Category Archives: G.K. Chesterton

You Meet Him On The Street And Never Notice Him*

Nondescript PeopleDo you ever really pay attention to the person who waits your table at a restaurant? To the person who washes your car, handles your bank transaction, or stocks the grocery shelves where you shop? Unless you live in a very small town or rural area, where everyone knows everyone, you may not even know anything about those people. And that’s only natural; there are only so many things and people we can pay close attention to at any one time. So unless there’s something distinctive about a person, so that you really notice, you’re not likely to pay that much attention.

That fact actually plays an important role in crime fiction. Being the sort of person no-one really notices can put a fictional murderer in a very advantageous position. Of course, it works for sleuths, too. The sleuth whom nobody pays much attention to can learn quite a lot.

In G.K. Chesterton’s short story The Invisible Man, private investigator Hercule Flambeau and his friend, Father Brown, investigate the strange murder of Isidore Smythe. What’s particularly odd about this case is that Smythe was murdered without anyone seeing a person going in or out of his apartment. The solution turns out to linked to that phenomenon of not really noticing everyone.

Agatha Christie uses this plot point in more than one of her stories (right, fans of The ABC Murders?). In fact, one of her recurring characters is an interesting example. He is Mr. Goby, a sort of private investigator who is very skilled at finding out information. He’s the sort of nondescript person whom nobody really notices. And so are the people he employs. They’re shop assistants, household staff, newspaper delivery people, and all sorts of other ‘nameless, faceless’ people who have access to information. It’s rare that Mr. Goby isn’t able to get answers.

There’s another kind of anonymity: the kind that comes from social structure. We see that, for instance, in Barbara Neely’s Blanche White. She is a professional housekeeper whom we first meet in Blanche on the Lam. Most of her employers are white, while she is black. In this case, really, the social divisions are along two lines: racial and socioeconomic. In many cases, her employers aren’t particularly interested in knowing her as a person. They see her as ‘the help;’ and, even though she’s a human being, she tends to ‘fade into the background.’ That actually proves to be very useful. Nobody pays much attention when to what she does, as long as the meals are on time and tasty, the laundry’s done, and so on. Once she learns the routine of the households in which she works, Blanche can move around without being much noticed.

There’s also Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce. She’s a pre-teen, so most people don’t notice her as they would an adult. And she takes advantage of that. Even though she lives in the kind of village where people do know each other, she can still ride around on her bike without people checking where she’s going. People don’t raise eyebrows when they see her, and so on. In some senses, she’s limited in terms of what she can learn. But that very limit (her youth) also allows her to escape a lot of notice.

In Luiz Aflredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd, we are introduced to Hugo Breno, a teller at Rio de Janeiro’s Caixa Econômica Federal. He’s not the kind of person that you’d pay much attention to; there’s nothing really distinctive about his appearance. And that’s been very helpful to him. He falls under suspicion when one of his regular customers, Dona Laureta Sales Ribeioro, is killed after falling (or being pushed) under a bus. It turns out that she visited the bank on the day she died, and then went to the police station and asked to speak to Inspector Espinosa. He wasn’t able to break free to speak to her, and now, he feels a sense of responsibility. He also suspects (because of her visit) that her death was no accident. So he takes a special interest in this case, and it turns out that this case touches on his past as well as Breno’s.

And then there’s real estate agent William Heming, whom we meet in Phil Hogan’s A Pleasure and a Calling. He’s not the sort of person you notice very much, or remember well. He’s just the house agent. Once the hands are shaken and the keys turned over, nobody really thinks about him at all. And that’s just how he likes it. What people aren’t aware of is that Mr. Heming is a lot more observant of them than they are of him. And he’s kept keys to all of the houses he’s sold. When a body is discovered in one of the town’s backyards, Mr. Heming is as concerned as anyone. If too much comes out, and people start to notice him, the people in the town might learn that he has interests besides selling homes.

