens more examples.

There are advantages to the ‘second/third/etc. murder’ plot point. It can add to the tension and build suspense. It can also make for a solid plot twist (e.g. the major suspect in the first murder is killed. Or the second murder is committed while the prime suspect is in police custody.). And it can fall out naturally from the plot, too. It’s logical to believe that someone who killed might then target a person who knows too much about the crime. It’s also reasonable to believe that a killer might target someone who’s blackmailing him or her. A killer could also target a specific set of people (say, all the other heirs to a fortune, or all of the people in the way of a top job).

There are disadvantages, though, to this plot point. It’s very easy for a high ‘body count’ to become gratuitous. And subsequent murders can take away from a story and pull a reader out of it if they do not contribute directly to a plot. Still, when used effectively, the discovery of that next body can add to a story.

Another way in which an author can move a plot forward is through a major revelation. A character’s real identity, or the discovery of certain information, or perhaps the discovery of a hidden relationship, can all add interest to a story, and can be used to move it along. For example, in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, Kindle County prosecutor Raymond Hogan has a very difficult case: the murder of one of the attorneys on his team, Carolyn Polhemus. The case has to be handled carefully, to avoid the appearance of bias or coverup. So Hogan chooses one of his best, Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich, to work with the police to build a case. But there’s an important fact that Hogan doesn’t know. Sabichwas was involved with Polhemus for several months. That revelation jolts the story, and changes everything. Hogan now takes Sabich off the case, replacing him with his nemesis. And later, when evidence suggests that Sabich may have committed the murder, the fact of their affair creates a possible motive. In fact, it’s enough to put Sabich on trial.

Those surprise revelations have to be handled carefully. Readers want the author to ‘play fair.’ What’s more, a surprise that pushes credibility too far will likely pull readers out of the story. So it’s important that if there is a major revelation, it makes sense given the story.

An interesting post from creative writing professor, writer, and fellow blogger Khanh Ho suggests another way to keep a story moving: have someone from the past make an appearance. Ho makes the well-taken point that a reunion like that can flesh out a character, add a layer of interest and create conflict. Peter May uses a reunion very effectively, for instance, in The Blackhouse. Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod grew up on the Isle of Lewis, but left years ago. Now he’s an Edinburgh police inspector. He’s seconded back to Lewis when Angel Macritchie is murdered. That murder closely resembles a murder that McLeod and his team are already investigating, and it’s hoped that if the two murders were committed by the same person, cooperation will help catch the killer. In the course of the investigation, MacLeod reunites with a number of people he grew up with, including old friends, an old flame, and old nemeses, too. Those reunions shed light on MacLeod’s character and history, create tension and conflict in the story, and add to character development.

There are a lot of other ways, too, in which authors can add interest – ‘zip – to their stories to invite the reader to stay engaged all the way through. These are only a few examples. Which ones keep your interest the most? If you’re a writer, how do you keep readers’ interest?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an REO Speedwagon song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Deon Meyer, Peter May, Raymond Chandler, Scott Turow

We Can Learn From Each Other*

Cultural NexusOne of the plot threads in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead concerns the Andalusia Museum, a Toronto facility which is designed to celebrate the nexus of cultures in the Spanish region of Andalusia, especially during the Islamic Empire. Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty take an interest in the place when they investigate the murder of a major donor. It’s run by Mink Norman, who is passionate about that nexus. Here’s what she says about it:
 

‘‘Moorish architects designing a Jewish place of worship on Christian soil. Can you imagine such a sharing of religious space today?’’
 

That’s a very clear example of the way a variety of different cultures co-existed in that place at that time. And what’s interesting is, they didn’t just co-exist. They shared ideas and learned from each other. It wasn’t a question of members of different cultures who lived in the same city; you can see that in a lot of large, modern cities. Instead, it was a place where the cultures really blended.

Andalusia is a powerful example of a nexus of cultures, but it’s not the only one. And it’s very interesting to see how that sort of blending of cultures is portrayed in crime fiction. It can make for a compelling and interesting setting.

The region where I live, in Southern California, is arguably such a place. There’s a really interesting interconnection here of the traditional Spanish ‘mission’ culture, the more modern Mexican culture, and the dominant US culture. There are other influences,too. If you’ve been in this area, you’ve probably noticed it yourself. And there are several crime fiction authors who capture that blend in their work. For example, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch goes to several different places in Southern California as a part of the cases he works. In The Black Ice, he goes to the border towns of Calexico (California) and Mexicali (Mexico) in search of answers about the death of a fellow police officer, Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore. In fact, as we learn in the novel, Moore himself is a product of that nexus. You can also see this cultural blend in the work of Ross Macdonald, whose Lew Archer lives and works in the same area.

