Category Archives: Katherine Howell

Yours is so Distinctive*

Distinctive SeriesThe thing about crime fiction is that there’s a lot of it. Every year, new novels are released, too. All of this means that nobody can read all of the crime fiction that’s out there. And yet, despite all of the options and all of the reading we do, there are some series that really seem to stand out. There’s something about those series that makes them unique. I’m not talking here of just an interesting plot and characters; any well-written crime series has those. I’m talking more of something special that sets those series apart.

In some cases, it’s a unique sort of sleuth. These are sleuths who are distinctive enough that if you see a caricature, you know exactly which sleuth it is. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is like that. He has enough eccentricities that he’s quite distinctive. And his personality and detection style are part of what set those stories apart.

One might say the same thing about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, too. Both of those detectives are distinct from other detectives, both in physical appearance and in their approaches to solving crime. So the novels featuring them stand out, too. This isn’t to say that that mysteries themselves aren’t interesting, or that there’s nothing else appealing about those series. Rather, it’s to say that those characters are important parts of what sets those series apart from others.

For some series, it’s the cultural context that sets them apart. We see that, for instance, in Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels. Both of those characters are members of the Navajo Tribal Police, and the Navajo Nation. So, many of these stories take place in that culture. In fact, Hillerman was awarded the distinction of being named ‘A Special Friend of the Navajo’ for his thoughtful and respectful, but honest, depiction of the Navajo.

Fans of Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder novels will know that that series, too, is set apart by its depiction of a unique culture. In this case, it’s the Amish of the US state of Ohio. Burkholder is chief of police in the small town of Painters Mill. She is also Amish by background, although she no longer lives that life. So readers get a look at the distinctive way of life of the Amish, and that’s part of what makes this series different to others.

Many readers like a strong sense of setting in their novels. And any well-written crime series gives the reader a sense of what it’s like to live in the place where the stories are set. But in some series, that sense of setting is distinctive. I’m thinking, for instance, of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels. Longmire is the sheriff for fictional Apsaroka County, Wyoming, so in those novels, readers get a real sense of rural Wyoming. The physical setting, the climate, and the people who live there are all depicted in these novels. That’s not to say there’s nothing else about the series that makes it worth reading. It is to say, though, that for fans of these novels, the setting is one factor that sets them apart.

That’s also arguably true of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway/Harry Nelson series. Galloway is a forensic anthropologist with the University of North Norfolk; Nelson is a local chief inspector. Among many other things that fans of this series enjoy, the setting is distinctive. As the novels go on, readers learn about the history of this part of East Anglia, and about the climate, geography, and so on that make the place unique. And, of course, there’s Cathbad…

Peter May’s Lewis trilogy takes place in the Lewis and Harris part of the Outer Hebrides. Right from the beginning, readers are placed there in terms of climate, geography and so on. Certainly the character and plot are part of what appeal to fans of May’s writing. But the setting is definitely one of the things that sets this trilogy apart. May’s depiction of setting is also really clear in his standalone Entry Island.

Another element that sets some series apart for readers is the depiction of a profession. In those cases, readers learn what it’s really like to be a lawyer/doctor/paramedic/etc. John Grisham’s novels, for instance, just about always focus on an attorney or a group of attorneys. So they give readers an ‘inside look’ at the life of an attorney. And what sets these novels apart is that they go beyond the TV-and-film stereotypes of what an attorney does. The same is arguably true of Robert Rotenberg’s novels.

Katherine Howell’s novels feature New South Wales police inspector Ella Marconi. But they also include major characters who are paramedics. Among the things that set these novels apart is the way they depict the life of a paramedic. Readers get to ‘go behind the scenes’ and really see what it’s like to become a paramedic, to do the job, and to live the life. It’s interesting to note, too, that Grisham, Rotenberg and Howell are all, or have been, members of the professions that feature in their stories. This may be just my opinion, but I think that lends something to their series. And that depiction of profession sets them apart.

