Category Archives: Karin Alvtegen

Fooling Myself*

As this is posted, it’s the 70th anniversary of the first staging of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Arguably, one of the important themes in the play is the inability to let go of illusions. Several characters in the play, including Willy Loman, have illusions about themselves and others, and it’s painful, even tragic, when they’re confronted with the reality.

That’s the way real life sometimes works, though. People may have illusions about their children (e.g. ‘My daughter’s just got a great job – she’s going to go to the top!’), or their own importance to their employer, or, or… Some of those illusions may be harmless enough; others are not. And when we are confronted with them, there can be any number of reactions.

It’s the same thing in crime fiction. And, because everyone’s different, an author has all sorts of options when it comes to weaving this theme into a novel. Certainly, it can add to character development as well as to the main plot.

There’s an Agatha Christie novel, for instance, in which someone’s quite illusory plans lead that person to commit more than one murder. No titles or sleuths, in the interest of spoiler-prevention. But Christie fans will know which novel I mean.

In Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, we are introduced to the Blackwood family: eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat,’ her older sister Constance, and their Uncle Julian. They live in a large, isolated house near a small New England town that considers them pariahs. And we soon learn the reason. Six years before the events of this novel, three other members of the Blackwood family died of what turned out to be poison. Although no-one was ever convicted, the locals are certain that one of the remaining Blackwoods is responsible. Despite this, the family lives peacefully enough, and Merricat (from whose point of view the story is told) has developed an entire set of illusions about her life, her family’s life, and the people in the town. Everything changes when a cousin, Charles Blackwood, comes to visit. His visit sets off a chain events that ends in more tragedy. Throughout the novel, we see just how strong some of Merricat’s illusions really are.

Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is the story of Eva Wirenström-Berg, her husband, Henrik, and their son, Axel. Eva has always wanted the ‘white picket fence’ suburban dream, and she thinks she has it. She and Henrik have been happily married for fifteen years, and Axel is healthy and doing well.  Then, Eva’s illusions are shattered. She discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. Devastated by this news, Eva determines to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she sets in motion her own plan. In the meantime, we also meet Jonas Hansson, who has his own issues. One night, Eva goes to a pub where she happens to meet Jonas. The two start talking, and before they know it, things spiral out of control for both. And part of the reason is that Jonas has his share of illusions, too.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to Thea Farmer. She’s retired from her job as a school principal and moved to the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. There, she had a custom-made house built – her dream home. But bad luck and poor financial decision-making have meant that she’s had to put that home up for sale and move into the house next door. As if that’s not enough, Thea learns that a new couple, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, have bought the house she still considers hers. To add insult to injury, Frank’s niece, Kim, comes to live with them. Unexpectedly, Thea forms an awkward sort of friendship with the girl, though, and sees in her real promise as a writer. So, she’s very concerned when she begins to believe that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim. When the police won’t do anything about it, she makes her own plan of action. Throughout this novel, we see how many illusions Thea has about her life, her reasons for leaving her job, her home, and much more. And those illusions play important roles in the choices that she makes.

Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy introduces successful São Paolo advertising executive Olavo Bettencourt, his ‘trophy wife,’ Mara, and their son, Olavinho.  Bettencourt is very much in demand by companies that want to increase their visibility and sales. And, with Brazil’s laws about political campaigning undergoing change, Bettencourt also finds that several politicians, some of them powerful, also seek him out. This gives him a real illusion of his own importance and power. All of that changes when a gang decides to kidnap Olavinho. By accident, they abduct the wrong boy (they take the son of Bettencourt’s housekeeper), and are now caught in a dangerous web. In the meantime, Bettencourt has a serious dilemma. The more public he goes with the kidnapping situation, the more likely it is that some ugly truths about his business dealings will come out. And that could mean major legal trouble for him. But he can’t be seen to be doing nothing. As the story goes on, he learns the hard way that he doesn’t have nearly as much power as he thinks he does.

