Category Archives: James M. Cain

Tried to Warn You*

It’s hard for people to pay attention to everything. It’s even harder when the message is something one doesn’t want to hear. But those messages can matter greatly. And in crime fiction, those warnings can serve as very important clues. They can also provide interesting character development.

Agatha Christie uses that strategy in several of her stories. For instance, in Lord Edgware Dies, famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to convince her husband, Lord Edgware, to give her a divorce, so that she can marry the Duke of Merton. Poirot reluctantly agrees, and he and Captain Hastings pay a visit to Edgware. Surprisingly, their host tells them that he has already withdrawn his objection. At first it seems that the matter is settled. But later that night, Edgware is stabbed. The most likely suspect is his wife, but she says that she was at a dinner party in another part of London at the time, and twelve people are ready swear that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. As it turns out, one of the other characters gives Poirot a warning that turns out to be an important clue to the killer.

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity features insurance sales representative Walter Huff. He happens to be in Hollywoodland one day when he finds himself near the home of one of his policyholders, H.S. Nirdlinger. He decides to stop in, and see if he can get a policy renewal. Nirdlinger’s not home, but his wife, Phyllis, is. She and Huff have a conversation, and Huff is soon very much attracted to her.  She does nothing to discourage him, and before long, they’re having an affair. Phyllis tells Huff that she wants to kill her husband; she wants to take out an accident policy first, so that she can inherit. Huff is so besotted with her by this time that he falls in with her plan, and even writes the policy she needs. The murder goes off as planned, but now Huff sees that he will have to do everything he can to protect Phyllis, so that he can also protect himself. Then, he meets her stepdaughter, Lola, and they form a friendship. Lola tries to warn Huff what her stepmother is like, and he gradually learns more and more about Phyllis from her. But by then, Huff’s in too deep, and things soon spin out of control…

Along similar lines, in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe gets a new client in General Guy Sternwood. It seems that a book dealer named Arthur Geiger sent an extortion letter in which he referenced Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen. Now, Sternwood wants Marlowe to find Geiger and stop him. Marlowe agrees, but by the time he tracks the man down, Geiger’s been murdered. And Carmen is a witness, although she’s either too dazed or drugged to be able to say what happened. At first, it would seem that that solves the Sternwoods’ problem. But not long afterwards, their chauffer is found dead. Now, Marlowe finds himself drawn into the family’s web again. Interestingly enough, Sternwood himself gives Marlowe a cryptic warning about himself and his daughters:
 

‘‘Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had.’’
 

That doesn’t give Marlowe all the answers. But it is an important clue to the sort of people he’s dealing with in this case. And that plays its role in the story.

Cara Black’s Murder in the Marais introduces readers to Paris PI Aimée Leduc. In it, Leduc and her business partner, René Friant, are drawn into a murder investigation. It starts when a man named Soli Hecht hires them on behalf of a local synagogue, Temple Emanuel. He wants them to decrypt a code he gives her, and take her results by hand to a congregant named Lili Stein. By the time Leduc gets there, though, Lili Stein has been murdered. Leduc takes an interest in the case, and Inspector Mobier, who’s an old friend of her father’s, concedes that she might have useful information. So, the two agree to work together. This isn’t going to be an easy case, though, and it’s soon clear that it may be related to the past, during and immediately after the Nazis’ World War II occupation of France. One character warns/advises Leduc,
 

‘‘…no-one wants the past dug up.’’
 

And it’s true that there plenty of people in this novel who don’t want Leduc to go digging around in the past. She doesn’t give up, though, and ends up finding out the truth. It’s at a cost, though…

Sometimes, the sleuth tries to do the warning or send the message. That’s what happens, for instance, in Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life. In one plot thread, we meet Mma Holonga, who owns a successful chain of hair salons. As a wealthy and good-looking woman, she’s attracted her share of attention, and is ready to choose a husband. She’s narrowed her list to four candidates, and wants Mma Precious Ramotswe to ‘vet’ them, so that she can choose the best. It’s an unusual sort of request, but Mma Ramotswe accedes. One of these candidates is Mopedi Bobologo, a well-regarded teacher who also runs House of Hope, a home for troubled girls. On the surface, he seems very pleasant and steady, if perhaps a bit dull. But Mma Ramotswe learns that he is, in fact, very ambitious, and is likely trying to marry Mma Holonga for her money. Mma Ramotswe tells her client this, in attempt to warn her about the man. But when she does, Mma Holonga has a surprising reaction.

