Category Archives: Ian Hamilton

Filling Out Forms, Standing in Line*

Just try getting a passport, a bank account, a lease, or a marriage license, and you’ll find out just how much paperwork there is in modern life. Admittedly, a lot of it’s online in modern times, but it’s still official ‘hoops.’ As ‘regular’ citizens, we may find that sort of ‘red tape’ annoying, but it can be very useful for police investigators who want to get background information on a person. Telephone records, for instance, can give the police valuable information on a victim (or suspect)’s communications network. Auto loan and registration information can tell police about someone’s financial situation, as well as link up an owner with, say, a car involved in a crime.

There are plenty of other examples, too. So, it’s no surprise at all that we see a lot of this sort of paperwork in crime fiction. And it’s been going on for quite some time. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood, we are introduced to Rowley Cloade. He’s a farmer who’d doing his best to cope with the major changes in farming regulations that came about after the turn of the 20th Century. As the novel begins, he’s not exactly getting wealthy, but he’s always been told that he can count on his wealthy uncle, Gordon Cloade, for financial support. Then, unexpectedly, Gordon Cloade marries; soon afterwards, he dies in a bomb blast before he can change his will to protect his family. Now, the Cloades will have to find a way to manage without that security. Then, a stranger comes to town, who hints that Cloade’s widow was already married at the time of her wedding. If so, the Cloades get the fortune, so it’s of great interest to them. When that stranger is killed, Hercule Poirot gets involved in the investigation. In one scene, Rowley goes to see his uncle Jeremy, ostensibly for help with some of the mountain of official forms he has to cope with as a farmer. That’s not really his purpose, but it’s the reason Jeremy isn’t in a very big hurry to finish his dinner and meet with his nephew. To Jeremy’s surprise, Rowley abruptly leaves. And, as it turns out, Rowley has found out something that plays an important role in the story.

Official paperwork is an important part of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. Insurance agent Walter Huff happens to be in the Hollywood Hills, when he decides to pay a visit to one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger. He’s hoping to get an agreement for a policy renewal. Nirdlinger isn’t home, but his wife, Phyllis, is. She and Huff start talking, and find themselves attracted to each other. Before long, they are involved in a relationship. Phyllis soon tells Huff that she wants to kill her husband. In fact, she wants a policy double-indemnity set up so that she’ll inherit twice the value of her husband’s life insurance in case of an accident. That involves paperwork that she can’t do, but by this time, Huff is so besotted with her that he agrees to go along with her plan. In fact, he’s the one who draws up the new policy, and participates in Nirdlinger’s murder. Huff thinks this’ll be the worst thing he has to deal with, but, as it turns out, that’s only the beginning of his troubles…

Paperwork is also critical in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke, which takes place in 1931 Berlin, just before the Nazi rise to power. Hannah Vogel is a crime reporter who discovers by accident that her brother Ernst has been found dead. She wants very badly to find out how and why he died. She faces several challenges, though. One is the fact that, at the moment, she has no official identity documents. She and Ernst lent theirs to some Jewish friends so they could leave Germany, and those friends haven’t yet returned the papers (which they promised to do). So, she’ll have to stay out of the way of any official, and ask her questions very quietly and carefully.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we are introduced to Lora King, a Pasadena schoolteacher. When her brother, Bill, introduces her to his new girlfriend, Alice Steele, Lora’s not at all sure she likes this woman. But, for Bill’s sake, she tries to be friendly with Alice. Despite Lora’s sense of unease, Bill and Alice marry, so now, there’s even more motivation to try to work things out with Alice. But soon, Lora begins to have doubts. For example, at one point, she agrees to help Alice get a teaching job at her school. Alice has said that she has a teaching certificate, but Lora can find no record of it. And, even in the 1950s, when this novel takes place, there was plenty of ‘red tape’ involved in getting a teaching license. This, plus other little hints, make Lora very uneasy. But, at the same time as she’s repelled by Alice’s life, she’s also drawn to it. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice could be mixed up in it. Now, Lora has to decide what she’ll do about her sister-in-law, who might very well be a killer.

Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee depends quite a lot on official paperwork. She’s a Toronto-based forensic accountant who works for a Hong Kong company run by Chow Tung, a man Lee refers to as ‘Uncle.’ This company’s specialty is recovering money – sometimes a great deal of it – for people who are desperate to get that money back. Lee is in demand, because she is very good at what she does. In the process of looking for missing money, she often uses her knowledge of the sort of paperwork involved for loans, funds transfers, international transactions, and so on. Even the most accomplished thief still usually leaves a ‘paper trail.’

And that’s why that sort of bureaucracy is important, at least in crime fiction. You may grumble about all the ‘hoops’ involved in registering your home for sale, or in making a large purchase such as a car. But it all does matter. And it can all add to a crime novel.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Hamilton, James M. Cain, Megan Abbott, Rebecca Cantrell

Renaissance Man*

renaissance-peopleThey’re sometimes called ‘Renaissance people,’ or polymaths. They’re experts in several, sometimes very different sorts of fields, and that can make them fascinating. In real life, people such as Winston Churchill and Benjamin Franklin have been called ‘Renaissance people.’ I’m sure you could think of others, too.

There are, arguably, also such people in crime fiction. The trick in creating them, of course, is to balance that variety of expertise areas with credibility. No-one can really do it all, or really knows it all. So, it can be a challenge to create such characters and make them appealing.
 

One such character is arguably Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Not only is he an expert in chemistry, but he’s also well-skilled in other areas, too. Here, for instance, is a bit of Dr. Watson’s summation (from A Study in Scarlet):
 

‘7. Chemistry. — Profound. 8. Anatomy. — Accurate, but unsystematic. 9. Sensational Literature. — Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century. 10. Plays the violin well. 11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman. 12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.’
 

That’s a wide variety of skills, and fans of these stories will know that Holmes uses those skills at different times. What’s interesting, though, is that there are some areas in which he has very little knowledge. He knows nothing of literature or philosophy, and little of politics. In fact, Holmes himself says that he devotes his attention only to knowledge that’ll help him in his profession. It’s an interesting mix of skills and lack of knowledge.

Fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey can tell you that he has a wide and quite varied set of skills. Along with his ability to deduct and solve mysteries, he’s got many rare books, and is somewhat of an expert in that field. He also knows his way around wine. And that’s not to mention his skills as a change ringer (right, fans of The Nine Tailors?). Those who’ve read Murder Must Advertise can also vouch for his skills on the cricket field. In fact, some readers have found Wimsey tiresome, in part because he’s good at so very much. Whether you’re in that group or not, there’s no doubt that Wimsey has a lot of expertise in different areas.

So does Rex Stout’s Nero Wole.  He is, as fans know, a brilliant detective. His skills at deduction are impressive. But any fan of Wolfe knows that he is also thoroughly knowledgeable about orchids of all kinds. He can discuss the most minute detail of orchid raising with the best-informed experts. And, although, orchids are his particular passion, he also knows other things about gardening. And I couldn’t discuss Nero Wolfe without mentioning his thorough knowledge of gourmet food. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on food, and several of the Wolfe mysteries feature his adventures among the gourmet greats (e.g. Too Many Cooks). What’s interesting about Wolfe, though, is that there are also things he’s not mastered quite so well. As Archie Goodwin is happy to point out, Wolfe has his limitations. He may be a ‘Renaissance person,’ but that certainly doesn’t make him perfect.

You could also argue that Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee is a “Renaissance person.’ She is a forensic accountant who, as the series begins, works for a Hong-Kong based company run by Chow Tung, whom she calls ‘Uncle.’ The company works on behalf of people who’ve been bilked out of money (sometimes a great deal of it), and are desperate to get that money back. Lee’s job is to track the missing money down. And that means she has to be able to follow a financial trail. So, as you can imagine, she’s an expert in accountancy. Lee is also (again, not surprisingly) an expert on computers and cyber-activity. Along with that, Lee is an expert in martial arts. That’s probably not a bad thing, considering the danger she often encounters in the course of her work. Whether she’s too ‘over the top’ will likely depend on the reader’s point of view and taste. But she’s certainly skilled in a lot of areas.

