Category Archives: Ken Bruen

I Looked in My Mirror, and a Red Light Was Blinkin’

One of the many things police do (and probably the one most of us are most familiar with) is to regulate traffic. It isn’t a high-status job to catch speeders and suspected impaired drivers, but it is important. And you never know where such a stop might lead.

Of course, different places have different laws about what police may do when they stop someone for, say, speeding. And particular circumstances play a role, too. These encounters certainly happen in real life, and they do in crime fiction, as well. That’s not surprising, when you consider that they give an author all sorts of possibilities for plot lines, tension, and more.

For example, in Elijah Ellis’ short story Welcome Stranger, we are introduced to two men, Garvin and Mac. They’re driving near a notorious ‘speed trap’ in the small town of Keysburg. Sure enough, they’re pulled over by Constable Ashley. Very soon, they’re arrested on multiple trumped-up charges, and brought before a corrupt judge. Without spoiling the story, I can say that all is not as it seems in this story. And it’s interesting to see how both sides deal with this traffic stop.

There’s a similar setup in Alex Gaby’s short story The Crooked Road. Henry Adams and his wife are driving on a country road near the small town of Robertsville, when they’re stopped by Officers Charles Bleecker and Carney Tait. Within minutes, it’s clear that this is a ‘speed trap.’ To add to that, the couple’s car is just about forcibly towed to a local garage, which will add quite a bit to their expenses. The police, the local judge, and the towing company are all in on the scam, too. But things don’t turn out quite the way you’d think they would…

In Michael Connelly’s Echo Park, a traffic stop results in a gruesome discovery in a car belonging to Raynard Waits. Based on that evidence, he’s arrested and convicted of two brutal murders. He’s facing the death penalty, so he wants to make a deal with the police in order to avoid execution. His offer is to trade information about other murders in exchange for his life. One of those murders is the Marie Gesto case. Years earlier, she left a Hollywood-area supermarket, but never made it home. At the time, LAPD detective Harry Bosch was assigned to the case, but he never learned the truth. In fact, he missed an important clue and was interested in the wrong suspect. He wants to get some peace for the victim’s family and for himself, so he decides to work with Wait and find out the truth. It’s a complex case, and it shows just how much can come out of a simple traffic stop.

In one plot thread of Fred Vargas’ The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Paris Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his team investigate a car fire that took the life of wealthy and well-connected Antoine Clermont-Brasseur. The most likely suspect is a local firebug called Momo. But he says he’s innocent, and Adamsberg comes to believe him. Still, Momo does have a record of other arson convictions, and he’s not likely to get a very fair hearing. So, Adamsberg comes up with an unusual plan to keep an innocent man from going to prison. At one point in the novel, Momo is in a car with Adamsberg’s son, Zerk. They’ve approached a traffic stop, and they don’t want any trouble:
 

“New plates, eh?’ he [a gendarme] said.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Zerk. ‘I put ‘em on a fortnight ago.’
‘Seven-year-old car, new plates?’
‘That was in Paris, Officer,’ Zerk explained. ‘Plates were knocked in, front and back, had to change ‘em.’
‘Why, weren’t they readable any more?’
‘Yeah, but you know what it’s like, Paris, if your plates are fucked up, they just think they can, like, bash your car any time they park.’
‘You’re not from Paris, then?’
‘O-oh no. Pyrenees, us.’
‘Ha, better than Paris, anyway,’ said the gendarme with the hint of a smile as he handed back their papers.’
 

Zerk comes up with a very neat way to avoid too much attention, and to keep the gendarme from asking too many questions.

And then there’s Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor. He’s a former member of the Garda Síochána who was removed from the force because of excessive drinking that led to a disastrous encounter with a speeder. One evening, Taylor and his police partner, Clancy, were on duty at a speed check when a Mercedes sped by, far exceeding the posted speed limit. Fueled by brandy-laced coffee (much more brandy than coffee), Taylor insisted on stopping the speeder. Clancy saw that the car had government plates, and tried to stop his partner from interfering. Taylor, though, had a different view:
 

‘‘It’s a bloody scandal.’’
 

