Category Archives: Dorothy L. Sayers

I Had to Go Down to the Post Office*

As this is posted, it’s the birthday of the United States Post Office. Of course, there’ve been postal services for hundreds of years; and, even with today’s easy access to email and texts, the postal service is still important.

It certainly matters in crime fiction. I’m sure we could all think of crime novels where the plot hinges on a letter (or the absence of one). But it’s not just letters themselves.

For one thing, there’s the letter carrier. They can be interesting characters in and of themselves. There is, for instance, a G.K. Chesterton short story (no titles – I don’t want to give away too much) in which a postman figures strongly into the plot

And there’s Joseph Higgins, whom we meet in Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger. He’s a postman who, at the beginning of the novel, delivers a series of letters to different characters. The letters are all from Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime (WW II) military use. Each recipient is informed that she or he will be assigned there. Shortly after their work begins, Higgins is brought into the hospital with a broken femur. The operation he needs is routine, but it still involves surgery. Tragically, Higgins dies on the table in what’s put down to a terrible accident. His widow doesn’t think so, though, and says as much to Inspector Cockrill, who goes to the hospital to do the routine paperwork. Not long afterwards, one of the nurses who was present at the operation has too much to drink at a party and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered, and she knows how it was done. That night, she, too, is killed. Now, Cockrill has a major case on his hands, and it’s going to take finesse to find out which of the other characters is the killer.

Sometimes, the post office itself becomes a part of crime novel. That’s the case in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. James Bentley has been convicted, and is due to be executed soon, for the murder of his landlady. There’s evidence against him, and Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence should be satisfied with the outcome of the trial. It was he, after all, who gathered the evidence. But he’s begun to think that perhaps Bentley wasn’t guilty. And Spence doesn’t want to see a man die for a crime he didn’t commit. He asks Hercule Poirot to look into the case and see if there’s something that might have been missed, and Poirot agrees. He travels to the village of Broadhinny, where the murder occurred, and begins to get to know the residents. One of the gathering places in that village is the local shop, which also serves as the post office. When Poirot stops in to the shop, he meets its proprietor, Mrs. Sweetiman, who provides him with useful background information and a very important clue.

There’s a funny scene at a post office in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet, Mervyn Bunter, are stranded in the East Anglia village of Fenchurch Saint Paul when Wimsey’s car gets into an accident. Vicar Theodore Venables rescues the two men, and lets them stay at the rectory until the car can be repaired. When the car is ready, Wimsey and Bunter leave, only to return a few months later when an unexpected corpse is found in a grave belonging to the local squire, Sir Henry Thorpe. At the vicar’s request, Wimsey looks into the matter. He and Bunter discover that there is a letter in the post office for the dead man, and they decide that it may provide clues. So, Bunter goes into the post office to try to get the letter if he can. Bunter invents a story for the postmistress to the effect that he’s looking for a letter sent to his chauffer, indicating Wimsey, who’s waiting outside in the car. Bunter soon returns to the car:

“What’s up?’
‘Better move on quickly, my lord,’ said Bunter, ‘because, while the manoeuvre has been attended with a measure of success, it is possible that I have robbed His Majesty’s Mails by obtaining a postal packet under false pretenses.’…
‘Bunter,’ said his lordship, ‘I warn you that I am growing dangerous. Will you say at once, yes or no, did you get that letter?’
‘Yes, my lord, I did. I said, of course, that since the letter for my chauffer was there, I would take it to him, adding some facetious observations to the effect that he must have made a conquest while we were travelling abroad and that he was a great man for the ladies. We were quite merry on the subject, my lord.’
‘Oh, where you?’
‘Yes, my lord. At the same time, I said, it was extremely vexatious that my own letter should have gone astray….and in the end I went away, after remarking that the postal system in this country was very undependable and that I should certainly write to the Times about it.”
 

Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen lives in the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. At the beginning of the series, she serves as the village’s postmistress, so she sees nearly everyone at least a few times a week. It’s the sort of place where people tend to come to the post office to pick up their mail, so it serves as a social gathering place as much as anything else. And that means that Harry knows everyone, and everyone knows her. It also means that she often gets to hear the local gossip. As ‘plugged in’ as Harry is, it’s not surprising that she gets involved when there’s a murder. And sometimes, the post itself provides clues (I’m thinking, for instance, of Wish You Were Here).

