Category Archives: John Grisham

But Do You Now Represent Anyone’s Cause But Your Own?*

Most causes, movements, etc. have leaders, however informally they’re chosen. Whether it’s environmentalists, student activists, unions/workers’ groups, or something else, people know that they’re not going to be heard, so to speak, without some leadership.

As long as that leadership is responsive to the group members, and really represents their interests, it can be a very productive relationship. Everybody gets something, especially if the cause becomes popular and successful. But what if the leadership doesn’t have the group’s best interests at heart? That conflict can result in a lot of damage to a cause. And it can be an interesting plot line to explore in a crime novel.

For instance, in Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, Superintendent Andy Dalziel, and Sergeant Peter Pascoe are sent to the campus of Holm Coultram College. The school is undergoing renovations that include relocating a large bronze statue. When that statue is moved, everyone is shocked to discover a woman’s body underneath its base. The dead woman turns out to be Alison Girling, former President of the College. She disappeared five years earlier, and everyone thought she died in a freak avalanche during a ski holiday. But it’s now clear that she never left the school. As Dalziel and Pascoe trace the victim’s last days and weeks, they meet several people, including student activist leaders Franny Roote and his right-hand man, Stuart Cockshut. The novel was published in 1971, a time of student radicals and a great number of student-led movements. As the novel goes on, we get to know these particular student activists, and we see the relationship that the leaders have with their members. And it’s very interesting to speculate about whose interests Roote and Cockshut actually have in mind.

One focus of Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage is a planned road that will pass through Framingham Great Wood, near the town of Kingsmarkham. Plenty of people do not want the road, fearing its impact on the environment. Certainly, Inspector Reg Wexford is no fan of the idea. His wife, Dora, is even a member of a citizens’ group that’s trying to stop the road. Then, a group of environmental activists come to town, seemingly to support the locals in their efforts. That’s when the real trouble starts. One of the groups takes hostages, including Dora Wexford. And then there’s a death. Now, Wexford and his team have to find a way to free the hostages and solve the murder, before anyone else is put it risk. And as the story goes on, we see how group leadership doesn’t always have the group members’ interests as a priority.

In John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, Clanton, Mississippi attorney Jake Brigance gets a case that soon draws national attention. Carl Lee Hailey has been arrested for shooting Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard. There’s no doubt that he is the killer, but this isn’t the ‘open and shut’ case that it seems on the surface. Cobb and Willard are responsible for beating and raping Hailey’s ten-year-old daughter, Tonya, and there’s a lot of sympathy for him. At the same time, vigilantism cannot be condoned. To complicate matters further, Hailey is black, while Cobb and Willard were white. Hailey asks Brigance to defend him, and Brigance agrees. It’s not going to be an easy case, though. And several different national groups have an interest in the outcome of Hailey’s trial. Their background manipulation raises important questions of whose interests they really represent.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, we are introduced to Mma Holonga, who is the very successful owner of a chain of hair salons. She’s ready to choose a husband, and, since she is both attractive and successful, she has plenty of suitors. After narrowing down the list to just a few eligible men, Mma Holonga visits Mma Precious Ramotswe. She wants Mma Ramotswe to ‘vet’ the men on the list and help her choose the best match. Mma Ramotswe agrees and starts to find out about the men. One of them is Mr. Bobologo, a teacher who also runs House of Hope, a home for troubled girls. He is highly respected and is dedicated both to his students and to the residents of House of Hope. But, as Mma Ramotswe does a little digging, she finds that he is a very ambitious person, who may only want to marry Mma Holonga for her money. And there’s a real question of whose interests he really has in mind. It’s especially interesting to see what Mma Holonga says when Mma Romatswe reveals what she’s discovered.

And then there’s Jonothan Cullinane’s Red Herring, which takes place in 1951 Auckland. The dock workers – the wharfies – are planning a strike, and the government wants to do everything possible to stop that happening. There’s no love lost, either, between the government and the union leaders in this era of anti-communist hysteria. Against this backdrop, PI Johnny Malloy is hired for a possible insurance fraud case. It seems that Francis ‘Frank’ O’Phelan, AKA Frank O’Flynn, was reported dead when he went overboard in the Bering Sea. But now, it’s come out that O’Flynn may still be alive. In fact, there’s a photograph of him with several people involved in the upcoming strike. The insurance company that carried O’Flynn’s life insurance policy hires Malloy to find the man in the photograph and establish whether it’s O’Flynn. Malloy takes the case, but soon finds that some powerful people are protecting O’Flynn, and don’t want Malloy to find him. And the closer Malloy gets to the truth, the more he sees who, exactly, has an interest in the upcoming strike. Things are not what they seem, and there’s a real question of whose interests are really being served.