See what I mean? There are all sorts of people we encounter whom we don’t even really notice. And sometimes, that turns out to be a mistake…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Nina Mouskouri’s Bill.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Barbara Neely, G.K. Chesterton, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Phil Hogan

There is Good and Bad in Everyone*

DualNatureThere’s an old Cherokee story (you can read it here) in which a grandfather explains human nature to his grandson. He portrays it as a battle between our own good and evil tendencies, and claims that the side that wins is, as he puts it, ‘the one you feed.’

There’s a lot to that perspective if you think about it. We can look at human nature and good and evil from several points of view (philosophical, religious, anthropological, etc.). But, I’m not a philosopher, a member of the clergy, or an anthropologist. And besides, it’s a very large topic, and this is a very small blog. But even keeping the focus on crime fiction, we see plenty of examples of characters who ‘feed’ their ‘better angels’ as well as those who do just the opposite. In both cases, there are consequences.

G.K. Chesterton’s Hercule Flambeau begins as a notorious thief. In fact, in the short story The Blue Cross, we learn that he has gone from France to England, and is on his way to steal a valuable religious artifact. Flambeau has bested many people, including the French police. But Father Brown proves to be more than a match for him. Flambeau then chooses to ‘feed’ the better side of his nature. He gives up his larcenous career and becomes a private investigator. He doesn’t start going to religious services, and he enjoys a good wine as much as the next person. It’s not those outer trappings of what some people think of as ‘morality’ that change. Rather, it’s his decision to nurture the ethical side of his nature.

We see that sort of conversation and struggle in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, too. In that novel, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Among the other hotel guests are famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall; her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall; and Marshall’s teenaged daughter Linda. It’s soon hotel gossip that Arlena is having a not-very-well-hidden affair with another guest, Patrick Redfern. So, when she is found murdered one day, her husband Kenneth comes under suspicion. He has a solid alibi, though, so Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. One of the people they talk to is Linda Marshall. As it turns out, she hated her stepmother, and cannot be ruled out as the killer. At one point, she and Poirot have an interesting conversation about the difference between the urge to kill someone and actually going through with the act. That conversation, and one other one, suggests that, while Poirot is not naïve about the existence of evil, he does believe that people can choose to ‘feed’ their better natures, too. I see you, fans of Death on the Nile.

In Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, we are introduced to fourteen-year-old Adam Vander. He’s finally managed to escape his abusive father, Joe. But Adam has been kept locked away for many years, so he has little knowledge of the world and no good skills to survive in it. Fortunately, he meets Billy Benson, a young man who’s at the house when Adam makes his escape, and who becomes his ally. The two spend the next week together, and Billy provides Adam with a great deal of ‘street knowledge,’ as well as basics like a place to stay, clothes, and food. As they spend time together, the two also become friends, and begin to confide in each other. It turns out that both of them are haunted by the past, and by their connections to the tragic disappearance of a small boy from a crowded market ten years earlier. As the story evolves, both Adam and Billy learn something about ‘feeding one’s better nature,’ and about starting over, if I can put it that way.

Of course, people sometimes ‘feed’ their worse – even evil – side as well. After all, where would crime fiction be if they didn’t? And when they do, the result can be disastrous.

In Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair, we are introduced to Gilbert Hand, who works for a publishing firm. He’s recently moved to a very respectable London hotel, where he’s hoping to start over after the tragic death of his wife. Shortly after his arrival, he makes a bizarre discovery: in the davenport in his room, he finds a long coil of dark hair, wrapped in a scarf. Hand gets curious about the room’s former occupant and soon learns that it was man named Freddie Doyle. Now he’s even more curious, especially when Doyle pays him a visit to ask for the coil of hair (which request Hand refuses). Little by little, Hand becomes obsessed with Doyle, at the same repulsed and fascinated by him. He imagines a sort of ‘chess game’ between them. As his obsession grows, Hand starts to ‘feed’ his darker side, and the result leads to real tragedy.