People use email, texts, online bill paying, and social media so often these days, that we may not think about how important post offices and delivery people really are. But they are. Especially when you’re waiting for that paper book you’ve ordered…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Lucksmiths’ Don’t Come With Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Rita Mae Brown

The Answer is Easy if You Take it Logically*

I’m sure you’ve heard the old expression, ‘When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.’ It comes from the medical field, and refers to an approach to diagnosis. The idea is that the doctor should link symptoms to the most likely diagnosis, rather than look for a very rare diagnosis. Of course, there are people who have rare illnesses, so it’s wise for the doctor to keep an open mind. But looking for the most straightforward explanation can oten be useful.

It’s that way in crime fiction, too. Sometimes, crimes that look very complex really aren’t. So, the wise crime-fictional sleuth keeps an open mind, but tries to focus on the simplest, most straightforward explanation for a crime. It doesn’t always work as a strategy, but it’s generally a solid starting point.

A few of Agatha Christie’s plots focus on murders that are a lot simpler than they seem to be on the surface. In The Clocks, for instance, we meet Colin Lamb, a British agent who’s been tracking a spy ring that may be based in the town of Crowdean. He gets drawn into a case of murder when the body of an unknown man is discovered in a house on a block he’s checking. On the surface of it, the murder looks very complex. The dead man had no connection to the woman who owns the home, and there are four clocks, all set to the wrong time, in the room. None of the clocks belongs to the homeowner, either. Here, though, is what Poirot says about the murder when Lamb brings the case to him:
 

‘He reflected a moment. ‘One thing is certain,’ he pronounced. ‘It must be a very simple crime.’
‘Simple?’ I demanded in some astonishment.
‘Naturally.’
‘Why must it be simple?’
‘Because it appears so complex.’’
 

And so it turns out to be. The murder is a simple crime, committed for a simple reason.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase, mystery novelist Harriet Vane takes a hiking holiday near the village of Wolvercombe. She gets involved in a case of murder when she discovers the body of an unknown man lying by the sea. He turns out to be Paul Alexis, a professional dancer at a nearby hotel. At first, his murder seems to be quite a complex matter. There’s even a possibility that he might have been mixed up in a Russian political plot, since that’s his background. But in the end, this turns out to be a very simple case. With help from Lord Peter Wimsey, Vane discovers that the killer had a simple motive, and made the death look more complicated than it was. Once that simple motive is found out, so is the murderer.

Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers introduces readers to Ystad detective Kurt Wallander. Late one night, Johannes Lövgren and his wife, Maria, are brutally attacked in their home. Wallander and his team are called in quickly, but not quickly enough to save Johannes. Maria, though, is still alive. She’s rushed to the nearest hospital, where she survives for a short time. Just before she dies, she says the word ‘foreign.’ There’s already anti-immigrant sentiment in the area, and this terrible pair of murders, ostensibly committed by foreigners, only makes matters worse. So, Wallander and his team have to work quickly to find the killer or killers. The only problem is, there seems to be no motive. The victims weren’t wealthy, there was no history of family rancor or dark secrets, and neither victim was mixed up in criminal activity. It seems very complicated on the surface, but in the end, and thanks to a chance discovery, Wallander learns that it’s a very simple crime.

Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors is the second of his novels to feature Australian Federal Police (AFP) detective Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen. In this story, Chen is taking some time off from work after the incidents of Dead Set. He’s pulled back on duty when the bodies of Alec Dennet and Lorraine Starke are discovered at a Canberra writers’ retreat called Uriarra. Dennet was a member of the 1972-75 Gough Whitlam government, and was at the retreat to work on his memoirs; Starke was his editor. When it’s discovered that the manuscript is missing, Chen and his team immediately suspect that the victims were killed because of what was in it. And that’s not a crazy assumption, since it was said that Dennet was going to share a lot of things that some very highly-placed people don’t want revealed. And, there are other governments involved, too – governments that might find it very useful to have that memoir. It takes a while, but Chen and his team work through all of those layers and get to the very simple truth about the murder.

And then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s The Good Husband of Zebra Drive. In it, Mma Precious Ramotswe is faced with a difficult case. Her cousin, Tati Monyena, is facing real trouble at the hospital where he works. There’ve been three deaths, all on the same day of the week (during different weeks). And all three patients were on the same bed in the Intensive Care ward when they died. It seems a very complex case (perhaps some airborne pathogen, or contaminated equipment, or….). Monyena is very concerned about the hospital’s reputation, and wants Mma Ramotswe to solve the case as quickly and quietly as she can. She agrees, and looks into the matter. And it turns out that the solution is very simple.

And that’s the thing about some cases. They look very complicated on the surface, and sometimes that’s done on purpose. But underneath, they’re very simple indeed. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Dorothy L. Sayers, Henning Mankell, Kel Robertson

Hold My Hand, Don’t Be Afraid*

Everyone feels a little awkward at times. That’s especially true for things like first dates, even if you’ve met the other person before. What will you talk about? What if you don’t enjoy the date? What if you don’t make a good impression? What if you do? That awkwardness and tension can really be unpleasant in real life.