And that’s the thing about illusions. It can be very hard to let go of them, but it can be at least as dangerous not to do so. And illusions can serve some effective purposes in a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Edney Silvestre, Karin Alvtegen, Shirley Jackson, Virginia Duigan

Maybe This Time I’ll Win*

As this is posted, it’s 123 years since Alfred Nobel’s will established what we now know as the Nobel Prizes. Today, there are six Nobel categories: Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Economic Sciences, Literature, and of course, the Peace Prize. To be a Nobel laureate is the achievement of a lifetime.

Few prizes are as valuable as a Nobel Prize, but there are, of course, lots of prizes and awards out there. And winning can be very important. So, it’s little wonder that there’s sometimes quite a lot of competition for a prize and for the recognition that goes with it. And even when there’s not a lot of obvious competition, there can be a lot of tension and suspense as people wait and wonder whether their efforts will give them the win. That tension can add a lot both to the plot of a crime novel and to the layers of character development in a novel.

The Nobel Prize for Literature figures into Karin Alvtegen’s Shadow. That novel features several generations of the Ragnerfeldt family, including Nobel laureate Axel Ragnerfeldt. An exploration of the family’s dark past and deep secrets is triggered when Gerda Persson is found dead. She had no family, so social worker Marianne Folkesson goes through her things. Marianne discovers that the dead woman’s freezer is full of copies of Regnerfeldt’s books, all dedicated to her. As the story goes on, we see how this story is tied in with the story of a man named Kristoffer, who was abandoned as a boy, and still isn’t sure who he is or why he was left alone. And we see the impact of the desire for a prize like the Nobel, and not just on the person who wants the prize.

There’s a different literary prize at stake in Teresa Solana’s A Shortcut to Paradise. That novel begins on the night that celebrated Catalán writer Marina Dolç wins the coveted Golden Apple Prize for Literature. After the awards banquet, she goes up to her hotel room, where she is later found dead. The police investigate, and soon settle on a suspect. He is fellow writer Amadeu Cabestany, who was the victim’s strongest competition for the prize, and who wanted badly to win. It doesn’t help matters that he and the victim were at odds. Nor does it help his case that, although he claims he was elsewhere at the time of the murder, he can’t prove that, and no-one at the party paid any attention to whether he was there or not. Cabestany’s literary agent hires Barcelona PIs Josep ‘Pep’ Martínez and his brother Eduard to look into the matter and try to clear Cabestany’s name if they can.

Even when a prize isn’t as prestigious as the Nobel, it can still mean high stakes (at least for the people involved). For instance, in one plot line of Douglas Lindsay’s We Are the Hanged Man, Met Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Robert Jericho is ‘volunteered’ to serve on a panel for the television show Britain’s Got Justice. It’s the last thing he wants to do, but his boss hasn’t made this optional. In the show, contestants compete as apprentice police officers. Being the winner of a reality show doesn’t, of course, have the cachet that a Nobel Prize does. But these contestants want to win. And they definitely want the fame that comes with being on TV. So, when one of them is killed, the remaining contestants are all possible suspects. Among other things this novel offers an interesting look at what it’s like to compete for a television prize.

Riley Adams (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) shows readers how coveted a beauty pageant prize can be in Hickory Smoked Homicide. In the novel, we meet Tristan Pembroke, wealthy and well-known beauty pageant judge and coach. She’s made her share of enemies, so when she is murdered one evening, there are several suspects. Chief among them is local artist Sara Taylor, who was involved in a dispute with the victim over one of her paintings. Sara’s mother-in-law, Lulu Taylor, knows that she is innocent. So, she decides to ask some questions to find out who the real killer is. And in the process, we learn just how important a beauty-queen prize can be, especially sometimes to the parents of the competitors.

