Category Archives: Elly Griffiths

Bohemian Like You*

There are certain communities of people who tend to live what people have sometimes called a bohemian lifestyle. They don’t keep conventional hours, or dress conventionally. And they don’t look at the world in a conventional way. We often think of artists, writers, musicians and actors as being in this category, and some are.

Those communities can be really effective as settings for crime novels. The bohemian lifestyle is intriguing, and can even be appealing. And there are all sorts of possibilities for character developments and for plots.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories include bohemian characters and settings. As just one example, in Third Girl, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who claims she may have committed a murder. Before she can give any details, though, she tells him she’s made a mistake, and that he’s too old. She leaves without giving her name, so at first, Poirot can’t follow up. But his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, happens to know who the woman is. She is Norma Restarick, daughter of successful businessman Andrew Restarick. Mrs. Oliver tries to trace Norma’s whereabouts, beginning with her London flat. One of Norma’s flatmates is Frances Cary, who works in an art gallery, and sometimes models. She lives a very bohemian lifestyle. It also turns out that Norma’s been seeing a man named David Baker – a man Mrs. Oliver calls the Peacock because of the way he dresses. Baker, too, is a bohemian. Oddly enough, Norma really isn’t, although she’s mixed up with that community. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver try to find out whether Norma really might have committed a murder. But first they’re going to have to find her. They do, but not before there’s a murder…

When we first meet Dorothy L. Sayers’ Harriet Vane, she is in the dock, on trial for the murder of Philip Boyes. And the situation doesn’t look very good for her. For one thing, there is evidence against her. For another, she lives somewhat of a bohemian lifestyle, even daring to live with Boyes without being married to him. At the time this was written, that was enough to make a woman notorious. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial, and falls in love with Vane. In fact, when the jury cannot reach a verdict, he determines to clear her name, so that he can marry her. As it turns out, this case isn’t what it seems on the surface.

Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly is the first of his Gervase Fen novels. It takes place mostly at Oxford, and its focus is a group of people who are all connected in some way to playwright Robert Wright’s new work, Metromania. They’re all ‘theatre people:’ actors, musicians, writers, and some admirers. And they all live bohemian lifestyles, with little interest in social conformity. Preparations are being made for a production of this new play, and the pace is getting a bit frenetic. Then one night, Yseute Haskell, who has the lead in the play, is shot. On the surface, it seems like an ‘impossible crime,’ since she was alone in her room, and no-one was seen to go into it or leave it. In fact, the police think it may be a suicide. Fen doesn’t think so, though, and he gets involved in the investigation. It turns out that this wasn’t suicide at all.

Fans of Ngaio Marsh’s work will know that she had a lifelong connection to the theatre and ‘theatre people.’ Many of her novels (e.g. Enter a Murderer and Opening Night) take place mostly in a theatre setting. Others involve actors in other settings. And, of course, Marsh’s Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn meets and later marries an artist, Agatha Troy. So, several of her novels also feature art and the art world. Throughout these novels, we meet characters with bohemian lifestyles and nonconformist views about life.

Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters is a PI in 1940s Hollywood. A former Warner Brothers security officer, he has several connections in the film business, and he certainly gets his share of clients from the world of acting. Both Bullet For a Star and Murder on the Yellow Brick Road are set in the Hollywood filmmaking context. So are several other books in this series. And the actors and other ‘Hollywood types’ that Peters meets often live unconventional lives. So do some of Peters’ other clients (he has one adventure, for instance, that takes place in a circus setting). He certainly doesn’t meet a lot of ‘suburban couple with two children and white picket fence’ families…

Sulari Gentill’s Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair is a member of a wealthy, ‘blueblood’ family in 1930’s New South Wales.  His conservative older brother, Wilfred, runs the family business. But Rowly has a very different view of life. He’s a ‘gentleman artist,’ and his closest friends are also artists, or writers. While Rowly himself lives a mostly conventional lifestyle, his friends really don’t. They keep the hours they want, dress in ways that suit them, and don’t hold as much with traditional social structure. Their politics are unconventional, too. All of that sometimes puts Rowly at odds with Wilfred, who’s more comfortable with traditional ways of thinking and living.

Bohemian lifestyles and unconventional views can make for a really interesting community of people. And those communities can add richness to a crime novel or series. There are many more of them in crime fiction than I have space to discuss (right, fans of Elly Griffiths’ Max Mephisto series?). But these examples should give you a sense of how bohemian communities fit into the genre. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Dandy Warhols.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Edmund Crispin, Elly Griffiths, Ngaio Marsh, Sulari Gentill

Here Comes the Rain Again*

The umbrella you see in the ‘photo is one of those that shade the chairs at the pool in my residential community.  A windstorm blew it over, and that got me to thinking about what happens when wind and rainstorms come along. Of course, there’s often damage, but there’s more, too.