It’s different in fiction. There, that sort of tension can add interest to a story. And we’ve all had that feeling, so it’s easy to identify with characters who face it. It’s possible, too, to weave that first-date awkwardness into a crime novel without detracting from a mystery, and making the story too ‘frothy.’

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), for instance, we are introduced to Jane Grey. She’s a London hairstylist’s assistant who’s just won money in a sweepstakes. She decides to use her winnings for a trip to Le Pinet, as so many of her clients do. One evening at the casino, she happens to meet a young man who uses a bit of sleight-of-hand to be sure she wins at the roulette table. To Jane’s consternation, the same young man happens to be seated across from her on the flight back from Paris to London:
 

‘He was wearing a rather bright periwinkle-blue pullover. Above the pullover, Jane was determined not to look. If she did, she might catch his eye. And that would never do!’
 

Both Jane and the young man, whose name turns out to be Norman Gale, feel very awkward about this odd meeting, and both avoid the sort of eye contact that might lead to conversation. Still, they eventually work their way through it. And they soon find themselves mixed up in a case of murder when another passenger, Marie Morisot, is killed shortly before the plane lands.

Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane meet for the first time in, of all places, a prison cell. In Strong Poison, we learn that Vane is on trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. She claims to be innocent, but there’s considerable evidence against her, and her prospects don’t look particularly good. Wimsey attends the trial and finds himself smitten with her. In fact, he decides to clear her name so that he can marry her. He gets permission to visit her in her cell, but the visit doesn’t exactly go smoothly. She appreciates his wanting to help, but doesn’t see how he can. And she certainly isn’t smitten the way he is. And, of course, there’s the fact that the two are in a prison cell, which isn’t exactly a relaxing place. Still, Vane consents to have Wimsey look into the case, and gives him some information that he needs. And, in the end, Wimsey and some of his friends find out the truth behind Philip Boyes’ death.

Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath introduces her sleuths, Rina Lazarus and Los Angeles homicide detective Peter Decker. The two meet when Decker and his team investigate a rape in the Orthodox Jewish community of Yeshivat Ohavei Torah. It’s possible that this is the work of a serial rapist dubbed ‘The Foothill Rapist,’ but Decker can’t be sure. A security guard, Florence Marley, is hired to ensure everyone’s safety. Then, she is murdered. Now the case has taken on a new dimension, and Decker and his team have a much more complex problem on their hands. In the meantime, he and Rina Lazarus have found they enjoy each other’s company. However, Lazarus is a devoted Orthodox Jew who cannot be involved with anyone not Jewish. Decker, for his part, has no real religion, and Lazarus makes it clear that, to put it bluntly, he has no chance with her. But they do like each other very much. One day, he persuades her to meet him for lunch in a nearby park. It’s not to be a date; it’s simply so he can update her on the case, since she’s involved. It’s a little awkward, since the Orthodox custom is for women not to be alone with men unless they are marriage partners or family members. It takes time for both to get past the strain and awkwardness, but they do. And they find out the truth behind the tragic events in the community.

When Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney first meets Rajiv Patel (in The Half-Child), Patel is helping his uncle run a local bookshop. Keeney is a reader who especially enjoys crime fiction, so she stops into the shop. The two get to talking:
 

‘That smile again. Jayne looked once more at the letters on his business card. Rajiv Patel was becoming increasingly attractive. She decided to take a chance.
‘Would you like to have coffee with me?’
‘Yes’
They looked at each other, both surprised.’
 

It’s a little awkward for both of them. And it takes time (and some misunderstandings) for them to get to know each other. But that awkwardness adds an interesting layer to the story. And it turns out that Patel is very helpful as Keeney looks into the death of young Australian woman who volunteered at a children’s home before she jumped, or fell, or was pushed, to her death.

And then there’s Geraldine Evans’ Detective Inspector (DI) Joe Rafferty. For much of the series featuring him and his police partner Dafydd Llewellyn, Rafertty is single and wants it that way. If he ever does find a wife, he wants to be the one to decide about it. But that’s not what his mother has in mind. Fans of this series will know that her mission in life is to pair him up with a ‘good Catholic girl.’ And sometimes this makes for some very awkward moments for Rafferty. Still, it makes for an interesting and sometimes fun story arc in the series.