Of course, these are just a few examples of ways in which a series can distinguish itself from all the good series out there. As you think about the series that most stand out for you, what is it about them that draws you? If you’re a writer, what do you find easiest to do to make your stories unique?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sense Field’s Voice.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Elly Griffiths, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Linda Castillo, Peter May, Rex Stout, Robert Rotenberg, Tony Hillerman

Far From a Maddening Crowd*

CrowdsThis photograph was taken at Los Angeles’ Union Station. It’s a major transportation hub, so thousands of people go through it each day. And most of them are so intent on their own business that they don’t usually pay much attention to anyone else. And because of the surging crowds, it’s hard to notice everything and everyone, even if you do pay attention. So it’s fairly easy for someone to fade into the background, as the saying goes.

That sort of anonymity is one reason that train stations, buses and other crowded places can be such effective settings in a crime novel. As Josephine Tey shows in The Man in the Queue, when there is a large group of disparate people together in one place, it’s easy for one person to, quite literally, get away with murder. That’s in fact what happens in the novel when small-time bookmaker Albert Sorrell is stabbed. He’s waiting with a large crowd of other people who’ve gathered at the Woofington Theatre to see the final performance of the hit show Did You Know? Everyone is so self-absorbed that no-one notices the murder. For inspector Alan Grant, it’s frustrating to have so many witnesses but so little useful information from them.

A similar sort of thing happens in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd. Dona Laura Sales Ribeiro is waiting for a bus along with a group of other people. Many others are walking by on the street. Despite the number of witnesses, no-one sees it when she falls, or is pushed, under an oncoming bus. At first, her death is put down to a terrible accident. But then it comes out that she had been to see Rio de Janeiro Inspector Espinosa a short time before her death. At the time, he wasn’t available to speak to her, and she agreed to return later. Now Espinosa is very curious about what she wanted and why she would have died so soon after coming to the police station, so he and the team begin to look into her death more closely. It turns out that this death was no accident.

Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit also includes a very effective large-crowd sort of murder. One afternoon, Marko Meixner is among a large crowd at a busy Sydney train station. When he is pushed under an oncoming train, New South Wales Police Inspectors Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare are called to the scene. At first, it looks as though this was a terrible accident. But when paramedics Jane Koutofides and Alex Churchill arrive, they are shocked to see that this is the same man they rescued from a one-car crash earlier in the day. At that time, Meixner said that he was in terrible danger, and that they would be, too, if they spent any time with him. And now it seems that his warning wasn’t just an irrational rambling from a mentally ill person. What’s interesting about this particular murder is that, even with CCTV cameras in the station, Marconi and Shakespeare can’t follow individuals in the crowd well enough to work out who pushed the victim under the train.

Large, crowded places also serve another crime-fictional purpose for the author. They bring together lots of disparate people from all over. This means that any one character could have all sorts of interactions without contrivance. In fact, Hercule Poirot makes mention of this in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. He is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay when a fellow guest, Arlena Stuart Marshall, is murdered. Since he’s there, and is possibly the last person who saw the victim alive, he gets involved in the investigation. Early in the novel, before the murder, he’s talking with another guest who’s just said that the hotel isn’t the sort of place you’d find a body. Poirot begs to differ and explains himself this way:

 

”Let us say, you have an enemy. If you seek him out in his flat, in his office, in the street – eh bien, you must have a reason – you must account for yourself. But here at the seaside it is necessary for no one to account for himself. You are at Leathercombe Bay, why? Parbleu! it is August – one goes to the seaside in August – one is on one’s holiday. It is quite natural, you see, for you to be here and for Mr Lane to be here and for Major Barry to be here and for Mrs Redfern and her husband to be here. Because it is the custom in England to go to the seaside in August.”

 

It’s the sort of place where people from all over gather, and where they don’t have to explain why they’re there. I know, I know, fans of Murder on the Orient Express.