A similar thing happens in Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down. Mix Cellini takes a flat in a home owned by Gwendolyn Chawcer. They don’t really like each other, but it’s a business arrangement; and on that level, it works. Through his profession (he repairs exercise equipment), Cellini meets supermodel Merissa Nash. He’s immediately smitten, and soon goes beyond that to obsession. At the same time, he learns about the life of notorious killer Richard Christie. The more he reads, the more obsessed Cellini becomes with Christie, too. Little by little, he starts to ‘feed’ his darker side, and the end result, as you’d expect, is disastrous.

It does in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, too. Dr. Everett Seeley has lost his medical license due to his drug problems. He decides to go to Mexico to start over; but until he gets settled, he doesn’t want to bring his wife Marion with him. So he establishes her in a Phoenix apartment, and sets her up with a job as a file clerk in the exclusive Werden Clinic. At first, all goes well enough. Marion even makes two friends: Louise Mercer (a nurse at the clinic) and Louise’s roommate Ginny Hoyt. It’s not long before Marion starts spending more time with them, and getting more and more involved in their edgy, even dangerous, lifestyle of wild parties, drugs and drinking. As time goes on, Marion begins to ‘feed’ her own darker and more dangerous side. The end result is an awful tragedy that impacts everyone involved.

Oh, and speaking of Abbotts, you’ll also want to check out Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel as a really interesting example of making choices between which side of our nature we ‘feed.’ Eve Moran has always nurtured her selfish side, letting nothing – not even someone’s life – get in the way of what she wants. Her daughter Christine’s been brought up with this influence, and has been caught in her mother’s web, so their relationship is truly dysfunctional. But everything changes when Christine sees that her little brother Ryan is at risk. Now she’s going to have to find a way to free herself and her brother from their mother’s influence.

And that’s the thing about human nature. People generally aren’t all good or all bad. The choices we make – the side of our nature that we ‘feed’ – plays a major role in what we do. And those choices can have far-reaching consequences.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s Ebony and Ivory.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charlotte Jay, G.K. Chesterton, Honey Brown, Megan Abbott, Patricia Abbott, Ruth Rendell

But I Can Feel it Coming*

PredictingAt this time of year, a lot of pundits make all sorts of predictions about the coming year. It might be about an election, a sport team or something else; whatever it is, people do like to predict. That’s what betting is all about, if you think about it.

Those predictions don’t come from mystical revelations – well, not credible predictions, as a rule. They come from dozens of sometimes-subtle clues, patterns and so on that we notice. Experience also plays a role, as does certain knowledge. For example, if you’re a chemistry expert, you can probably predict what the outcome will be if two particular chemicals are mixed. A good lawyer finds out as much as possible about the opposing side’s strategies, patterns and so on in order to predict what the other side will do, so as to win a case.

Sleuths and criminals, both real and fictional, depend on those patterns. Police, for instance, sometimes use patterns of known criminals in their investigations. Criminals use patterns, both subtle and obvious, to predict when people are most likely to be vulnerable.

We see both kinds of this kind of prediction in crime fiction. For instance, in G.K. Chesterton’s The Blue Cross, Father Brown is bringing a large silver cross set with sapphires to show to a large gathering of priests. At the same time, a French detective, Valentin, is pursuing a notorious thief named Hercule Flambeau. At one point, Valentin stops at a restaurant and places his order. That’s when he notices that the salt-cellar is full of sugar and the sugar-basin is full of salt. And then there’s the matter of the soup that’s been thrown against the wall. At first, he doesn’t understand the significance of these odd things. But as it turns out, they are important, and they reflect the ability to predict what someone might do, based on all sorts of psychological and other knowledge.

There’s more than one kind of prediction in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington. Elspeth McGillicuddy is on her way by train to visit her friend Jane Marple. When another train passes by, going in the same direction, Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to look up and into the windows of the passing train. That’s when she sees a woman being strangled. She tries to raise the alarm, but at first, nobody believes her. There’s been no report of a missing person, and no dead body has been found. But Miss Marple knows her friend, and takes her seriously. She uses a map and a train trip of her own to predict where the body might have ended up: on the grounds of Rutherford Hall. The property is owned by the Crackenthorpe family, and Miss Marple manipulates the situation so that her friend, professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, gets a position there. Sure enough, the body of a woman is discovered, and Miss Marple works with Lucy and, later, the police, to find out who the woman was and who killed her. In a sub-plot of the novel, Lucy attracts the interest of more than one member of the family, and Miss Marple makes (but doesn’t share) a prediction about which one Lucy will choose.

