Category Archives: Erle Stanley Gardner

Strut My Stuff, My Stuff is so Shiny*

An interesting review of Donald Henderson’s A Voice Like Velvet at FictionFan’s excellent review blog has got me thinking about the all-too-human wish for things. This novel’s focus is Ernest Bisham, a radio broadcaster who is also a burglar. I admit I haven’t read the novel (yet), but I intend to. You’ll want to read FictionFan’s fine review of it to get a sense of the story. And while you’re there, you’ll want to check out the rest of that top-notch blog. It’s one of my must-visits.

Batham doesn’t take things because he wants to be rich. He takes them for the thrill of doing so, and because he likes that sensation of ‘Ooh, shiny!’ And he’s not the only crime-fiction character who feels that way.

For instance, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone begins as Colonel John Herncastle steals a diamond called the Moonstone from a palace in India. He doesn’t take it because he’s desperate for money; he takes because he is acquisitive. Legend has it that anyone who disturbs the temple by taking that diamond will be cursed, and so will anyone who ends up with the stone. As the story goes on, we see how that dire prediction plays out. Herncastle bequeaths the stone to his niece, Rachel Verinder, with the proviso that it be given to her on her eighteenth birthday. Herncastle and Rachel’s mother, Lady Julia Verinder, have had a rift for quite some time, so there is talk that his gift is actually a curse. And so it seems to be. First, the stone is stolen. Then, one of the housemaids disappears, and is later found dead. There are other incidents, too. Sergeant Cuff investigates, and slowly, over the course of two years, traces the stone and learns who stole it and why.

In Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, we are introduced to Anne Meredith. She is among eight people who are invited to a dinner party at the home of the eccentric Mr. Shaitana. This isn’t a ‘typical’ dinner party though. Shaitana has invited four people (of whom Anne is one) who he believes have gotten away with murder. He also has invited four sleuths, among whom are Hercule Poirot and detective novelist Ariadne Oliver. During the meal, Shaitana drops hints about the sorts of murders he suspects have been committed. After dinner, everyone settles down to play bridge. At some point in the evening, someone stabs Shaitana. The only possible suspects are the four people Shaitana believes are murderers. Poirot and the other sleuths investigate to find out who the killer is. And they find that each suspect was, indeed, mixed up in a possible murder. In Anne’s case, the victim was a woman to whom she was companion, and who died of poison. At the time, it was believed that this death was accidental: the woman ingested hat paint instead of her medication. But, was it an accident? It turns out that Anne Meredith has a habit of taking things, not because she is desperate for them, but because she wants to have them. Was that enough to drive her to kill – twice?

As Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe opens, Perry Mason and Della Street duck into a department store to get out of a sudden rainstorm. There, they witness a store security officer arrest Sarah Breel for shoplifting. It seems that this is a regular habit of hers; she sees things that she wants, and she takes them because she wants them. Her niece, Virginia Trent, usually goes shopping with her to avoid any trouble, but this time, the two got separated for just long enough for Sarah to take advantage of the opportunity. Mason gets involved with the family when some valuable diamonds go missing, and then there’s a murder. Aunt Sarah is suspected of the theft and the possibly the murder, and Mason goes to work to find out the truth.

Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road features Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest. In the novel, she investigates the death of a geologist named Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins. On the surface, it looks as though he was killed as the result of a drunken quarrel. But Emily sees little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise, and she decides to investigate. In one sub-plot of this novel, she happens to be in the small town of Bluebush, when a local electronics store owner rushes out of his shop, complaining that someone has stolen a valuable iPod. It’s not long before Emily identifies the thief as fifteen-year-old Danny Brambles. She is a friend of his family, and she knows that Danny is not a violent, dangerous person. He didn’t take the iPod out of greed, either; he saw it and wanted it, and couldn’t resist the urge to take it. And there’s the fact that this particular shop owner isn’t exactly a fan of Aboriginal people. Emily knows that if she arrests Danny, he could go to jail, which would do him much more harm than good. At the same time, he stole from the store. So, with a little tact and finesse, she gets the store owner to take the iPod back and not pursue the matter, in exchange for which Danny will do chores and work off his debt to the owner.

