Category Archives: Lawrence Block

I Had to Let it Happen, I Had to Change*

Don’t tell anyone, will you, but one of the writing projects I’m working on is a standalone (well, thus far a standalone) that features a character from one of my Joel Williams novels. By the time the book is ready for human consumption, it will have been a few years since we ‘met’ this character. And that means that (hopefully), the character’s done some growing and maturing. After all, as we get older, have experiences, and so on, we hopefully learn and become more mature.

That’s one of the advantages, really, of following (and writing) a series. Readers can follow along as characters grow, evolve, and mature. And authors can enrich their characters and explore them. This allows for all sorts of possibilities.

Agatha Christie’s main characters don’t really evolve and mature the way some other authors’ characters do. Hercule Poirot has aged considerably in Curtain, and Miss Marple becomes warmer, more compassionate, and less of a gossip in later novels than she is in The Murder at the Vicarage. But Christie didn’t really focus on character evolution over time in the same way that some other authors have.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has evolved considerably as the series featuring him has gone on. In the first novel, The Sins of the Fathers, he is still reeling from a tragic accidental shooting that caused him to leave the New York Police Department. He drinks far too much, he and his wife have parted ways, and he’s at loose ends, as the saying goes. Over time, Scudder slowly starts to pick up the pieces. He stops drinking and starts attending AA meetings. And, although his alcoholism is always a struggle for him, Scudder makes the commitment to stay sober. He finds love again, too. As you can imagine, he never ‘gets over’ the shooting that changed his life. That scar is permanent. But he learns to live with it, if I can put it that way.

When we first meet Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Grace Makutsi (in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), she is an overeager graduate of the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills. She is bright and hard-working, but she has growing to do (don’t we all!). Over the course of the novels, Mma Makutski gains some confidence and learns that sometimes, rules are made to be – erm – flexible. She also develops an interest in and talent for detection, so that she becomes an Associate Detective who investigates cases just like her boss, Mma Precious Ramotswe.

In Jane Casey’s The Burning, we are introduced to her sleuth, Met Detective Constable (DC) Maeve Kerrigan.  In The Reckoning, Casey introduces another regular character/fellow sleuth, Detective Inspector (DI) Josh Derwent. When we first meet him, Derwent has the reputation for being,
 

‘…obsessively hard-working and infinitely aggressive.’
 

He’s not overly pleased to be working with women (one of whom, Una Bart, ends up outranking him). And he’s not much of a ‘team player.’ Over time, he does do some growing. He slowly learns to pay attention to his colleagues’ views of cases. And he grudgingly starts to learn that women can be highly competent and professional colleagues. None of it’s easy for him, and he butts heads with Kerrigan quite often. But he does do some growing.

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant also does his share of growing as the series featuring him goes on. When we first meet him in Amuse Bouche, he’s recently hung out his shingle as a PI in Saskatoon. He isn’t really reckless or rash, nor is he completely immature (he’s in his thirties as the series begins). Still, he does have some growing and maturing to do, especially when it comes to personal relationships. Over the course of the eight-novel series, Quant matures in more than one way. For one thing, he learns the value of the friendships he’s made. I don’t want to spoil story arcs, but that’s an important part of his growth. He also learns sometimes-painful lessons about what it takes to form and keep an intimate partnership. Oh, and by the way, if you’re reading this, Mr. Bidulka, I think Quant has had a long enough hiatus. I would love to see another Quant outing! Hint, hint…  Just sayin’

And then there’s Vicki Delany’s Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith, whom we first meet in In the Shadow of the Glacier. In that novel, she’s recently started her work in the small British Columbia town of Trafalgar, where she grew up. When she finds the body of wealthy developer Reginald Montgomery in an alley one night, she and Sergeant John Winters get involved in a murky case of murder. Things are awkward for Smith at first in several ways. She’s just learning her job (and she makes her share of mistakes as the series goes on). She’s also working in the town where she grew up, and it’s a challenge to establish her identity as an adult there. Over time, she develops confidence, and ‘grows into her uniform.’ She also grows personally, as she copes with love and loss in her private life.

And that’s the thing about well-rounded characters. Like real-life people, they grow over time. Hopefully, they become more mature And part of the pleasure of a series is watching the characters develop over time. Space has only allowed for a few examples here. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthony Bidulka, Jane Casey, Lawrence Block, Vicki Delany

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

And I Blame Myself*

One way to get away with a crime – or leas have a good chance of it – is to frame someone else. And a very effective way to frame someone else is to convince that someone that she or he is guilty. That’s not easy to do, as you can imagine, but it can happen. And when it’s successful, a real murderer has a ready-made scapegoat.