Things went downhill fast when Taylor had a heated exchange with the car’s officious and rude owner. It all ended up with Taylor assaulting the man. Now he does private investigation, although he still knows several members of the Garda.

There are other examples, too, of crime stories that involve those routine traffic stops. They can be very effective at building suspense, at providing clues, and at showing character, too. And they’re very much a part of real life, too.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charlie Ryan’s Hot Rod Lincoln. Listen to that version and the recording by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, and see which you like better.

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Filed under Alex Gaby, Elijah Ellis, Fred Vargas, Ken Bruen, Michael Connelly

I Ain’t Got Much to Lose*

Not Much to LoseIt’s not easy to investigate a murder, even for police and professional PIs, who’ve signed up to do that work and who have some training. It’s even more so for people who haven’t and don’t. Some people – at least fictional characters – investigate because they’re implicated, or because someone they care about is implicated. There are other people though, who get into investigation because they really don’t have anything else in their lives. So they don’t have much to lose, even if they get into danger.

Characters who don’t have a lot to lose sometimes take chances that others wouldn’t. And if that’s not handled well in a story, it can pull the reader out. But these characters also can bring a certain perseverance and focus to a case because they’re not risking families, successful businesses and the like. There are a lot of characters like that in crime fiction. Here are just a few.

When we first meet him in The Sins of the Fathers, Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has very little to lose, at least from his perspective. He’s a former New York police officer who left the force after a tragic accident in which a seven-year-old girl was shot as Scudder was going after some thieves who’d killed a bartender. As the series begins, Scudder doesn’t have a home life, or even very much of a place to live. He doesn’t have a steady job, either. So he doesn’t have a lot to lose when successful business executive Cale Hanniford asks his help. Hanniford’s estranged twenty-four-year-old daughter Wendy has recently been murdered, and he wants to know the kind of person she’d become. The police have arrested the victim’s roommate Richard Vanderpoel, and there is a great deal of evidence against him. So Hanniford doesn’t want Scudder to solve the crime. He simply wants to know what sort of life his daughter had, and what would have led to her murder. Scudder agrees to at least ask some questions, and begins following leads. The trail leads to the past for both the victim and the alleged killer, and as Scudder looks into the matter, he finds the pattern that has led to the killing.

In Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus, we meet Dr. Duca Lamberti. He’s recently been released from prison, where he served a sentence for euthanasia. He can no longer work as a doctor, so he has nothing much to lose when Pietro Auseri offers to hire him. Auseri’s son Davide has been in a deep depression for almost a year, and can’t seem to stop drinking, despite some time spent in treatment. Lamberti isn’t sure what he can do that professional treatment can’t, but he agrees to take on Davide’s case. Little by little, he gets to know Davide, and learns the reason for the young man’s depression and drinking. Davide blames himself for the death of Alberta Radelli, whose body was found outside of Milan a year earlier. He says that he met her by chance and offered her a ride and a day in Florence. They had an enjoyable day, but when he prepared to return with her to Milan, she begged him to take her with him – to help her escape Milan. He refused, she threatened suicide, and not long afterwards, her body was discovered. Lamberti believes that the only way to free Davide of his demons is to find out the truth about the young woman’s death. With little to lose, that’s exactly what he sets out to do.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins also gets drawn into investigating in large part because he doesn’t have much; therefore, he has very little to lose. In Devil in a Blue Dress, we learn that he worked at a wartime factory (this series takes place just after World War II). When the war ended, the factory downsized and he became redundant. When DeWitt Albright needs someone to find a young woman named Daphne Monet, Rawlins sees no real reason not to agree. And he’s well-suited for the task. He knows Los Angeles well, and, being Black, he can ‘blend in’ in the local Black community, which is where the missing woman was last seen. This case draws Rawlins into a web of fraud and murder; it also begins to establish his reputation as someone who can find people and get things done.