And then there’s Madhumita Bhattacharyya’s Reema Ray. She’s a PI who, as the series starts, has her own business in Calcutta/Kolkata. She’s studied several aspects of criminology; in fact, she almost became a police officer. But she has other skill sets, too.  Her small business isn’t immediately successful, so she has to also consider other ways of making ends meet. She is, therefore, a journalist – a writer for a lifestyle magazine called Face. Another area in which Reema has some expertise is in gourmet food. She’s not only an enthusiastic cook (mostly baking) herself, but she also is quite familiar with different sorts of cooking styles, spices and so on. Part of that expertise comes from her own interest; part comes from what she learns through her lifestyle writing and reporting. This doesn’t mean she’s all-knowing or perfect, though. She has her share of weaknesses and vulnerabilities as we all do.

And that’s the challenge with ‘Renaissance’ characters. It can be tricky for an author to endow them with several areas of expertise, and still keep them credible. No-one’s perfect, and that includes people who have a wide variety of skills. And when characters are too expert to be credible, this can quickly get tiresome. Still, a ‘Renaissance’ character can be interesting.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Ian Hamilton, Madhumita Bhattacharyya, Rex Stout

YYZ*

TorontoToronto is a beautiful, cosmopolitan city. It’s one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, and it’s got a rich history. There’s politics (it’s a provincial capital), art, fine food, great music and sport. And murder. That’s right, murder. Don’t let Toronto’s peaceful and lovely surface fool you; plenty of crime fiction happens there. Little wonder the Arthur Ellis awards for this year – Canada’s highest award for crime writing – were given out in Toronto. Here are just a few examples of Toronto-based crime fiction. There are others that space prevents me from mentioning.

One of Eric Wright’s series features Inspector Charlie Salter of the Toronto Metropolitan Police. For political reasons, he got ‘sidelined’ and shunted to what amounts to desk duty. He begins to win back some notice in his first outing, The Night the Gods Smiled. In Smoke Detector, the second novel in this series, he investigates the murder of Cyril ‘Cy’ Drecker, who owned an antique/junk shop. Drecker’s body is found in the burned-out remains of the shop, and it’s soon revealed that he died of smoke inhalation. This is clearly a case of arson and murder, so Salter’s challenge is to sift through the victim’s past to find out who is responsible. It won’t be easy, either, as Drecker was an unfaithful husband and a somewhat unscrupulous businessman. Along with the mysteries in this series, it also features story arcs that focus on Salter’s family. He’s one of those detectives who actually has a bond with his wife and children…

John McFetridge has also set his work in Toronto. For example, Dirty Sweet is the story of down-on-her-luck real estate agent Roxanne Keyes. One afternoon, she witnesses a man get out of the passenger side of a Volvo, walk back to an SUV behind him, and shoot the driver. She tells her story to the investigating detectives and it’s accurate as far as it goes. But that’s not very far. She hasn’t told the police that the murderer looks familiar. Later, she remembers who the killer is: He’s a former prospective client, Boris Suliemanov, who’s with the Russian Mob. She figures that if she deals with Suliemanov rather than turning him in to the police, she can set herself up to benefit. But of course, when you deal with dangerous people, you get into trouble…

Robert Rotenberg’s series featuring police detective Ari Greene also takes place mostly in Toronto. In some senses, this is a police procedural series since Greene is with the Toronto Police, and he and his team do the investigating in these novels. But Rotenberg is a criminal lawyer, and these books are as much legal mysteries as they are anything else. Each one involves an important trial, and we follow several attorneys for both sides as these cases are prepared and play out in court. Rotenberg also depicts the cultural complexity of Toronto, too. As we get to know the characters in this series, we see that they’re from a wide variety of ethnic, geographic and cultural backgrounds. They’re all in the city for different reasons, too, and Rotenberg tells their stories without too much of a self-conscious focus on their diversity. It’s simply part of what this city is.