This plot point can be difficult to pull off in crime fiction. It’s got to be done in a credible way, and most people wouldn’t easily believe that they are guilty of murder. But when it’s done effectively, it can add suspense to a story.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who tells him that she may have committed a murder. Before she can give any details, though, she re-thinks her visit and leaves without giving her name. With the help of his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot discovers that the young woman is called Norma Restarick. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver try to find Norma, but she goes missing.  As they look into this case further, they discover that there really was a murder. And it turns out that more than one person had a motive for murder, and a motive to make Norma think she is guilty. But until Norma turns up, it will be difficult to find the truth about the case.

In Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder, we are introduced to Howard Van Horn. He’s been having disturbing blackouts lately, which is difficult enough. Then one morning, he wakes up with blood all over him. Terrified that he’s done something horrible, Van Horn reaches out to his old university friend, Ellery Queen, for help. Queen agrees to see what he can do, and he and Van Horn try to get to the root of what’s been going on. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, so the two go there. They stay with Van Horn’s father, Dietrich, and his stepmother, Sally. One night, Sally is strangled. Van Horn’s had another blackout, so he is convinced he was responsible. In fact, everyone believes that except for Queen. Among other things, this story shows just how powerful a belief can be.

Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus introduces readers to Dr. Duca Lamberti. He’s recently been released from prison where he served time for euthanasia, and isn’t quite sure what he’ll do next. Then, he’s approached by a wealthy Milanese engineer, Pietro Auseri, to help solve a difficult problem. Auseri’s son, Davide, has been drinking heavily and showing signs of severe depression and despair. Nothing, not even stints in exclusive rehabilitation facilities, has helped. Lamberti isn’t sure what he can do to help, but he agrees to try. After a time, he learns the reason for Davide’s drinking. A year earlier, Davide happened to meet a young woman named Alberta Radelli. After spending a day together, she begged him to take her with him, but Davide refused. Then, she threatened suicide if he didn’t, saying that she couldn’t go back to her own life. He refused again, and they parted. Soon afterwards, her body was discovered, and the death looked very much like a suicide. Since then, Davide has blamed himself for her death, believing that he’s a murderer, even if he didn’t actually use a weapon. Lamberti believes that the only way to help Davide is to find out the truth about Alberta’s death, so he begins to look into it. And he finds that this was no suicide: someone murdered the young woman. As Davide helps Lamberti get to the truth, he slowly frees himself of his guilt.

In The Sins of the Fathers, Lawrence Block’s first Matthew Scudder novel, Scudder is approached by wealthy Cale Hanniford. His daughter, Wendy, was recently murdered, and the police have a suspect in custody. He is Richard Vanderpoel, Wendy’s roommate. At first, Scudder isn’t sure how he can help Hanniford. But then, Hanniford says that what he really wants is to learn more about Wendy, and what led up to the murder. He tells Scudder that he and Wendy were estranged for several years, so he didn’t know much about her, her friends, or her life. Now, he wants to find out about her. Scudder reluctantly agrees to ask some questions, and he goes to visit Vanderpoel in prison. His meeting with the young man isn’t successful, though, as Vanderpoel is too drugged or dazed to be coherent. He doesn’t dispute his guilt, but Scudder does begin to wonder if the facts are as clear as they seem. And it turns out that they are not. Someone else was willing to let Vanderpoel believe he committed a murder.

And then there’s David Rosenfelt’s One Dog Night. Noah Galloway believes that, just over six years before the events in the novel, he was guilty of arson and the murder of twenty-six people. He’s done his best to re-build his life since then, but has always been afraid he’d be caught. He’s especially worried about the effect on his wife, Becky, and their son. Still, life’s gone on. Then, the FBI catches up with him and arrests him. Galloway doesn’t really protest. In fact, he even says,
 

‘‘Take me away.’’
 

But he will need a lawyer to take his case. That lawyer turns out to be Andy Carpenter. For Carpenter, it’s an awkward situation. Several years earlier, Galloway was using drugs, and broke into Carpenter’s home to try to find money or valuables. At the time, Carpenter chose not to press charges; now he’s questioning the wisdom of that decision. Still, he takes Galloway’s case, and starts looking into the arson and deaths. And he discovers that Galloway was very successfully duped into thinking he is guilty.

It’s not easy to really convince people they’ve committed murder. So, if that plot point is to be used in a crime novel, it’s got to be used carefully. But when it is used effectively, it can add an interesting layer of suspense to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fleetwood Mac’s Jumping at Shadows.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, David Rosenfelt, Ellery Queen, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Lawrence Block

Any Two-Bit Job That Pays*

Not every PI or attorney is well-known and sought-after by the rich and famous. In fact, some lawyers and PIs are very much ‘low rent.’ There are a variety of reasons for this, of course. Sometimes it’s because of the sorts of cases they take. Sometimes it’s because they simply don’t have recognition. There are other reasons, too.