Susan Wittig Albert’s Chili Death is, in part, the story of a hotly contested cook-off. In that plot line, Pecan Springs, Texas police officer Mike McQuaid is persuaded to serve as a judge for an up-coming chili cook-off. There’s a lot riding on this competition, so there’s tension. On the day of the event, one of the other judges, Jerry Jeff Cody, suddenly dies of what turns out to be chili that was laced with crushed peanuts, to which he was violently allergic. McQuaid’s wife (and Wittig Albert’s sleuth) China Bayles is at the cook-off and gets drawn into the investigation. And one very strong possibility is that one of the cook-off contestants was responsible for the murder. As it turns out, that murder is connected with a case of some disturbing events taking place at a local nursing home.

A prize may be as simple as a blue ribbon at a science fair contest, or as noteworthy as a Nobel Prize for Chemistry – or anything in between. Whatever the case, when a group of people all want the same thing, and that thing has value to them, there’s bound to be tension. And it’s bound to show up at some time in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander & Fred Ebbs‘s Maybe This Time.

 

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Filed under Douglas Lindsay, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Karin Alvtegen, Riley Adams, Susan Wittig Albert, Teresa Solana

Sometimes It’s Better Not to Know*

If you’re a crime fiction fan, chances are good that you’re curious, and that you want answers. And that’s quite natural. Most humans have a certain amount of curiosity, and that serves us well. But, are there times when, as the saying goes, ignorance is bliss? Are there some things we’re better off not knowing?

It’s interesting to see how crime fiction treats that question. On the one hand, the genre is all about finding out answers and getting to the truth. On the other, sometimes that truth is so difficult that it really might be better not to know.

Agatha Christie address this question in several of her stories. For instance, in the short story Dead Man’s Mirror, Gervase Chevenix-Gore summons Hercule Poirot to his family home to help him deal with a delicate matter. Poirot is, as you can imagine, not exactly delighted with such treatment, but he is intrigued. So, he travels to Chevenix-Gore’s home. Shortly after he arrives, everyone gathers for dinner. But, by then, Chevenix-Gore is dead – shot in his study. On the surface, it looks very much like suicide. But there is good reason to believe that he would not have committed suicide. And Poirot soon finds evidence to suggest that he was murdered. As he slowly gets to the truth of the matter, Poirot discovers that there are several secrets perhaps best left alone. In fact, he leaves one of them alone himself.

Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die begins as mystery writer Frank Cairnes writes in his journal,
 

‘I am going to kill a man.’
 

He’s being perfectly literal, too. Six months ago, Cairnes’ beloved son, Martin ‘Martie’ died in a tragic hit-and-run incident. Devastated with grief, Cairnes has determined that he will find and kill the man responsible. So, he moves back to the town where he and Martie lived at the time of the tragedy and starts doing a little detective work. Before long, he establishes that the person who was driving the car that killed Martie was a man named George Rattery. Soon afterwards, he finds an ‘in’ to Rattery’s company, and gets an invitation for a visit. His plan is to take Rattery out on a boat and drown him. But Rattery has found Cairnes’ diary. He says that if anything happens to him, the police will get the diary, and Cairnes will be caught. For Cairnes’ part, he says that if the police get the diary, then they’ll know about Rattery’s role in Martie’s death. At a stalemate, the two men head back to shore. Later that day, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes says that he is innocent. After all, why would he plan to poison a man whom he’d already been going to drown? And he asks poet and PI Nigel Strangeways to help clear his name. As the story goes on, it’s an interesting question whether it would have been better if Cairnes had never found out who the driver of that car was.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband, Henrik, have what seems like the perfect suburban life. Then, Eva discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. Many people would argue that she has a right to know that. But for her, the news is truly devastating. She is determined that she will find out who the other woman is, and that decision spells disaster. When she learns who Henrik’s lover is, Eva plans revenge, but things don’t work out the way she wants. Gradually, things spin out of control in a way that they likely wouldn’t have if she’d never learned who the other woman was.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger begins as Fabien Delorme discovers that his wife, Sylvie, has died in a car crash. He feels the loss, but their marriage had faded, so he doesn’t feel a really deep grief. Then, he is told that she wasn’t alone in the car. Apparently, she had a lover who also died in the crash. This upsets Delorme more than does the fact that Sylvie died, and he wants to know who this other man was. The police aren’t willing to tell him, but he finds out that the man’s name was Martial Arnoult, and that he left a widow, Martine. Delorme becomes obsessed with finding out more about her, and before he knows it, he’s caught in a web that spins out of control. Admittedly, if he hadn’t found out the name of Sylvie’s lover, it wouldn’t make for much of a story. But it’s hard not to think he would have been better off not knowing…