And that’s the thing about the sociology of some groups. Leadership is important if the group’s agenda is going to be furthered. But that doesn’t mean that the leadership always has the members’ best interests as a priority. Not in crime fiction, at any rate…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, John Grisham, Jonothan Cullinane, Reginald Hill, Ruth Rendell

You Have Lost Your Innocence Somehow*

As we get older and (hopefully) mature, we also tend to lose our innocence about the way the world works. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean that we become complete cynics. Rather, it means that we learn (sometimes, sadly, the hard way), that not all people can be trusted, and that there’s plenty of corruption and worse in the real world.

That experience can be very difficult for a person, and we all deal with it in different ways. And, in a crime novel, it can add to a character’s development. It can also add tension and even suspense to a story as the character faces that loss of innocence.

There’s a sense of that experience in Agatha Christie’s Three-Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts). In it, we are introduced to Hermione ‘Egg’ Lytton Gore. On the surface, she tries to be jaded. But she is quite innocent in her way, although she’s neither gullible nor completely naïve. One evening, she is invited to a cocktail party at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. At the party, one of the other guests, the Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Not long afterwards, several of the same people, including Egg, attend a house party at the home of Dr. Bartholomew Strange. At that gathering, Strange dies, also of poison. It seems clear that the two deaths are linked, as is another death that occurs. Hercule Poirot gets involved in the case, as he attended the first party. And in the end, he finds out who the murderer is, and how the killings are connected. As the novel goes on, we see how Egg loses her innocence about who can be trusted and who can’t.

John Grisham’s The Firm is the story of Mitchell ‘Mitch’ McDeere. As the novel begins, he’s a Harvard Law School graduate, and an attractive candidate for a number of law offices. He’s smart and ambitious, and that’s exactly the sort of lawyer that the Memphis firm of Brendini, Lambert, & Locke want to hire. They make Mitch an irresistible offer, and he accepts. He settles in, and all seems to go very well at first. Mitch’s new colleagues help him pass the Tennessee Bar Exam, and everyone welcomes him as a colleague. But then, he begins to have questions. It seems that several members of the firm have died, and he wants to know more about why. By the time he begins to see some things going on at the firm, he’s in deep, as the saying goes. And he’s going to have to find a way to get out of his situation if he’s going to stay alive. Throughout the novel, we see how Mitch loses his innocence about what can happen in law firms, especially this one.

Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain? Introduces readers to twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrrand. He doesn’t have any clear plans for his future; in fact, he’s rather aimless. But he does have something very valuable: a driving license. And that’s just what professional assassin Simon Marechall needs. He’s nearing the end of his career, but he wants to complete one more job before he retires. He hires Bernard to drive him to Cap d’Agde, on the French coast, where he’ll carry out this last job. Bernard isn’t stupid, but he doesn’t know what his new boss’ business is. When he finds out, there’s a loss of innocence as things start to spin out of control.

In Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat (set in the 1950s) we meet twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, who lives in a small Welsh village with her parents and her older sister Bethan.  Gwenni’s a little unusual. She’s what a lot of people call a dreamer, and she’s very much a reader. She’s curious, too. Life in the village goes on as it has for a long time, until the day that Ifan Evans goes missing. Gwenni has a vision/dream in which she sees a body, and when Ifan’s body is eventually found, she wants to know what happened. So, she starts to ask questions. As she slowly puts together the truth about the death, she also learns some dark truths about some people in the village. And, she learns some things about her own family. All of this teaches Gwenni some unhappy lessons, and in the process, she loses some of her innocence.

And then there’s Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket. That’s the story of Darren Keefe and his older brother Wally. As children growing up in Victoria, they’re passionate about cricket, and play it whenever they can. And, as it turns out, both have real talent for the game. As they get older, they begin to play professionally, and soon enough, they learn about the dark side of cricket. There’s plenty of ugliness that goes on behind the scenes, and, each in a different way, the Keefe brothers are impacted by it. It affects them differently, because they have very different personalities. But in the end, they both lose their innocence about the game. And the result is tragic.

Of course, not all loss of innocence is tragic. But it’s often sobering. It also can make for a solid layer of character development in a novel, to say nothing of the possibilities for tension and suspense.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Everybody Loves You Now.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Jock Serong, John Grisham, Mari Strachan, Pascal Garnier

Now We Are Forced to Recognize Our Inhumanity*

My guess is, if it came down to it, we would all like to think we would be touched, as Abraham Lincoln put it, by the better angels of our nature. We’d like to think we wouldn’t yield to pure selfishness, or worse. And yet, as we know all too well, that’s not the way humans always are.