Those first meetings and dates can be very awkward and tense. But they are a part of real life. And they can add to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s First Time.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Dorothy L. Sayers, Faye Kellerman, Geraldine Evans

Applause, Applause For Bald Face White Collar Crime*

The thing about ‘easy money’ is that it almost never is. And most people know that. But that doesn’t stop people padding their accounts – or trying to do so. And that’s often when trouble starts. For one thing, it’s illegal to embezzle or otherwise take other people’s money.  That means the police tend to take an interest in such matters. For another, those who’ve been cheated don’t tend to take kindly to it. And that can lead to consequences, too. Still, there are plenty of people who think they can get away with that sort of crime, whether it’s ‘to rob Peter to pay Paul,’ or ‘just until things get better,’ or ‘just this once.’

It certainly happens enough in real life, and it happens in crime fiction, too. And it doesn’t tend to work out well for those who take that risk. For instance, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Whose Body?,  an architect named Alfred Thipps is shocked one day when he discovers the body of a dead man in his bathtub. The police begin to investigate; and, of course, Thipps himself is very much a ‘person of interest.’ He claims to be innocent, though, and his employer, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, believes him. She asks her son, Lord Peter Wimsey, to look into the matter. Wimsey finds that another odd event has occurred: the disappearance of financier Rueben Levy. And it’s discovered that Levy was engaged in some questionable oil shares transactions. It turns out that the body in Thipps’ bathtub is not Levy’s, but the two incidents are related, as are those shady trading deals.

In Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder, New York schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers takes her class on a field trip to the New York Aquarium. Just as the group is about to leave the aquarium, one of Miss Withers’ students notices the body of a dead man sliding into the penguin pool. Inspector Oscar Piper is called to the scene, and begins the investigation. The victim is soon identified as stockbroker Gerald Lester, and it’s not long before Piper and Miss Withers uncover a number of possible motives and suspects. For one thing, Lester’s wife, Gwen, has been having an affair with his attorney, Philip Seymour, and both of them were at the aquarium at the time of the murder. For another, the story takes place just after the Great Crash of 1929 that was immediately followed by the worldwide Great Depression. Many of Lester’s clients lost everything, and more than one of them could easily have wanted revenge. There are other possibilities, too. Each in a different way, Piper and Miss Withers look into the case, and find out that Lester’s ‘unconventional’ ways of doing business played a role in his murder.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood tells the story of the Cloade family. Wealthy Gordon Cloade, the family patriarch, had always told his siblings and their families that they wouldn’t have to worry about money. And they’ve always depended on him to help provide for their needs. Then, to everyone’s shock, Cloade married a widow named Rosaleen Underhay. Before he had time to alter his will, though, he was killed in a World War II bomb blast. Now, Rosaleen is set to inherit everything, and the rest of the Cloades will get nothing. Then, a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints that Rosaleen’s first husband, Robert Underhay, may still be alive. If so, this means that Rosaleen won’t be able to inherit anything. So, all of the Cloades have a stake in Arden’s visit, and are all involved on at least some level when he is killed one night. Hercule Poirot has already met two of the Cloades, so he takes an interest in the case. One of the people he gets to know is the victim’s brother, Jeremy. And it turns out that Jeremy Cloade has been using clients’ funds inappropriately. That misappropriation of money gives him a very high stake in the outcome of this mystery…

Emma Lathen’s John Putnam Thatcher is an executive with the Sloan Guaranty Trust bank. So, he’s seen his share of attempts to embezzle or otherwise get the use of people’s money. For instance, in Going For the Gold, the bank has gotten the exclusive contract for providing banking services for the (1980) Lake Placid Winter Olympics. So, Thatcher goes to Lake Placid to see that all of the bank’s operations are going smoothly. When Yves Bisson, a French ski jumper, is murdered, everyone thinks at first that it’s a terrorist attack. Soon enough, though, Thatcher is distracted by reports that the bank has been targeted in a counterfeiting scheme. It turns out that Bisson’s death, and other incidents that happen, are related to this scheme, and to someone’s need to cover up theft with counterfeiting and murder.

And then there’s Emmet Sweetman, whom we meet in one plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. He’s a crooked banker who’s been involved in more than one dubious transaction. During the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years of the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was enough money coming in that Sweetman could use depositors’ money and other funds, and not get caught. There was always going to be income to cover up what he did. But then, the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years ended, and Sweetman ended up owing a lot of money to some very dangerous people. And one night, two of them shoot him in his own home. Dublin DS Bob Tidey investigates the murder, together with Garda Rose Cheney.