We see this sort of gathering together of disparate people in K.B. Owen’s Unseemly Haste, too. It’s 1898, and Concordia Wells is on a cross-country train journey from Hartford, where she teaches at a women’s college, to San Francisco. She’s taking the journey with her friend Pinkerton detective Penelope Hamilton, who has her own agenda. Along the way, Concordia runs up against crooked card players, fraud, a newspaper reporter in hiding, and a couple of murders. One of the elements in this novel is the number of very different kinds of people who are aboard the train. They come from all sorts of places, and all have their own agendas.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant deals with trouble in large crowds too. In both Tapas on the Ramblas and Date With a Sheesha, the trail of a case leads to large market bazaars where crowds of people mingle and where nobody pays a lot of attention to any one person. It’s easy to get lost, and easy to find yourself very vulnerable in such a crowd. And in both of those novels, that market setting is used very effectively to bring all sorts of people together.

And that’s what happens in places such as train stations, buses, markets and so on. They gather together all kinds of people from all over. And people are so intent on what they’re doing that they don’t pay attention to what’s going on around them. Even when they should…

 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blackfoot’s Take a Train.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Josephine Tey, K.B. Owen, Katherine Howell, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

You Got That Right*

AccuracyIn Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of wealthy Emily Arundell. She’s left behind several relatives who are desperate for their share of her money, and who have very good motive for getting her out of their way. It’s a complicated case, and one evening, Hastings suggests that the two of them take their minds off the investigation and go to see a play. Poirot agrees and they duly attend. However, there’s one problem: Hastings  has chosen a crook play.
 

‘There is one piece of advice I offer to all my readers. Never take a soldier to a military play, a sailor to a naval play, a Scotsman to a Scottish play, a detective to a thriller – and an actor to any play whatsoever!’
 

Poirot gets very frustrated with the plot, claiming that the whole case could have been solved before the end of the first act.

This shows, I think, how we all bring our expertise into what we do in the rest of our lives. Certainly research suggests that we tap our knowledge, background and expertise when we read. People in general are not passive when they read. They interact with what they read; and, however unconsciously, compare it to what they know from real life. This doesn’t mean that readers are never willing to set aside disbelief. But a lot of readers do get cranky if the author isn’t more or less accurate.

For example, you may or may not know that my professional background has been mostly in the world of education. So I’m particularly ‘tuned in,’ for lack of a better phrase, when I read crime novels that take place in academia. And, if I’m being honest, I’m probably less patient with such novels when the author doesn’t portray that world accurately. I bring what I know to the reading process, as we all do, so I notice it more when what I know isn’t reflected in what’s in the book. That’s why I have a particular appreciation for work like Christine Poulson’s, Gail Bowen’s and Elly Griffiths’, whose novels have an academic context. In part because of the authors’ experiences in academia, the context is authentic, and that makes those novels more believable.

It’s the same, I would imagine, for just about any profession. For instance, the law profession varies from place to place, and certainly from country to country. But there are certain things about what lawyers do and don’t do that are, I think, a little more universal. And a well-written legal novel reflects that reality. I would suspect that attorneys who read crime fiction are ‘tuned in’ to those aspects of legal novels, and probably not patient when the author isn’t authentic. Not being an attorney myself, I can’t speak from expertise. But the works of authors such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham, Scott Turow and (in his Mickey Haller novels) Michael Connelly strike me as being realistic.

One might say the same thing about crime novels that take place in the health care and medical community. Physicians, paramedics, nurses and other health care providers who read crime fiction probably get very impatient with crime novels that don’t depict that world accurately. And they’re probably quite pleased with the authenticity of writers such as Katherine Howell, Michael Crichton and Michael Palmer.

I could go on and on with examples, but I think the point’s made. Whatever your profession or work background is, you’re likely to bring it to your reading, and you may very well find yourself noticing it particularly when someone isn’t accurate.