And that’s one of the interesting roles that crime fiction can play. Crime fiction shows us humans who make choices we would hope we wouldn’t make. But wouldn’t we? In some crime fiction, the reader is invited to think a little more deeply (e.g. ‘I wouldn’t do that…would I?’).  Those books can sometimes make us feel a little uncomfortable, because they show us sides of ourselves we might not want to see. At the same time, that’s part of what makes them memorable. There are certainly books that aren’t crime fiction that have the same effect. But, this is a crime-fictional blog, so….

There are several novels, for instance, in which readers are invited to ponder whether they might commit a murder under the circumstances laid out in the story. In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Hercule Poirot is on the famous Orient Express train, en route to London. On the second night of the three-day journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed. Poirot’s asked to find the killer, so that that person can be handed over to the authorities at the next border crossing. The only possible suspects are the other people in the same car, so Poirot has a limited pool. And, when he discovers the truth, we see that this is a murder that plenty of people might have committed in the same situation. We don’t want to think we’d kill, but there are times when we have to admit we might.

That point is also raised in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. When ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is beaten, raped, and left for dead, her family is, understandably, devastated. Her father, Carl Lee, is especially impacted. The two men who are responsible are soon caught and jailed, but Hailey is not sure he and his family will get justice. They are black, while Tonya’s attackers are white, and this is small-town Mississippi. He is also infuriated, and wants to do what he can, however little it may be, to help his daughter. So, he gets a gun and lies in ambush as the two men accused of the attack are brought to the courthouse. There, he kills them and badly wounds a deputy sheriff who’s with them. Now he’s about to stand trial for a double murder. And, even though there’s a lot of local sympathy for him, he still needs an attorney and he has still killed two people and wounded a third. So, he asks attorney Jake Brigance to defend him, and Brigance agrees. It’s a tough case, though. We’d like to think we would let the law take its course, and I think we’d agree that vigilantism is wrong. But what if it were your daughter? I know, fans of William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw – there’s a similar sort of theme in that one, too.

It’s not just the taking of a life, either. In Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney goes to Chiang Mai to visit her friend, Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. During her visit, Didi’s partner, Nou, is murdered. Before long, the police settle on Didi as the suspect, and go to his home. During their visit, he, too, is killed. The police say that he resisted arrest and was so violent as to be a danger to them, so they had no choice but to kill him. But Keeney doesn’t believe that account. So, she starts asking questions. The trail leads to the Thai sex-trafficking and child-trafficking businesses. Those businesses are a lot more complex than they seem on the surface, and that’s one of the points in this novel. On the one hand, we deplore the idea of child trafficking, and with good reason. But, for many families, the only other option they see is starvation. If it comes down to a choice between having your child earn money in the sex trade, or you and your family dying of starvation, the answer to, ‘What would you do?’ isn’t perhaps quite so easy.

There’s also Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. That novel takes place mostly within an ultra-exclusive housing development called Cascade Heights Country Club, about 30 miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthiest can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted’ before being admitted. The people in the Heights, as the place is called, live in a safeguarded world, with a large wall to keep ‘others’ out, the finest houses, and so on. The novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of the 2000s, a time when Argentina’s economy begins to have serious problems. And those problems finally find their way into the Heights. Eventually, that leads to real tragedy. As we get to know the people in this development, we see the casual cruelty with which they treat anyone who’s not ‘one of us.’ And we see how hard they work to keep themselves away from ‘all of that.’ On the one hand, we might deplore that lack of compassion and unwillingness to see other people as equal humans. On the other, what if you had that much money, and that much stake in a very safe home for your children, the best education money can buy, and a comfortable life? The decision to give it up might not be so straightforward.

There are plenty of other crime fiction stories where characters do things we want to think we’d never do. But some of them invite to ask ourselves whether we really – no, really – wouldn’t do them. And those stories invite us to look at ourselves in new ways. They’re not always easy or comfortable, but they stay with us.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Summer, Highland Falls.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Claudia Piñeiro, John Grisham, William McIlvanney

I’ll Take Your Part*

Classic and Golden Age crime fiction includes quite a few ‘gentleman detectives’ such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. And it can be expensive to hire them. Poirot even admits a few times that his work does not come cheaply. Fans know that he is also sometimes compelled to investigate by compassion, but still,  hiring him can be costly.

