Category Archives: Håkan Nesser

There’s a Million Different Voices*

Authors of series use several strategies to keep their series interesting over time. One strategy some authors use is to have different protagonists within the same series. It can be a challenge to balance those different protagonists’ voices with the need for a consistent context for the series. Some authors, though, have done it quite successfully.

Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series makes use of several protagonists’ voices, and that makes sense, as the Garda Síochána’s Murder Squad is a team of people. The first novel, In The Woods, features Rob Ryan. That novel also includes Cassie Maddox, although she plays a less central role. But she takes the ‘starring’ role in the next novel, The Likeness. And, as different members join the squad and leave it, different characters are featured in the novels. And that’s realistic, as in real life, people do join units, transfer, and so on. Among other things, this strategy has allowed French to develop different characters, and provide different perspectives on the crimes that are investigated.

The central protagonist in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Reykjavík series is Inspector Erlendur. He works with a team that includes police detectives Sigurdur Óli and Elínborg. While Erlendur makes many of the decisions, he relies a great deal on his colleagues, and they know that. As the series goes on, they feature more strongly in the novels. In fact, in the ninth and tenth novels in the series, Erlendur doesn’t even appear. His colleagues do the investigation. This strategy allows readers to get to know those characters better, and it allows for story arcs and character development that might otherwise be more difficult. What’s more, it arguably adds interest to the series.

We see a similar thing in Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren series. At the beginning of the series (the first novel is Mind’s Eye), Van Veeteren is the leader of his investigation team. So, several novels feature him in the lead role. But he works with a team of other people, whose work he trusts. As the series goes on, Van Veeteren decides to retire from active police work, and he buys a bookshop. This means that the investigating now needs to be done by other people. And that’s what happens, for instance, in The Unlucky Lottery. In fact, that book’s original title is Münsters Fall (Münster’s Case). In the novel, Intendant Münster does the primary investigation when Valdemar Leverkuhn is murdered in his own bed, just after winning a lottery prize. Later, in The Weeping Girl, another colleague, Ewa Moreno, is the featured protagonist. The original title for that novel is Ewa Morenos Fall (Ewa Morenos’ Case). In it, eighteen-year-old Mikaela Lijphart goes missing. Moreno had met her once and hasn’t forgotten her. So, she gets involved in the case. And she finds that it’s connected to the disappearance of Mikaela’s father, two murders, and some very dark secrets from the past. It’s not that Van Veeteren completely disappears; the other detectives consult with him on a regular, if informal, basis. But the baton is passed, if I may put it like that.

S.J. Rozan has an interesting approach to featuring more than one sleuth as the main protagonist. Her series features two New York PIs. One is Chin Ling Wan-ju, who usually goes by Lydia Chin, the American version of her name. The other is Bill Smith. They’ve got very different backgrounds and are twenty years apart in age. As the series starts (with China Trade), Chin is twenty-seven. She’s from a traditional Chinese family; in fact, her mother would very much rather she give up investigating, meet a Chinese husband, and settle down like a ‘proper’ daughter. Still, she knows Chin will find her own way. For her part, Chin is just as American as she is Chinese. Yet, she respects several of the old traditions, and she works to maintain a solid bond with her mother. Smith is from a military family, so he doesn’t have deep roots. He has his own PI business, and teams up with Chin for some cases. Some of the novels in this series are written from Chin’s point of view, and some from Smith’s. This allows Rozan to explore both characters, and let readers see each from the other’s point of view. It also allows for different sorts of cases and clients.

Fans of Robert Crais’ work know that his main series features two sleuths: Los Angeles PIs Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. They have very different personal styles, communication styles, and outlooks. But they complement one another, and each respects the other’s skills. In the first novels, Elvis Cole is the main protagonist. The stories are told from his perspective, and we see Pike through his eyes. In several of the later novels, though, the stories are told from Pike’s point of view. Readers follow his movements, and Cole is less in the limelight. This strategy has allowed Crais to explore different sorts of cases, and to let his characters develop. Not everyone likes both sets of stories equally, but they have allowed Crais a lot of flexibility.

And that’s an important reason for using different protagonists in a series. It allows flexibility. What’s more, the author can develop characters, introduce a variety of cases, and keep a series engaging.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Traffic’s Hidden Treasure.

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Filed under Arnaldur Indriðason, Håkan Nesser, Robert Crais, S.J. Rozan, Tana French

Got to Begin Again*

It’s a not-so-pleasant fact of life that sometimes, you have to stop what you’re doing and start all over again. You know the feeling, I’m sure. You’re nearly done putting together a piece of furniture, only to notice you’ve put a key piece on backwards. Or, you’ve just finished an email, ready to click on ‘Send,’ when you notice you’ve made some major mistakes in it and have to rewrite it. We all have to start over sometimes.