In crime fiction, storms and other weather extremes can uncover bodies that have been hidden – sometimes for a while. And that can offer all sorts of possibilities for crime writers. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of others.

In Peter Robinson’s In a Dry Season, a drought has uncovered the long-buried Yorkshire village of Hobbs End. And Adam Kelly is determined to explore the village, which he believes is a magic place. He’s looking for something he calls the Talisman. Instead, he finds the skeleton of a human hand. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks and his team investigate. The body turns out to belong to Gloria Stringer, who seems to have been killed at the end of World War II. Now, Banks and his team have to trace her history and find out who would have wanted to kill her. And it turns out that this murder still has ramifications, decades later.

That’s the case in Elly Griffiths’ The House at Sea’s End, too. In that novel, coastal erosion has led to the discovery of six unidentified bodies. The University of North Norfolk’s Head of Forensic Archaeology, Ruth Galloway, is called in to see what she can find out about the remains. She finds that the bodies belong to a group of Germans who died during World War II. But it’s soon clear that someone doesn’t want the truth about their deaths to come to light. First, a Home Guard veteran named Archie Whitcliffe is murdered after he reveals the existence of a secret about a group of soldiers from that eras. Then, a German journalist, Dieter Eckhart, who’s doing a story about a wartime operation in the area, is also killed. Now, Inspector Harry Nelson has to find out who the killer is before there are any more deaths.

Priscilla Masters’ River Deep begins as the River Severn overflows its banks, flooding the local Shrewsbury area. When the river pours into one particular basement, the body of a man floats out of it. James Humphreys, who owns the house, claims not to know who the dead man is nor what he’s doing in the basement. What’s more, he has a credible alibi for the time of the murder. DI Alex Randall and his team begin the process of trying to find out who the dead man was. At first, they think it may be Clarke Haddonfield, who’s in the same age group and was reported missing by his family. But the body isn’t Haddonfield. It turns out to be Gerald Bosworth. Now, Martha Gunn, who is Coroner for Shrewsbury, has several questions. Who killed Gerald Bosworth? Where is Clarke Haddonfield? And are those two events related? Gunn’s role as Coroner precludes her from conducting an investigation or getting too close to what the police are doing. But in her own way, she looks into the matter; and, in the end, she finds out how the lives of all three men intersect.

Sister Carol Anne O’Marie introduces her sleuth, Sister Mary Helen, in A Novena For Murder. In that novel, Sister Mary Helen has retired from her Order. But she’s not yet ready to be put out to pasture, as the saying goes. So, she trades in her habit for modern clothes, and takes a teaching position at San Francisco’s Mount Saint Francis College for Women. She’s just started her new job when an earthquake hits the area. The college remains intact, but one of the faculty members, Professor Villanueva, is killed. At first, it looks as though it was a terrible accident caused by the quake. But it’s not long before it’s established that the professor was murdered. The assistant cook, a young man named Leonel, is suspected and is soon arrested. But Sister Mary Helen doesn’t think he’s guilty. And she’s determined to find out the truth.

And then there’s Jane Woodham’s Twister. Five days of drenching rain have soaked Dunedin. Then, a twister comes through the area, making matters that much worse. As if that’s not enough, there’s been an epidemic of ‘flu in the area, so, many businesses, including the police, have skeleton staffs. The storm and twister uncover the body of Tracey Wenlock, who’s been missing for two weeks. Now, the police have the thankless task of informing the girl’s family of her death, and of hunting for her killer. Because of the ‘flu epidemic, the only one available to head an investigation team is Detective Senior Sergeant (DSS) Leo Judd, who’s still coping with the loss of his own daughter, Beth, nine years earlier. She was never found, and Leo and Kate Judd have never recovered. Still, Judd does the best he can with this new investigation. In the end, the two plot strands intersect, and we learn what happened to both girls.

And that’s the thing about weather events like windstorms, rain and so on. Sometimes they uncover a lot more than we think they will. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Elly Griffiths, Jane Woodham, Peter Robinson, Priscilla Masters, Sister Carol Anne O'Marie

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

It’s Only an Illusion*

In Agatha Christie’s short story, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, a series of mysterious deaths is associated with the excavation of an important ancient tomb. More than one person believes that those deaths happened because there’s a curse on anyone who disturbs the tomb. Hercule Poirot looks into the matter, and finds a very prosaic explanation for the deaths. He himself doesn’t believe in spiritualism or ancient curses. But he does say this:
 

‘Once get it firmly established that a series of deaths are supernatural, and you might almost stab a man in broad daylight, and it would still be put down to the curse, so strongly is the instinct of the supernatural implanted in the human race.’
 