In Michael Redhill’s/Inger Ash Wolfe’s The Calling, we are introduced to Port Dundas, Ontario police detective Hazel Micallef. She and her team when eighty-one-year-old Delia Chandler is killed. On the surface, there doesn’t seem any motive for murder; the victim was terminally ill, and didn’t have any fortune to leave. So there wouldn’t have been a financial reason to get her out of the way quickly. The team is just looking into this case when there’s another death. Again, it’s a murder that doesn’t seem to have a motive. And in both cases, there is evidence that the killer was admitted to the house and that the victims were willing participants in their own deaths. It’s now clear that this team is up against a killer who’s struck before and is likely to strike again. So they’ll have to find out what the pattern is in order to prevent another killing. It turns out that, in order to predict what the murderer will do next, they have to connect these deaths with some others that have already happened in other parts of Canada.

Kanae Minato’s Confessions introduces readers to middle-school teacher Yūko Moriguchi. As the novel begins, she addresses her class, in part to announce her resignation. But she has another reason to do so. Her four-year-old daughter Manami recently died in what police originally thought was a tragic accident. But she knows it was murder; what’s more, she knows who was responsible: two of her students. She also knows that the Japanese judicial system cannot be trusted to dispense an appropriate punishment, since the criminals are juveniles. So, she has come up with her own plan to get justice. She doesn’t tell her students exactly what she’s planned, but her intent is clear. She duly leaves her position, and a new teacher takes over. At first, it seems that life will get back to something like normal. But it’s not long before things begin to spin out of control for some of the students. And as the novel goes on, we learn exactly what Yūko Moriguchi planned. Without spoiling the story, I can say that her knowledge of the way middle-school students are, and her particular knowledge of these students, help her predict what will happen.

And then there’s Peter May’s The Blackhouse. Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis when the body of Angel Macritchie is discovered. The murder closely resembles a murder that Macleod is investigating, and it’s hoped that he can get some clues to the killer if he works with the Lewis police on this new death. For Macleod, this is a homecoming, since he was brought up on the island; even the victim was someone from his past. So, part of the plot concerns his reunion with some of the people he knew as a boy. As it turns out, the key to this murder involves Macleod facing his own history. It also involves the ability to predict reactions (can’t say more without a spoiler).

You may or may not believe in psychics or psychic predictions. But we all do predict things, even when we’re not aware of it. And sometimes those predictions turn out to be very useful.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REO Speedwagon’s Take it on the Run.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Inger Ash Wolfe, Kanae Minato, Michael Redhill, Peter May

Let’s Begin Again*

ReformingIn Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas) Simeon Lee invites the members of his family to the family home, Gorston Hall, for Christmas. Lee is an unpleasant man and a tyrant, so no-one really wants to go. But at the same time, no-one dares refuse the invitation. Lee doesn’t exactly have a blameless past, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. Here’s what he says about it:
 

‘‘Ah, but I’ve been more wicked than most,’ Simeon laughed.
‘I don’t regret it, you know. No, I don’t regret anything.’’
 

In the end, you might say that Lee’s past comes back to haunt him when he is murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area for the holiday, and works with the local police to catch the killer.

Lee may not regret his criminal activity, but a lot of former criminals do try to ‘go straight.’ And an interesting post from Col at Col’s Criminal Library has got me thinking about how difficult that can be. While it certainly happens in some crime fiction, there are a lot of obstacles in the path of someone who’s trying to reform, as the saying goes.