That includes fictional sleuths. As sleuths investigate, they develop mental constructs of what probably happened. Sometimes, something happens that makes that construct impossible. So, they have to start all over again. It’s frustrating and time-consuming – so much so that there are people who will ignore new evidence that disproves their own ideas. But, if a sleuth’s to find out what really happened in a case, that frustration is sometimes part of the proverbial package.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, for instance, Inspector Lestrade gets what looks like a ‘cut and dried’ case. Charles McCarthy has been murdered, and the most likely suspect is his son, James. There’s plenty of evidence, too, as the two were seen quarreling loudly just before the killing. James McCarthy’s fiancée, Alice Turner, is convinced that he’s innocent, though. She pleads with Lestrade to take another look at the case. For all of his faults, Lestrade doesn’t want an innocent man executed. So, he contacts Sherlock Holmes about the case, and Holmes and Watson look into the matter. Holmes starts again at the beginning and finds out who really killed McCarthy and why.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that she uses that trope of starting all over again in several of her stories. There’s a clear example of it in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence investigated the murder of a charwoman, and all of the evidence pointed towards her lodger, James Bentley. The evidence was so compelling, in fact, that Bentley was arrested, tried and convicted – all very fair and above-board. But Spence has begun to think he was wrong. The theory of Bentley’s guilt doesn’t make sense to him as it did, and he doesn’t want to see an innocent man hung. So, he asks for Hercule Poirot’s help. Poirot agrees, and travels to the village of Broadhnny, where the murder occured. He begins all over again and goes back over the case. And in the end, he finds out who the real killer is. Although it’s Poirot who finds the solution, it’s Spence’s willingness to start over that makes that possible.

Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye begins as schoolteacher Janek Mitter wakes up after a long night of drinking. Badly hung over, he slowly comes to his senses, only to discover the body of his wife, Eva Ringmar, in the bathtub. The police, in the form of Inspector Van Veetern, are called in and, as you can imagine, Mitter becomes the most likely suspect. In fact, he’s arrested, tried and convicted. He can remember nothing about the murder, because he was far too drunk at the time. So, he’s remanded to a mental facility, rather than a traditional prison, in the hope that his memory will return. Van Veeteren has come to wonder whether his initial theory about the murder was correct. And, when Mitter himself is brutally murdered, Van Veeteren is sure that he was wrong. Now, he and his team have to let go of their theory of Eva Ringmar’s death and start all over again. And now they’ve got two murders to solve.

Gordon Ferris’ Glasgow trilogy features former journalist Douglas Brodie. In The Hanging Shed, he’s just returned from service in World War II (the book takes place just after the war), and is living in London. He’s trying to pick up the pieces, as the saying goes, and start life again. Then, he gets a call from an old friend, Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. Donovan’s been arrested for the abduction and murder of a young boy, Rory Hutchinson. There is a great deal of convincing evidence against him, too. For instance, the boy’s clothes were found in his home, and there are traces of heroin in his system (Donovan has the habit). But Donovan claims that he had nothing to do with Rory’s death. Brodie isn’t sure what he can do to help. And, in any case, he’s not entirely convinced that his old friend is innocent. Donovan went through the war, too, and that sort of trauma can do all sorts of things to a person. Still, Brodie agrees to see what he can do, and travels to his native Glasgow. There, he meets Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell. Together, the two have to start all over again and try to put the pieces of the puzzle together in a different way if they’re to save Donovan.

And then there’s Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink. Lucy Khambule is one half of The Publicists, a Johannesburg company which she owns with her friend, Patricia Moabelo. But, she’s at a bit of a crossroads for a few reasons. Everything changes when she gets a telephone call from Napoleon Dingiswayo, who’s in a maximum-security prison for a series of horrific killings. She had written to him during her years in journalism, and he kept her contact information. Now, he wants to meet her and possibly have her write a book about him. The offer is extremely tempting, since Khambule has always wanted to write a book. So, she goes to the prison, and she and her interviewee start working together. Then, some very unsettling and violent things begin to happen. Dingiswayo can’t be responsible for them, since he is in a maximum-security facility. But if he’s not guilty, then who is? And what might that say about the murders for which he’s in prison? Now, the whole theory of what really happened has to be set aside and re-examined. And Khambule will have to do that quickly, before anything else happens.