And, yet, it’s not just the wealthy who are in need of an advocate. Sometimes those without any money get themselves into legal trouble or need a PI. Crime fiction also includes plenty of characters who help those without a lot of money or ‘clout – even if they’re not required to take such cases pro bono. And those stories (and characters) can be at least as compelling.

One of the most famous such characters is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. He is a self-described ‘salvage consultant’ whose specialty is helping those who have had money or property stolen from them and have nowhere else to turn. McGee’s needs are relatively few, and he’s not greedy. His arrangement with his clients is usually that he will work on their behalf to get back what was taken from them. In return, he claims half of the value of that money or property. On the one hand, it sounds like a lot. On the other, his clients know that they have no chance of recovering their property without help. McGee is straightforward, good at what he does, and willing to help even destitute and desperate clients. So, in general, the arrangement works well for all. It helps, too, that he has a compassionate side, and feels a need to get justice for those who have no other chance of getting it.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has also been known to work on behalf of those who have nowhere else to turn. For example, in Eight Million Ways to Die, he meets Kim Dakkinen, a sex worker who wants to get out of the business, and free of her pimp. She’s going to need help, and for that, she turns to Scudder. He agrees to do what he can to protect her, but it isn’t successful. Kim is found brutally murdered, and Scudder feels a sense of responsibility. His first thought is that Kim’s pimp, an enigmatic man who calls himself Chance, is the killer. But Chance claims to be innocent, and, in fact, hires Scudder to find out who the real killer is. And it turns out that Kim’s death is more than a case of punishing a sex worker for trying to leave the business.

In Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People, we are introduced to Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin. He works for a seedy firm, and does most of his business representing sex workers, drug users, and down-and-out people who don’t have much hope of getting legal help. In the process, he’s become familiar with the city’s underside, and that turns out to be useful to him. For instance, in I Remember You, Devlin becomes suspicious when a fire destroys the shop of tattooist Finar Rogan. Then, a bomb goes off under Rogan’s car. It’s clear now that someone wants to kill him. As Devlin himself thinks:
 

‘He knew the folly of becoming too closely involved with his clients and their misfortunes, yet it was a mistake he could never help making.’
 

It’s that fascination for his clients, and his determination to do the right thing, that makes Devlin a formidable ally.

Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski has a strong social conscience. More than once, that means that she works on behalf of those who can’t pay (or who can only pay a little). For instance, in Burn Marks, a visit from Warshawski’s Aunt Elena alerts her to a fire that took place in the seedy SRO hotel where her aunt lives. It’s a run-down place, occupied mostly by people who can’t afford anything better. Although Aunt Elena’s unexpected visit triggers Warshawski’s interest in the case, it’s her concern for the well-being of the people who live in the building that keeps her involved. And that interest turns out to be dangerous, as she goes up against well-placed developers and ‘backroom politics.’

Several of John Grisham’s protagonists take on the cases of those who have nowhere else to turn. In The Client, for instance, we are introduced to Memphis attorney Regina ‘Reggie’ Love. She gets involved in a very dangerous case when she meets eleven-year-old Mark Sway. He and his brother Ricky were sneaking a cigarette when they witnessed a suicide. That death is connected to another notorious murder and a missing body. Ricky was deeply affected and is in a sort of catatonic state. Mark is smart enough to know that the two boys are in real trouble. So, when he meets Love, he wants her help. The Sway boys and their mother can’t afford a lawyer, but Love wants to keep the boys safe, so she charges the family one dollar for her services. By getting involved in this case, Love goes up against some very dangerous people, including Mafia thugs and highly-placed people who are connected to the Mob. The Sway family fares little better, since the Mafia is convinced that Mark knows more than he is saying. And Love fears that the FBI won’t be of much help protecting the family. So, she will have to do what she can to keep the family as safe as possible. Fans of Grisham’s Gray Mountain will know that it also features a lawyer who works for those who don’t have much of a voice of their own.

Of course, lawyers, PIs and other professional investigators have to earn a living. But that doesn’t always mean that they don’t work on behalf of those who are ‘down and out.’ And it’s interesting to see how this theme comes through in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, John D. MacDonald, John Grisham, Lawrence Block, Martin Edwards, Sara Paretsky

Exposing Every Weakness*

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot solves the stabbing murder of a retired business tycoon. At one point, he has this to say:
 

‘‘Let us take a man – a very ordinary man. A man with no idea of murder in his heart. There is in him somewhere a strain of weakness – deep down.’’
 

We all have flaws, of course, and in some cases, those flaws – those strains of weakness – can be used to manipulate us. For instance, someone who’s secretly a little greedy can be tempted quite a lot by money.