And then there’s Patricia Abbott’s Eve Moran, whom we meet in Concrete Angel. All her life, Eve has wanted to acquire. And she’s been willing to do whatever it takes, including murder, to get what she wants, whether it’s jewelry, men, clothes, or something else. Her daughter, Christine, has been raised in this toxic environment, and has a very dysfunctional relationship with her mother. Everything begins to change when Christine sees that her younger brother is getting drawn into the same toxic world.  Now, she’s going to have to find a way to free both her brother and herself from their mother, and it’s not going to be easy.

There is something about acquiring things that has an irresistible appeal for some people. That trait can have all sorts of terrible consequences. It can also lend layers to character development.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lin-Manual Miranda’s Shiny.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Donald Henderson, Erle Stanley Gardner, Patricia Abbott, Wilkie Collins

The Archetypal Man*

Over the years, there’ve been some interesting character types that have become an integral part of crime fiction. They’re almost mythical, in a way, because we know the reality is a lot more complex than the myth. It’s a bit like the myth vs the reality of the famous shootout at the OK Corral. And, yet, those mythical characters can add to a story. And they’ve helped shape our perception of crime-fictional characters.

One mythical sort of character is the crusading lawyer personified in Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels. On television, Mason was, of course, portrayed by Raymond Burr. This character fights for the defendant, comes up with all sorts of strategies, surprise witnesses, and so on, and works to get justice for the client. The reality is, of course, much more complex than what was presented in the TV series, especially. And modern crime-fictional attorneys show that complexity. Most attorneys (both in real life and in crime fiction) do want to do their jobs well. They want to win their cases, and they do try to do so in an ethical way. But sometimes, their clients are guilty. Sometimes, they do things that aren’t exactly above-board, so to speak. And they don’t always win their cases. But many people still want to believe in the Perry Mason type of attorney.

Another interesting archetypal character is the PI personified by Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He’s a loner, somewhat cynical, but still idealistic enough to want to do the right thing. He doesn’t let people get the better of him and stays just aloof enough not to get too personally entangled in a case, even if a ‘bombshell’ femme fatale tempts him. There are plenty of fictional PIs like that, of course. I’m sure you could name as many as I could. Crime fiction fans know, though, that PIs and the PI life are a lot more complex. For one thing, PIs come in lots of different shapes and sizes, so to speak. They do want to do their jobs well, by and large, but not all of them are fierce crusaders for justice. Some PIs are, indeed, susceptible to temptation. Some are extremely cynical, with their only focus on their fees, and so on. Crime fiction shows us this complexity, and most readers want that. At the same time, though, when we think of the PI, lots of us think of that Sam Spade archetype.

There’s also the mythical figure of the sheriff, especially in US western novels. You know the type, I’m sure: fighting for justice, facing off against a gang of ‘bad guys,’ and so on. If you’ve read novels by J.A. Jance, Craig Johnson, or Bill Crider (to name only three), you know that there’s more to being a sheriff than is portrayed in television and film westerns. And today’s sheriff characters are more complex. They’re not all male, they’re not all white, and their cases aren’t all clear-cut. Fictional sheriffs are often faced with ‘bad guys’ that aren’t so easy to spot, and aren’t always simplistic. Most sheriffs try to uphold the law in the best way they can, and they all do it a little differently. And, yet, despite these shades of differences, we still have a mental image of the sheriff as the lone force of good against the evil [Name of Gang] Boys.

There’s also the mythical loner/drifter who comes into town and ends up righting wrongs. I’m thinking, for instance, of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. This sort of character’s appeal arguably comes in part from being somewhat mysterious. We don’t ever really know everything about that person. But we do know that the ‘stranger in town’ is ultimately on the side of the angels. Of course, loners/drifters are more complex than it seems on the surface (we see that, actually, as the Jack Reacher series evolves). But there’s just something about the ‘stranger in town who ends up saving everything’ that appeals.