Warnings like that can be used in several different ways, of course, depending on the author’s purpose and the characters. However the author decides to use those warning messages, it’s probably wise for the reader to pay attention. Unless, of course, it’s a ‘red herring…’

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steely Dan’s My Old School.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Cara Black, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler

Give Me a Good Film Noir and a Bottle of Gin*

As this is posted, it’s 71 years since the release of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, which is based, of course, on Raymond Chandler’s work (I know, the ‘photo isn’t from that film. Please read on…). It may not be the first film noir, but it’s certainly one of the best-known. And it consistently makes lists of the top films noir of all time. There’s something about this sort of film that draws the viewer in, even though one knows that things are not going to go well. And the film context can capture subtleties and tension that it’s harder to portray in a novel. Little wonder that there are so many out there, and they’re still being made.

Laura, for instance, is Otto Preminger’s 1944 adaptation of the Vera Caspery novel of the same name. In it, NYPD detective Mark McPherson investigates the death of successful advertising executive Laura Hunt. As he gradually builds a picture of her life, McPherson learns the kind of person she was, the people who surrounded her, and the reasons that there might have been to kill her. There are some surprising twists in the film, as anyone knows who’s seen it. And there’s plenty of unreliable narration, as well as characters who aren’t what they seem.

In 1944, James M. Cain’s novella Double Indemnity was adapted for film by Billy Wilder, and many critics consider it the gold standard for a classic noir film. In the film, insurance company sales representative Walter Neff (played by Fred McMurray) falls in love with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the wife of one of his clients. Incidentally, the ‘photo is of those two actors in those roles. Neff is so besotted by Phyllis that he falls in with her plot to kill her husband. But he hasn’t counted on the sort of person she is, and he hasn’t counted on claims adjuster Barton Keyes. Everything soon spins out of control, and those who’ve seen the film know that it doesn’t end on any happier a note than the novella does.

There are plenty of other classic films noir out there; I’ve only had time to mention just a few. But it’s a very popular sub-genre. So popular, in fact, that the noir film is still being made today, and very successfully. There’ve been plenty of more contemporary, neo-noir pictures; Here are just a few.

Curtis Hanson’s 1997 L.A. Confidential is a sort of loose adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1990 novel of the same name. Like the novel, the film follows the fortunes of three LAPD officers: Ed Exley, Bud White and Jack Vincennes, who are living and working in 1953 Los Angeles. Also, like the novel, the film portrays the ‘Bloody Christmas’ murders of seven civilians by LAPD police officers, and, later, a shooting at a diner called the Nite Owl. There are plenty of differences between the film and the novel. But both show that noir isn’t confined to the 1940s and 1950s.

Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone was adapted for film in 2007 by Ben Affleck. As fans of both book and film know, it’s the story of what happens when Amanda McCready goes missing. PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro get drawn into the search for the girl when they’re hired by her aunt. They discover that this case isn’t what it seems on the surface. There are several differences between the original novel and the film. But, like the novel, the film raises important questions of moral ambiguity, and there are several people in it who aren’t what they seem.

The same could certainly be said for Bryan Singer’s 1995 film, The Usual Suspects. While this particular film isn’t based on a book, it does have a connection to classic cinema, as the title is taken from a very famous line that Claude Rains says in Michael Curtiz’ 1942 film, Casablanca. The Usual Suspects is the story of Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint, and his involvement in murder and arson aboard a ship. He’s interrogated by US Customs agent Dave Kujan, As the interview goes on, we learn in flashback about Kint’s involvement with a team of hijackers, smugglers and drug lords. Saying much more than this will give too much of the film away. But fans know that very little in this film is what it seems. And there are several places in it where it’s clear that the film format tells the story perhaps better than a novel might.

And then there’s Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2007 No Country For Old Men. If you’re a neo-noir fan, you’ll find the title familiar, as the film is based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. The film’s focus (perhaps more than the book’s) is hitman Anton Chigurh, and what happens when Llewelyn Moss comes across money that Chigurth has been hired to recover. That slight difference aside, the film’s quite faithful to the book. And it has all of the ingredients you’d expect in a modern noir film. There’s a desolate landscape, untrustworthy people, danger, and things spinning out of control. The Coen brothers have done other fine neo-noir pictures, too (right, fans of Blood Simple?).

As I mentioned, these are only a few examples of films noir. Want more? Sure ya do. Go visit Sergio, who blogs at Tipping My Fedora. He’s an expert on this and other genres of film. You want to follow his blog if you don’t already. In the meantime, which films noir have you liked the best?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Long Blondes’ Swallow Tattoo.

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Filed under Ben Affleck, Billy Wilder, Bryan Singer, Cormac McCarthy, Curtis Hanson, Dennis Lehane, Ethan Coen, Howard Hawks, James Ellroy, James M. Cain, Joel Coen, Michael Curtiz, Otto Preminger, Raymond Chandler

A Few of Your Buddies, They Sure Look Shady*

The late Steve Irwin is credited with a really interesting comment about humans:
 

‘Crocodiles are easy. They try to kill and eat you. People are harder. Sometimes they try to be your friend first.’
 