For one thing, just because former criminal want to ‘go straight’ doesn’t necessarily mean that their former ‘associates’ are eager to let go. That’s part of the plot line of Max Allan Collins’ Spree, which Col reviewed and which started me thinking about this topic. I admit I’ve not read that novel, but it’s an example of the struggle that former criminals face when people in their old lives want them to do one more job. And it’s a good time to suggest that you pay Col’s great blog a visit. It’s a great resource for book and TV/film reviews.

We see how difficult it is to reform in Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill. Former con man and burglar William Decker has ‘gone straight,’ mostly for the sake of his toddler son. But he’s really struggling financially, and there aren’t many options for him. One afternoon, he brings his little son into a bar where Spillane’s protagonist Mike Hammer is having a drink. He quickly downs a couple of drinks himself, says goodbye to his son, and leaves the bar. A moment later he’s shot down in the street and run over by the car that was carrying the shooter. Hammer rushes outside, but doesn’t get there in time to save Decker’s life. Still, he determines that he’s going to find out who’s responsible. It turns out that Decker’s decision to ‘go straight’ wasn’t as easy a decision as he’d hoped…

One of Walter Mosley’s sleuths is New York PI Leonid McGill. He is a former boxer; and in another life, he was involved in plenty of criminal activity. But he’s trying to make an honest living now. Still, he needs to pay the rent, too, so in The Long Fall, he agrees to take on a job for a very shady character. His new employer wants him to find four people; and the only information he has to go on is the street names they were known by during adolescence. Then, the people McGill is looking for start to turn up dead, and he begins to suspect that he’s actually been hired by a murderer, and he could very likely be the next victim. So McGill decides to do what he sees as the right thing and stop the killer.

Despite the difficulties of ‘going straight’ (and there are lots of other crime novels that depict that), there are also plenty of novels in which we see characters who’ve successfully made the change. And being a former criminal can certainly give a character some interesting layers, and some insight into the crimes others commit.

For example, when we meet G.K. Chesterton’s Hercule Flambeau, in The Blue Cross, he’s a notorious thief. In fact, that’s how he comes to the attention of Father Brown, who’s on his way to a gathering of priests. Father Brown has with him a valuable cross set with jewels, which is how he comes to Flambeau’s attention. As fans of these characters know, over time, the two become friends, and Flambeau leaves behind his criminal life. In fact, he becomes a private detective. And he often depends on advice and insight from Father Brown.

There’s also Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up in Tinsel. In that novel, artist Agatha Troy has been commissioned to do a portrait of Hilary Bill-Tasmin. So that she can do her work, he’s invited her to stay over the Christmas holidays at Halbards, the family home. Troy agrees and joins Bill-Tasmin’s house party. Her host is a strong believer in the redemptive power of work and purpose, and is convinced that former convicts can make new, productive lives for themselves. So every member of his staff has a prison record, but is trying to ‘go straight.’ Bill-Tasmin has planned a special event for Christmas Eve: his Uncle Fleason ‘Uncle Flea’ is slated to dress up as a Druid and pass out gifts to the local children. On the day of the party, Uncle Flea is taken ill, and can’t attend the party. So his valet/servant Alfred Moult volunteers to take his place as the Druid. The event goes off as scheduled, but right after his appearance as a Druid, Moult disappears. Later, he’s found dead. Troy’s husband, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, wants her to leave Halbards right away and let the local police handle the investigation. Instead, he’s persuaded to take part in it. And one of the questions he and the local police have to face is: are the members of Bill-Tasmin really living legitimate lives? Or is one of them guilty of murder?

It’s not a settled question whether someone can ‘go straight’ after having been a criminal. There are plenty of cases of people who do, and plenty of those who don’t. Either way, it makes for an interesting layer of character development and of tension in a crime novel. Thanks, Col, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from R.E.M.’s Begin the Begin.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Max Allan Collins, Mickey Spillane, Ngaio Marsh, Walter Mosley

Tryin’ to Make a New Start*

Reformed CriminalsThe police, of course, are supposed to uphold the law. And most real and fictional police try to do just that. That’s why it’s interesting to see how many PIs and police have actually been on the other side of the cuffs, so to speak. They may have different reasons for ‘switching teams,’ but they do it; and their experiences can give them a unique insight into the way criminals think. They’ve been there. And they can use that hard-won knowledge.