If there’s anything this and other crime novels tell us, it’s that it’s never a good idea to use other people’s money without their approval. In some way or another, it always seems to come back to haunt. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Robben Ford’s Lateral Climb.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Emma Lathen, Gene Kerrigan, Stuart Palmer

Searching For the Truth*

Any writer will tell you that research plays a role (and sometimes a very important role) in creating a quality novel, story, or article. Research can take a person in any number of directions, too; and I’m sure that, if you’re a writer, you’ve got plenty of good ‘research stories’ to share. I know I do.

Research plays a role in crime fiction, too. After all, you never know what research might turn up. And if it’s something that people would rather keep secret, anything might happen.

For instance, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, mystery novelist Harriet Vane returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford, to participate in the school’s Gaudy Dinner and the accompanying festivities. A few months later, she’s asked to go back to Shrewsbury. It seems that several distressing things have been going on at the school, and the administrators don’t want the police involved, if that’s possible. There’ve been anonymous threatening notes, vandalism, and more. Vane agrees, and goes under the guise of doing research for a new novel. In the process, she turns up some things that someone does not want revealed; and it nearly costs her her life. Lord Peter Wimsey joins Vane to help find out the truth, and, together, they discover who and what are behind the disturbing occurrences.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse gets involved in some research in The Wench is Dead. In that novel, he’s laid up with a bleeding ulcer. With not much else to do, he reads a book he’s been given, Murder on the Oxford Canal, about the 1859 murder of Joanna Franks on a canal boat. At the time, two men were arrested, convicted, and executed. But, as Morse reads and considers the case, he begins to believe that those men were not guilty. With help from Sergeant Lewis and Bodleian librarian Christine Greenaway, Morse looks into the case again, and finds out the truth about the long-ago murder.  You’re absolutely right, fans of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time.

Deadly Appearances is the first in Gail Bowen’s series featuring Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. As the series begins, she is an academician and political scientist. So, she’s well aware of the importance and value of research. One afternoon, she attends a community picnic at which her friend, Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk, is to make an important speech. He’s been selected to lead Saskatchewan’s provincial Official Opposition Party, and has a bright political future ahead of him. Tragically, he collapses and dies just after beginning his speech. It’s soon shown that he was poisoned. Kilbourn grieves the loss of her friend and political ally, and decides to write his biography. The more she researches for the book, the more she learns about Boychuk. And that knowledge leads her to the truth about his murder – and to some real personal danger.

Paddy Richardson’s Rebecca Thorne is a Wellington-based journalist. Her career, of course, involves quite a lot of background research, as any credible story has to be supported. In Cross Fingers, Thorne is working on an exposé documentary about dubious land developer Denny Graham. She’s lined up interviews with people who claim he’s duped them, and she’s been trying to get information from Graham’s people, too, to be as fair as she can. Then, her boss asks her to change her focus, and do a story on the upcoming 30th anniversary of the Springboks’ 1981 tour of New Zealand. At the time, apartheid was still the law of the land in South Africa, and a lot of New Zealanders protested the government’s decision to invite the Springboks. On the other hand, the police needed to keep order, and rugby fans just wanted to see some good matches. The result was a set of violent clashes between protestors and police. Thorne is reluctant to do that story. For one thing, she wants to do her interviews for the Graham story before his victims lose their nerve. For another, she doesn’t see that there’s any new angle on the rugby tour story. Still, her boss insists, and Thorne gets to work. Then, as she does research on the tour, she finds a story of interest. It seems that two dancers dressed as lambs went to several of the games and entertained the fans. Then, they stopped attending. Thorne wants to know what happened to The Lambs, so she starts researching. She learns that one of them was murdered one night, and his killer never caught. The case nags at her, especially when it becomes clear that several people do not want her to find out the truth.

And then there’s Martin Edwards’ Daniel Kind. He’s an Oxford historian whose work gained him not just academic plaudits but also a lot of popular appeal. Burnt out from being a well-known TV personality, Kind moved to the Lake District and more or less dropped out of media sight. He still writes, gives lectures, and so on, though. And he’s still interested in research. His research findings are often very helpful to the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team, led by DCI Hannah Scarlett. Since her team’s focus is on older cases that are re-opened, she finds Kind’s historical perspective useful and informative. For example, Kind’s research on Thomas de Quincey proves to be key in both The Serpent Pool and The Hanging Wood.

There are other fictional sleuths, too, such as Christine Poulson’s Cassandra James, and Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw, who do research as a part of their lives. Those skills serve them very well when it comes to sleuthing, too (right, fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway?).

Research skills – knowing how to pose questions, look for information, weigh its value, and come to conclusions – are important in a lot of professions. And they can certainly add to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Edwyn Collins.

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Filed under Christine Poulson, Colin Dexter, Dorothy L. Sayers, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, Josephine Tey, Martin Edwards, Paddy Richardson, Sarah R. Shaber