There are other mythical/archetypal characters, too, in crime fiction. But one character who isn’t enshrined in this way is the police detective. If you think about it, crime fiction includes a wide, wide array of police characters. There are bumbling cops (e.g. the way Arthur Conan Doyle portrayed police), dedicated detectives (like Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp), and ‘everyman’ police officers (e.g. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct police). And not all of the police characters are depicted as sympathetic, either. From James Ellroy’s Los Angeles trilogy to Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road and plenty in between, there are ‘bent’ police officers, too. Perhaps the reason there may not be an archetypal police character is exactly that there’s this much variety.

A mythical/archetypal character can be limiting. It’s taken several decades, for instance, for fictional PIs to include women, non-whites, LGBTQ+ characters, and so on. And there may not be as much room for depths and layers to a mythical character as there is to a different sort of character. But they serve an important purpose. They give us a mental image of a lawyer, or a PI, or….  And they have some interesting qualities that can add to a story.

What’s your view? Do you think of those mythical characters (like Sam Spade or Perry Mason) when you think of a crime-fictional PI or lawyer? If you’re a writer, do you get inspired by those characters?

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bill Crider, Craig Johnson, Dashiell Hammett, Ed McBain, Erle Stanley Gardner, Garry Disher, J.A. Jance, James Ellroy, Lee Child

Show Them the Master Sorcerer You Are*

As this is posted, it’s 61 years since the première of the TV series Perry Mason, based, of course, on the novels by Erle Stanley Gardner. One of the tropes made famous in that series is the courtroom surprise. In more than one episode, Mason produces a surprise witness, or piece of evidence. Those things are not quite as apparent in the books, although I admit I’ve not read them all. It makes sense that a TV or film about a court case would include that sort of big surprise. It adds to the drama, and it builds suspense.

In real life, of course, there are a lot fewer such surprises, and that is logical. There are rules about introducing evidence, calling witnesses, and so on, so there aren’t a lot of opportunities for either side to surprise the other. And many judges are not at all fond of that sort of courtroom drama. The idea is to ensure a truly fair trial, where neither side can ‘railroad’ the other. So, any fictional courtroom surprises have to be carefully written if a novel is to be credible. Even so, there are some interesting uses of the courtroom surprise in the genre.

Agatha Christie used courtroom scenes in several of her novels and stories. For instance, in the short story The Witness For the Prosecution, Leonard Vole goes on trial for the murder of a wealthy widow, Emily French, who’d befriended him. There’s clear-cut evidence against him, and his lawyer is going to have quite a challenge defending him. It’s arranged that Vole’s wife, Romaine, will appear as a witness for Vole. But then, in one of the story’s twists, she appears as a witness for the prosecution. This changes everything, and it’s not the only surprise in this courtroom story. Fans of Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) and Sad Cypress can tell you that some surprising things happen in courtrooms in those novels, too.

Paul Levine’s Steve Solomon is, as the book blurbs frequently say, a Coconut Grove (Florida) beach bum. He’s a skilled lawyer, but the first of what he calls Solomon’s Laws is:
 

When the Law Doesn’t Work, Work the Law.
 

And he does. In the courtroom, he is highly competitive and unconventional. And that means he does some very surprising things at times. He pushes the limits of what would likely be allowed in a real-life courtroom, and that doesn’t always go down well with his business (and life) partner, Victoria Lord. But his courtroom surprises often get results.

Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness introduces Guido Guerrieri, an attorney who lives and works in Bari. In this novel, he is approached by a woman named Abajaje Deheba. She wants to hire Guerrieri to defend her partner, Abdou Thiam, against charges of abduction and murder in the case of nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. The case against Thiam is strong, as it can be proved that he knew the boy. There’s other evidence against him, too. But both he and his partner claim that he is innocent. Still, he is going to need a good lawyer. Guerrieri agrees to take the case and meets with Thiam. At first, Thiam is reluctant to trust his new lawyer. But little by little, the two begin to communicate. It’s soon clear that Thiam wants a full-on, traditional trial, because he wants to prove his innocence. So, Guerrieri gets ready. At the trial, he knows he’ll have to do an especially good job defending a client who is not only assumed to be guilty, but also is what’s called ‘a non-European.’ So, there’s already prejudice against him. But, Guerrieri has a few surprises, including an innovative use of another witness’ testimony. It’s interesting to see how he uses surprise in his arguments.

There’s also Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case (Der Fall Collini). In that novel, Fabrizio Collini travels to Berlin’s Hotel Adlon. There, he goes to the suite occupied by Jean-Baptiste Meyer and shoots Meyer. He’s promptly arrested and taken into custody. German law requires that all persons accused of crime must be represented by an attorney, and Collini has no lawyer. So, it’s left to legal aid to provide an attorney, and that person turns out to be Caspar Leinan, who’s taking his turn ‘on duty’ when the Collini case comes through. Leinan meets with Collini, and soon discovers that his client isn’t going to be much help. For one thing, he doesn’t deny the shooting; in fact, he admits it. He doesn’t give a motive, though, or say very much of anything else. So, Leinan is going to have to work extra hard to find a way to defend his client. And, in the end, he does. He is able to use an obscure point of German law as a courtroom surprise to make his client’s case. It isn’t dramatic in the sense that a television-trope surprise witness would be. But it does change everything.

Fictional courtroom ‘bombshells’ are, perhaps, easier to do in film and television, because of the visual impact. And even there, they need to be handled carefully if they’re to be credible. That said, though, that sort of surprise can add tension to a story, a twist to a plot, and interest, too.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ Razzle Dazzle.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ferdinand von Schirach, Gianrico Carofiglio, Paul Levine

Over at the Counter, Helping All the Shoppers*

As this is posted, it’s 116 years since James Cash (J.C.) Penney opened his first department store. Since that time, department stores have become an integral part of our buying culture. And, if you think about it, department stores represented a major change in shopping. It was now possible to purchase ready-made clothing for men, women, and children, all in the same place. Linens, housewares and jewelry, too.

Of course, today’s department stores don’t much resemble the early department stores. Most now have online shopping options, for example. And there aren’t as many department stores as there once were. But, whether it’s El Corte Inglés, J.C. Penney, Debenhams or Hudson’s Bay, department stores still play a role in our shopping.

They play a role in crime fiction, too, and it’s interesting to see how they fit in to the setting of a novel. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Much of Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery is set in French’s Department Store, which is in New York City. One day, a store employee is setting up a window demonstration of some of the store’s furniture. When she tries to demonstrate the way the pull-out bed works, she discovers the body of a woman on the bed. Inspector Richard Queen takes the investigation, and, of course, his son Ellery goes along. It turns out that the dead woman is Winnifred French, wife of the store’s owner, Cyrus French. As the Queens investigate, they learn that there are several possibilities for the killer’s identity. As we meet the various suspects, we also learn about the way older, family-run department stores worked.

In Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe, Perry Mason and Della Street duck out of the rain into a department store. There, they see a store security guard stop Sarah Breel for shoplifting. Unfortunately, this is a habit with her, but most of the time, her niece, Virginia Trent, goes shopping with her to prevent any incidents. But this time, Virginia wasn’t right next to her aunt. Not long afterwards, Virginia Trent comes to Mason with an even more complex problem. Her uncle is a gem expert, who appraises, cuts, cleans, and custom-sets gems on commission. Now, two valuable diamonds have been stolen, and the most likely suspect is Aunt Sarah. Austin Cullens, who originally sold the diamonds, doesn’t believe Aunt Sarah has the diamond. But when he’s found dead, and Aunt Sarah becomes the prime suspect, Mason has a difficult case on his hands.