And then there’s Mick Herron’s Down Cemetery Road. Sarah Tucker and her husband, Mark, are entertaining some guests one evening when an explosion destroys a house not far from theirs. At first, it’s believed to be a gas main. But Sarah has questions about that. For one thing, the owners of the house, Thomas and Maddie Singleton, who were killed in the explosion, left a four-year-old daughter, Dinah. There’s been no sign of the child, and no evidence that she was hurt or killed. So, what’s happened to her? Sarah soon finds out, too, that Thomas Singleton had been listed as killed four years earlier in a military accident. So, why was he present on the night of the explosion? Sarah is especially concerned about Dinah, so she starts to ask questions. And the more she finds out, the more danger there is for her. In the end, Sarah learns some dark, ugly truths, as this case is far more than a tragic gas main accident. Some of that knowledge is very dangerous, too – enough to make one wonder just how much good it did her to learn what she learned.

And that’s the thing about curiosity. It’s a natural part of human thinking. But sometimes, you can’t help wondering whether some things are better left unknown…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pale Divine’s The Fog.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Karin Alvtegen, Mick Herron, Nicholas Blake, Pascal Garnier

When You Were Only Startin’ to Go to Kindergarten*

It’s a ritual that happens in almost every family. I’m talking about the first day of school, especially the first day of Kindergarten or its equivalent. It’s a big event, even for children who’ve been in a child care facility of some kind. It’s an even bigger event for those who haven’t. And it often makes people anxious.

For the parents, it might be the first time their child is ‘officially’ compared to others. And in some countries, it’s the first time that children are expected to do anything like academic work. So, it’s natural for parents to feel anxious (e.g. ‘Will my child make friends/learn letters/behave/etc….’). For the children, starting school means a whole new routine, new adults in charge, and all sorts of new children to meet. And that’s to say nothing of what they’re expected to learn. Some children are excited about it, and some are reluctant, to say the least.

Not the least of parents’ concerns is, of course, their child’s well-being. That’s one reason many parents walk or drive their young children to school (at least until those children beg them not to any more…). We see that sort of concern in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal. In that novel, Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband, Hendrik, seem to have a perfect suburban life, complete with white picket fence. They’ve been married for fifteen years, and they are the proud parents of six-year-old Axel. Then, Eva discovers that Hendrik has been unfaithful. Devastated by this news, she determines to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she makes her own plans, which quickly spiral out of control. In the meantime, she’s got another concern. One day, Axel tells her about a man – someone he doesn’t know – who’s been talking to him over the fence at his school. It scares Eva, as you can imagine, and adds to the tension in the story. And, in its own way, it relates to the larger plot.

Hannah Dennison’s Deadly Desires at Honeychurch Hall features former TV personality Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford, who’s living with her mother, Iris, in the former carriage house on the estate of Honeychurch Hall, in Devon. The estate’s current owner is Rupert Honeychurch, whose son, Harry, is old enough now to go to school. Like many boys in his social group, Harry is sent away to school, and he doesn’t like the idea at all. He’s miserable away from home and keeps finding excuses to come back to Honeychurch Hall. His unhappiness sparks a major debate in his family. On the one hand, if Harry doesn’t go away to one of the ‘right schools,’ there’s a good chance he won’t get to mix with boys of his social class. This means he won’t get the opportunity to be a part of the networks that are so important to later advancement. On the other hand, there’s no doubt he’s deeply unhappy, and would much prefer to go to the local school. It’s not an easy choice to make, especially for a boy as young as Harry is. Admittedly, it’s not a part of the main plot thread. But it shows what it can be like for families as their children go off to school.

