Category Archives: Ellery Queen

Here’s to My Bride-to-Be*

An interesting book review from FictionFan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking of what a lot of people call ‘May/December’ marriages. It may not be as popular now in Western cultures. But it used to be quite normal for an older man to marry a much-younger woman. And it wasn’t seen (as it often is now) as ‘gold-digging’ on the part of the woman. Sometimes, such marriages have been seen as useful alliances. Other times, they’ve been seen as effective ways for a girl without much money or ‘prospects’ to be taken care of by someone with some wealth. There are other reasons, too, for which such marriages have been made, and still are.

There are plenty of ‘May/December’ unions in crime fiction, and that’s not surprising. For one thing, they weren’t, as I say, uncommon in the past. For another, they can make for interesting character development. And that’s to say nothing of the possibilities for suspense and plot points.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Retired Coulourman, Josiah Amberley hires Sherlock Holmes to find his much-younger wife, who’s gone missing. Amberley suspects that she’s run off with his friend and frequent chess opponent, Dr. Ray Ernest. Also missing is a great deal of money in cash and securities, so Amberley’s first thought is that his wife and Ernest were lovers who’d run off with the money. Holmes agrees to look into the matter, but he’s busy with another case. So, it’s really Dr. Watson who does most of the ‘legwork’ in the matter. And he finds that this isn’t at all as simple as two people who fell in love and went away together.

Agatha Christie’s Crooked House is the story of the Leonides family. Wealthy patriarch Aristide Leonides lives with his much-younger wife, Brenda, at Three Gables, the family home. With them live several members of their extended family. When World War II ends, Leonides’ granddaughter, Sophie, returns to Three Gables, only to find that her grandfather has been poisoned with his own eyedrops. Sophie’s fiancé, Charles Hayward, knows that she will not marry him until the mystery of who killed Leonides and why is solved. So, Hayward is highly motivated to find out the truth. And he soon learns that there are several possible suspects in this case. Was Brenda a ‘gold-digger,’ out to get her husband’s fortune? What about the other members of the family? They all had reasons for wanting the victim dead.

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder features the Van Horn family. Howard Van Horn has been having troubling blackouts, which are worrisome enough. Then, one day, he wakes from one of them to find that he has blood on him, and it’s not his own. Terrified that he did something horrible, Van Horn visits his old college friend, Ellery Queen. He tells Queen of his concerns, and Queen agrees to help him get to the truth. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, so Queen and Van Horn go there. There, they stay with Van Horn’s wealthy father, Dietrich, and Dietrich’s much-younger wife, Sally. During their visit, Sally is strangled. It looks very much as if Van Horn murdered his stepmother during one of his blackouts, but there isn’t definitive proof. And Queen doesn’t think his friend is guilty. As he works towards a solution to the mystery, we get to know a bit about Dietrich and Sally Van Horn. She grew up on the proverbial ‘wrong side of town,’ and doesn’t have the background or education that her husband does. But she is beautiful, and glad to have someone with money to take care of her. It’s an interesting dynamic that plays its part in the novel.

In Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer, we are introduced to fledgling attorney Catherine Monsigny. In one plot thread of this novel, she gets her chance to make her mark as a lawyer when Myriam Villetreix is arrested for poisoning her wealthy husband, Gaston. Myriam is much younger than her husband; and on the surface, she seems to be a very likely suspect. She, however, claims that she is innocent, and is being framed by Gaston’s cousins, who dislike her because she is foreign – originally from Gabon – and never wanted her to marry Gaston in the first place. What’s more, they want whatever they can get of his fortune, and they don’t want to share it with her. Catherine agrees to defend Myriam, and she gets to know a little more about her and about Gaston. As she does, it’s interesting to see how very different the marriage seems, depending on who’s describing it (Myriam or Gaston’s cousins).