If you’ve ever had the experience of being badly hurt by someone you thought was a friend, you’ll probably agree with Irwin.

That plot point has become an important part of many crime fiction novels; and, if you think about it, it’s a natural fit for the genre. Sadly, it’s an all-too-realistic scenario. And it can make for suspense and tension in a plot.

For example, Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock introduces Celia Austin, who lives in a hostel for students. When some troubling events happen at the hostel, Hercule Poirot investigates. At first, it looks as though the solution is easy. Celia admits to being responsible for some of what’s happened, and everyone thinks the matter is closed. Then, two nights later, she dies. It’s soon proven that she was murdered. And Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who was responsible. It turns out that Celia made the tragic mistake of trusting that someone at the hostel was a friend, and paid a very high price for that. Christie uses that in several of her other stories, too (right, fans of Death on the Nile?).

In James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, insurance representative Walter Huff is drawn into a web of deceit and murder by someone he thinks he can trust. He happens to be in the Hollywood area one day, and decides to visit one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, who lives nearby. He arrives at the house to find that Nirdlinger isn’t home. His wife, Phyllis, is, though, and she and Huff strike up a conversation. Soon enough, Huff falls for her, and she does nothing to discourage him. Before he knows it, he’s so besotted that he falls in with her plan to kill her husband for his life insurance money. Huff even writes up the sort of policy that she needs. The murder goes as planned – at first. Then it hits Huff that he has actually been responsible for killing someone – because of someone he thought was more than a friend. And things spiral out of control from there.

They do in Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger, too. In that novel, Fabien Delorme is distressed to learn that that his wife, Sylvie, has been killed in a car accident. He’s even more upset to learn that she wasn’t alone in the car. Unbeknownst to him, she had taken a lover, Martial Arnoult, and that bothers him even more than does the fact that she is dead. Delorme finds out that his rival left a widow, Martine, and becomes unhealthily obsessed with her. He stalks her, and finally gets to meet her. They begin a relationship which spins completely out of control and ends up in ugly tragedy all around. I don’t want to give away too much, but I can say that, like most noir stories, there’s plenty of betrayal and hurt from people who seem trustworthy at first.

T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton introduces readers to solicitor Jim Harwood. He gets a very difficult case when a young man named Elton Spears is accused of murder. According to the prosecution, Spears killed an enigmatic woman named Sarena Gunasekera, and threw her body off a cliff at Beachy Head, near Eastbourne. There’s plenty of evidence against him, too. He was seen in the area, and it’s already well-known that he’s a troubled person. What’s more, he’s had brushes with the law before because of inappropriate contact with girls and women. Harwood knows Spears, and agrees to take the case. Together with barrister Harry Douglas, Harwood sets out to prove that Elton Spears is innocent. If he is, then someone else must be guilty. It turns out that that someone had seemed to be a person Spears could trust…

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? Yvonne Mulhern and her husband, Gerry, have recently moved from London to Dublin with their newborn daughter, Róisín. It’s a major disruption, but it means that Gerry can take advantage of an important career opportunity, and that means a great deal more money for the family. Everyone settles in as best they can, and Gerry digs into his new job. Yvonne is exhausted, as new parents tend to be. What’s more, she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, so she feels isolated. Then she discovers an online forum for new mums called Netmammy. She joins the group and soon feels much of the camaraderie and support that she’s been missing. She gets to know the other members, too, and feels a real sense of friendship with them. And that’s why, when one of them seems to go ‘off the grid,’ Yvonne gets concerned. She’s worried enough to go to the police, but there’s not much they can do. Then, the body of an unidentified young woman turns up in an abandoned apartment. Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle, herself an expectant mother, investigates the death. The victim’s profile is similar enough to Yvonne’s missing friend that it could be the same person. If it is, then that has frightening implications for Netmammy. Little by little, and each in a different way, the two women find out the truth. Throughout this novel, there’s a strong thread of people one thinks are friends, who turn out to be anything but…

And that’s the thing. There are people who seem to be friends, but aren’t at all to be trusted. And when they show themselves for what they are, it can change everything.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leon Huff, Gene McFadden, and John Whitehead’s Back Stabbers.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, James M. Cain, Pascal Garnier, Sinéad Crowley, T.J. Cooke

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

You Don’t Know How Far I’d Go to Ease This Precious Ache*

infatuationThere’s something about being fully, completely, totally infatuated with someone. That feeling can feed on itself, especially if the other person reciprocates (or at least, seems to). And it’s intoxicating. So, it’s no wonder that there are so many songs about falling in love, about attraction (mutual or otherwise), and so on. It’s an important part of the human experience for a lot of people.

