Category Archives: John Dickson Carr

It’s a Very Special Knowledge That You’ve Got*

An interesting post from Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery has got me thinking about what Rosemary Herbert calls the surrogate detective. Here’s what Tracy had to say about it:

In Whodunit?: A Who’s Who in Crime & Mystery Writing by Rosemary Herbert, John Putnam Thatcher is described as a prime example of the surrogate detective.

The term “surrogate detective” is applied to characters who solve crimes yet who are neither amateur nor professional detectives. Like the accidental sleuth, the surrogate sleuth may simply have stumbled upon the crime scene, but whereas the accidental sleuth acts out of pluckiness or sometimes self-defense in order to prove who committed the crime, the surrogate sleuth feels compelled to act by applying expertise that he or she brings to the situation.

There’s a strong argument, too, that Emma Lathen’s John Putnam Thatcher is such a detective. He isn’t a police officer or PI. He’s a vice president for a large, international bank. He doesn’t solve crimes to prove himself, or to clear his name, or to clear the name of a friend or loved one. Rather, he uses his particular financial skills as he’s drawn into mysteries.

And he’s far from the only fictional surrogate detective out there. There are plenty more; there’s only space in this post for a few, but I know you’ll think of others. It’s an interesting category of sleuth.

For example, you might argue that G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown is a surrogate detective. He’s not a professional detective. And yet, he doesn’t get drawn into crimes, if you will, accidentally. Rather, he uses his particular background, skills and knowledge to solve mysteries. He feels compelled to set things right, in part because of his role as a priest.

John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell is another fictional sleuth who might be classified as a surrogate detective. He is an academic – a lexicographer by background – who uses those skills to solve mysteries. He’s not paid to do so, and his involvement in mysteries isn’t usually accidental. Rather, he wants to find out the truth, and is drawn into cases because he can add his own expertise to them.

There are several fictional medical sleuths who also use their expertise to solve mysteries. It’s often not to clear their names, but to solve an intriguing medical puzzle. Some of Robin Cook’s early medical thrillers (I’m thinking, for instance, of Outbreak and Blindsight) feature this premise. In more than one of them, a doctor, medical examiner, or someone in a similar position notices a case (or cases) of unusual death. Then, that medical person uses her or his expertise to narrow down the probable causes of death, and link them to a source.

We also see this in Kathryn Fox’s Anya Crichton novels. Crichton is a New South Wales-based pathologist and forensic physician. On the one hand, she is officially consulted on certain cases; so, in that sense, she’s a professional. On the other, she’s not a police detective or PI. Rather, she uses her medical expertise to put the pieces of a puzzle together.

Fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway will know that she is a forensic archaeologist associated with North Norfolk University. She is consulted by the police when her background and expertise are needed, but she’s not herself a professional detective. Once she gets interested in a case, she wants to find out the truth as much for the sake of knowing as for any other reason. In that sense, she does feel compelled to act and contribute what she finds out. There are plenty of other fictional archaeologists, too, who arguably are surrogate detectives.

There are also several crime-fictional psychologists who are arguably surrogate detectives. One, for instance, is the ‘Nicci French’ team’s sleuth, Frieda Klein. She’s a London psychologist who didn’t really bargain for getting involved in murder mysteries. She has her own life and issues to keep her busy. But she gets drawn into cases when her expertise is needed, or when she feels compelled to share it. For example, in Blue Monday, she learns that a small boy has gone missing. Some of the details of that case remind her eerily of a client she’s been helping. So, although even she wonders how ethical it really is, she shares the information she has with the police. And it turns out that her expertise is very helpful.

There are a lot of other fictional sleuths who might be considered surrogate detectives. And, of course, the line between a surrogate detective and an amateur detective can be very blurred. So, we might not all agree on whether a sleuth is one or the other. But it’s a really interesting concept.

What do you think? Do you agree with Herbert’s idea of the surrogate detective? Which of your top fictional sleuths ‘counts’ as one? Writers, is your main character a surrogate detective?

Thanks, Tracy, for the inspiration! Now, folks, may I suggest your next stop be Tracy’s excellent blog? Excellent reviews await you there!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie’s Did You Ever Have a Dream?

