Category Archives: Martha Grimes

To the Backroom, the Alley, or the Trusty Woods*

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are discussing what they would want for ‘the perfect crime.’ Poirot asks:
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‘‘If you could order a crime as one orders a dinner, what would you choose.’’
 
He and Hastings discuss the sort of crime (murder, of course!). Then, Hastings says,
 

‘‘Scene of the crime – well, what’s wrong with the good old library? Nothing like it for atmosphere.’’ 
 

Hastings has a point. Libraries can be very atmospheric places for scenes of crime or for discovering a body. And Christie uses the library to that effect, too, right, fans of The Body in the Library? When Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife, Dolly, learn that the body of a young woman has been found in their library, they’re drawn into a strange case of multiple murder.

Of course, the library is by no means the only atmospheric place for a murder scene, or for leaving a body. The place the author chooses depends a lot on the story, the characters, and so on. And that place can add quite a lot of atmosphere, even creepiness, to a story.

For instance, if you’ve ever walked down a street at night, and happened to peek down an alley, you know how eerie that sort of place can be. And, in Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People, that’s where the body of Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin’s ex-wife, Liz, is found. A few days before her death, she unexpectedly visits Devlin, and he hopes this means she might want to reconcile with him. That’s not her purpose, though. She says that she’s escaping her current lover, Mick Coghlin, and needs a place to stay for a few days. Devlin agrees, but the next night, she is stabbed. Devlin knows he isn’t guilty, but of course, he’s an obvious ‘person of interest.’ Along with wanting to clear his name, he wants to find out who killed Liz. So, he starts to ask questions. He finds that Liz’ life was a lot more complicated than he’d thought, and there are several possible suspects for her murder. There are plenty of other novels, too, in which bodies are found in alleys behind buildings, or between two buildings.

Woods can also be eerie, atmospheric places to find a body. For instance, in Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace, the body of Dora Binns is found in a wood near the village of Littlebourne. Inspector Richard Jury has to cancel his holiday plans and travel to Littlebourne to investigate. He and his friend, Melrose Plant, discover that the victim’s death is connected to a robbery, some missing jewels, and an attack on another resident of LIttlebourne. Fans of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola will know that the body of a young woman is found in wood near the town of Kingsmarkham. At first, Inspector Reg Wexford thinks it’s the body of Melanie Akande, who’s been missing for several days. It’s a different young woman, though, so now, Wexford and his team have two major cases on their hands.

Moors are also wild, often desolate places that can be very atmospheric places for murders and bodies. And Belinda Bauer makes use of that setting in Blacklands. That’s the story of twelve-year-old Steven Lamb, who lives with his working-class family in the Exmoor town of Shipcott. The family is haunted by the nineteen-year-old disappearance of Steven’s uncle, Billy Peters. It was always suspected that he was abducted and killed by a man named Arnold Avery, who’s currently in prison for other child murders. Steven has been searching for Billy’s body on the moor, hoping that finding it will help his family. But he has no idea exactly where the body is. Then, he gets the idea of contacting Avery to find out from him where Uncle Billy’s body is. He takes the chance and writes, and he and Avery start a correspondence that turns into a very dangerous game of cat-and-mouse.

Minette Walters’ The Ice House makes use of another very atmospheric sort of place for a body. In the novel, Chief Inspector George Walsh is assigned an eerie case. A gardener has discovered the decomposed body of a man in the ice house of remote Streech Grange. That’s the property of Phoebe Maybury, who lives there with two friends, Anne Cattrell and Diana Goode. Ten years ago, Phoebe’s husband, David, went missing, and never returned. Walsh investigated at the time, but there were no clues as to where the man might have gone. Now, it appears Maybury’s body might have been found. But there’s a question as to whether the body is Maybury’s. If it is, then one of the three women living at Streech Grange is very possibly guilty of murdering him. If it’s not, then who is the man? And is one of the women guilty?

There are plenty of other atmospheric, even creepy, places authors use as murder scenes or as places to ‘dump’ a body. And when those places are chosen well, they can add quite a lot of tension to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Night Moves.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Belinda Bauer, Martha Grimes, Martin Edwards, Minette Walters, Ruth Rendell

I Am the Observer Who is Observing*

Some people tend to be life’s observers. They’re not necessarily nosey – in fact, many aren’t – but they’re more likely to stay in the background and watch what’s going on, so to speak, rather than get involved themselves. Observers often have a very interesting perspective, because they stand back and notice everything.