These sorts of attorneys and PIs can make for interesting characters in crime fiction. For one thing, they may have interesting backstories. For another, the sorts of cases and people they deal with are often (not always) gritty, if I can put it that way. And that can add a layer of interest to a story, to say nothing of plot points.

For instance, in William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel, which takes place in 1959, we are introduced to low-rent PI Harry Angel. He’s not used to dealing with ‘upper crust’ clients, but one day, he gets a call from an upmarket law firm. It seems that one of their clients, Louis Cyphre, wants to find a missing man. His quarry is talented jazz artist Jonathan Liebling, also known as Johnny Favorite. According to Cyphre, he helped Liebling out at the beginning of his career, in return for which he was promised certain ‘collateral.’  World War II intervened, and Liebling came back from combat physically and emotionally damaged. He was placed in a psychiatric hospital, but now, he’s disappeared. Angel agrees to take the case, and starts to ask questions. But he soon finds that this is no normal missing person case. Instead, he’s drawn into a web of murder, horror, and evil.

Fans of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder will know that he used to be a New York City police detective. A tragic accidental shooting changed everything, and as the series begins, he’s a down-at-the-heels occasional PI. He doesn’t even have his license at first, and he barely maintains a home. He doesn’t have his own office, either; instead, he holds court in local bars. As the series goes on, Scudder does a little better, gets his official PI license, and so on. But he still deals with plenty of gritty characters and places.

So does Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. When he loses his wartime (World War II) job at an aircraft manufacturing plant, he has to find some way to make a living. So, he accepts a commission to find a missing woman in Devil in a Blue Dress. From then, he begins to get a reputation for being able to find missing people and solve other problems. Like Scudder, he doesn’t have a regular office or a fine home. And a lot of the people he helps are ‘regular people,’ rather than wealthy, well-connected people. As the series goes on, he gets an official PI license, and has some success. But he generally doesn’t mix with those who go to ‘A-list’ parties.

There’s also C.B. McKenzie’s Rodeo Grace Garnet, whom we meet in Bad Country. He’s a former rodeo star who now works as an occasional bounty hunter and low-rent private investigator. He doesn’t have an office, or post advertisements. Instead, he gets clients by word of mouth. That’s how he hears that Katherine Rocha wants him to look into the death of her teenage grandson, Samuel. The official explanation for the boy’s death is that he fell from a bridge (or possibly, committed suicide). But there’s also evidence that he might have been shot, and knocked from the bridge. If so, his grandmother wants to know who shot the boy and why. Garnet takes the case, and soon finds that some wealthy and well-connected people do not want the death investigated.

Fans of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski will know that she, too, starts out as what you might call a ‘low-rent’ PI. Certainly, she doesn’t live a wealthy life, and her clients are not always well-connected.

There’s also mystery novelist and fellow blogger E. Michael Helms’ Dinger. He’s a low-rent PI in post-World War II Las Vegas. He’s a tough, hardboiled sort of a guy, who’s not afraid to mix it up with all sorts of low-life types. Helms has published his Dinger stories in serial form. You can read Part One of one of them, Rose, right here. Once you do, you’ll want to read the other parts, too! I hope – I really do – that we’ll see more of Dinger. A-hem, Mr. Helms…

Martin Edwards’ Harry Devlin is a Liverpool-based attorney. But he’s not the sort you see in high-profile, lucrative cases. He’s a low-rent attorney who makes his living defending drunks, prostitutes and thieves, among others. He’s got a small place, and works in a cheap firm. So, he sees the gritty side of the city. In All The Lonely People, where we first meet him, Devlin is shocked when his ex-wife, Liz, comes for a visit. She says she’s left her current lover, Mick Coghlin, because he’s abusive, and she’s afraid of him. She asks to stay with Devlin a few days, and he agrees. Then, she disappears, and her body is found in an alley. Devlin feels guilty because he didn’t take Liz’ concerns seriously at first, and decides to find out who murdered her. At first, he assumes that Coghlin is the killer. But the more Devlin learns, the more possibilities there are. His search for the truth takes him into several of Liverpool’s seedy places.

And then there’s Attica Locke’s Jay Porter. When we are introduced to him, in Black Water Rising, he’s a low-rent Houston-area lawyer. It’s 1981, and Porter is trying to build his law business. But so far, he’s not been very successful. Then, in one plot thread, he gets drawn into the case of a fatal shooting. The trail leads to some very high, very well-protected places, and it’s a big risk for Porter. He’s black in what is still very much a white person’s world. And he’s up against some considerable opposition.

Low-rent, two-bit, down-at-the-heel, whatever you call it, such fictional attorneys and PIs add an interesting layer to crime fiction. They often deal with the sorts of cases others might not be willing to handle. And they themselves can be interesting characters.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Clouds’ Pocket.