One of the important communities in Toronto is the Chinese and Chinese-Canadian community. Readers get a look at this community in Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee novels. Lee’s mother moved her children from China to Canada when Lee was very small, so Lee considers herself Canadian. Yet, she maintains several aspects of her Chinese identity as well. She is a forensic accountant who works for a Hong Kong-based firm headed by Chow Tung, whom Lee refers to as Uncle. Her specialty is tracing hidden money, and her services are highly valued by clients who’ve been bilked out of money and are desperate to get it back. Lee travels quite a lot, since those who are trying to hide money tend to use offshore banks and other companies. But her home is Toronto.

There are also Jill Edmondson’s Sasha Jackson novels. Jackson is a former rock singer who’s become a private investigator. Her cases have shown her (and the reader) several different sides of Toronto, including various facets of the sex and porn industries; banking; music; and of course, good restaurants. Sometimes Jackson’s personal life gets a little complicated. But she can always count on her best friend Lindsey, her brother Shane (it helps that he and Lindsey are engaged), and her father. Thus far, there are four novels in this series: Blood and Groom, Dead Light District, The Lies Have It, and Frisky Business.

And no mention of Toronto crime fiction would be complete without a mention of the CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries, starring Yannick Bisson as Detective William Murdoch. The series takes place mostly in Toronto, at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century. There’s a strong sense of the late Victorian/Edwardian era, and some of the main movements and events of that time find their ways into the plots.

As you see, Toronto is a city with a beautiful setting, fascinating history, rich culture, and great food. It has sport, intellectual life, interesting politics, and plenty to do. But peaceful? Not so much…

Stay dry, Torontonians!

 
 

In Memoriam…

Eric Wright

This post is dedicated to the memory of Eric Wright, one of the founding members of the Crime Writers of Canada, who died earlier this month. His work was prolific and influential, and he will be much missed.

 

ps  As you may know, I usually take my own ‘photos. But this one’s better than any one I could take. Thanks, City of Toronto.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Rush. What’s YYZ? It’s the airport code for Toronto Pearson International Airport

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Filed under Eric Wright, Ian Hamilton, Jill Edmondson, John McFetridge, Robert Rotenberg

So Here I Am, Standing Waiting in the Lobby*

LobbiesA skilled author can create a scene that takes place in any number of settings. But some places just seem to lend themselves especially well to a solid crime-fictional scene. One of those places is arguably the lobby. It makes sense, too, if you think about it. All sorts of people come through a lobby. Some work there, some don’t. Some are there for just a few minutes, while others are there for a long time. And if a lobby’s big enough and busy enough, it’s very hard to keep track of who’s there and who isn’t. So lobbies allow for an interesting kind of anonymity, too.

Lobbies also give people an important sense of what a place is like (upmarket, seedy, or something else). So they make for effective ways for authors to create context without getting too wordy. It’s not surprising, then, that we see a lot of crime-fictional scenes that play out in lobbies. Here are just a few; I’m sure you’ll think of a lot more than I ever could.

Agatha Christie used lobbies and lounges in several of her stories. One of them is At Bertram’s Hotel. In that novel, Miss Marple travels to London, to Bertram’s Hotel. The place has special meaning for her, since she stayed there as a young person. During this stay, she finds that the beautiful hotel has been a façade for some very underhanded doings, including murder. In this story, Christie uses the big central lounge as a very convenient place for Miss Marple to overhear a conversation that will end up mattering as the story goes on. But she also uses the Lounge to give readers a sense of the hotel:
 

‘Inside, if this was the first time you had visited Bertram’s, you felt, almost with alarm, that you had reentered a vanished world. Time had gone back. You were in Edwardian England once more.’
 

Christie then goes on to show the way the lounge reflects that era. I know, I know, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train and of Taken at the Flood.