They can also be very useful to police and other professionals who investigate crime. Observers can give valuable information on what they’ve seen. And their perspectives can give the detective a sense of what a group of people is like So, it’s little wonder that we see them so often in crime fiction.

Many writers are observers. And that makes sense when you think about it. We see that in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy. In that novel, a group of people is invited to a cocktail party at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. During the party, one of the guests, Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly dies of what turns out to be nicotine poisoning. Hercule Poirot is at this party, and he works to find out who would want to kill an inoffensive clergyman. Then, there’s another murder, this time at the home of Dr. Bartholomew Strange. Several of the same people are at this second party, and there seems no doubt that the two murders are connected. One of the guests at both parties is playwright Muriel Wills, who writes under the name Anthony Astor. In person, she’s quiet, even awkward in her way. But she is a keen observer of the people around her, and she has a sharp wit. Poirot finds her a useful resource, and she turns out to be much more observant than she lets on at first.

In Nicolas Freeling’s Double-Barrel, Amsterdam police detective Piet Van der Valk is sent to the small town of Zwinderen to help solve a baffling mystery. Someone’s been sending vicious anonymous letters to several of the residents, and those letters have wreaked havoc. Two residents have committed suicide, and one has had a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t been able to find out who’s responsible, so Van der Valk and his wife, Arlette, go to Zwinderen to try to find out the truth. As Van der Valk gets to know the various residents, he starts narrowing down the list of possible suspects. One of them is an enigmatic man named M. Besançon. Little is known about him, except that he is a Holocaust survivor who settled in Zwinderen after World War II. He’s considered a vaguely suspicious character to begin with, because he has a wall fence around his property, and very much keeps himself to himself, as the saying goes. This is quite unlike the typical resident of Zwinderen, who knows everything about everyone, and whose life is open to everyone else’s scrutiny. Van der Valk finds that M. Besançon is an interesting character, and very much an observer. He stays out of the town’s spotlight, but he certainly looks on and sees a lot.

Gil North’s Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm is the story of the death of Amy Wright, who lived in the village of Gunnarshaw with her husband, Alfred. At first, her death looks very much like a suicide, and that wouldn’t be out of the question. She’d had a very hard life, and it’s not impossible that she would take this way out. But Sergeant Caleb Cluff, who’s assigned to the case, isn’t so sure. He wants the truth, and he wants justice for the victim. And that means that he very much wants to talk to her husband. Cluff is convinced that, regardless of what things seem to be on the surface, Wright caused his wife’s death. The only problem is, Wright has disappeared into the moors. So, Cluff goes after his quarry, and finds out that this case has several layers. At one point, he’s looking for some background information on some of the residents of Gunnarshaw and other nearby places. So, he goes to the Black Bear, the village pub, where he has a conversation with the landlord, George, whom he knows. It turns out that George is an observer of what goes on in the area, and he’s able to give Cluff some helpful information.

In Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace, we are introduced to mystery novelist Polly Praed. She lives in the village of LIttlebourne, where she observes what goes on in town. She isn’t much of a ‘joiner,’ but that doesn’t mean she’s oblivious to the other people in town. Littlebourne gets more than its share of excitement when a dog discovers the remains of a human finger. Inspector Richard Jury is assigned to the case, and he travels to Littlebourne. Soon, the rest of the body is discovered. It turns out that it’s a woman named Cora Binns, who’d come to LIttlebourne for a job interview. Now, Polly and the rest of the residents of Littlebourne are involved in a real-life criminal investigation that ends up linking Cora Binns’ death with a vicious attack on another resident, and a robbery.

In Louise Penny’s Still Life, we meet Jane Neal. A beloved former school teacher, she’s a fixture in the small Québec town of Three Pines. Early one Thanksgiving morning, she’s killed in what looks like a terrible hunting accident. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his team investigate the death, and it’s not long before they determine that this was no accident. As the team tries to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim, they learn that she was an observer. She noticed what went on in town, and she knew some of the town’s background. And that played a role in her murder.

You’ll notice that I didn’t really discuss sleuths who are observers – too easy. But even if you only look at other characters, it’s easy to see what an important role observers can play in a crime novel. Which ones have stayed with you?