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Filed under Attica Locke, C.B. McKenzie, E. Michael Helms, Lawrence Block, Martin Edwards, Sara Paretsky, Walter Mosley, William Hjortsberg

Where You Come From*

One of the interesting things about fictional PIs is the diversity in their backgrounds. The profession isn’t limited to people who have a particular academic degree or job experience. This means that the author has a lot of flexibility when it comes to a PI’s background. And that can make for intriguing layers of character development, to say nothing of plot points and other characters.

There are some fictional PIs who decide early in life that that will be their profession. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, chose the profession quite deliberately. And, in A Study in Scarlet, he describes himself to Dr. Watson as
 

‘…a consulting detective, if you can understand what that is.’’
 

He’s carefully prepared for his career, too. In fact, his focus is so much on being the finest detective that he doesn’t take a lot of interest in topics unless they’ll be helpful to him professionally.

There are many fictional PIs who are former police officers. This means that they may very well have connections within the police community. And that can either be a source of valuable information, or an obstacle, depending on how the author wants to use that relationship.

For instance, Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a former member of the Saskatoon Police Service (SPS). He decided that life on the police force wasn’t for him, and hung out his own shingle. But he still has contacts on the force. He doesn’t spend a lot of social time with his former colleagues, and he’s much happier as a PI. But he’s established a useful and mutually beneficial relationship with the SPS.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he used to be a member of the Belgian police. That career ended, and then life changed abruptly with the advent of World War I. Poirot went to England as a refugee and started a career in private detection there. Interestingly enough, Christie doesn’t delve very much into Poirot’s early history. There are a few stories (right, fans of The Chocolate Box) that shed some light on Poirot’s life as a police detective. But he doesn’t maintain ties with his former colleagues.

Sometimes, fictional private investigators get into the business unexpectedly, or even accidentally. For instance, Dick Francis’ Sid Halley was at one time a well-known jockey. But he suffered a riding accident that severely injured his left hand and ended his riding career. At loose ends, so to speak, he got a job working for a large private detective agency, Hunt, Radnor and Associates. Private investigation wasn’t in Halley’s plan, and he’s bitter over the loss of his racing career. Still, he’s had to find some sort of job. His real career in private detection, though, begins in Odds Against, when his former father-in-law asks him to uncover a plot to take over the Seabury Racecourse for development. This case, which brings Halley back into contact with the racing world, also, as you might say, brings him back to life. He becomes a racetrack investigator; and, although he misses riding, and is still sometimes bitter, he manages to put himself back together.

Some PIs start by doing informal investigations, mostly to help friends. It’s only later that they make it an official business. Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is like that. As the series begins (in Devil in a Blue Dress), he’s been laid off from his job at an aircraft manufacturing plant. It’s shortly after the end of World War II, and several former aircraft, munitions, and other war-related factories are closing or downsizing. Rawlins has to find some way to earn a living. So, when his friend, a bar owner named Joppy, introduces him to a man named DeWitt Albright, Rawlins listens to what Albright has to say. Albright is looking for a woman named Daphne Monet, who seems to have gone missing. He wants Rawlins to find her, and is willing to pay well for it. Rawlins is in serious need of money, so he agrees. But, as he soon discovers, this isn’t a simple case of finding a woman who may be in hiding. It involves theft, blackmail, and murder. Rawlins solves the case, and he does get paid, but he works informally for the first few novels in this series. Mostly, he does things for friends and their acquaintances.

That’s also the case with Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder. He was a New York homicide detective (another former police officer!). But a tragic accidental shooting changed everything. As the series begins (with The Sins of the Fathers), he doesn’t really have a ‘regular’ job. But he does know how to find people and get answers. He works very informally. As he puts it:
 

‘‘Sometimes I do favors for people. They give me gifts.’’
 

He doesn’t get his official PI license until later in the series.

Some PIs have very unusual backgrounds. Leigh Redhead’s Simone Kirsch for instance, is a former stripper. She still does gigs now and again. It might seem unlikely that a stripper would make the change to a career as a PI. But for Kirsch, there’s a reason. When she got the point where it was time to quit, she tried to join the Victoria Police. That’s because she’s still grateful to the police for saving her life and her mother’s and brother’s when she was younger. But,
 

‘Either I didn’t have the moral credentials to be a girl in blue, or the Victoria Police had enough scandal without dropping a stripper into the mix.
 

She’s not accepted into police training, so she decides that the PI course is the next best thing. And she’s good at it, too. It helps that she stays in close contact with several people in ‘the business.’ They’re often good sources if information.

Fictional PIs (real ones, too) sometimes have some fascinating backgrounds, or at least unusual ones. That can add to a story, and make for solid character development and contexts.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dick Francis, Lawrence Block, Leigh Redhead, Walter Mosley