And then there’s Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings. In that novel, we meet news columnist Nell Forrest, who lives in the small town of Majic, Victoria (she herself makes fun of the town’s name). One day, she learns that there’s been a fire at the home of her mother, Lillian ‘Yen.’ Yen is safe, but the garage has been damaged. As if that’s not enough, a man’s body has been found in the ruins. He is Dustin Craig, who lived next door to Yen, and with whom she’d had a loud argument on the evening of his death. And, his body was found on her property. So, she’s certainly ‘of interest’ to the police. Nell doesn’t believe her mother is a murderer, though, so she starts to ask questions. And she soon learns that more than one person could have had a motive. For instance, there’s the victim’s much-younger wife, Beth, whom he’d abused. There are other local people, too, with whom Craig had had disagreements. And, in the end, that network of relationships turns out to have a lot to do with the murder.

‘May/December’ marriages do still happen, even if they’re less common in the West than they were. And they certainly play a role in crime novels. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

Thanks, FictionFan, for the inspiration. Now, please treat yourself and go visit FictionFan’s great blog. Fine reviews, wit, and a porpentine await you…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s To Life.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Ilsa Evans, Sylvie Granotier

So Why Even Bother With it?*

Many crime novels feature a plot point where a character is accused (sometimes arrested and convicted) of a murder, and tries to prove innocence. That makes sense. Prison isn’t pleasant, and in any case, people shouldn’t pay the price for crimes they didn’t commit.

Sometimes, though, a character doesn’t try too hard to prove innocence. And it’s not always because the character is actually guilty (or is trying to protect someone who is). Sometimes, it’s because the character doesn’t see much point in making the effort (i.e. ‘No-one’s going to believe me, anyway…’). In those cases, some of the tension comes as the sleuth tries to convince that character otherwise.  There are plenty of examples of that plot point in the genre; here are a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks Hercule Poirot to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks her unpleasant lodger, James Bentley, is guilty. In fact, he was arrested, tried and convicted, and is shortly due to be executed. But Spence thinks he may be innocent. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and finds to his surprise that Bentley doesn’t do much to defend himself. His view is that he hasn’t any friends, no-one believes him, and it’s not much worth trying to clear his name. In fact, Poirot has quite a time convincing Bentley to try to fight for himself.

Friedrich Glauser’s Thumbprint introduces his sleuth, Sergeant Jacob Studer of the Bern Cantonal Police. In the novel, he decides on the spur of the moment to visit one Erwin Schlumpf, who’s been arrested on suspicion of murder. He is believed to have killed travelling salesman Wendelin Witschi, the father of his sweetheart, Sonja. Studer arrives at the prison just in time to prevent Schlumpf from committing suicide. Schlumpf has obviously given up hope, but Studer begins to wonder whether he might be innocent. If so, then someone else killed Witschi. Studer decides to look into the case again and see if there’s something he’s missed. When he does, he finds that Schlumpf is by no means the only one who might have had a reason to want Witschi dead.

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder features Howard Van Horn, a college friend of Ellery Queen’s. He’s been having blackouts lately, which is enough of a problem. But then, one day, he wakes from a blackout to find blood on him – blood not his own. Now terrified that he’s done something horrible, Van Horn visits Queen to ask for his help. Queen doesn’t think his friend is a killer, so he agrees to look into the matter and see what he can find out. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, and Queen and Van Horn travel there. As the story goes on, we see that Van Horn doesn’t do very much to defend himself. He is convinced that he’s done something awful, so it’s really Queen who takes up the cause, so to speak, and tries to clear his friend’s name. It’s not an easy case, and I can say without spoiling the novel that it causes Queen to re-think everything.