Ian Hamilton’s The Water Rat of Wanchai introduces readers to forensic accountant Ava Lee, whose specialty is tracing money for people who’ve been bilked and are desperate to get their money back. In this novel, Lee is working on behalf of Andrew Tam, whose financial services company has been swindled out of almost five million dollars. Lee gets to work on the case, and follows the trail to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Georgetown, Guayana, and the British Virgin Islands. Throughout her search, Lee gets information from several different people, some of whom can be trusted and some of whom cannot. She often finds that lobbies – especially hotel lobbies – are good places to meet her contacts. They’re public, so they afford a certain amount of safety. They’re convenient (Most people can find the lobby of a big hotel). And they’re anonymous enough so that people can have private conversations without attracting a lot of attention.

Steve Hamilton’s series features former Detroit police officer Alex McKnight, who now lives in one of a group of cabins his father left him. He rents the others to tourists who want to hunt, fish, and enjoy winter sports on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In Ice Run, McKnight makes plans to meet his new love interest, Natalie Reynaud, at the Ojibway Hotel in Sault Ste. Marie (Soo), right near the US/Canada border. When he arrives, he has an odd encounter in the hotel lobby with an elderly man wearing a homburg hat. He doesn’t think much of it at the time; but later, he finds that the same man has had a bottle of good champagne delivered to the table where he and Reynaud are dining. Then, when they get to his hotel room, the homburg had, filled with snow and ice, is waiting for them. So is a cryptic note. When the man is later found dead, McKnight feels an obligation to find out why, and is drawn into a very complex case.

Arthur Bryant and John May, who feature in Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit series, have a strange, lobby-related case to solve in Seventy-Seven Clocks. In one plot thread of that novel, attorney Maximillian Jacob is in the lobby of the Savoy Hotel, reading a newspaper. He falls asleep as he’s reading, and no-one pays much attention, as that’s nothing unusual. A few hours later, one of the staff tries to waken him, only to find that he’s dead. At first it looks as though he might have had a heart attack; but soon enough, it’s shown that he was bitten by a poisonous snake and killed by its venom. Bryant and May have seen some odd cases in their time, and this one is no exception. It will require them not just to find out how someone got a snake into the hotel lobby, but also to find out how it’s related to a vandalism incident at the National Gallery.

You may be thinking that hotel lobbies and lounges are prone to this sort of conflict and danger, but other places aren’t. You’d be wrong. Just consider Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move. Science fiction writer Zack Walker and his family have recently moved from the city to a suburban development called Valley Forest Estates. The idea is that the family will be safer there than in the city. It’s no small matter, too, that the difference in living costs will mean that Walker can write full-time. It’s not long before this perfect plan starts to go wrong. Walker begins to notice that there are several repairs that need to be made to his new home. He goes to the Valley Forest sales office to complain and arrange for repairs, only to find himself an unwitting witness to a loud argument. While he’s in the lobby/reception area, he sees a dispute between one of the Valley Forest executives, and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Spender and his group have been trying to close down the development for ecological reasons, and he is not going to just ‘go away.’ The argument makes everything very awkward, but Walker doesn’t think much about it – until later, when he finds Spender’s body in a nearby creek. He ends up getting drawn into a case that’s a lot more dangerous than city life was…

As you can see, lobbies and lounges are really quite useful places if you’re a crime writer. They can be dangerous, but they certainly afford all the contact, conflict and encounters you’d want. They’ve very good places for people-watching, too.  Trust me.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s I Don’t Want to be Alone.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Fowler, Ian Hamilton, Linwood Barclay, Steve Hamilton

All the Cards Were Comin’ From the Bottom of the Pack*

Card GamesIt’s just a friendly game of cards. A nice way to have a social evening with friends or loved ones. Or perhaps it’s a way to pass the time on a long trip or in the hospital room. What could be the harm in that, right? Wrong.