Oh, the ‘photo? If you look closely (you can enlarge the ‘photo by clicking on it if you wish), you’ll see you are being observed…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Van Morrison’s Waiting Game.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gil North, Louise Penny, Martha Grimes, Nicolas Freeling

I’ll be Waiting in the Photo Booth at the Underground Station*

If you live in or near a large metropolis, then you’re probably familiar with that city’s subway/Underground/Metro system. In a place with extremely heavy traffic, it can be a lot more efficient to get where you’re going if you take the metro system. In fact, a lot of people in such areas don’t own cars, because it’s a lot easier and less expensive to simply take public transit.

Metros (whatever they are called in a given city) can also be very effective settings for action in a crime novel. For one thing, they can be very atmospheric – even creepy. For another, there are all sorts of disparate people who use the system. So, any number of things can happen. And, in crime novels, they do.

The London Underground system has been in place since the Victorian Era, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes knows the system by heart. Quite a number of the Holmes stories make reference to different Underground stations (Waterloo, Euston, and, of course, Baker Street, among others). At the time of the original Holmes stories, the London system was only a few decades old, and Conan Doyle makes quite effective use of it in the stories.

Many other authors also include stops at various London tube stations. For instance, Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit features Anne Bedingfield, a young woman who’s recently lost her father. Now, with no ties to keep her in London, she’d like to see a bit of the world. One day, she’s at the Hyde Park Corner tube station when she witnesses he death of a man who falls (or is he pushed?) into the path of an oncoming train. Anne happens to get hold of a piece of paper that fell from the man’s pocket and gets curious about it. It turns out to be a reference to the upcoming sailing of the HMS Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse, Anne books passage and boards the ship. And that’s when her real adventures begin. She ends up getting caught in a web of international intrigue, jewel theft, and more.

Jewel theft also plays a role in Martha Grimes The Anodyne Necklace. Inspector Richard Jury is about to go off for a holiday when he’s sent to the village of Littlebourne, where the remains of a human finger have been found. The rest of the body is soon discovered, too. It turns out that the victim was Cora Binns, a temporary secretary who’d gone to Littlebourne for a job interview, but never made it to that meeting. As Jury and his friend, Melrose Plant, start to look into the matter, they learn that this death is not the only terrible thing to have happened in the village. Sixteen-year-old Katie O’Brien was brutally attacked in a London Underground station not far from where Cora Binns lived. Now, she’s in a coma, and is unlikely to survive. Those connections are too close to be coincidental, so Jury and Plant believe that the two incidents are related. And so they turn out to be. In the end, they are linked to another death, a jewel theft, and a cryptic treasure map.

Ed McBain’s Kiss features Emma Bowles. The story begins as someone tries to push her off of a subway platform and into the path of an oncoming train. She survives, but that’s hardly the end of her troubles. Less than two weeks later, someone tries to run her over with a car. Now, she goes to the police. She has come to believe that the man responsible for both incidents is the driver employed by her husband, Martin. If that’s true, then it’s quite possible Martin is trying to kill her. Detectives Meyer Meyer and Steve Carella look into the matter, and Martin Bowles hires a bodyguard to protect his wife. But Meyer and Carella being to suspect something very serious is going on when Emma gets into even more danger…

In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone discovers the body of the dog that’s owned by the people next door to him. At first, they think he’s responsible for the animal’s death. But he’s not. He wants to clear his name, and he’s curious about what happened. So, Christopher decides to become a detective like Sherlock Holmes and find out what happened to the dog. It’s not going to be easy for him, though. Christopher has autism, and although he’s high-functioning, it limits his social skills and makes it difficult for him to do a lot of things we take for granted. One of those things is taking public transit. In one thread of this plot, Christopher takes a trip on the Underground, and it’s interesting to get his perspective:
 

‘And I did detecting by watching and I saw that people were putting tickets into gray gates and walking through. And some of them were buying tickets at big black machines on the wall.’
 

For Christopher, this is a major undertaking, but he completes his journey and ends up learning a great deal, including things about himself.

And then there’s Fred Vargas’ The Chalk Circle Man, the first of her Commissaire Adamsberg novels. Adamsberg and his team are with the Paris Police, and they often deal with unusual cases. This one’s no different. It seems someone has been leaving blue chalk circles in different parts of the city and putting things (a hat, an orange, scraps of paper, and so on) in the circles. And each circle contains a cryptic message: Victor, woe’s in store. What are you out here for? At first, it seems harmless enough, if very odd. But Adamsberg does need to know who’s responsible. So, he tries to find out who’s been in the area where the circles are left. That includes getting information from the local Metro stations. Matters get more serious when the body of Madeleine Châtelain is found in a newly-drawn circle. Now, it’s a murder investigation that’s complicated by the discovery of two other bodies. In the end, Adamsberg and his team connect the deaths, and find the killer. And it turns out that the Metro plays a role in where and when the chalk circles are left.