In Peter May’s The Blackhouse, Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis. There’s been a murder there that resembles a murder MacLeod is investigating, and it’s hoped that, if the same person committed both murders, working as a team might help both groups catch the killer. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up on the Isle of Lewis. But it’s not a particularly joyful one. He had his own good reasons for leaving when he did. And the dead man is a person he used to know. As MacLeod works with the local team to find out who the killer is, he meets several people he grew up with, and we learn about his early life. One of his memories is going to school for the first time (he was excited about it at first). One of the realities of life at the time MacLeod was growing up was the fact that most people on the Isle of Lewis spoke Gaelic. And yet, only English was spoken and taught in school. So, along with getting used to lessons and so on, MacLeod also had to get used to a new language. And that’s a reality for many young children who speak one language at home and/or in their community but must learn another at school.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly in an ultra-exclusive community called Cascade Heights Country Club, about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are not guaranteed acceptance. It’s a very elite place. Residents are expected to shop at certain places, go on certain trips, and send their children only to the ‘right’ schools. Then, the financial crises of the late 1990s (when this novel takes place) find their way into even this most upmarket of places. Everything starts to change, and eventually, it ends in real tragedy. At one point, there’s an interesting discussion of one of the residents, Mariana, getting her daughter ready to go to school for the first time. This school teaches in English, so the child will have to get used to a new school, new children, and a completely new language. But this is one of the ‘right’ schools, and Mariana’s main concern is getting her daughter into the school and then making sure she stays there. Instead of being concerned about her daughter’s readiness, comfort, etc., or easing her anxieties, Mariana is thinking about her daughter’s appearance, and about her superficial success. Certainly, she’s doing nothing to ease the transition to school.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. This novel takes place within the community of parents and children associated with Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main focus is on the Kindergarten class, and the children who are joining it. The plot follows the lives of three families whose children are enrolled in that class, and how those lives intersect. There are rivalries, domestic issues, and other simmering conflicts that boil over one evening and end in tragedy. Throughout the novel, we see the anxiety of starting school for both parents and children. The parents want their children to reflect well on them, of course. The children have their own anxieties, and it’s interesting to see how that tension impacts the story.

Starting school, especially for the first time, can be stressful. It’s almost always eventful, and it can lead to all sorts of anxiety. Little wonder we see this plot point in the genre.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer’s You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.

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Filed under Claudia Piñeiro, Hannah Dennison, Karin Alvtegen, Liane Moriarty, Peter May

Perfect Isn’t Easy, But It’s Me*

We all know that people aren’t perfect. Most of us do some things well (perhaps even very well), and some things not very well. And, yet, there’s a myth that we ought to be perfect. We’re ‘supposed to’ do our work with no mistakes, always look perfectly ‘put together,’ and so on. There are even more myths around raising children (our perfect children are supposed to be raised perfectly).

Everyone knows that human make mistakes. Still, lots of people want to be perfect. On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong (and a lot of things right) with setting goals, wanting to improve, and so on. It’s when perfectionism takes over that it can present a problem. I got to thinking about this after reading a really interesting post by Elizabeth Spann Craig. By the way, if you haven’t read Elizabeth’s mystery series (she’s got several), you want to try them. You won’t regret it.