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Filed under Elly Griffiths, Emma Lathen, G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr, Kathryn Fox, Nicci French, Robin Cook

Sleeping in That Old Abandoned Beach House*

There’s something about abandoned places. They have a certain allure, especially for people inclined to explore. And they often have good stories to tell, too. Since they’re abandoned, such places are also very appealing for people who want to hide evidence of a crime – namely, a body. Perhaps that’s why abandoned places are so appealing for crime writers…

For instance, in John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, we are introduced to Tad Rampole, an American who’s recently finished his university studies. He’s been encouraged by his mentor to visit Dr. Gideon Fell, so he decides to go to the UK. When he gets there, he meets Dorothy Starberth, and the two take a liking to each other. Soon, Rampole finds out more about the Starberths from Fell. It seems that several generations of Starberth men were Governers of nearby Chatterham Prison, which is now disused. The prison is abandoned, but it still plays a role in a Starberth family ritual. On the night of his twenty-fifth birthday, every Starberth male spends the night in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. Now, it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother, Martin. He’s anxious about it, because there seems to be a curse on Starberth males, several of whom have died in strange circumstances. Still, he goes through with the plan. Late that night, Martin Starberth dies in what looks like a horrible accident. But Fell discovers that this death was no accident at all, and works to find out who the killer is.

Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow is the first of his novels to feature Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police. In this novel, he is called in when a body is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. The body is very possibly that of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine, who disappeared five months ago. Cardinal investigated that disappearance, but was never able to find out what happened to the girl. When the body is positively identified as Katie’s, Cardinal has the thankless task of informing her mother, and of re-opening the investigation. In the end, he finds out the truth about Katie and about other disappearances, too.

In Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders, retired Florida judge Sylvia Thorn accompanies her mother and a group of other retirees on a sightseeing trip to Laughlin, Nevada. The group (they call themselves the Florida Flippers) gets involved in a case of murder when the body of an unknown man turns up in the bathtub of one of the group’s hotel rooms. Matters get more complicated when another Florida Flipper goes missing, and is later found dead in an abandoned mine. Now, the Flippers are ‘people of interest’ in a double murder, and Sylvia works to keep them out of trouble, and to find out who the real killer is, and what the motive is.

Tana French’s The Likeness is the second in her Dublin Murder Squad series. In it, a young woman is found stabbed to death in an abandoned house. Cassie Maddox, who’s recently returned to the Murder Squad after some time away, is shocked to discover that the woman is identified as Lexie Madison, an alias Maddox once used. The victim bears a strong resemblance to Maddox, too. Now, the squad has two serious questions. One, of course, is, who killed the victim? The other is about the victim’s identity. Since there never really was a ‘Lexie Madison,’ the squad has to find out who the woman really was, and why she hid her identity. Maddox is persuaded to go undercover as Lexie Madison to find out the truth.

One of the plot threads in Peter James’ Not Dead Yet concerns an unknown man whose body is found in an abandoned chicken coop. The only part of the body that’s been discovered is the torso, so identifying the victim will be a challenge. Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove Police and his team trace the man through his clothes, and find out who he was. And, in the end, they connect this murder with another case they’re working: a superstar whose life’s been threatened. It turns out that someone is willing to stop at nothing to ‘win.’

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? Dublin Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle investigates when the body of an unknown woman is discovered in an empty apartment. Boyle and her team try to trace the victim’s identity through the apartment’s manager and owner, but they don’t get very far at first. Then, another possibility arises. Yvonne Mulhern and her family have recently moved to Dublin from London. She’s a brand-new mother, and at first, has no real support system. She doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, and her relationship with her husband’s family isn’t particularly good. She soon finds solace in Netmammy, an online forum for new mothers. Then, she notices that one of the members has gone ‘off the grid.’ She’s concerned enough to contact the police, but there’s not much they can do. Boyle, though, starts to wonder whether there is a connection between the case she’s investigating, and the disappearance of Yvonne Mulhern’s online friend. If there is, this could have real implications for Netmammy.

There are a lot of other novels, too, in which bodies are found in abandoned houses, apartments, warehouses, and other places. And that makes sense. Hiding a body in an abandoned place gives the fictional killer time to hide any connection with the murder. And it gives the author the opportunity for a really creepy setting.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Backstreets.

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Filed under Giles Blunt, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Stoltey, Peter James, Sinéad Crowley, Tana French

Been Caught Stealing*

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘…did more than just work the Passage.’
 

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

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

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

 
 
 

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

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

Hello, Young Lovers, Whoever You Are*

One of the hallmarks of a lot of classic and Golden Age crime novels (and not always from that era!) is the trope of the young couple in danger. I don’t mean always in physical danger (although that happens). Rather, in many of these novels, there’s a couple whose relationship is threatened. Sometimes it’s because one of them is suspected or even accused of murder; other times it’s for other reasons.

It’s also worth noting that I’m not talking here of sleuths who are balancing work and romance, or who find love as they investigate. To me, that’s a very different plot element.  That aside, though, there are plenty of crime novels that include the plot point of the ‘young and threatened couple.’