Another place where one can see that sort of infusion of many cultures is in the US state of Louisiana. As you’ll no doubt know, one group of people who’ve had a profound influence there is the Acadians, French speakers who were exiled from the eastern provinces of Canada. Today they’re known as Cajuns, and their language, music, food and culture are an important part of, especially, the southern parts of Louisiana. Just ask James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux. He’s a Cajun who works for the New Iberia Police, and in the novels that feature him, we see a great deal of that culture. But we also see the other cultures that have blended into that part of Louisiana. For instance, there’s the influence of voodoo and other spiritual influence from Africa and the Caribbean (I invite you to check A Morning For Flamingos for interesting mentions of that). There are also many, many characters in the novels who are members of the black culture that has also profoundly influenced the region. There are other influences, too, and they’ve all contributed to the unique way of life there.

Shamini Flint’s series features Singapore-based Inspector Singh. He is a Sikh, although he doesn’t exactly observe the religion to the letter. Malaysia, where Singh lives, is another fascinating example of a nexus of cultures. There is influence from India (Singh even travels to India in A Curious Indian Cadaver). There is also Dutch influence, dating from the time of European exploration. There’s also a lot of influence from China (that link is clear in A Calamitous Chinese Killing). These and other cultures have all played important roles in life in Malaysia, and that’s evident in this series.

Another place where we see that sharing of cultures is Cape Town. There is Dutch influence (it was a Dutch colony), and English influence, too. There’s also indigenous influence from the people who were always there, and from indigenous groups who came later. There’ve also been many contributions from French Huguenots who made their way there as a result of religious wars in France. Despite apartheid, those different cultures influenced each other, learned from each other, and so on. We see that particular nexus in Deon Meyer’s work. In Meyer’s Benny Griessel novels and his standalones, we see that blending. Fans of Roger Smith’s work will know that we can also see what a cultural crucible Cape Town is in those stories.

There are other places, too, where different cultures have co-existed, have learned from one another and have benefited from the interactions. In those cases, the whole of a place is much more than the sum of its parts, as you might say. That certainly isn’t to say that it happens without tension, and even conflict – quite the contrary at times. But over time, and in the larger sense, that sort of co-existence can lead to a unique sort of setting. And it can serve as a fascinating context for a crime novel. Which ones have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Hooters’ All Around the Place.

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Filed under Ausma Zehanat Khan, Deon Meyer, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Roger Smith, Ross Macdonald, Shamini Flint

Things Ain’t What They Used to Be*

Climate Change and EnvironmentThe Paris climate change accord is being praised all over the world as at the very least an important step in the right direction, as the saying goes. I don’t know what the long-term impact of the agreement will be, but many people who know a lot more than I do are hopeful that it will lead to real, positive change. I hope so.

What’s interesting is that people have been trying to call attention to climate change and other environmental issues for years. Certainly writers have. Books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring have been highlighting environmental issues for decades. Fiction, including crime fiction, has also dealt with those topics.

It’s a bit tricky to write a crime novel that addresses an environmental issue such as climate change. Readers want to enjoy a good story when they read crime novels. While they may agree with the author’s agenda, most don’t want to be preached to as they read. Of course, what counts as ‘preaching’ differs among readers; in general, though, they want stories where the focus is on the plot and characters, rather than the environmental issue.

For example, in Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, Emma le Roux hires professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to accompany her on a trip from Cape Town to the Lowveld. She wants to find out the truth about her brother Jacobus, who everyone thought died twenty years earlier in a skirmish with poachers. At the time, he worked with the Nature and Environmental Conservation Unit of the South African military, and was on duty at the Kruger National Park when he went missing. Now, Emma has become convinced that her brother is alive, and wants to find him if she can. As she and Lemmer trace his movements, they encounter several groups that want to preserve South Africa’s unique species of animals and plant life. They also learn how dedicated Jacobus was to this cause. It’s not spoiling the story to say that the commitment to species preservation plays an important role in the novel. But the focus is on the characters, the plot, and the buildup of suspense.

Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage features a planned road that will pass through Framingham Great Woods, near the town of Kingsmarkham. Many people are opposed to the road; there’s even a citizens’ group that’s actively working to block construction. One of the members of that group is Dora Wexford, wife of Rendell’s sleuth, Inspector Reg Wexford. She and the other members of the group want to preserve the forest and its species. The real tension in the story comes when groups of activists come to town, ostensibly to support the locals in their opposition to the road. Then, one of those activist groups take hostages, including Dora. Now the focus of the novel becomes the efforts to rescue the hostages. Then there’s a murder, and Wexford and his team have to deal with that investigation as well as the hostage situation.

Several of Carl Hiaasen’s novels feature the challenge of preserving Florida’s Everglades and other natural resources. For example, in Lucky You, we are introduced to JoLayne Lucks. When she wins a lottery worth US$14 million, she sees a chance to fulfill her dream of buying a piece of land and setting it aside as a natural preserve. Then, a group of neo-Nazis steals the winning ticket, and decides to use the money to fund a militia. Journalist Tom Krone has been assigned to do a feature on JoLayne, and ends up getting drawn into the search for the stolen ticket and the effort to get it back. While Hiassen certainly brings up the topic of wetlands preservation here, it’s really the eccentric characters and the comic/caper sort of crime plot that gets the proverbial top billing.

There are, of course, novels in which climate change is specifically addressed. One of them is Antti Toumainen’s The Healer. In that novel, Helsinki writer Tapani Lehtinen has become worried about his wife, Johanna. She’s a journalist who’s been following up on a story, but hasn’t made contact in over twenty-four hours. That’s so unlike her that her husband is convinced something is wrong. He decides that if he follows the story she was working on, he’ll find out what happened to her. That story concerns The Healer, a man who claims responsibility for the murders of several CEOs and others he believes are responsible for the ongoing destruction of the planet. And destruction there is. In this story, climate change has been partly responsible for millions of refugees, food shortages, and other dire problems. Little by little, Lehtinen gets closer to the truth about who The Healer is, and about what happened to Johanna. As he does so, he finds himself in more and more danger.

Mark Douglas-Home also takes up the topic of climate change in The Sea Detective. Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill is an Edinburgh oceanographer and Ph.D. candidate. He is also a dedicated believer in climate change and in human responsibility for addressing the problem. In fact, at the beginning of the novel, he gets in trouble with the law for his unorthodox approach to calling attention to climate change. So the local police aren’t particularly inclined to be cooperative when McGill presents them with another kind of problem. He’s been approached by Basanti, a young woman originally from India, who’s lost her best friend Preeti. Both were brought to Scotland as part of the commercial sex trade, and as soon as she could, Basanti got free of the people who were keeping her. Her search for Preeti leads Basanti to McGill, whose oceanographic knowledge proves vital to finding out what really happened.

Climate change and other environmental issues are important challenges that we need to face and address. The key for authors is to do so in ways that bring up these issues, but still tell an absorbing story. Which ones have stayed with you?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Gaye’s Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology).

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Filed under Antti Tuomainen, Carl Hiaasen, Deon Meyer, Mark Douglas-Home, Ruth Rendell

A New World Order Has Been Formed*

1990sIt’s only been twenty years or so, so perhaps we don’t have a real perspective on the era yet. But the 1990s saw some major changes on several levels. And the crime fiction of and about that era reflects them. There won’t be space in this one post for me to mention all of them, so I’ll just mention a few. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more.

One of the most iconic moments of the decade was the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela from prison on Robben Island. The ‘photos and videos of that day are unforgettable. Four years later, Mandela was elected President of South Africa. That time of the end of apartheid and the beginning of whatever might come next was both heady and uneasy. In a lot of ways, it still is. And Deon Meyer has captured the pain and promise of that time in several of his novels, such as Dead Before Dying, which was first published in Afrikaans in 1996. His characters come from a wide variety of different backgrounds, and all are trying to find places in the new South Africa. One thing that comes through in Meyer’s work is that such a major societal change has meant a lot of discomfort and uncertainty. That’s led to quite a lot of violence and other problems. Yet, Meyer’s South Africa is also a beautiful country with rich natural and human resources and much potential.

Another major event of the 1990s was the negotiation and long political process that led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. That agreement, which involved the UK, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, established the conventions under which Northern Ireland is governed today. It also established several cross-border authorities and commissions created to oversee the end of armed hostilities and to deal with logistics such as the exchange of prisoners and the return of remains to families for burial. This treaty hasn’t completely and magically ended tension in the area. However, novels such as Colin Bateman’s 1995 Divorcing Jack show what places like Belfast were like before the treaty was signed. And there are many other novels too that depict the long history of conflict in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland. In the last decade (Brian McGilloway’s work shows this), life on the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland has achieved a sort of balance; people go on with their lives, and most would probably tell you they’re just as well pleased not to have to bury any more combatants.