Fans of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum will know that she had nothing much to lose when she got started investigating. When Plum discovered that her husband was unfaithful, she got a divorce and took a job in a department store to pay the bills. Then, the department store made cuts in its staff, and Plum was laid off. With no real alternative, Plum took a job at her cousin’s bail bond company. She was supposed to work as a file clerk – a nice ‘safe’ job – but instead, ended up as a bounty hunter. It’s not exactly the job her family dreamed of for her, but it’s certainly never dull.

In Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), we meet Smilla Jaspersen, a half Inuit/half Danish mathematician and scientist. Although she grew up in Greenland, she now lives in Copenhagen. She has no close ties to anyone, and not very much to lose personally. So she’s got nothing to hold her back, so to speak, when she decides to ask questions about the death of ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen. He, too, was a Greenlander, and lived in the same building as Jaspersen. One day, so the police say, he was playing on the roof of the building and had a tragic fall that killed him. Jaspersen is drawn to the roof where the accident occurred, and when she looks at it, she notices some things about the snow that aren’t consistent with an accidental fall. The trail leads back to Greenland, and as Jespersen looks into what happened there, she finds that this case is much more than a young boy who fell from a roof.

When we first meet Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor in The Guards, he’s been removed from the Garda Síochána for excessive drinking, which led to an incident involving unprofessional conduct with a speeder. Taylor has some friends, and people he knows, but no really close ties. He doesn’t have much to lose when he decides to hang out his shingle as a PI in Galway. He doesn’t have the money for a posh office or a staff, so he uses his local, Grogan’s, as an office. That’s where Anne Henderson finds him when she goes in search of someone to learn the truth about the death of her daughter Sarah. The police called it suicide, but she knows better. Taylor takes the case and ends up involved in a coverup, multiple killings and more.

Some people make the choice to become professional detectives. But for others, the choice to look into a crime (or crimes) happens because they have no real alternatives and not much to lose by investigating. These are just a few examples (I know, I know, fans of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee). Which ones occur to you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Citizen King’s Better Days (And the Bottom Drops Out). I almost chose a line from Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster’s Me and Bobby McGee; both songs are good matches for the topic, I think.

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Filed under Giorgio Scerbanenco, Janet Evanovich, John D. MacDonald, Ken Bruen, Lawrence Block, Peter Høeg, Walter Mosley

A Plot Begins to Take Shape*

Story ShapeNot long ago, graphic designer Maya Eilam suggested a fascinating way to look at the shape of a story – through a graphic pattern. She based her ideas on Kurt Vonnegut’s theories about archetypal story patterns (e.g. ‘boy meets girl,’ and ‘creation stories,’ among others).

I got to thinking about story patterns for certain kinds of crime fiction novels and thought it might be interesting to see what those patterns look like pictorially. Now of course, each story is a little bit different. Still, let’s take a look at some basic story patterns.

Keep in mind as you read that a) I am not a graphic designer, so the graphics are not professional; b) this is all just my take on story shapes; c) there’s only space on this post for a few examples. I’m sure that you’ll be able to think of a lot more than I could.

 

The Classic/Golden Age Novel

GA

In many (‘though certainly not all!) classic/Golden Age crime novels, we meet the characters. Then something untoward happens and then, there’s a murder. The sleuth begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together, only to have to deal with a second murder or other setback. Then the sleuth puts more pieces of the puzzle together, to arrive at a resolution. There’s very often a hint of romance in such novels too (although again, certainly not always).

That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow. The story starts as we get to know the various members of the Angkatell family. They’re preparing for a weekend gathering that will also include Harley Street specialist John Christow and his wife Gerda. The weekend begins and we see the tensions among the characters rise. Then, John Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot is staying at a nearby cottage he’s taken, and he and Inspector Grange work to find out who the killer is. At first Poirot gets to some of the truth about the murder but of course, there are setbacks. Then, Poirot finds the other pieces of the puzzle. There’s a bit of a romance angle too for two of the characters. Of course, the novel has other depths too, but you can see how it’s consistent with this pattern.