Elizabeth’s post had a focus on perfectionism in writing (in case you’re wondering, it’s not possible.). But perfectionism isn’t just confined to writers. And it’s not confined to real life, either. There are plenty of crime novels in which perfectionism plays a role. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, we are introduced to sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She goes with her father, Captain Kenneth Marshall, and her stepmother, Arlena Stuart Marshall, to the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercomb Bay for a holiday. But this isn’t a happy time for Linda. She is very much dissatisfied with her physical appearance, for one thing. She’s also got that teenage awkwardness that makes it hard for her to feel confident. Linda wishes she were perfect in appearance, grace, and so on, but she knows she isn’t. And that makes life very hard for her. It doesn’t help matters that her stepmother is a famous and beautiful actress, with all of the looks, confidence, and grace you’d expect. Linda has a lot of resentment towards Arlena, and that’s part of what makes her a ‘person of interest’ when Arlena is murdered one day. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the killer is.

Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal features a banker named Horace Croydon. He has what he sees as the perfect life. He does his job perfectly, he has a perfect little place to live, and he’s never done anything to raise even the merest hint of a scandal. Then, he meets his boss’ cousin, Althea. After a very respectable courtship, they marry. Almost immediately, Horace sees that he’s made a dreadful mistake. Althea doesn’t serve meals on time, she doesn’t do the shopping in the ‘right’ way, and she’s made several changes to his perfect home. She doesn’t even dress properly to appear at the breakfast table. All of that’s bad enough, but one day, she goes too far. When she destroys some ciphers that Horace is working (it’s his hobby and passion), he decides he’s going to have to act. And he comes up with his own plan to solve the problem.

Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is the story of Eva Wirenström-Berg. She’s always wanted the ‘perfect’ suburban life, complete with white picket fence. And she thinks she has it. She and her husband Hendrik have been married for fifteen years, and they have a six-year-old son, Axel. For Eva, it’s very important to have the perfect home, the perfect marriage, and so on. Then, she discovers to her shock that Hendrik has been unfaithful. She’s devastated by this and decides to find out who his lover is. When she does, she decides to take revenge. In the meantime, we meet Jonas Hansson, who’s got his own issues. One night, he’s in a pub when Eva stops in for a drink. The two get to talking, and, soon enough, things spiral out of control for both of them. In this case, perfectionism has a very dark side.

It does in Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? too. Yvonne and Gerry Mulhern and their newborn daughter move from London to Dublin, so that Gerry can take advantage of a very good job opportunity. It’s hard for Yvonne, because she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin. And, while she’s not stupid or gullible, she has been subjected to the myth of the ‘perfect mother.’ As anyone who’s ever had a newborn knows, babies are exhausting. There’s little time to eat properly, clean the house, put together the right outfits, and so on. And there’s no magic way to get them to stop crying when you want them not to cry. Yvonne doesn’t really have a support system and feels very strongly that she doesn’t ‘measure up.’ Then, she discovers an online forum called Netmammy. It’s a chat group for new mums, and there, she finds the camaraderie and support she so desperately needs. Then, one of the other members of the forum goes ‘off the grid.’ Yvonne’s concerned enough to go to the police, but there’s not much they can do. Then, the body of an unknown woman is found in an empty apartment. It could very well be Yvonne’s missing friend. If it is, what does this mean for Netmammy? Could the other members, including Yvonne, be in danger?

And then there’s Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me. Devon Knox has rare gymnastic talent. Her parents, Katie and Eric, want to nurture that talent, so they are only too happy to listen when gymnastics coach Teddy Balfour invites them to place her in his gymnastics coaching program. Then, a tragic hit-and-run accident (if it was, indeed, an accident) changes everything. The question is now: how far does a family go to reach the Olympics? There’s a great deal of pressure in the program to be the best – to be perfect. And that plays its role in the novel.

We all know we’re not perfect. We’re messy, flawed, nuanced human beings. But it can be easy to ‘buy’ the myth that perfect is possible. And when that happens, it can lead to trouble.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Barry Manilow, Jack Feldman, and Bruce Sussman’s Perfect Isn’t Easy.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Karin Alvtegen, Megan Abbott, Sinéad Crowley, Talmage Powell