Category Archives: Deon Meyer

A Few More Nights on Satin Sheets*

Most of us feel the need once in a while to take a break and get away. And for a lot of people, a stay at a resort is the perfect antidote to life’s stresses. There are all sorts of resorts, too: mountain resorts, safari resorts, beach resorts, and lots more. Resorts can cost an awful lot of money, but they often offer matchless pampering and personal service. And they’re designed to be worlds unto themselves.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, whenever you get a disparate group of people together in the same place, as you do at a resort, there are all sorts of possibilities for crime-fictional mayhem. Add to that resort staff, who may have their own backgrounds and secrets, and you have a custom-made context for a crime novel. So, it’s little wonder that resorts show up in the genre as they do.

In Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, for instance, Miss Marple’s generous nephew arranges for her to visit the Golden Palm Hotel, on the Caribbean island of St. Honoré, so she can have a much-needed rest. The hotel is really more resort than simply hotel with all of the pampering and amenities you’d imagine for the time. One day, another guest, Major Palgrave, tells Miss Marple a story about a man he knows of who lost two wives. The theory in both cases was suicide, but Major Palgrave says he knows that they were murdered. He doesn’t get the chance to finish his story, but it’s soon clear that someone at the resort overheard what he said. The next day, he’s found dead. Miss Marple is sure that someone connected with these cases is either a guest of, or an employee of, the Golden Palm, and she starts searching for the truth. It turns out that the resort has some very dark secrets.

Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe will know that it takes a lot to get him to leave his brownstone and travel. But, in Too Many Cooks, that’s exactly what he does. He and Archie Goodwin travel to the exclusive Kanawha Spa, in West Virginia, so that Wolfe can deliver the keynote address to a meeting of Les Quinze Maîtres, the world’s fifteen greatest chefs. The resort is quite luxurious, but that doesn’t prevent murder. One of the master chefs, Phillip Laszio, is killed, and the most likely killer seems to be another chef, Jerome Berin. But Wolfe doesn’t think Berin is guilty. So, although he’s very reluctant to investigate, Wolfe looks into the matter. Among other things, this novel shows how things work at a very upmarket resort.

There are several resorts in South Africa’s wildlife preserves. I had the real pleasure of staying at one of them some years ago, and it was a wonderful experience. There are, of course, all of the luxury amenities you’d imagine for an upmarket place. And you can travel out into the bush on a camera safari. There’s nothing quite like being out in the bush to give some perspective on modern life. Deon Meyer takes readers into such places in Blood Safari. Cape Town professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer is hired by Emma le Roux to accompany her to the Lowveld to search for her brother, Jacobus. He was working in the Nature and Environmental Conservation Unit of the South African military when he disappeared. It was thought at the time that he was killed in a run-in with animal poaches. But now, twenty years later, Emma sees a man on television who looks just like her brother. She can’t resist trying to find that man and learn the truth. So, she and Lemmer make their way to the Lowveld, where they stay at more than one bush resort. But luxury surroundings aren’t enough to keep them safe from some very dangerous people who do not want the truth about Jacobus to be revealed.

In Louise Penny’s A Rule Against Murder (AKA The Murder Stone), Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec takes his wife, Reine-Marie, to the Mansoin Bellechasse for their annual anniversary trip. It’s a lovely luxury resort, and the Gamaches are hoping for a relaxing visit. Such is not to be, though. Among the other guests are members of the Finney family. It’s not spoiling the novel to say that they are a very dysfunctional group, and that alone adds tension to the atmosphere. Then, there’s a murder. Now, all sorts of old secrets come out, and Gamache finds a surprising connection in this case to another character in this series.

And then there’s Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take. Jónas Júlíusson owns an exclusive luxury resort and spa, but he’s facing an unusual problem. He believes the land is haunted. He hires Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir to represent him in a lawsuit he wants to bring against the former owners of that land. His claim is that they knew the place was haunted and never told him. Thóra doesn’t believe in ghosts or haunting. But a fee is a fee. Besides, the case gives her the opportunity to stay at a five-star resort. So, she takes the case and goes to the resort. During her visit, another guest, Birna Hálldorsdóttir, is found murdered on a beach not far from the property. Soon enough, Jónas becomes a suspect in the murder, since he was having a relationship with the victim. He asks Thóra to continue to represent him, this time defending him against the murder charge. She agrees and looks more deeply into the victim’s life. It turns out that several people in the area are keeping some dark secrets, and more than one could have had a reason to want to commit murder.

See what I mean? Resorts are wonderful places – they really are. You can escape the world, get some pampering, and enjoy world-class cooking and other amenities. But safe? Peaceful? Perhaps not so much…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s I’ve Loved These Days.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Deon Meyer, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Be My Bodyguard*

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, successful American business magnate Samuel Ratchett is making a journey across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. When Ratchett learns that Hercule Poirot is on the same train, he makes an unusual proposal. He wants to hire Poirot as a sort of bodyguard, since he feels threatened. Poirot refuses, angering Ratchett. It turns out Ratchett was right to be concerned, though, because he’s stabbed to death the next night. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the first-class carriage, and Poirot works to find out who the killer is.