It’s never easy or fun to have to toss something aside and start over again. But sometimes, it’s the only way to get to the truth. And the sleuth who can do that is more likely to find out the real answers.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Makholwa, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gordon Ferris, Håkan Nesser

Spare Him His Life From This Monstrosity*

It’s easy to understand how people might want to clear their own names if they’re mixed up in a crime, especially a crime such as murder. It’s also easy enough to understand why, for instance, attorneys work to defend their clients and clear their names. That makes sense both in real life and in crime fiction.

But there are also cases in crime fiction where someone else steps in to try to clear another person of a crime. And there are many reasons to do that. It might be that the suspect is a friend or loved one. Or it might be the sleuth him or herself who doesn’t believe a suspect is guilty. There are other reasons, too. This plot point gives an author some interesting possibilities for character and plot development, as well as for adding in tension. There are plenty of examples – far more than I can mention in one post. Here are just a few.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery introduces readers to Alice Turner. When her fiancé, James McCarthy, is arrested for murdering his father, she goes to Inspector Lestrade to ask him to review the case.  She is convinced that McCarthy is innocent, and wants his name cleared. There’s plenty of evidence against McCarthy, but Lestrade presents the case to Sherlock Holmes, who asks Dr. Watson to help him look into it. In this case, it’s not just Alice Turner’s love for her fiancé that drives her. She is convinced that he wouldn’t be capable of committing murder. And Holmes’ investigation proves that she was right.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to investigate the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter, and there was plenty of evidence against her.  But Carla doesn’t think she was guilty. And it’s not just because of any sentimental attachment Carla has to her mother. She firmly believes her mother was innocent of murder, and she wants Poirot to investigate. He agrees, and then interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each of those people. In the end, he discovers that Carla was right: someone else killed Amyas Crale.  Christie uses this plot point in other stories, too, right, fans of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead?

Lord Peter Wimsey has a very strong motive for wanting to clear Harriet Vane’s name in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison: he’s fallen in love with her. Vane is arrested and tried for the poisoning murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. There is evidence against her, too. But the jury can’t reach a verdict, so the judge declares that there will be a new trial. Wimsey, who attended the first trial, is determined to ask Vane to marry him. But he’ll have to clear her name first. So, he decides to investigate the murder. With the help of some friends, he’s able to find out who really killed Boyes and why.

In Giorgio Scerbanenco’s  A Private Venus, we meet Dr. Duca Lamberti. He’s recently been released from prison, where he was serving a sentence for euthanasia. One evening, wealthy engineer Pietro Auseri offers Lamberti a proposition. It seems that Auseri’s son, Davide, has been drinking heavily, despite going for treatment. Auseri’s concerned for Davide and wants Lamberti to help. Lamberti’s not sure how much good he can do, but he agrees to at least try. After a b it, he discovers the reason for Davide’s drinking and depression. It seems that a year earlier, Davide met a young woman named Alberta Radelli. They had a pleasant day together in Florence, and at the end of it, Alberta asked Davide to take her with him. He refused, and she threatened suicide. Not long afterwards, she was found dead in a field outside Milan. Davide’s convinced he is responsible for Alberta’s death. Lamberti believes that the best way to help Davide is to find out what really happened to Alberta, so he begins to ask questions. It’s not long before he turns up the distinct possibility that Alberta was murdered. So, Lamberti works to find out who killed the victim, so he can clear Davide of his sense of guilt.

In Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, it’s actually the police detective who decides to clear a suspect’s name. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team gathered the evidence that implicated Janek Mitter for the murder of his wife, Eva Ringmar. Mitter claims that he is innocent, but he was so drunk on the night of the murder that he has no memory of what happened, nor of who else might have committed the crime. So, he is tried and convicted. Van Veeteren has begun to have his doubts about MItter’s guilt, so he goes over the case again. He’s hoping to be able to clear Mitter’s name and find out who the killer is. Then, Mitter himself is murdered. Now Van Veeteren and his team redouble their efforts to find out the truth.

And then there’s Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Last Rituals. Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir gets a telephone call from Germany, from Amelia Guntlieb. Her son, Harald, was studying at the university in Reykjavík when he was murdered. The police think they have the right suspect in Harald Guntlieb’s friend, Hugi Thórisson. But Amelia Guntlieb doesn’t believe he killed her son. She wants Thóra to defend Hugi and find out who the real killer was. It’s an unusual request, but the fee is irresistible. So, Thóra and the Guntlieb family banker, Matthew Reich, work together to find out the truth about this case.

There are many other cases, both real and fictional, where someone asks for a suspect’s name to be cleared. These are only a few. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Håkan Nesser, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

What Time Was It?*

When there’s a murder, whether it’s real or fictional, it’s important to establish time of death if possible. Sometimes there are witnesses who can help in that process. But even so, establishing time of death isn’t always as simple as it may seem on the surface.