There’s also John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook. That’s the story of the murder of Martin Starberth. The Starberth family were Governors of Chatterham Prison for several generations, and it’s still the family custom for each Starberth heir to spend the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the Governor’s Room at the now-ruined prison as a sort of initiation rite. When Martin Starberth takes his turn, he’s found dead the next morning. The story is told through the eyes of Tad Rampole, an American who’s visiting Dr. Gideon Fell, who lives not far from the prison. First, we meet the characters. The tension rises as we learn the story of the Starberth family, and then Martin Starberth is killed. There are some clues to the puzzle, but there are setbacks as this seems to be one of those ‘impossible crimes.’ It isn’t of course, and Fell finds that the key to the mystery is a cryptic poem. Again, parts of the story don’t strictly follow this story shape, but in general, it fits. Oh, and there’s a romance in this novel too.

 

The Police Procedural

PP

There are of course a lot of variations on the police procedural theme. But in general, the real action in them starts when a body is discovered. Then the police interview witnesses and those who were involved with the victim. Sometimes the detective gets a clue or even several pieces of the puzzle. Then there’s often a setback as clues don’t pan out, more victims are killed, or the police detective is warned off a case for whatever reason. Then comes the break in the case. There’s also sometimes a confrontation between the detective and the criminal. Then, even if the criminal isn’t always led away in handcuffs, we know the truth about the case.

That’s what happens in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, the first of their Martin Beck series. The action in the story begins when the body of an unknown woman is pulled from a Swedish lake. After a lot of effort she is identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was touring Sweden when she was killed. Martin Beck and his team talk to people who might be witnesses, and there’s a parallel investigation in the victim’s hometown in Nebraska. But there are setbacks as the detectives really can’t find a viable suspect. Then there’s a major breakthrough in the case and the killer is identified. There’s a confrontation with that person and the case is solved. Of course there’s more to the novel than that, but you can see how it’s consistent with this pattern.

We also see this pattern in Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear. New South Wales police detective Ella Marconi and her team are called in when Paul Fowler is killed. He was with a group of friends tossing a football around when he suddenly collapsed. When it’s found that he was shot, the team begins to talk with the people on the scene as well as with other people in Fowler’s life. There are setbacks as several people involved in the case keep things back. There are other deaths, too. But then there’s a breakthrough, and Marconi and her team find out the truth. Again, there are other layers to this novel and there are subplots. But in many ways it’s consistent with the basic story structure.

 

The Cosy Mystery

CM

The characters in a cosy mystery are often very important. So lots of cosies start with an introduction to the characters. Then something happens that raises the tension level. Then there’s a murder. The sleuth (who’s usually an amateur, ‘though of course, not always) is drawn into the case. She or he often has a love interest or something else that brings some hope (cosies tend to be optimistic). But there are setbacks. Either the sleuth is suspected of the crime, or there’s another murder – sometimes both. However, there is support from the sleuth’s real friends and sometimes from the sleuth’s love interest. The sleuth puts the pieces of the puzzle together, sometimes having a confrontation with the killer. Then the story comes together when the case is solved. 

Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal is like that. In that novel, a local theatre group has been doing a production of Henry V under the direction of local high school principal Hilary VanBrook. On the night of the last performance, VanBrook is murdered. Since the murder was on his property, and the suspects are people he knows, Qwill investigates the case. As he does so, he gets support from his friends in town and of course there’s his love interest Polly Duncan. There are also setbacks as there is another murder. Some of the clues don’t pan out either. But in the end, Qwill finds out who killed VanBrook and why.

We also see that sort of pattern in Dicey Deere’s The Irish Village Murder. Professional translator/interpreter Torrey Tunet has just returned to her European ‘home base’ in the Irish village of Ballynagh. She’s soon drawn into a murder case when her friend Megan O’Faolain is accused of shooting noted history writer John Gwathney. Tunet doesn’t believe her friend is guilty, so she begins to ask questions. As she does so, we get to know the various characters and we also learn about Gwathney’s personal and professional lives. In the end, and with help from her lover Jaspar Shaw, Tunet finds out who really killed the victim and why. In one sense, this novel varies just a little from the overall story structure I’ve depicted; we get to know the characters after Gwathney’s body is discovered. But in most ways it’s quite consistent.