In crime fiction, this can make for an interesting layer of psychological tension, as well as a character motivation. There are lots of examples in the genre; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is hired by Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs to create a Murder Hunt event for an upcoming fête. On the surface, it seems quite innocent – all in fun. But Mrs. Oliver suspects that more is going on, and she asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. On the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who’s playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed. Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who the killer is. One of the ‘people of interest’ in the story is a scientist, Alec Legge, who’s rented a nearby cottage. As Poirot finds out more about the case, he discovers that Legge was drawn in, if you will, by some dangerous people. He had, as Poirot puts it, sympathy for a certain political party, and the more powerful members of that party wanted to exploit both that sympathy and Legge’s science skills. When Legge tried to extricate himself, he found it much harder and more dangerous than he imagined. It’s an interesting look at the way people’s biases and weaknesses can be used against them.

William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel introduces readers to low-rent New York PI Harry Angel. The novel takes place in the 1950’s, not very long after the end of World War II. One day, Angel gets a call from the prestigious and upmarket law firm of McIntosh, Winesap and Spy. Ordinarily, such a firm wouldn’t hire a PI like Angel. But one of their clients, a man named Louis Cyphre, wants to find a man, Jonathan Liebling, who’s gone missing. According to Cyphre, Liebling, who went by the name of Johnny Favorite, was a talented jazz musician whom Cyphre helped at the start of his career. In exchange, Favorite promised Cyphre ‘a certain collateral.’ Then, Liebling was drafted into service in World War II. He came back from the war suffering from physical wounds as well as what we now call PTSD. Eventually, he was placed in a special hospital. Now, he’s disappeared from the hospital, and Cyphre wants to find him. The fee is tempting, and Angel takes the case. He soon finds that this is no ordinary missing person case. Instead, Angel’s been drawn into a web of horror, and his weaknesses are being exploited.

We also see that in John Grisham’s The Firm. In that novel, Harvard Law School graduate Mitchell ‘Mitch’ McDeere gets an offer from the Memphis law firm of Brendini, Lambert, & Locke. It’s by no means the only offer he’s gotten. McDeere is smart, has a good background, and is hungry for success, as many young lawyers are. And that’s exactly the sort of lawyer Brendini, Lambert, & Locke want. They make McDeere an irresistible offer, and he signs on. At first, all seems to be going well. McDeere’s new colleagues help him pass the Tennessee Bar Exam, and he’s welcomed in other ways, too. But it’s not long before he begins to have some questions. Several attorneys connected with the firm have died, and McDeere wonders about the circumstances. By the time he starts to get some answers, though, he’s in deep, as the saying goes. His own ambition has drawn him in and been exploited. If he’s going to stay alive, he’s going to have to find a way to extricate himself.

In Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, we meet Winter, a small-time Glasgow drug dealer who wants to make a name for himself in the criminal underworld. He’s caught the attention of Peter Jamieson and his right-hand man, John Young. Jamieson is a ‘rising star’ in the underworld himself, and he has no interest in sharing the spotlight with an upstart who’s not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. So, he and Young hire Callum MacLean to ‘take care of’ Winter. MacLean has a good reputation and knows how to do the job. He soon sets his plan in motion. And, even though things don’t go exactly the way he intended, we see how weaknesses such as greed and desire can make a person very vulnerable.

Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy is in part the story of Olavo Bettencourt. He’s a wealthy and successful São Paolo advertising executive who has a life that most people would envy. He has a beautiful home in a closely-guarded part of the city. He has a gorgeous ‘trophy wife,’ and a healthy son, Olavinho. As Brazil’s political system gets a bit more open, several political candidates are advertising more, and they’re depending on people like Bettencourt. And that’s to say nothing of the large companies with which Bettencourt does business. He very much enjoys the money, perks, and power of his situation, but he’s really not as much in control as he thinks. In fact, some even more powerful and dangerous people have used Bettencourt’s weaknesses against him, and he’s now caught in a web. Then, a group of gangsters decides to abduct Olavinho – not an outrageous idea, considering the family’s wealth. They put together their plan and set it in motion. But they kidnap the wrong boy. Instead of Olavinho, the gangsters find that they have taken the mute son of the Bettencourts’ housekeeper. Now, the gang has to decide what to do about the boy they’ve abducted, and what to do about Olavinho. For his part, Bettencourt has to decide just what to tell the media and police. After all, too many questions about him could land him in jail…

We all have our weaknesses. They’re part of what makes us human. And it can make for an interesting layer of character development and suspense when those weaknesses are exploited.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pink Floyd’s The Happiest Days of Our Lives.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Edney Silvestre, John Grisham, Malcolm Mackay, William Hjortsberg