In crime fiction, at any rate, there are plenty of factors that can make it harder to establish when a victim actually died. Sometimes, for instance, fictional murderers set things up to make it seem as though a victim died at one time, when the death really took place either earlier or later. And that makes sense, too. If the killer has an unbreakable alibi for the supposed time of death, it’s easier to avoid getting caught. There are a few Agatha Christie stories in which the time of death is manipulated. No spoilers here, but the end result is that everyone has to go back to the proverbial drawing board when the real time of death is established.

Sometimes, knowing when someone died plays an important role in inheritances. That, too, can impact the way people think about it. In Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, General Fentiman dies while sitting in his customary chair at his club (which also happens to be Lord Peter Wimsey’s club). His sister, wealthy Lady Dormer, has also passed away. The time of these deaths matters greatly, mostly because of inheritances. If Lady Dormer dies first, the family fortune passes to Fentiman’s grandson. If Fentiman dies first, it passes to Lady Dormer’s distant cousin, Ann Dormer. Then, it’s discovered that Fentiman was poisoned. Wimsey looks into the case and finds that more than one person had a stake in exactly what time each death happened.

There’s also a question of time of death and inheritance in Elizabeth Daly’s Unexpected Night, which introduces her sleuth, rare book expert Henry Gamadge. In the novel, Eleanor Cowden, her son and daughter Amberley and Alma, and Amberley’s tutor Hugh Sanderson, pay a summer visit to Ford’s Beach, Maine. Amberley’s in very bad health because of his heart condition, and he’s not expected to live long. He stands to inherit a fortune from a deceased aunt if he lives to the age of 21, but there’s a good chance he won’t live that long. Still, he’s determined to make this trip, as he is interested in the summer stock theatre in the area. The family arrives in the last few hours before Amberley turns 21 and settles in. The next morning, he’s found dead at the bottom of the cliff. One question is, how did he end up at the cliff in the middle of the night? Another is: did he die of heart failure or was this a murder? And, of course, there’s the question of when he died. This makes all the difference when it comes to the money he was to inherit.

Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye begins as schoolteacher Janek Mitter wakes up with a terrible hangover after a drunken sleep. He takes stock of himself and then slowly gets up. Within minutes, he discovers the body of his wife, Eva Ringmar, in the bathtub. Mitter was so drunk that he has no memory at all of what happened the night before. So, he has no alibi when the police begin to investigate. Having no choice, they arrest him, and he’s soon put on trial. Because Mitter was thoroughly drunk, he can’t establish when he last saw his wife alive. So, it’s difficult to pinpoint when she died. In part because of that, Mitter is the only one who was definitely at their home at the time his wife died. He claims to be innocent, but there’s no clear time of death that would put anyone else at the scene. He’s therefore convicted and remanded to a mental hospital until he can recover his memory of the murder. Inspector Van Veeteren’s team gathered the evidence against Mitter, and at first, it seemed persuasive. But now, Van Veeteren has doubts. And, when Mitter himself is murdered, it’s clear that this case is much more complicated than it seems.

And then there’s Julia Keller’s Bitter River, which features Raythune County, West Virginia, prosecuting attorney Belfa ‘Bell’ Elkins. Early one morning, the body of sixteen-year-old Lucinda Trimble is found in a car at the bottom of Bitter River, in Acker’s Gap. At first, it looks possible that she either committed suicide or that the car went into the river by accident. But soon enough, forensics reports reveal that Lucinda was dead before she went into the river. The fact that she was submerged in water makes it hard enough to pinpoint when she died. But now, Elkins and local sheriff Nick Fogelsong have to cast a wider net, as the saying goes, since they don’t have a clearly established time of death. And it turns out that there are more suspects than it may seem on the surface.

There are lots of other crime novels in which the time of death turns out to be very important to the story. Sometimes it’s because of one or another alibi. Sometimes it has to do with another aspect of the plot. Either way, the process of finding out when a victim actually died is central to murder investigations, whether they take place in real life or fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Unicorns’ Sea Ghost. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Elizabeth Daly, Håkan Nesser, Julia Keller

We’ve Got a Falling Barometer and Rising Seas*

If you read enough crime fiction, you soon learn to expect that something bad – perhaps very bad – is going to happen. After all, most crime fiction is about bad things happening. Much of the time, the terrible thing that happens is murder.