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, James McCarthy is arrested for the murder of his father, Charles. There’s evidence against him, too. He and his father had a violent quarrel just before the killing. And it was common knowledge that his father objected strongly to McCarthy’s choice of fiancée. Inspector Lestrade thinks he has the right suspect, but McCarthy’s fiancée, Alice Turner, is convinced it was someone else. She begs the police to look into the matter more closely, and Lestrade agrees. He asks Sherlock Holmes to review the evidence, and Holmes and Dr. Watson do so. In the end, they find that the case isn’t nearly as simple as it seemed. Throughout the story, Jack McCarthy and Alice Turner are under a cloud as it’s not certain what the outcome of the case will be.

Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links introduces readers to the Renauld family. Paul Renauld is a Canadian émigré to France, who’s living with his wife and his son, Jack, in the small town of Merlinville sur Mer. Renault writes to Poirot, saying that his life is in danger, and asking him to come to France and help. Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to France, but by the time they get there, it’s too late: Renauld has been killed. M. Giraud of the Sûreté investigates, and it doesn’t take long for him to settle on Jack Renauld as the main suspect. Poirot isn’t convinced of the young man’s guilt, but Renauld is arrested for the crime. And this wreaks havoc on Renauld’s romantic life. If the course of true love is to run true, as the saying goes, Poirot will have to find out who the real killer is.

Grey Mask, the first of Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver novels, tells the story of Charles Moray, who returns to England after a four-year absence. He goes to the family home, only to find that it’s being used as the meeting place of a criminal gang. What’s worse, Moray’s former fiancée, Margaret Langton, seems to be mixed up with the group. On the advice of a friend, Moray consults Miss Silver, and she begins to ask questions. In the meantime, Moray tracks Margaret Langton to the shop where she works, and the two resume an up-and-down relationship. That relationship isn’t the reason for the criminal gang, or for a plot that the gang’s leader has concocted. But it’s woven throughout the novel, and the young couple gets into some classic danger; they’re even locked in a basement, in true classic/Golden Age style.

In John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, Tad Rampole travels to England on the advice of his mentor. Among other things, he wants to meet famous lexicographer Dr. Gideon Fell. On his way to do so, he happens to meet Dorothy Starberth. The two strike up a conversation, and it’s not long before they find themselves attracted to each other. Then, Rampole learns about the Starberth family history. For two generations, Starberth men served as governors at the now-disused Chatterham Prison. Even though the prison hasn’t been in use for a hundred years, the Starberth family still follows a ritual connected with it. Each male Starberth heir spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the Governor’s Room at the prison. During his stay, each heir opens the safe in the room, and follows the instructions written on a piece of paper that’s kept in that safe. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother, Martin. The two Starberths are anxious about it, because several Starberths have died suddenly through the years, and there’s talk that the family is cursed. In fact, the last Starberth heir to die in unusual circumstances was Dorothy and Martin’s father, Timothy. Still, Martin goes through with the tradition. That night, he dies in what looks like a tragic fall from the balcony of the Governor’s Room. But Gideon Fell isn’t convinced that this death was an accident. And in the end, he finds out the truth of the matter. Throughout the novel, the romance between Tad Rampole and Dorothy Starberth is ‘clouded over,’ if you will, by the murder of her brother.

And then there’s Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank, the first of her Amelia Peabody novels. True, this novel was published after the end of the Golden Age (in 1975), but it takes place at the end of the Nineteenth Century, and Peters stayed true to some of the elements. One of those elements is the young couple in love and threatened. In the novel, Miss Amelia Peabody is in Rome, on her way to Egypt, when she meets Evelyn Barton-Forbes. Miss Peabody’s travel companion has just taken ill, and has had to return to England. Evelyn has her own sad history, and is now on her own. So, it works out well for both of them when she agrees to join Miss Peabody as companion. Not long after their arrival in Egypt, the two ladies meet archaeologists Radcliffe and Walter Emerson, who are working on an excavation in Armana. Walter and Evelyn are immediately drawn to each other, but they have very different sets of plans, and go their separate ways. They meet up again, though, at the excavation site, and at first, things go well. Then, a mummy that the Emerson brothers discovered goes missing. Then, the local villagers report seeing a mummy walk at night. And it’s not fanciful; the very pragmatic Miss Peabody sees it, too, and so does Evelyn. Then, other frightening things begin to happen, and it’s soon clear that something, or someone, is targeting the excavation. By this time, Walter and Evelyn are in love, but there are several obstacles to their becoming an ‘official’ couple. If the excavation is to stay in place, and the couple are to find any happiness, the team will have to discover who’s wreaking havoc on the site, and why.