Sometimes, though, infatuation goes over the line, so to speak. I’m not talking here of the serial-killer sort of obsession (too easy!). Rather, I’m talking about the sort of attraction that leads a person to stop thinking rationally. That sort of love can get a person into trouble. And crime fiction is full of such characters. Here are just a few; I know you’ll think of lots more than I could, anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile (did I have any other choice, Christie fans?), we meet Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. She’s fallen deeply, madly in love with Simon Doyle, and he loves her, too. She wants very badly for them to marry, but they can’t until Simon has a regular, steady job that can support them. So, she asks her good friend Linnet Ridgeway for help. Linnet is one of the wealthiest young women in England; and, as it happens, she’s recently purchased (and is remodeling) Wode Hall. Since she’s in need of a land agent, Jackie hopes Linnet will hire Simon for the job. Linnet’s happy to oblige, and it first, it looks as though all will be well. But Linnet finds herself attracted to Simon. She’s beautiful, intelligent, and very rich, so Simon doesn’t need much encouragement. The two marry, and go on a honeymoon cruise of the Nile. Jackie follows them, much to Linnet’s chagrin, and makes life miserable for the couple. Then, on the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. At first, Jackie is the most likely suspect. But it’s soon proven that she could not be the killer. So Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, has to look elsewhere for the killer.

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity introduces readers to insurance sales representative Walter Huff. He’s in the Hollywood Hills area of Los Angeles one day when he finds himself close to the home of one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger. On the spur of the moment, Huff decides to stop by and try to renew Nirdlinger’s insurance policy. Nirdlinger isn’t home, but his wife, Phyllis is. Huff is attracted to her right away, and Phyllis does nothing to discourage him. Before long, they’re having an affair. Huff is completely infatuated, so when Phyllis suggests a plot to kill her husband for his life insurance money, Huff goes along with it. He even puts together the double indemnity policy she wants, and commits the crime. But that’s just the beginning of his troubles. It turns out that, instead of that murder putting everything right for them, everything starts to go very, very wrong.

The focus of Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair is Gilbert Hand, who works with a publishing agency. After the death of his wife, Rachel, Hand decides to sell the home they had shared, and move to a quiet, respectable London hotel. He’s settling into his room when he discovers an unexpected package in the davenport he’ll be using. He unwraps the package and finds a long coil of dark hair. Hand learns that the room was previously occupied by a man named Freddie Doyle, so he begins to get curious about Doyle. That curiosity leads to a kind of obsession. More, it leads Hand to Doyle’s girlfriend, Gladys Wilson. Hand becomes infatuated with her in his way, and when she disappears, he’s frantic to find her. For Hand, it’s all come down to a contest for Gladys between him and Doyle. And, as you can imagine, it doesn’t end well.

Gail Bowen’s sleuth is university professor and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. She is also the mother of four children, and, of course, wants the best for them. That’s why she’s so concerned in The Wandering Soul Murders. In one plot thread of that novel, the family gets a visit from Christy Sinclair, who is Joanne’s son, Peter’s, ex-girlfriend. As far as Joanne is concerned, Peter is well rid of Christy. Peter himself has no desire to get back together with her. But Christy has other ideas. She manages to get herself invited to a family event: the engagement party for Peter’s older sister, Mieka. What’s more, she says that she and Peter are getting back together. The story takes a tragic twist when Christy dies of what seems to be suicide. But is it?

And then there’s Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger. When Sylvie Delorme is killed in a car accident, the police inform her husband, Fabien. They also tell him that Sylvie was not alone in the car. She had taken a lover, Martial Arnoult, who was also killed in the crash. The Delorme’s marriage hadn’t been a very happy one, so although Fabien feels Sylvie’s loss, he’s almost more hurt that she had a lover than he is that she is dead. At least his pride is hurt. He finds out that Arnoult left a widow, Martine, and after finding out a bit about her, determines to have her. He learns that Martine and a friend are planning a trip to Majorca, and follows them there. He and Martine begin an affair, and it’s not long before he is infatuated with her. The affair spins out of control for both of them, and, as you would expect if you’re a fan of Garnier’s work, it heads right towards tragedy.

That feeling of infatuation is one of the headiest experiences in life. So, it’s little wonder people fall in love. And many times, it enriches life. But not always…

 
 
 

*NTOE: The title of this post is a line from Melissa Etheridge’s Come to My Window.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charlotte Jay, Gail Bowen, James M. Cain, Pascal Garnier