 

The Noir Novel

Noir

Noir stories are, by their nature, not happy stories about well-adjusted people, and you can see that reflected in the story structure. In many of these stories, the main character is not overly happy to begin with. Then, something happens that propels that character on a downward spiral. The character gets involved in a murder investigation in one way or another and things don’t get much better. There are setbacks that draw the main character further down. There may sometimes be some sort of possibility for optimism as the main character finds out the truth. But in the end, solving the case doesn’t make for a happy ending, and the protagonist doesn’t come out of things ahead of the proverbial game.

That’s the case with Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which takes place in 1950’s Southern California. Lora King is a Pasadena schoolteacher whose brother Bill has just become married Alice Steele. Lora’s not happy about this. For one thing, she doesn’t know much about Alice, and something about her is disturbing. Still, she tries to make the best of things for Bill’s sake. But as Lora slowly learns out more about Alice, she sees that her new sister-in-law has a very murky past and is hiding a lot of her life. The more Lora finds out though, the more drawn into Alice’s life she becomes. Then there’s a death that turns out to be murder. Is Alice involved? If so, Bill could be in real danger. So Lora begins to investigate and finds out that she’s pulled more and more into the case. She risks everything to try to find out the truth and save Bill, and I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that knowing what really happened doesn’t make life any better.

Ken Bruen’s The Guards is also fairly consistent with this sort of story shape. Jack Taylor has recently been separated from the Garda, mostly for drinking that led to a very unprofessional encounter with a speeder. Now he’s hung out his PI shingle in Galway, and Ann Henderson hires him. Her daughter Sarah recently died in what police say was an incident of suicide. But Ann doesn’t believe that. Taylor agrees to take the case and starts asking questions. He soon finds out that he’s not going to get much help from his former Garda colleagues. And it doesn’t help matters that Sarah’s death may be connected to the deaths of some other young girls – killings that some highly placed people do not want solved. But Taylor has begun to care very much for Ann Henderson. Besides, he doesn’t much like it when obstacles are put in his way. So he persists. He even stops drinking for a time and starts to put his life together. He finds out the truth about Sarah Henderson, but it doesn’t change the sadness of this case. And it doesn’t really make life better for Taylor.

One thing about well-written novels is that there’s much more to them than just their overall shape. There is a richness of character, plot and so on that keeps the reader engaged. So a story map only goes so far in describing a given novel. What’s more, each author has an individual way of approaching story shapes and structures, and many authors play with the structure deliberately. So not every novel falls neatly within one or another structure. Still, I think it’s an interesting way to think about crime novels. Thanks to  Maya Eilam for the inspiration and to author and fellow blogger Rob Kitchin for sharing the article.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Belle and Sebastian’s Storytelling.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dicey Deere, John Dickson Carr, Katherine Howell, Ken Bruen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Maj Sjöwall, Megan Abbott, Per Wahlöö

In The Spotlight: Ken Bruen’s The Guards

>In The Spotlight: Kate Atkinson's One Good TurnHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. When people think of ‘hardboiled noir’ novels, they don’t always think of novels that also contain dry, if very dark, humour. But it’s certainly there in some series. To show you what I mean, let’s take a look today at the Irish noir work of Ken Bruen. Let’s turn the spotlight on the first of his Jack Taylor novels, The Guards.

Taylor has recently been removed from the Garda Síochána for excessive drinking that led to a very unprofessional encounter with a speeder. With his Garda career over, he decides to set up as a private investigator in Galway.

He begins by finding things and gradually gets the reputation of being good at what he does.

 

‘A minor reputation began to build on a false premise. Most important of all, I was cheap.’

 

See what I mean about the wit?

Taylor’s ‘office’ is his local Grogan’s, which is where he is one day when Ann Henderson hires him. Her daughter Sarah has recently died and the police have reported it as a case of suicide. But Ann doesn’t believe that. She wants Taylor to find out the truth.  Taylor agrees to see what he can do and begins to ask questions.