In 1993, the Soviet Union broke up, leading to major shifts in geopolitics and business. And if you read crime novels such as Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, Robin Cook’s Vector, or Ian Rankin’s Exit Music, you see a major shift in theme that reflects the breakup. Older crime fiction, or crime fiction about the Cold War, very often features espionage, CIA v KGB agents, and so on. But more recent crime fiction has new themes; the new Russian business oligarchs, Eastern European crime leaders, and human trafficking are just a few of the topics featured in novels of the last two decades.

There’s another important development that arguably fell out from the breakup of the Soviet Union; related power shifts among its former allies. For instance, the former Yugoslavia faced its own political crises during the late 1980’s and finally broke apart after the end of the Soviet Union. The war in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Kosovo cost many thousands of lives, and had effects in lots of places. Just ask Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges. He is Chief of Police in the small French town of St. Denis. He is also a veteran of that war, and still bears the psychological scars of it, although he’s certainly functional. It’s part of why he’s just as well pleased to be living in a (mostly) peaceful place.

The end of the Soviet era also led to the introduction (or, better stated, re-introduction) of capitalism in a lot of places. That’s what we see in Qiu Xiaolong’s series featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau. This series takes place in the late 1990s, when China is beginning to experiment with its own version of capitalism. In several of these novels, we see the interplay between traditional Chinese culture and Maoist communism, as well as the impact of more easily available consumer goods. It makes for an interesting backdrop to the stories.

One of the most important developments of this era, from several different perspectives, actually, was the advent of the Internet. There was email (although fully available, easily accessible email took a few years), but the instant information and communication we take so much for granted didn’t exist until after the mid-1990s. That single development has led to many, many other cascading developments such as social media, online shopping, ebooks and much more. And it’s all happened very quickly. For instance, Angela Savage’s series featuring PI Jayne Keeney takes place in the late 1990s. By then, you could access email at Internet cafés and in offices, and there were several web sites available; Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel use computers in that way in The Dying Beach. But Internet-ready mobile ‘phones were still in the future.  So were blogs and sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, where users post their own content. And of course, that’s led to a whole new kind of crime novel…

The 1990s brought about several other changes, too – many more than I have space to mention. And because it’s only been twenty years or a bit longer, it’s very hard to say what all of the long-term outcomes of those changes (and sometimes upheavals) will be. As time goes by, we’ll see; I don’t think this story’s end has been written yet. What do you think? What are your strong memories of the 1990s? What do you see coming from it all?
 

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Who needs 1990s memorabilia when your own child is the best possible result of that decade?🙂

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Midnight Oil’s Renaissance Man.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Brian McGilloway, Colin Bateman, Deon Meyer, Ian Rankin, Margaret Truman, Martin Walker, Qiu Xiaolong, Robin Cook

Give Thanks For Your Protection*

Private SecurityThe police can’t be everywhere at once. What’s more, they are civil servants. This means that their duty is to protect the public, not the interests of a particular company or person. So, companies and people have often turned to private security and protection firms to fill that gap. For instance, banks, malls, gated communities and so on often hire security companies. People hire personal bodyguards too. And that’s to say nothing of the many people who sign up for home security systems.

With all of this interest in private security companies, it’s not surprising that we see them represented in crime fiction. There are a lot of examples of course; I know you’ll think of many more than I could. But here are a few to show you what I mean.

In Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery, New York City Police Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery investigate when the body of Winifred French is discovered in the shop window of French’s Department Store. The victim was the wife of the store’s owner Cyrus French, and the evidence soon shows that she was shot on the store’s premises. So the Queens focus their attention on the French family and the store employees. It turns out that beneath the respectable surfaces of the family and the store lie several secrets. For one thing, Winifred French was having an affair with one of the members of the store’s board of directors. For another, it turns out that the store was being used to connect drug dealers and drug buyers. There are other things going on, too. So there are several possible suspects. One of the characters who figures in the story is William Crouther, the store detective. It’s his job to supervise the store’s security staff, monitor customers and so on. Because the murder happened in the store, the Queens depend on information he provides to establish the store’s security procedures and work out who would have been able to commit the murder.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly gives readers a look inside Venice’s glass blowing industry. In that novel, Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate when Giorgio Tassini is killed. Tassini was night watchman/guard at a glass blowing factory owned by Giovanni De Cal, and at first, his death is put down to tragic accident. But some things about the death don’t seem consistent with that explanation, so Brunetti and Vianello look a little more deeply into the case. Tassini was an outspoken critic of the way the glass blowing industry disposes of its waste, and there are plenty of people who wanted him to keep quiet about it. There are other reasons too why someone might have wanted to kill him. Among other things it shows how vulnerable a night watchman can be.