In Gianrico Carofiglio’s  Involuntary Witness, we are introduced to Guido Guerrieri, who lives and works (he is an attorney) in Bari. One day, he gets a new client, Abdou  Thiam, who has been arrested for abducting and killing nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. Thiam says that he isn’t guilty, but he has very little hope of getting justice. For one thing, he did know the boy. For another, he is a Senegalese immigrant, who knows full well the bias there is against what are called ‘non-Europeans.’ In fact, he is seriously considering opting for a shorter legal procedure, where his case will be heard by a judge, and where he will almost certainly be found guilty. It means a shorter prison sentence than if he insists on a full trial, and Thiam thinks that’s at least something. But he still doesn’t want to go to prison. So, although he has little hope, he instructs Guerrieri to prepare for a full trial. Everything is schedule, and some very surprising things come out at that trial.

And then there’s Aline Templeton’s Last Act of All. That novel begins as Helena Radley returns to her home in the village of Radensfield after having served time for the murder of her first husband. She and her new husband, Edward, settle in and try to start over. Detective Sergeant (DS) Frances Haworth has never been entirely convinced that Helena was guilty, and she wants to look into the case. Not only does she have a sense of guilt for arresting the wrong person, but she also wants to make sure that justice is done. Helena is reluctant to do anything to help at first. She has her own feelings about having served time for a murder she didn’t commit. And she’s not sure what good it will do to rake everything up again. But she slowly sees that, if the real murderer is still out there, that person could target her. So, she decides to co-operate with the investigation. And it leads to an unexpected place.

You’d think that people wrongly accused or imprisoned would do as much as possible to defend themselves. And that does happen. But there are also plenty of cases where there seems so little hope that the accused doesn’t even want to try. And that’s when the sleuth has to be even more insistent on finding out the truth.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Callahan’s A Hit.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Aline Templeton, Ellery Queen, Friedrich Glauser, Gianrico Carofiglio

In the Clearing Stands a Boxer and a Fighter by His Trade*

As this is posted, it’s 44 years since the ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ the famous heavyweight boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Ali was the ‘underdog’ in this fight, but won by a knockout. To those who enjoy boxing (and to many sport fans who aren’t regular boxing fans), this was one of the greatest sporting events of the 20th Century. Certainly it got a lot of press, and was watched all over the world.

The world of boxing has a sometimes well-deserved reputation for being questionable at best. And even in cases where the boxers, their managers, and fight promoters behave the way they’re supposed to, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. There’s a lot of tension, too, as bouts are hyped and purses get large. And boxing gets a person into solid physical condition – something very useful for security staff and even PIs. So it’s little wonder that boxing has fought its way into crime fiction.

In Ellery Queen’s short story Mind Over Matter, for instance, Queen’s love interest, journalist and gossip columnist Paula Paris, travels to New York to cover the heavyweight bout between champion Mike Brown and challenger Jim Coyle. She gets tickets for Inspector Richard Queen, and, of course, his son, Ellery. After the fight, Brown is found stabbed to death. There are several suspects, too. For one thing, there’s good evidence that Brown had been paid to lose the fight purposefully – to take a dive. If that’s the case, there might be good reason to kill him. There are other possibilities, as well. As the Queens get to the truth about this case, readers get a look ‘behind the scenes’ at the fight game as it was during the late 1930’s.

David Fulmer’s The Blue Door, which is set in 1962, introduces readers to Philadelphia welterweight boxer Eddie Cero. One night, he’s leaving the Southside Boxing Club where he’s just los a match when he passes an alley. Two thugs are there attacking an older man. Cero steps in to help and rescues the victim, a private detective named Salvatore ‘Sal’ Giambrani. The two have a drink together, and Giambrani ends up offering Cero a part-time, case-by-case gig as an assistant. Cero accepts and gets to work. For one job, he’s sent to a club called The Blue Door to do some surveillance on a bartender who works there. That’s where he gets to hear Valerie Pope, formerly of a popular group called the Excels. Her brother, Johnny, the group’s leader, went missing three years earlier, and hasn’t turned up. Cero is intrigued by the mystery and starts looking into it. And he ends up getting drawn into the dark side of the Philadelphia music scene.