There are plenty of other classic/Golden Age novels, too, in which there’s a young couple whose happiness will depend on solving a mystery. These are just a few. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Hello, Young Lovers.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Peters, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Wentworth

There’ll be One Child Born and a World to Carry On*

One of the many things that parents do is pass on certain traditions to their children. That’s one important way in which culture is perpetuated, if you think about it. Those traditions may be religious, but they certainly don’t have to be. It could be a family tradition of winemaking, or a particular way of cooking, or something else. And it’s interesting to see how many of those traditions people follow when they become adults.

We see that in crime fiction, just as we do in real life. For example, John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, the first of his Dr. Gideon Fell novels, features a family tradition among the Starberths. It seems that several generations of Starberth men served as governors of Chatterham Prison, until the place fell into disuse. The prison itself is in ruins now, but it’s still part of an important Starberth family tradition. Each Starberth male spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. As proof of his presence, he’s to open the safe in the room, and read and follow the instructions on a piece of paper that’s kept there. Tragically, too, many of those Starberth men have met with untimely ends. There’s even talk the family is cursed. Now, it’s Martin Starberth’s turn. He’s not looking forward to the experience, but he prepares himself to do what he’s supposed to do. On the night of his birthday, though, he dies of an apparent fall from the balcony of the Governor’s Room. It turns out, though, that Starberth’s death was no accident at all. Fell, who lives nearby, investigates with some help from an American guest, Tad Rampole. They find that this death has very little to do with a family curse. You’re right, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Musgrave Ritual.

Sometimes, a tradition that’s passed on is professional. The child of a police officer or firefighter, etc., follows the same path. And that can lead to a lot of success. But it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, we meet L.A.P.D. officer Edmund ‘Ed’ Exley. He bears the heavy burden of being the son of revered police detective, Preston Exley. And Exley the elder intends that his son will go as far as possible in the department. So, he pushes him to climb the proverbial ladder, and berates him when he doesn’t achieve. For his part, Ed works hard and does everything ‘by the book’ – too much so for plenty of people. And the pressure he feels from his father turns him into a player of politics. That has an important impact when seven civilians are attacked by the police – and, two years later, when there’s a shooting at a nightclub. It’s an interesting look at the way a family professional tradition can impact the next generation.

Some family traditions are religious/spiritual in nature. That’s the case with Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee. He is a member of the Navajo Nation, and a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. Although he’s certainly familiar with dominant-culture society, Chee prefers to follow the traditions of his own people. In fact, early in the series, he studies to become a yata’ali – a singer/healer. Chee’s maternal uncle, Frank Sam Nakai, is pleased about this. He himself is a singer, and wants to pass along those rituals. And there aren’t as many young people interested in learning them as there were. So, Nakai works with Chee when he can, and teaches him what he needs to know.

We also see the passing on of religious traditions in Faye Kellerman’s Rina Lazarus/Peter Dekcer series. When we first meet these sleuths, Lazarus lives with her two sons, Jaakov ‘Jake’ and Shmuel ‘Sammy’ in Yeshivat Ohavei Torah, an Orthodox Jewish community near Los Angeles. Her religion is extremely important to her, so she wants to pass it on to her children. It’s a bit difficult, because she is a widow, but Lazarus keeps the house in the kosher style, speaks to her sons in both English and Hebrew, and so on. They study religion and religious history at the community’s school, too. The other members of the community do much the same thing. It’s part of the bond among the people who live there.

Peter May’s The Blackhouse explores a different sort of tradition. In that novel, Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis when a murder occurs there that resembles one he’s already investigating. It’s hoped that, if the same person committed both crimes, it’ll be easier to catch the killer if both teams are working on the case. For Macleod, this is a homecoming, since he was raised on the Isle of Lewis. But it’s not a joyful prospect, as he had his own reasons for leaving in the first place. As Macleod works through the investigation, we learn about life on the Isle of Lewis. One of the traditions that’s a part of this story is that every year, a group of men travel to An Sgeir, an outcropping of rock fifty miles away. They spend two weeks there, harvesting guga, young gannet that nest on the rock. It’s dangerous and physically very demanding, and not everyone gets to go. In fact, it’s a real mark of distinction to be one of those who do. As new places in the group open up, people ‘sponsor’ sons, nephews, or even grandsons, to join the team. In that way, the tradition of harvesting the guga has been passed along for as long as anyone knows.

And that’s the thing about passing along traditions. People want to preserve parts of their culture, or they want to pass along their profession. So they teach their children, hoping that they will preserve what they’ve learned.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Laura Nyro’s And When I Die. Listen to her version,  Peter, Paul and Mary’s version, and the recording by Blood, Sweat & Tears, and see which one you prefer.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Faye Kellerman, James Ellroy, John Dickson Carr, Peter May, Tony Hillerman