The idea of the reformed criminal becoming a police officer or PI has a long history. For instance, Émile Gaboriau’s L’Affaire Lerouge (The Widow Lerouge), which was told in serial form in 1864 (put together as a novel in 1900) features Monsieur Lecoq, a reformed criminal who has become a police investigator. Interestingly enough, Lecoq is modeled on a real-life police investigator, Eugène Vidocq, founder of the Sûreté. Like Lecoq, Vidocq was a criminal who turned informant, then became a police officer. He’s regarded by many as the founder of modern criminology. And it seems he was in a good position to know his field…

G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown is often assisted by private enquiry agent Hercule Flambeau. They call on each other when one or the other has a particularly difficult or interesting case. But as fans of these stories know, Flambeau wasn’t always on the right side of the law. When we first meet him in the short story The Blue Cross, he’s a notorious thief who’s on his way to London to steal a valuable religious artifact. The French police are after him, but Father Brown proves more than a match for both. And as the Father Brown stories continue, Flambeau proves to be just as skilled at working for ‘the good guys’ as he is at stealing. It’s interesting, too, to see the influence Father Brown has on Flambeau. He doesn’t suddenly become an avid churchgoer, or begin observing religious traditions regularly. But he does re-think his purpose, and it’s not hard to see Father Brown’s role in that process.

Carol O’Connell’s Kathy Mallory also has what used to be called a ‘checkered past.’ At six, she witnessed her mother’s murder and ended up running off from her native Louisiana to New York, where she lived on the streets for a time. Then, she was caught trying to steal by New York City police detective Louis Markowitz. Mallory, as she’s usually called, faced the not-very-optimistic prospect of juvenile detention, foster homes, and possibly worse. But Markowitz took her in instead, and became her foster father. In Mallory’s Oracle, Mallory has become a police officer herself, and is hoping to make some sort of decent life. Then, her adoptive father is murdered in the course of an investigation. Mallory determines to find out who the killer is, and works with Markowitz’ partner Riker to learn the truth. Readers of this series know that Mallory isn’t what you’d call a ‘typical’ police officer. Her history still has a profound impact on her.

There’s also David Whish-Wilson’s Frank Swann. As a teenager and young adult, he did his share of lawbreaking. He was influenced in another direction, though, by his wife Marion’s father George Monroe. When he and Marion were dating, Swann had the opportunity to spend some time with her father, and
 
‘…George Monroe saw something in him that nobody else had, even encouraged him to join the force. In contrast with his stepfather, Monroe was a man Swann could admire.’
 

Under Monroe’s influence, Swann decided to join the police force. In Line of Sight and Zero at the Bone, we see that he’s a good cop, too. He’s not afraid to get tough if he has to, and he doesn’t always exactly follow the policy book. But he’s on the honest side of the law.

And then there’s Peter May’s Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod. When we first meet him in The Blackhouse, he is a police officer who lives and works in Edinburgh. He is seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help investigate the murder of Angel Macritchie, whose death closely resembles another case that Macleod’s been working. Macleod’s originally from Lewis, so for him, this case represents a sort of homecoming, ‘though not one he would have chosen. As the novel goes on, we learn that this case will force Macleod to face his own past. And it’s not an entirely happy one. Before becoming a police officer, Macleod wasn’t exactly a model child. He got into trouble more than once. For him, joining the police force was a way to escape the mistakes he’d made and start over. So it’s hard for him to return. And it’s interesting to see how he’s viewed once everyone on Lewis knows he’s with the force. It’s also interesting to see how he comes to view himself.

Law enforcement is a lifelong career goal for some people. But for others, it becomes a way to do something more productive with their lives than crime. And sometimes it works out quite well.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Rodgers’ Heartbreaker.

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Filed under Émile Gaboriau, Carol O'Connell, David Whish-Wilson, G.K. Chesterton, Peter May