As crime fiction clearly shows us, cards may seem innocent enough, but the stakes can be deadly. And even when the result isn’t murder, card games really can be dangerous. Just consider these examples from the genre, and you’ll see what I mean.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Solitary Cyclist, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit, and a very interesting problem, from Violet Smith. She’s been engaged as a live-in piano teacher at Chiltern Grange. The arrangement with her employer is that she spends the week in the country with her young charge, and the weekends in London with her mother. All went well enough at first. But then something odd happened. Violet began to notice a strange man on a bike following her on the way to and from the train station. He doesn’t approach her or attempt to speak to her, but it still makes her nervous. And she’s curious about who the man is and what he wants. Holmes and Dr. Watson agree to investigate, and they make the trip to the country. In the end, they find that it all has to do with a card game.

Agatha Christie mentions cards quite a lot in her stories. Popular among those card games is bridge. In Cards on the Table, for instance, an eccentric man named Mr. Shaitana invites eight people to a dinner party. Four (including Hercule Poirot) are sleuths. The other four are people Shaitana suspects have got away with murder. After dinner, all of the guests settle in for bridge. One of those guests, Mrs. Lorrimer, is particularly glad about that. Here’s what she says:
 

‘I simply will not go out to dinner now if there’s no bridge afterwards! I just fall asleep. I’m ashamed of myself, but there it is.’
 

At some point during the game, someone stabs Mr. Shaitana. The only possible suspects are the four people who were playing in the same room with him. Poirot and the other sleuths now have to look into the backgrounds of each one to see who the murderer is. What’s interesting is that any one of them could have committed the crime. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow.

When many people think of card games, they think of poker. Different forms of poker are played all over the world, in places like Monte Carlo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and of course, on river boats. One place you see a lot of poker is, of course, Las Vegas. There are lots of novels and short stories that feature Las Vegas card games; I’ll just mention a few. In Michael Connelly’s Trunk Music, LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch investigates the murder of second-rate filmmaker Tony Aliso, who’s killed execution style, with the body found in the trunk of his car. The trail in this case leads to Las Vegas, and to a seedy casino. It also leads to Eleanor Wish, former FBI agent who has left the force and become a professional card player/gambler. Fans of this series will remember that she met Bosch in The Black Echo. When they reunite in Trunk Music, they develop a relationship that ends in marriage and a daughter, Madeleine ‘Maddy.’

Forensic accountant Ava Lee encounters her share of cards and card games in Ian Hamilton’s The Disciple of Las Vegas. In that novel, wealthy Philippines banker Tony Ordonez hires Lee’s employer to track down and return $50 million he lost in a bogus land deal. Lee is an expert at finding lost money, so she gets to work on the case. She soon finds that the trail leads to Las Vegas, and to poker champion David Douglas. He’s played against the best all over the world, and Lee is fairly certain that he knows more about what happened to the money than he’s saying.

In George V. Higgins’ Cogan’s Trade, New England Mob enforcer Jackie Cogan gets a new assignment. Someone’s been hijacking Mob-run card games, and the Powers That Be in the organization are not happy about it. So they hire Cogan to find out who’s responsible and ‘take care of matters.’ Needless to say, those card games do not end up being friendly pastimes.

And there’s Dead Man’s Hand, a collection of short stories edited by Otto Prenzler. This collection features stories by Michael Connelly, Walter Mosley, Laura Lippman, and Sue DeNymme, has as its theme card playing (especially poker) and gambling.

And of course, I couldn’t have a post about card-playing without mentioning John D. MacDonal’s Travis McGee. He refers to himself as a ‘salvage consultant,’ and his specialty is returning money property that his clients have had stolen from them. McGee isn’t a professional card-player, but he’s been lucky at least once. He lives on a boat, The Busted Flush, that he won in a poker game…

Card games such as Bridge, poker and canasta can be a lot of fun. And even in today’s world of electronic games, they can be great opportunities to spend time with family and friends. But if you do play this weekend, be careful. A friendly game doesn’t always stay that way.

This post was inspired in part by a plot point in a novel that I’m beta-reading for a friend. For obvious reasons I can’t give title or author. But if you’re reading this, you know who you are. I’m really enjoying the story!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from AC/DC’s  The Jack.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, George V. Higgins, Ian Hamilton, Laura Lippman, Michael Connelly, Otto Penzler, Sue DeNymme, Walter Mosley