Fans of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series know that it takes place in the small town of Pickax, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The local department store, Lanspeak’s, is owned by Larry and Carol Lanspeak, who run it as a family business. Several scenes in the series take place at the store, and the Lanspeak family figures into more than one of the mysteries. It’s an interesting example of the sort of department store that used to be much more common before the advent of larger company buyouts and, later, the Internet.

There’s a memorable scene at a department store in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke. It’s 1931, and the Nazis are rising to power in Germany. Berlin crime reporter Hannah Vogel has just learned that her brother Ernst was killed, but she doesn’t know why or by whom. So, she starts to quietly ask some questions. She has to be careful, so as not to attract Nazi attention, but she does want to find out the truth. Late one night, a young boy named Anton comes to her home. His birth certificate lists her as his mother, but she knows she has no children. Still, she takes the boy in and decides to take care of him the best she can for now. And that will include getting him some clothes, since the boy has nearly nothing. So, she takes Anton to Wertheim’s Department Store. They have a very good experience, and for Anton, it’s like being taken to a wonderland. All that changes on the way out of the store, when they are harassed by Nazi thugs who don’t want ‘good Germans’ shopping at ‘Jewish stores.’ It’s a frightening experience, and it shows how stores got caught in the dramatic events in Germany at the end of the Weimar Republic.

In one plot thread of David Whish-Wilson’s Perth-based Zero at the Bone, we learn that former police superintendent Frank Swann is no longer working with the police (read about the events that led up to that in Line of Sight). He’s been hired by another former police officer, Percy Dickson. Dickson is head of security at a local department store, and he wants to know the truth behind some robberies that have been taking place. Several department stores and some jewelers have been targeted, and Dickson wants to know who’s responsible. So, he is working with the security people at the other stores to see if there’s a pattern. And Swann works with them to find out who’s behind the thefts. He discovers the truth, and the stolen merchandise is returned. But Dickson is under strict orders to say nothing about the thefts or the resolution of the problem. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake of mentioning the matter to the wrong people…

And then there’s Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel. That story begins in Philadelphia in the 1950s. Evelyn ‘Evie’ Hobart has grown up with very little. But she is beautiful and seductive. So, when she meets Hank Moran at a dance, it doesn’t take long for him to fall in love with her. They marry, and Evie finally has the life of privilege that she always wanted, since Hank comes from a family with money and prestige. All starts out well enough, and Evie joins the group of wealthy young women who take day trips into Philadelphia to shop, who belong to clubs, and so on. But Evie has always wanted to acquire things. And she enjoys the rush that comes when she takes them without paying for them. So, she’s caught shoplifting in department stores more than once. At first, it’s all hushed up and settled over because of the Moran family’s money and power. But finally, things get to the point where she is sent to The Terraces, an exclusive ‘special place’ where she can be ‘cured.’ Things don’t work out that way, though, and her daughter, Christine, grows up in a very toxic home. Evie hasn’t changed, and stops at nothing, including murder, to get what she wants. Christine feels powerless to do anything about it until she sees her young brother, Ryan, begin to get caught up in the same web. Now, Christine will have to find a way to free herself and Ryan before it’s too late.

The world of shopping has changed dramatically over the decades. But it’s still got a place for department stores. And so does crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rosenbergs’ Department Store Girl.

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Filed under David Whish-Wilson, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Lilian Jackson Braun, Patricia Abbott, Rebecca Cantrell

Been Caught Stealing*

One of the big challenges that a lot of retailers face is shoplifting. I got to thinking of this after I read a fascinating post by K.B. Owen, author of the Concordia Wells historical mysteries. Her post is an interesting reminder that shoplifting has been around for a long time. It’s well worth the read. And so are the Concordia Wells stories, so you’ll want to try them.

Shoplifting shows up in a lot of crime fiction, as you can imagine. Sometimes, it’s a sub-plot; sometimes, it’s a major part of the main plot. Either way, it’s interesting to see how it’s been treated over the years.