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost begins in 1984, with the opening of the Green Oaks Shopping Center. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney is especially interested in the mall, because she is a budding detective who thinks that malls are very likely places to detect crime. Kate spends a lot of time at the mall observing possible criminals and watching for suspicious activity. Her grandmother Ivy, though, thinks she’d be better off going away to school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate doesn’t want to go, but her friend Adrian Palmer finally persuades her, promising to accompany her for moral support. They board the bus to the school together, but only Adrian returns. Despite a massive search for Kate, she’s never found. Everyone blames Adrian for her disappearance although he claims he’s innocent. Matters get so bad for him that he leaves town, vowing not to return. Twenty years later, his younger sister Lisa is working as the assistant manager for Your Music, one of the stores in Green Oaks. One night she meets Kurt, a mall security guard. They strike up a sort of friendship and soon, Kurt tells her about something unusual that’s been going on at the mall. Lately, the security cameras have been showing the image of a young girl with a backpack – a girl who looks just like Kate. Each in a different way, Lisa and Kurt go back to the past, so to speak, and we learn the real truth about what happened to Kate.

One plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage concerns Vincent Naylor, a young man who’s recently been released from prison. He certainly doesn’t want to go back, so he decides he’s only going to take another risk if the prize is really worth having. He, his brother Noel, his girlfriend Michelle Flood, and some friends plan a coup that will set them up financially. They’re going after Protectica, a security company that transports money among banks and other firms. After careful preparations, the team targets a specific truck and goes through with the heist. The robbery itself goes off well enough, but then things begin to fall apart. In the end, they turn tragic, and Naylor decides to have his revenge for what happened.

Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer takes place in a dystopic future. Climate change and wars have created millions of refugees, and that’s only made life more difficult for Helsinki residents. The few police are overwhelmed with cases and can’t get to most of them. Even something as seemingly simple as buying food has become a struggle. This near-anarchy has led to the rise of a lot of private security companies that are hired to protect companies or individuals. Those who can afford it are therefore somewhat safe. Even the security companies are no guarantee, but they fill the vacuum left by the dwindling police force. In the midst of this chaos, poet Tapani Lehtinen discovers that his journalist wife Johanna is missing. He knows the police won’t be of much help, so he decides to find her himself. He begins with the story she was working on when she disappeared: the case of a man calling himself The Healer. The Healer blames certain corporations for the destruction of the environment and seems to have been targeting some of their executives for murder. Lehtinen believes that if he can find out who The Healer is, he’ll get closer to finding his wife. In this novel it’s interesting to see how people turn to private companies when they no longer feel safe in the hands of police.

We also see that in Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, in which we are introduced to personal bodyguard-for-hire Martin Lemmer. He’s employed by a company called Body Armour, which provides personal protection services. Emma le Roux hires Lemmer to accompany her from Capetown to the Lowveld in search of her brother Jacobus. It’s always been believed that Jacobus was killed years earlier in a skirmish with poachers while he was working at Kruger National Park. But Emma has come to believe that he may be alive. Lemmer goes along on the trip and soon discovers that his client is likely in very grave danger. There are some extremely dangerous people who do not want the truth about Jacobus le Roux to come out. But Emma is determined to find out what really happened to her brother and by now, Lemmer would like to know too. So they continue on the search. Then, they are both attacked and Emma is gravely injured. Lemmer is now determined to find out who’s responsible, so he follows the trail on his own. He discovers that the truth has to do with greed, corruption and ugly environmental and sociopolitical realities.

Private security companies have been on the scene for a long time, although they’ve changed the way they operate and the tools they use. These are just a few instances where we see them in crime fiction. Over to you.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from UB40’s Watchdogs.

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Filed under Antti Tuomainen, Catherine O'Flynn, Deon Meyer, Donna Leon, Ellery Queen, Gene Kerrigan