Even though crime writers know that their readers expect something awful to happen, they still want to draw those readers in. Sometimes, they do this by building the tension right from the beginning. It’s a bit like storm clouds gathering and building up the suspense that happens just before a major downpour. Authors have different ways of doing this, but no matter what way the author chooses, it can build suspense and get the reader turning and swiping pages.

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, for instance, begins as a group of ten people travel to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. They’ve all been invited to spend time there, and, for different reasons, each has accepted. As the various guests arrive, we follow their thoughts, and tension begins to build. It builds even more when it becomes clear that the host is not there. It’s all a bit odd, but everyone settles in. After dinner that evening, each person is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. Later, one of the guests suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Then, there’s another death. Now the survivors begin to see that someone has deliberately lured them to the island and is trying to kill them. They’ll have to find out who that person is if they’re to stay alive. We may not know from the start who the killer is; right away, though, as the people gather, we know that something very, very bad is going to happen.

There’s a similar sense of the tension building at the beginning of Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski. In that novel, Scotland Yard’s Henry Tibbett and his wife, Emmy, are on their way to a skiing holiday at Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. They’ll be staying at the Bella Vista Hotel, and they soon find that several other people on the trip are staying there, too. As the group arrives at the hotel, there are already undercurrents of unease, and it’s easy to sense that something awful is about to happen. And it soon does. One of the guests, an Austrian businessman named Fritz Hauser, is shot, and his body found on a ski lift. Capitano Spezzi and his team arrive and begin to investigate. When it comes out that Tibbett is with Scotland Yard, Spezzi grudgingly, and then more willingly, works with him. In the end, and after another death, they find that Hauser brought his fate on himself, in a manner of speaking.

Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye starts as a teacher named Janek Mitter slowly wakes up after having had far, far too much to drink. He was so drunk that, at first, he doesn’t remember who he is or where he is. That sense of disorientation starts to build the suspense right away. Slowly, Mitter remembers who he is, and that he’s at home. Just as he’s beginning to get his bearings, he discovers the body of his wife, Eva Ringmar, in their bathtub. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate, and it seems at first that all of the evidence points to Mitter as the killer. But he insists that he is innocent, and it’s not long before Van Veeteren starts to believe him. Mitter is still convicted, though, and remanded to a mental hospital until his memory recovers enough to assist the police. Not long afterwards, he himself is brutally murdered. Now, Van Veeteren knows that MItter was telling the truth, and works backwards to find out who would have wanted to kill both Mitter and his wife.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we are introduced to Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She’s very close to her brother, Bill, so she’s understandably very interested when he starts to date former Hollywood seamstress’ assistant Alice Steele. From the moment Alice makes her appearance, there’s a sense that something isn’t quite right. And that feeling gets even stronger as Bill and Alice continue to date, fall in love, and decide to marry. At first, Lora tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law for Bill’s sake. The more she finds out about Alice’s life, though, the more repelled she is by it. And the more questions she has about Alice. At the same time, she is drawn to that life, so she has conflicting feelings when there’s a death, and Alice seems to be mixed up in it. Telling herself that it’s to protect her brother, Lora starts to ask some questions. But long before the death, in fact, from the beginning of the story, we know that something bad will happen.

We know that about Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, too. Science fiction novelist Zack Walker decides that he and his family should move from the city that he considers too dangerous to the suburbs. The Walkers choose Valley Forest Estates as their new development, and move in. But right from the beginning, we know there’s going to be trouble. First, Walker notices some problems with the house that need to be fixed. Then, he witnesses an argument between a Valley Forest executive and a local environmentalist. Later, he finds that environmentalist dead near a local creek. Before he knows it, Walker’s involved in a web of conspiracy and murder. But we know right from the beginning that this move is going to present real problems…

And then there’s Herman Koch’s The Dinner. This book follows the structure of a meal, with sections that have titles such as ‘Appetizer,’ ‘Main Course,’ and ‘Dessert.’ Within each section are the various chapters. At the beginning of the book, two couples meet for dinner at a very exclusive Amsterdam restaurant. Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, meet Paul’s brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. In some ways, there’s little indication of what’s to come. But very soon, there’s a sense of uneasiness, especially as we learn about Paul’s relationship with his brother. Little by little, we learn the real reason the two couples have met. Their fifteen-year-old sons have committed a horrible crime. Now, the four adults have to decide what they will do. As the novel goes on, we learn about what happened, and we learn about the histories of these dysfunctional people. And that sense that something is wrong starts early in the book.

Sometimes, especially if you’re a crime fiction fan, you know right away that things will turn awful. Little nuances, the atmosphere, and other clues can give the sense that trouble is on the way. And that can draw the reader in.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Herman Koch, Linwood Barclay, Megan Abbott, Patricia Moyes