In Agatha Christie’s short story, The Veiled Lady, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from Lady Millicent Castle Vaughn. She says she is being blackmailed over an indiscreet letter she wrote several years earlier. The blackmailer – a Mr. Lavington – will send her letter to her wealthy, titled fiancé if she doesn’t pay. She wants Poirot to try to get the letter for her. Poirot manages that feat in a very creative way. And, he and Hastings find that the letter is connected to the audacious daylight robbery of an upmarket jewelry store.

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe begins as Perry Mason and Della Street take refuge from a rainstorm in a department store. There, they witness a store security officer arrest Sarah Breel for shoplifting. It turns out to be a regular habit of hers; so usually, her niece, Virginia Trent, goes shopping with her to prevent any incidents. But this time, the two got separated for just enough time for Aunt Sarah to fall back into her usual pattern. Mason gets involved in this family’s problems when Virginia Trent comes to him with an even more difficult situation. Her uncle is a gem expert, who buys, sells, cleans, and custom-cuts gems on commission. When he’s away, Aunt Sarah runs the business, and now, a valuable set of diamonds has gone missing. And there’s every reason to believe she has it. Austin Cullens, the dealer who acted as ‘go-between’ for the diamonds, doesn’t think that Aunt Sarah stole the diamonds, though. Everything changes when Cullens is murdered, and Aunt Sarah becomes the prime suspect. Now, Mason goes to work to find out who the murderer really is, and what happened to the diamonds.

In John Dickson Carr’s Death-Watch, a police detective named Ames is found dead in a rooming house owned by Johannes Carver. He’s gone to the boardinghouse in the guise of a homeless man to investigate a rash of shoplifting incidents. He’d settled on one of Carver’s lodgers as the guilty party, and was ready to make an arrest. But this case doesn’t turn out to be as simple as a shoplifter who killed a police officer to avoid arrest. This is Carr after all…

The main plot of Martha Grimes’ The Old Contemptibles concerns the Holdsworth family. Inspector Richard Jury meets Jane Holdsworth at a marketplace, and they are drawn to each other. They begin a relationship, but then, Jane is murdered. Jury finds himself a suspect in the killing, but he knows (and so do the rest of us) that he’s not guilty. His friend, Melrose Plant, helps him look into the backgrounds of the other members of the family, to find out which one of them would have wanted the victim dead. And it turns out that there’s more than one possibility. One of the characters we meet in the story is a local shoplifter named Jimmy the Dip. Early in the story, Jury’s at the marketplace where he meets Jane, when he sees Jimmy, prowling for opportunities. In fact, he actually witnesses Jimmy ‘accidentally’ bumping into a customer who’s just made a purchase. He decides not to make the arrest. For one thing, Jimmy seems to make apologies, so it’s not clear he actually stole anything. For another, Jimmy is a valuable source of information on other criminals who,
 

‘…did more than just work the Passage.’
 

Finally, it’s not that Jury condones shoplifting; he certainly doesn’t.  But he does have a soft spot for Jimmy.

And then there’s Sue Grafton’s V is For Vengeance. In it, Marvin Striker hires PI Kinsey Millhone to find out the truth about his fiancée’s death. It seems that Audrey Vance (Striker’s fiancée) committed suicide, and that’s what’s on the official report. But Striker doesn’t think that’s the case, and he wants Millhone to investigate. She soon learns that the dead woman was a shoplifter and professional thief. In fact, she believes that Striker is wrong, and that his fiancée was conning him. The search for answers leads to a Los Vegas ‘private banker’ and a wealthy ‘attorney to the stars’ and his wife.

Even though it doesn’t usually end in violence, shoplifting costs retailers millions a year. And, of course, that cost ultimately gets passed on to the rest of us. So, in real life, it’s little wonder that shops want to do everything they can to reduce ‘shrink.’ In crime fiction, though, shoplifting can be an interesting sub-plot, or add an interesting layer to a character.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jane’s Addiction.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, John Dickson Carr, Martha Grimes, Sue Grafton