And he has a point. Millions of people believe in the supernatural, or at least want very badly to believe. And that makes them vulnerable to charlatans and cheats.

There are plenty of people out there, though, who make it their business to call out those charlatans. One of those was Harry Houdini, born Erich Weiss, whose 143rd birthday would have been today, as this is posted. Houdini was a skilled magician who knew all of the ‘tricks of the trade’ for getting people to believe they saw whatever he wanted them to believe they saw. But he knew it was all illusion – all deception. And he was determined that others wouldn’t prey on the vulnerable.

He’s not the only one, either, at least not in crime fiction. In Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, for instance, we are introduced to Svetozar Vok. He’s a well-known and successful stage magician, who’s taken to unmasking fake mediums and spiritualists. So, he’s very interested in the proceedings when Frank and Irene Ogden, together with Frank’s business partner Luke Latham, decide to hold a séance. Their purpose is to contact Irene’s first husband, French émigré Grimaud Désanat. Irene is a medium, so it’s decided to hold the séance at the Ogden home, and invite several other people, including Vok. The séance is held, and is truly eerie. But shortly afterwards, Vok exposes Irene as a fake. Even so, there are things about the event that can’t be explained. Later that night, Irene is found dead. Does the death have a supernatural explanation? If not, then who among the group is the murderer?

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, we meet Dr. Suresh Jha, founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (D.I.R.E.). A devotee of scientific research, he has dedicated himself to debunking spiritual charlatans and others who claim paranormal power. One morning, Jha attends a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when an extraordinary event occurs. As witnesses later tell the police, the goddess Kali appears, and stabs Jha. Believes claim that she did so as a punishment for Jha’s infidelity and for his leading others away from worship. And, in fact, the death leads to a resurgence of interest in matters religious. But Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri isn’t sure this death is what it seems. He has spiritual beliefs of his own, but he doesn’t really believe in paranormal explanations for murder. Since Jha was once a client of his, Puri takes an interest in the case and begins asking questions. And he soon learns that more than one person had a good reason for wanting Jha dead.

There’s also Alan Russell’s The Fat Innkeeper. Am Coulfield is house detective at San Diego’s very upmarket Hotel California. He has enough on his hands when the hotel is bought by a Japanese firm. But then, disaster strikes. The hotel has been playing host to a Union of Near Death Experiences Retreat, and several New Age mentalists are present. Also staying at the hotel is Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, who’s made a career out of unmasking fraudulent mentalists. And he’s targeted some of the people who are at the retreat. So, when Kingsbury is poisoned, there are plenty of suspects for Coulfield to consider.

Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief sees Venice’s Commissario Guido Brunetti serve as a sort of debunker. His second-in-command, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello comes to him with a family problem. It seems that Vianello’s aunt, Zia Anita, has been withdrawing money from the family business and giving it to a man named Stefano Gorini. The money is hers to do with as she wishes, so she’s not stealing. But Vianello is concerned that Gorini is cheating her. So, he asks Brunetti to look into the matter. Brunetti agrees and starts doing a little research into Gorini. He finds that the man has been in trouble with the law before over matters of possible fraud. In fact, he lost his medical license. Now, it seems he’s back, once more taking money for what seem to be fake cures. And Brunetti will need to find a way to stop Gorini before more people are bilked.  

And then there’s Elly Griffiths’ Max Mephisto. He’s a magician who lives and works in the 1950’s UK. He may not be known all over the world, but he knows what he’s doing onstage. And those skills were important during WWII, when Mephisto was one of the Magic Men, a special-operations group that used their stage tricks to fool the enemy. Now that the war’s over, Mephisto is ‘on the circuit’ with circus performers, fortune tellers and the like. He works with a fellow former Magic Man, DI Edgar Stephens, and his expertise turns out to be very useful. Mephisto may not be specifically committed to unmasking charlatans. But he certainly knows that murders don’t happen by magic, and he helps to unwrap the layers of fakery, and get to the truth.

And that’s exactly what Houdini did. He’s no longer with us, but his brilliance on stage, and his commitment to keeping people from being hoodwinked, will be remembered. He’s also inspired generations of illusionists since his time.