Perhaps we can’t easily imagine Poirot in the role of bodyguard, but there are plenty of people who work in that capacity, in real life as well as crime fiction. They’re professionals, but at the same time, they aren’t law enforcement officers or PIs. So, they fill interesting roles, and they can be interesting characters. And situations that call for bodyguards can add real tension to a story.

In Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary, we are introduced to Glenn Hadlock. He’s recently been released from prison, so his job choices are limited. Then, he sees an advertisement that catches his attention. Victor Scofield is looking for a bodyguard/chauffer for his wife, Eileen. Hadlock decides to apply, and is granted an interview. He learns that Scofield is permanently disabled, and can’t leave his room. But, he says, he doesn’t want to impose the same limitations on Eileen. So, he’s decided to hire someone to escort her. Hadlock gets the job, and at first, everything goes well. The pay is good, he gets a free apartment in the Scofield mansion, and Eileen is pleasant company. But it’s not long before Hadlock discovers that this job has a lot of hidden dangers…

There are plenty of dangers for bodyguard Martin Lemmer, too, whom we meet in Deon Meyers’ Blood Safari. He works for a Cape Town private security firm called Body Armour, and he’s had his share of risky experiences. But he gets in much deeper than he thought when Emma Le Roux hires him to escort her from Cape Town to the Lowveld. She’s following up on a lead that could help her locate her brother, Jacobus. She’d thought he was killed years ago in a skirmish with poachers, while he was working at Kruger National Park. It turns out, though, that he may very well still be alive. If so, she wants to find him. Lemmer goes with her, and soon learns that some extremely dangerous people are determined not to let anyone find out the truth about Jacobus Le Roux. Lemmer’s going to need all of his skills if he’s going to keep himself and his client alive.

In Jassy Mackenzie’s Random Violence, we are introduced to Jade de Jong. Ten years before the events of the novel, she left her native Johannesburg when her police-detective father was killed. She went to the UK, where she spent several years working in private security and bodyguarding. Since then, she’s become a PI. So, she’s well able to take care of herself. But even she’s not prepared for what awaits her when she goes back to Johannesburg. Annette Botha has been killed in what looks like a carjacking gone wrong. But then, there’s another murder. And another. The three deaths don’t seem on the surface to be linked, but there are little pieces of evidence that they might be. Police Superintendent David Patel, who was a friend of de Jong’s father, is glad she’s back in town, and grateful for her help in the investigations. And, in the end, Patel and de Jong find that the three murders are, indeed, linked, in a way they hadn’t imagined.

When key police witnesses are believed to be in danger, they’re often provided ‘safe’ accommodations and bodyguard protection. That’s what happens in T.J. Cooke’s Kiss and Tell. In that novel, London attorney Jill Shadow becomes involved in a web of drugs trafficking, high-level corruption, and murder when she gets an unusual request. Bella Kiss has been arrested at Heathrow Airport on suspicion of drugs smuggling. She doesn’t deny the charges, but won’t say anything about who paid/coerced her to carry the drugs. And Shadow’s been asked to do what she can to defend the young woman. It’s clear that Bella is afraid for her life, and Shadow wants to help her. But it’s not going to be easy, since this client isn’t saying anything. Bit by bit, and after a murder, Shadow comes closer to the truth, and it gets her into grave danger – so grave that she has to be taken to a safe house. There’s she’s provided with a bodyguard/procurer called Ralph, who is her only link to the outside world. And we see how important that protection becomes when some powerful and nasty people target Shadow.

And then there’s Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, which in part tells the story of superstar Gaia Lafayette. A native of Brighton, she’s returning from the US to her home town to do a film. There’s already been at least one attempt on her life, so her personal security is a major issue. She has an entourage that includes personal bodyguards, but her representatives want to be assured of her safety during her stay at Brighton. So, Superintendent Roy Grace is told that the local police will need to make the star’s safety a priority. This isn’t good news for Grace, who’s already dealing with a bizarre murder. But the authorities don’t want there to be any questions about the town’s willingness to protect visitors. So, the word comes down that Grace will have to manage as best he can. And it’s interesting to see the relationship between the police who are supposed to protect the visitors, and the personal bodyguards who have the same charge.

Bodyguards have a unique perspective on security and on their charges. And they certainly have challenging, sometimes dangerous, jobs. That can make for an interesting layer of suspense and character development in a crime novel. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Robyn Hitchcock.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Deon Meyer, Jassy Mackenzie, Peter James, Robert Colby, T.J. Cooke

Try to Find Equilibrium*

equilibrium-and-disequilibriumIf theorists such as Jean Piaget are right, it’s human nature to want equilibrium. We want things to be in balance and to make sense. We want some sort of order. If you think about it, that drive for equilibrium arguably fuels many of our actions. We’re curious (which throws us into disequilibrium because we don’t know something). So, we seek to learn, or to find out about something. Or, perhaps we move to a new home. That throws us into disequilibrium until we unpack, put our things where we want them, and find out where the local library and the grocery stores are. Then, as we settle in, we impose new order on our lives and are back into equilibrium. And the list of examples could go on.