What about law enforcers who also read crime fiction? Most crime writers aren’t police officers (although some of course are or have been). And yet, if you think about it, just about every crime novel involves police presence, at least just a little. And some focus quite a lot more than others do on police activity. Some of those novels give a more authentic portrait of police life than others do. So my unsophisticated guess would be that there is plenty of frustration among law enforcement people when it comes to the way what they do is portrayed.

You’ll notice that all of the authors mentioned thus far have a professional background in the area that’s the focus of their books. For instance, Howell has been a paramedic, Rotenberg is a criminal lawyer, and Bowen has been a professor. Does this mean that you need to be a member of a given profession to write about it accurately? I don’t think so.

Let’s consider some of the highly regarded crime series out there. Ed McBain is, as you’ll know doubt know, the creator of the 87th Precinct series, which many people regard as a superior series. Its focus is police detectives and their lives, and the crimes they investigate. McBain was never, at least to my knowledge, in law enforcement. And yet this series is often held up as an example of an excellent police procedural series.

Jussi Adler-Olsen has done a number of things with his career, including music, business and publishing. He’s never, to my knowledge, been a police detective. Still, his Carl Mørck novels are very highly regarded police procedurals. Not being in law enforcement myself, I can’t vouch conclusively for their authenticity. But they certainly have the hallmarks of the police procedural, including life at the precinct, policy and so on.

Sara Paretsky isn’t a private investigator. Her background was in political science and history before she turned her focus to writing. But as any fan will tell you, her V.I. Warshawski series is very well-regarded, and gives readers a great deal of information about the ins and outs of private investigation. These are just a few examples; there are dozens of others. But I think just these few serve to show that some authors have written extremely credible work about professions that aren’t in their backgrounds. The key here really seems to be doing effective research (and of course, telling a well-written story!).

What about you? When you read a novel about people who do what you do professionally, do you pay extra attention to the details? Do you get frustrated when the author isn’t accurate?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, John Grisham, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Katherine Howell, Michael Connelly, Michael Crichton, Michael Palmer, Robert Rotenberg, Sara Paretsky, Scott Turow

I Wanted to Tell You My Story*

Tapping Prior KnowledgeThere’s a great deal of research that shows that we learn and remember by associating new information with what we already know. If that research is correct (and I’ve yet to read anything that disproves it), then we build mental representations of things, concepts, and so on by adding new things we learn to our prior knowledge.

If you think of it from the other direction, so to speak, it works like this. When we do something or encounter something new, we tap what we already know to make sense of it and work with it. That’s why, for instance, when you buy a new car, you often get used to driving it quickly. You tap your background knowledge about where everything is in a car and use that to learn where your new car’s features are.

Writers have known this and made use of it for a very long time. How often have you heard the expression, ‘Write what you know.’? Of course, this doesn’t mean the author never ‘stretches,’ or uses some imagination. Lots of female authors write male main characters for instance (I do that, myself). The opposite happens as well. And many authors write about experiences they’ve never had. But if you look closely, you find that those authors also do plenty of research first. That’s the body of knowledge on which they build their stories.

It is said that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Dr. Joseph Bell, for whom Conan Doyle clerked for a time. Fans of the Holmes stories will know that Holmes is not a medical doctor as Bell was. And Conan Doyle was not a private investigator. In that sense, Conan Doyle didn’t tap his own background to create his stories. But he did tap his knowledge of Bell and his observations of the way Bell went about his work. And he used his medical background to lend authenticity to the character of Dr. Watson. Through Holmes, Conan Doyle gave voice to what he had learned about science. He also gave voice to what he had learned about the other detective fiction available at the time. To him, it was inadequate because the protagonists didn’t use any deduction to solve their cases; their solutions were too intuitive and therefore, not credible.