In John Schulian’s A Better Goodbye, the lives of several different characters come together at a Los Angeles massage parlor that provides all sorts of special customer service. It’s owned by Scott Crandall, a washed-up actor who’s still waiting for The Big Break.  There’s been a rash of rapes and robberies at some of the local massage parlors, and the women who work for Crandall want some security. For that, Crandall hires former boxer Nick Pafko, who has his own history. Crandall’s employees, including Pafko’s love interest, Jenny Yee, bring in good money for him, but he wants to expand his business beyond pimping into other illegal areas. For that, he starts to depend on Onus DuPree, who has a criminal history, plenty of ambition, and a violent temper. Pafko and DuPree take an instant and strong dislike to each other, which would be bad enough. But then, DuPree decides to set up a robbery scam – at Crandall’s massage parlor. First, he robs one of the massage parlor’s clients. Then, he schemes to rob the massage parlor. As you can imagine, this sets up a showdown with Pafko…

There are other sleuths, too, of course, who box or who have been boxers. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes can tell you that he is an accomplished boxer. For instance, in The Sign of the Four, he and Watson are tracing the history of some pearls that have been sent, one each year, to their client, Mary Morstan. They find that the pearls have been sent by one Thaddeus Sholto, and he explains that his reasons for doing so have to do with the fact that his father and Mary Morstan’s father were friends. Sholto has some important information about this case, and his brother, Bartholomew, is involved, too. But when Holmes, Watson and Sholto go to visit Bartholomew, they’re stopped by a guard named McMurdo, who isn’t inclined to let Holmes and Watson in.  Then, Holmes says,
 

‘‘I don’t think you can have forgotten me. Don’t you remember the amateur who fought three rounds with you at Alison’s rooms on the night of your benefit four years back?’…
‘Not Mr. Sherlock Holmes!’ roared the prize-fighter. ‘God’s truth! how could I have mistook you? If instead o’ standin’ there so quiet you had just stepped up and given me that cross-hit of yours under the jaw, I’d ha’ known you without a question. Ah, you’re one that has wasted your gifts, you have!’’

 

Holmes fans will know that his boxing skills are brought up in more than one other story, too.

And then there’s Walter Mosley’s Leonid McGill. He’s a former boxer who’s turned private investigator. He’s also the father of two grown children. In another life, he was also involved in more than one criminal activity. But now, he’s trying to work legitimately and stay out of trouble. It’s not easy, because his cases mix him up with some dangerous and dubious people. His years in the boxing ring aren’t the main plot point of these novels, but they did help to form McGill’s character.

Boxing isn’t for everyone. But it’s an integral part of several cultures in one form or another. And it’s a part of crime fiction, too.
 

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? You didn’t know that Billy Joel was at one point a boxer? See what important things you learn on this blog? 😉

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, David Fulmer, Ellery Queen, John Schulian, Walter Mosley

Find Out the Truth*

As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, most criminals aren’t eager to be caught. And there’s not always enough evidence to bring charges against someone. So, at least in crime fiction, the sleuth sometimes has to use some creativity to get the criminal to confess.

There are limits to what fictional police sleuths can do. For instance, entrapment – enticing someone to commit a crime she or he would not otherwise commit – is not allowed. And there’s a very fine line between a ‘sting’ operation (which is permissible) and entrapment. And even if the sleuth is not a cop, there’s still the credibility factor. Still, sleuths can be innovative, and sometimes have to be.

In Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat mystery, for instance, Inspector Richard Queen investigates the poisoning death of an attorney, Monte Field, who was also a blackmailer. He was killed in a theatre, so it’s hard a first to narrow down the list of people who could have committed the crime. And, even when the Queens do work out who was responsible, they don’t have the sort of evidence needed to pursue the case. So, they devise a ruse that, today, might be considered entrapment. They entice the killer into attempting another murder in the same way, using the same poison.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that, more than once, her sleuths find creative ways to catch killers, even without a lot of evidence. For instance, in The Moving Finger, Miss Marple helps to solve the mystery of who’s been writing a series of vicious anonymous letters to the residents of the small town of Lymstock. Several of the villagers take those letters very seriously; there’s even a suicide (or was it a suicide?) associated with one of them. Then, there’s an obvious murder. Miss Marple works out who the killer is, but there’s not a lot of proof. So, she sets up what you might call a trap, and ‘baits’ it with another character, to flush the killer out. Fans of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series will know that Beck and his team use a rather similar sort of ‘trap’ in Roseanna. They know who the killer of twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw is, but they don’t have the proof they need. So, they lure the killer into trying for another victim. And it works.

Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes introduces readers to John ‘Duke’ Anderson. He’s recently been released from prison, and has a legitimate job working in a print factory. But, then, he gets a chance to visit an exclusive Manhattan apartment building. Impressed by the luxury he sees, Anderson can’t resist the opportunity to set up a heist – and not just of one apartment, either. His scheme is to rob the whole building. For that, he’s going to need some help. So, he contacts several people he knows to get supplies, a getaway truck, and so on. What he doesn’t know is that the FBI and various other agencies have been interested in several of Anderson’s contacts for some time. And they know full well that those criminals are not going to be easy to catch. In order to get the proof they need, these agencies have gotten clearance for wiretapping and other surveillance. They’re hoping this will get the evidence they need to convince the people they’ve targeted. So, much of what Anderson says to these people is recorded. The question is: will they learn of Anderson’s scheme before he and his team have the chance to pull it off?

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Precious Ramotswe gets a new client, Happy Bapetse. Like other members of her culture, Happy has been taught that caring for elderly relatives, especially parents, is her responsibility. So, when a man shows up at her home claiming to be her father, Happy welcomes him and starts to take care of him. But she slowly begins to suspect that the man is not her father at all, but someone who wants to take advantage of the fact that she’s done well in life. So, she goes to Mma Ramotswe to get some help. Mma Ramotswe soon sees that she isn’t going to get this man to admit his scam. So, she sets up a ruse that forces his hand, as the saying goes. And it works.

And then there’s Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands. In it, twelve-year-old Steven Lamb takes a very risky decision. His family has been devastated for a long time by the loss of his uncle, Billy Peters, who went missing nineteen years earlier. Steven wants his family to heal, and he believes that finding his uncle’s body, assuming he’s dead, will at least allow his family to start that process. It was always assumed that a man named Arnold Avery, who’s currently in prison for another child murder, killed Billy. So, Steven decides to write to Avery, and try to find out from him whether he killed Uncle Billy, and if so, where the body is buried. It’s a very daring ploy, since Avery has never admitted to that murder. And it begins a dangerous game of ‘cat and mouse’ between the two. And the stakes get higher as time goes on.

It can be very risky to try to get a criminal to admit wrongdoing, especially if it’s a serious crime like murder. But, few criminals are eager to tell what they’ve done. So, sometimes, a fictional sleuth has to come up with a different approach to getting the truth.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Love and Money’s Axis of Love.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Belinda Bauer, Ellery Queen, Lawrence Sanders

Give Me the Simple Life*

As this is posted, it’s 164 years since the publication of Henry David Thoroeau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. As you’ll know, one of the important messages in this book is the value of simplicity. Thoreau advocated for living close to nature and rejecting consumerism and materialism. And there’s something to be said for that perspective. If you’ve ever moved house, then you know how having a lot of ‘stuff’ can make everything all the more complicated.

There are a lot of crime-fictional characters who like to live very simply. And it’s interesting to get their perspectives, especially as they contrast with what a lot of people value. It’s just as interesting to see how they’ve been viewed in different places and at different times.