He soon finds that his former colleagues in the Garda aren’t going to be much help, but he continues to ask questions. One night he’s viciously attacked and it’s now clear that someone both powerful and vindictive doesn’t want him to find out the truth. But he made a promise to Ann Henderson and the fact that some people with clout don’t want him to succeed only makes him more determined. Besides, he’s begun to care deeply about Ann.

Taylor soon learns that Sarah Henderson’s death may be related to the deaths of some other young girls. The trail leads to some high places and there is plenty of corruption in Taylor’s way as he goes after the truth. Despite that, and in spite of himself, he finds out who’s responsible for the murders. And no, I promise, it’s not a crazed serial killer.

In the meantime, Taylor has other challenges. For one thing there’s his drinking. At one point, he even ends up in hospital for a ‘drying out’ spell. More about that shortly. At the same time, his friend Sutton is not making his life any easier. Sutton is a very heavy drinker and drug user who’s often close to self-destruction. Although he’s glad of Sutton’s help here and there, Taylor also knows that Sutton is a proverbial ticking time bomb. That relationship turns out to play an important role in the novel. Despite everything going on though, Taylor finally proves that Sarah Henderson didn’t commit suicide.

This is a noir story, so even though we find out the truth, it doesn’t make everything go away. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but suffice it to say that things don’t work out the way they’re supposed to in the police procedure manuals. There is some real bleakness in the story and some unhappy endings.

There’s also a ‘hardboiled’ element in the novel. This means that there’s violence. Plenty of it. But to Bruen’s credit, the violence is neither excessively gory nor gratuitous and when we understand what’s really going on, we can see what leads to it. Still, readers who prefer all of their violence ‘off camera’ should know that it’s there.

One of the really important elements in the novel is the character of Jack Taylor. He’s an ex-cop who drinks. Far, far too much at first. But he’s not self-pitying and he makes no excuses for his actions. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that at one point, he stops drinking and stays sober for a time. Even he admits that

 

‘Not being sick, hung over, was extraordinary.’

 

Matters aren’t made easier by the fact that Sutton is a classic enabler who’d much rather Taylor were drinking again. Still, Taylor’s trying to stay sober, he’s hopeful about his relationship with Ann Henderson, and it’s not hard to wish him well as he struggles to move on with his life. At the same time,

 

‘An alcoholic’s greatest defect is a complete unwillingness to learn from the past.’

 

Taylor is clear-eyed about his weaknesses and blames no-one but himself for them. He has a sharp and self-deprecating sense of humour too. And he’s more than just a drunken PI. He’s somewhat philosophical and he’s an avid reader who appreciates poetry. There’s a streak of compassion in him too.

Despite the fact that he’s far from perfect, Taylor’s made his share of friends and they’re important in the novel. For instance, there’s Sean Grogan, who owns the pub where Taylor spends a lot of his time. There’s also Cathy Bellingham, whom he rescued from an attacker (See what I mean about compassionate?) and who’s remained a friend. And in this novel, where very few people turn out to be what they seem, those friendships matter.

The novel takes place in and around Galway and the setting and culture are distinctive. Here’s the way Taylor describes Bailey’s Hotel, where he stays for a time:

 

‘Near the Protestant School, just a Catholic away from Victoria Square, is Bailey’s Hotel. Now, this is old Galway. New hotels are built on every available space, but Bailey’s seems to have escaped the gallop to prosperity.’

 

It’s a friendly, comfortable, warm hotel with Saturday night dances, and Taylor enjoys his time there.

The Guards is a distinctly Irish noir novel that tells an unpleasant story in a gritty way. At the same time, it’s got a dark thread of wit and some interesting characters. It also introduces a complex sleuth who’s more than he seems on the surface. But then, so is the novel. What’s your view? Have you read The Guards? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 3 February/Tuesday 4 February – Where the Devil Can’t Go – Anya Lipska

Monday 10 February/Tuesday 11 February – Bruno, Chief of Police – Martin Walker

Monday 17 February/Tuesday 18 February – A Few Right Thinking Men – Sulari Gentill

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Filed under Ken Bruen, The Guards