For any story, the drive for equilibrium can be an effective way to construct the action. The protagonist starts out in equilibrium, a conflict happens (which throws the story into disequilibrium), and the protagonist seeks to restore order. Or, perhaps, the story starts out in disequilibrium, and the protagonist sets out to restore equilibrium. There are other possibilities, too. And we see this very obviously in crime fiction. After all, in crime fiction, there’s usually a murder or other crime (disorder), and an investigation (the attempt to explain it and restore order). But even if you put that overarching conflict aside, there are a lot of other ways in which we see the drive to restore equilibrium.

For instance, in Agatha Chrirstie’s Sad Cypress, we are introduced to Mary Gerrard. She’s the daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterby, the home of wealthy Laura Welman. As it happens, Mrs. Welman has taken a particular interest in Mary, and has educated her ‘above her station.’ This decision has upset what you might call the social equilibrium of the village where they live. For one thing. Mary no longer feels sure of where, exactly, she belongs, if I can put it that way. For another, it’s upset those who feel that Mary is now ‘above herself.’ In fact, one day, Mrs. Welman’s niece Elinor Carlisle gets an anonymous letter that hints that Mary is actively manipulating the situation to ensure that she, not Elinor, inherits when the older woman dies. Elinor and her fiancé, Roderick ‘Roddy’ decide to go to Hunterby and see for themselves what’s going on. This further upsets the equilibrium when Roddy finds himself smitten with Mary. With her engagement broken and her comfortable assurance of money in question, Elinor has more than one motive for wanting Mary out of the way. So when Mary is poisoned, she’s the most likely suspect, and she’s duly arrested and charged. Local GP Peter Lord wants Mary’s name cleared, and he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. In this novel, it’s not just the whodunit and whydunit that reflect that drive for equilibrium. I know, I know, fans of Ordeal by Innocence. Yes, indeed, fans of Taken at the Flood.

In Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, we are introduced to Emma la Roux. She’s watching television one day when she sees a news story on television about a man named Cobie de Villiers, who’s wanted in conjunction with the murder of a traditional healer and three other men. The man the newscasters call de Villiers looks eerily like Emma’s brother Jacobus, who disappeared twenty years earlier. At the time, everyone said he was killed in a skirmish with poachers. Now, though, it seems he may still be alive, and that throws Emma’s world into disequilibrium. She wants to make sense of it all, so she hires professional bodyguard Marin Lemmer to accompany her from Cape Town to the Lowveld. As they search for answers, they find that this case goes deeper than just a man who may have stayed under the proverbial radar. It involves murder, fraud, and corruption in very high places.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist/academician. She is also the mother of four children, and of course, cares about them deeply. So she’s quite concerned when, in The Wandering Soul Murders, her son Peter’s old girlfriend, Christy Sinclair, comes back into his life. For several reasons, she’d thought Peter was well rid of Christy, and life had gotten back into equilibrium. But one day Christy re-appears. She invites herself along on a family trip to celebrate the engagement of Joanne’s daughter, Mieka, and even says that she and Peter are getting back together. Needless to say, this is discomfiting for Joanne. Then Christy dies in what looks like a successful suicide, but turns out to be murder. And Joanne discovers that this murder is related to another case that’s been proverbially dropped into her lap.

Equilibrium is particularly important for those who have autism and other spectrum disorders. We see that in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This story is told from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone, who has autism, although he functions on a high level. One day, he comes upon the dog that belongs to the people next door. The animal’s been killed, and its owners think he might be responsible. Christopher knows he’s not, though, and sets out to prove it, just like Sherlock Holmes. Along the way, he makes a personal discovery that throws his carefully-ordered life into complete disequilibrium. And one important plot thread in this novel is how he reacts to that change, and what happens as a result.

Wendy James’ The Mistake introduces readers to Jodie Evans Garrow. Although she’s from the ‘wrong side of the tracks,’ Jodie has made a very good life for herself. She’s smart and attractive, and is married to a successful attorney whose name is being suggested as the next mayor of their small New South Wales city. She’s got two healthy children, and life is content – even idyllic. Then, Jodie’s daughter Hannah is involved in accident that sends her to the same Sydney hospital where, years ago, Jodie gave birth to another baby girl. She’s never told anyone, even her husband, about that other baby. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. When Jodie says she gave her up for adoption, the over-curious nurse looks into it, but can find no records of a formal adoption. Now, questions start to come up. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? Jodie’s well-ordered life falls into disarray as an investigation begins to loom. In this novel, there is certainly the plot thread of the mystery surrounding the baby. But there’s also the plot thread of what happens to the Garrows when they are thrown into disequilibrium, and have to find some sort of order in it all.

Human nature seems to be like that. We like equilibrium and balance. We want things to make sense. So when they don’t, this drives us to want to put things right. And that drive can add a lot to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bush’s The Sound of Winter.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Deon Meyer, Gail Bowen, Mark Haddon, Wendy James

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