 
 
 

The ‘photo is of two of those illusionists, Penn Jillette and his magic partner, Raymond Teller. Both are outstanding, world-class illusionists. And both are committed, as Houdini was, to uncovering fraud and charlatanism. In fact, in their shows, Jillette, the ‘voice of the duo,’ often tells members of the audience that the pair is going to use trickery to confuse them. He then reminds the audience that it’s all sleight-of-hand and other illusion. But it still works. Gentlemen, if you’re reading this, I’m sure Houdini would have been proud to be your colleague.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Uriah Heep’s Illusion.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Russell, Donna Leon, Elly Griffiths, Hake Talbot, Tarquin Hall

Suddenly I Don’t Remember the Rules Any More*

crime-fiction-rulesThrough the years, there’ve been several sets of rules for detective fiction, among them S.S. Van Dine’s 20 rules, and Ronald Knox’s 10 rules. In some ways, it can be very helpful for the crime writer to have some guidance for creating a well-written story. This might be especially true for the first-time crime writer.

That said, though, we could also ask whether these rules really are relevant, especially for today’s crime fiction. Is it possible to write an excellent crime novel without each of those rules being followed?

Here’s one example. Both Van Dine and Knox wrote that the solution to a mystery should not be supernatural or otherworldly. They claimed that, to be credible, a mystery has to have a prosaic solution. Most readers seem to agree with this. In fact, one of the major ‘pet peeves’ that I’ve read is when a book lacks credibility, especially if there’s some sort of ghostly or paranormal solution. Some authors (Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, to name just two) have played with this rule. They’ve included characters who believe in the supernatural, for instance, or written stories where the culprit makes the murder look as though it has a supernatural explanation. But there’s nothing otherworldly about the real solution.

Closely related to this, both Van Dine and Knox claim that fictional detectives should not solve crimes through accident, intuition, or other means (Van Dine included unmotivated confession) besides logical deduction. And that was Arthur Conan Doyle’s main argument in creating Sherlock Holmes. He wanted a detective who solved crimes through logical, scientific means, not intuition. Crime fiction fans want their stories credible. That includes the means by which the sleuth gets to the truth. Too much coincidence takes away from that credibility. Seemingly magic intuition does, too. In real life, detectives solve crimes by making sense of evidence and putting the pieces together logically. That doesn’t mean they can’t have creative ideas. Great detectives do. But I think most of us would agree what we don’t want crimes to be solved through a series of happy accidents.

Another rule that both Van Dine and Knox mention is that the detective should not also be the killer. This, to these writers, is not ‘playing fair’ with the reader. What’s interesting about this rule is that there’ve been several novels (I won’t mention them because of spoilers) where the protagonist is, indeed, the killer. And some of those novels have gone on to great success and acclaim. Does this mean this rule isn’t relevant? What do you think? Have you read excellent crime novels where a detective is also the killer?

One rule that really is relevant (at least from my perspective – yours may differ) is that in whodunits, all of the clues have to be there for the reader to find. That is to say, both Van Dine and Knox refer to the need to give the reader the same opportunity as the detective has to solve the murder. I’m sure you can think of at least one novel you’ve read where you thought, ‘Well of course I’d have known who the killer was if I’d known that!’ I think most of us would agree that we want the author of a crime novel to ‘play fair’ and show us all the clues. In fact, the ‘Queen Team’ included asides to the reader in some of the Ellery Queen novels, to the effect that all of the clues are now in the reader’s possession. In a well-written whodunit, the clues may not be glaringly obvious, but they are there for the reader to find.

Van Dine has an interesting rule to the effect that there must be no love interest in a crime novel. He saw a romance angle as ‘cluttering up’ the intellectual exercise of solving a crime. On the one hand, I think most crime fiction fans would agree that too much emphasis on a romance can be a distraction. And, of course, every reader is different with respect to how much romance is ‘too much.’ That said, though, I can think of several highly-regarded crime novels that do include romances. One, for instance, is Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Fans of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series will know that his romance with detective novelist Harriet Vane is a story arc that ends with their wedding just before Busman’s Honeymoon. Romances are woven into some of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels, too. And those are by no means the only examples. What do you folks think? Was Van Dine right that romance should not figure into crime novels?

One of the other rules that Van Dine (but not Knox) proposed was that there should only be one detective – one main character. This one arguably hasn’t held up. If you look at series such as Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, or Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, or Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series (to name only three), you see how successful fictional partnerships can be. And a quick look at Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, or Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series, is all you need to see how well ‘ensemble’ series can work.

What about some of Van Dine’s and Knox’s other rules? Knox for instance, claimed that there shouldn’t be twins involved, unless the reader has been prepared for that. Van Dine said that there absolutely must be a corpse:
 

‘Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder.’
 

He also said that all crimes must have a personal motive, among other things.

What do you think of these rules? If they don’t apply, should there be other rules? If you’re a writer, do you follow ‘rules’ as you write your crime fiction?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s This Night.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Dorothy Sayers, Ed McBain, Elly Griffiths, Fred Vargas, Reginald Hill, Ronald Knox, S.S. Van Dine, Tony Hillerman