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), for instance, we are introduced to Julia and Isabel Tripp. They live in the small town of Market Basing where they are friends with Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Lawson. When Miss Lawson’s wealthy employer, Miss Emily Arundell, suddenly dies, it’s put down to liver failure. But Hercule Poirot thinks differently. He had gotten a letter from Miss Lawson, asking him to investigate a ‘delicate matter’ that she didn’t detail. He and Captain Hastings didn’t follow up until Miss Arundell was already dead, but he still feels an obligation to his client. So, he begins to look into the matter to find out who would want to kill the victim. There’s no lack of suspects, as she had a large fortune and financially strapped relatives. Surprisingly, though, it’s Miss Lawson who inherits the bulk of the money. So, she also could have had a motive. Since the Tripps are friends of Miss Lawson’s, Poirot and Hastings naturally want to talk to them. They find that the Tripps are dedicated to living a very simple life, with few possessions and very much ‘back to nature’ food. After their conversation, they invite their guests for lunch:
 

‘…some shredded raw vegetables, brown bread and butter, fruit.’
 

Needless to say, Poirot quickly finds an excuse for the two men to leave. The Tripps’ lifestyle is not the reason for Miss Arundell’s murder. But it’s an interesting look at then-contemporary perspectives on the ‘back to nature’ lifestyle.

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil begins as Queen is trying to get some writing done. He’s taken a house in the Hollywood Hills to do just that, and he’s hoping for some peace and quiet. Such is not to be, though. Laurel Hill finds out that he’s there and wants him to investigate the death of her father, Leander. It seems he died of a massive heart attack, which his daughter says was deliberately brought on by a series of macabre ‘gifts’ left for him. What’s more, his business partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving bizarre ‘gifts.’ Against his better judgement, Queen finds himself intrigued, and starts to ask questions. Along the way, he meets Priam’s wife, Delia, and his stepson, Crowe ‘Mac’ McGowan. Mac is convinced that the world is on the brink of destruction from nuclear weapons, and he wants to be prepared to survive. So, he lives in a treehouse he’s built, and wears as little as possible – often nothing at all. His aim is to be able to make his way in a world where all of the things we take for granted are gone. Mac’s commitment to a ‘back to nature’ life isn’t the reason for the strange packages, nor Leander Hill’s death. But it adds leaven to the story and a layer to his character.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation. He is also a member of the Navajo Tribal (now the Navajo Nation) Police. In many ways, Chee is a traditional Navajo. He’s very much attuned to nature. More to the point, he’s not particularly interested in material things like a big house or a new car. He has the things he needs, but they’re quite simple. For instance, he lives in a trailer, and he doesn’t have a large wardrobe or the latest in sound systems. His wants are few, and he’s basically content with that.

Fans of Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson novels will know that, at the beginning of that series, she is a Stockholm lawyer. She’s not greedy, or even overly ambitious. But she wants to get ahead. Circumstances return her to her hometown of Kiruna, and she ends up staying there. As time goes on, she becomes more and more attuned to nature, and lives more and more simply. She does almost everything on her own, too, and isn’t really interested in the trappings of modern consumerism. In fact, as time goes on, her simple lifestyle brings her more contentment, in its way, than would a very high salary and a plush lifestyle.

John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitplecheep also lives a very simple life. He is a member of the Royal Thai Police, and mostly works in and near Bangkok. He is also an observant Buddhist. As such, he tries to live by the Buddhist tradition of putting aside cravings. That includes wanting things like a fine house, a good car, and so on. So, he has very little. He lives in one room and keeps only what he needs. He eats simply, too. For Sonchai, though, it’s not important to have a lot. In fact, one’s better off with less. So, he’s not, in general, discontent with his lifestyle.

Not everyone is content to live very simply. But, for those who are, it’s interesting to see how their choices and lifestyles contrast with the focus a lot of people have on consumerism. These are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Rube Bloom and Harry Ruby.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Ellery Queen, Henry David Thoreau, John Burdett, Tony Hillerman