Agatha Christie frequently tapped her own knowledge and experiences for her stories. She worked in a hospital dispensary for a time, and was thoroughly familiar with the properties of different chemicals. She was also thoroughly familiar with the way the medical system worked. That knowledge is obvious in her work. Many of her stories feature murder by poison. And it shouldn’t be surprising that plenty of her characters are doctors, nurses or other medical professionals. Fans will know that not all of them are exactly what you’d call sympathetic characters. But Christie’s work as a whole shows the ways in which she tapped her professional background. She tapped her personal experiences, too. Several of her stories feature archaeology and archaeologists; her marriage to an archaeologist proved a rich resource. So did her experience living in the Middle East. It’s even said that Christie was once on a train that was snowbound for a brief time. She later used that experience as an inspiration for Murder on the Orient Express.

There are many other authors, too, who tap their professional experiences when they write. I know I do (one of my protagonists is in higher education, as I’ve been for most of my adult life). Lawyers such as John Grisham, Scott Turow and Martin Edwards have created attorneys as their main characters. Katherine Howell spent several years as a paramedic. She uses that background in all of her Ella Marconi novels. Marconi herself isn’t a paramedic; she’s a police detective. But every novel also includes first-responder characters.

Authors often tap other kinds of experiences that they’ve had, too. For instance, David Whish-Wilson has a lot of experience working with prison populations. In Line of Sight and in Zero at the Bone, there are several incarcerated or formerly-incarcerated characters who reflect that experience. Oh, and, Mr. Whish-Wilson, if you’re reading this, I hope we’ll see more of your Frank Swann in the future. Angela Savage is Australian, but has lived in Southeast Asia, too. She taps that experience in her Jayne Keeney novels. Like her creator, Keeney is Australian, but she lives in Bangkok, and her cases take her to different parts of Thailand.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, authors also go beyond their experiences. They may imagine what it’s like to be a certain kind of person. Or they encounter or read about a certain place or person – something new to them – and think ‘That would make for a great story!’ Crime writers, for instance, have, by and large, not committed murder. Well, at least I haven’t. So in that sense, people who write murder mysteries have to put themselves in the position of someone who would. That requires imagination, too. And research.

But that said, there’s an awful lot of tapping of prior knowledge that happens among authors. That includes their professional experience, their personal stories, and what they read. In fact, that’s one reason for which it makes so much sense for writers to do a lot of reading. Want to know more about the value of reading if you’re a writer? Check out Rebecca Bradley’s great post on this topic. And while you’re at it, have a look at her excellent blog.

It’s not too hard to show how authors use their own experiences when they write, and tap their prior knowledge. And if you’re a writer, I’d love to read your thoughts on how you make use of your own experiences.  But here’s the thing. Readers do not have the same backgrounds and prior knowledge as authors do. Readers are all individuals. They come from different backgrounds, have different experiences and so on. So how does an author encourage readers to tap their own backgrounds and make some meaning from the stories they read?

Let’s put the question another way. How do authors invite readers to really engage with stories? That’ll be the stuff of my post tomorrow, when we’ll flip this topic of tapping prior knowledge the other way.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Verve’s Stormy Clouds.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, David Whish-Wilson, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Martin Edwards, Rebecca Bradley, Scott Turow

Looks Like Another Suicide*

Faked SuicidesOne way in which real and fictional murderers may try to hide their crimes is by setting the scene to make it look as though the victim committed suicide. After all, we never really know what’s in someone’s mind, so it’s plausible that someone might commit suicide without giving a hint of suicidal thinking. That certainly happens in real life, and thanks to Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling, I’ve been thinking about how it can happen in crime fiction too.

Agatha Christie used that plot point in several of her stories. In Dead Man’s Mirror, for instance, Hercule Poirot receives a summons from Gervase Chevenix-Gore to the family home at Hamborough Close. Chevenix-Gore believes that someone in his family may be cheating him, and he doesn’t want to call in the police. Poirot is none too happy about being summoned in such an autocratic way, but he goes. Shortly after Poirot’s arrival, Chevenix-Gore is killed, apparently the result of suicide. And several signs point to just that explanation. But Poirot has already concluded that the victim was most assuredly not the kind of person who would kill himself. So he investigates further and finds that someone set the scene up to look like suicide.

Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus begins when Milan-based Dr. Luca Lamberti is hired by wealthy engineer Pietro Auseri to help with Auseri’s son Davide. It seems that Davide has developed a severe depression coupled with a serious drinking problem. Nothing seems to have helped, and now Auseri simply doesn’t know what to do next. Lamberti agrees to at least meet Davide and see if he can be of assistance. After a time, he learns the reason for Davide’s troubles. A year earlier, Davide met a young woman, Alberta Radelli. After spending a day out of town together, Alberta begged Davide not to take her back to Milan. In fact, she threatened suicide if he did, and tried to persuade him to take her along wherever he was going. Davide refused. Not long afterwards, Alberta’s body was discovered in a field outside Milan, an apparent victim of suicide. Now Davide blames himself for her death. Lamberti comes to believe that the only way to help his patient is to find out what really happened to Alberta. So he begins to look into the matter. Davide soon takes an interest too. In the end, Lamberti discovers that Alberta did not commit suicide; she’d gotten involved in a very dangerous business with some very dangerous people, and paid the price.

Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss introduces Göteborg Inspector Irene Huss. She is part of the Violent Crimes Unit supervised by Sven Andersson. When the team hears of the death of wealthy businessman Richard von Knecht, they go into action. The victim apparently committed suicide by jumping from the balcony of his upmarket penthouse. But soon enough, forensic and other evidence suggests that von Knecht was murdered. What’s more, he didn’t seem despondent enough to have taken his own life. What’s more, von Knecht was afraid of heights. If he’d decided to commit suicide, he wouldn’t likely have used that means to do so. Now that it seems clear von Knecht was murdered, Huss and her team look more closely at the people in the victim’s life to see who would have had a motive to kill him. It turns out that there’s more than one possibility.

Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore begins with the discovery of the body of local fisherman Justo Castelo. At first it looks as though Castelo committed suicide; and he kept to himself so successfully that no-one really knows whether he had a motive. But little pieces of evidence suggest to Vigo Inspector Leo Caldas that perhaps Castelo was murdered. So Caldas and his team begin to look a little more closely into the victim’s life. They find that his death is related to a tragic incident in the past.

Suicide by drowning also seems to be the verdict in Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team have re-opened the six-year-old case of the death of Bethany Friend. Scarlett isn’t entirely satisfied that the victim committed suicide. For one thing, she didn’t seem to have a motive. For another, she was very much afraid of drowning; so, even if she had decided to kill herself, Scarlett doubts she’d have chosen that method. As the team finds out more, Scarlett comes to believe that this death may be related to two more recent deaths. And so it proves to be. The three deaths have a link that Oxford historian Daniel Kind helps to discover.

And then there’s Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit. One morning, Sydney paramedics Jane Koutofides and Alex Churchill go to the scene of a one-auto crash. The driver, Marko Meixner, refuses to let them take him to a local hospital at first. In fact, he says that he is in danger and they will be, too, if they spend any time with him. Koutofides thinks Meixner needs a psychiatric evaluation, so when she and Churchill finally get their patient to the nearest hospital, she requests a workup. But Meixner leaves before that can be done. Later that day, he is killed in what looks like a suicide when he falls under a commuter train. In fact, he’d attempted suicide before. But when New South Wales Police Inspector Ella Marconi learns what Meixner said to the paramedics, she begins to wonder whether this was a case of murder. So she and her police partner Murray Shakespeare look more closely at the case. They find that Meixner’s murder was engineered.

There are a lot of other cases, too, of fictional murders ‘dressed’ as suicides. Which ones have stayed with you? Thanks to Carol for the inspiration! Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be her excellent Reading, Writing and Riesling? You’ll be rewarded with great book reviews (with a focus on Australian writers) as well as terrific recipes and stunning ‘photos.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Close to the Borderline.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Domingo Villar, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Helene Tursten, Katherine Howell, Martin Edwards