And that’s the thing about the Underground/subway/Metro. The system allows people to get where they’re going efficiently and quickly. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Babyshambles’ Albion.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Mark Haddon, Martha Grimes

You’re Almost Real*

A brilliant post from Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog has got me thinking about fictional writers’ fictional characters. If you think about it, t’s really not easy for an author to create a fictional character who creates a fictional character. It can be a challenge to keep the plot in focus, and to keep the cast of characters clear. But when it’s done well, it can add an interesting ‘picture within a picture’ effect to a story.

Brad’s post was about Agatha Christie’s fictional detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, whose sleuth is Sven Hjerson. And before I go on, let me strongly encourage you to read that post. You’ll be very, very glad that you did. Fans can tell you that Hjerson is Finnish. He’s a vegetarian, and a bit eccentric. In fact, Oliver gets thoroughly fed up with him. But, as she says, people like him. So, she continues to write about him. It’s true, of course, that Hjerson doesn’t solve any of Christie’s mysteries. But he’s an interesting fictional creation of one of her recurring characters.

And he’s not the only protagonist to play that sort of role. Martha Grimes’ series features Inspector Richard Jury and his friend, Melrose Plant. They’re the ones who do the investigating in the novels. But there’s another, even more fictional, character who makes an appearance in a few of the stories. In The Anodyne Necklace, we are introduced to mystery novelist Polly Praed, who lives in the village of Littlebourne. When a disappearance, a vicious attack, and a murder find their way into the village, Polly finds herself enmeshed in a real-life mystery. Her own creation is Detective Plod, who isn’t exactly the most scintillating of characters. In fact, Polly’s novels aren’t exactly compelling, either. But Melrose Plant pretends that he reads and enjoys them all. In The Old Wine Shades, he and Jury are working on the disappearance of a woman and her autistic son. At one point, Plant mentions that he hasn’t had much sleep. Jury says sarcastically,
 

‘‘I’ll bet. The coffee, the fire, the Times, the chair.’’
‘You sound like Polly’s Detective Plod. He lists things endlessly.’’ [Plant]
 

Plod may not be a fascinating character, but he exists to Polly Praed.

In Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, we are introduced to mystery novelist Martin Canning. His series isn’t a thriller-like set of novels with lots of violence and so on. Instead, he’s created a ‘50s world featuring private investigator Nina Riley, who lives in an old Victorian house in Edinburgh. In part, he writes the series in the way he does, because he would like the world to be safer and well-ordered, as he perceives it was during those years. Canning’s novels are, perhaps, quite tame, as the saying goes. But they are popular, and his agent wants him to be a part of a panel at the Edinburgh Arts Festival. Canning doesn’t want to go, but his agent insists. What neither knows at the time is that this trip to Edinburgh will draw Canning into a web of fraud and murder, and push him farther out of his safe, comfortable world than he could have imagined.

And it’s not just fictional mystery novelists who create fictional characters. Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret, for instance, features Edmonton academic Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig. She works as a sessional lecturer, so she doesn’t have much in the way of job security. But she loves what she does, and she’s been in the field (English literature) for twenty years, since she got her M.A. As the story opens, she’s at Grant McEwan University. Then, her friend, Denise Wolff, asks her help putting together a major alumni reunion event at the University of Alberta, where Craig got her degree. Craig agrees, and the two begin to work together. That’s when she learns a piece of disturbing news. A new novel, Seven Bird Saga, is about to be published. The author is the very reclusive Margaret Ahlers, who was the subject of Craig’s M.A. thesis. And that’s how she knows that Ahlers died years ago. So, who is the author of this new novel? As the preparations for the event get underway, Craig starts looking into the mystery, and, in one major plot thread, we learn what happened twenty years earlier, when she was doing her thesis. We also learn about Ahlers’ novels, which were considered true literary achievements. Those novels feature a major character named Isabel, and as Craig follows Isabel’s story, she also learns the truth about Ahlers.

Of course, it never does to take a fictional protagonist too seriously. Just ask novelist Paul Sheldon, whom we meet in Stephen King’s Misery. He is driving through a heavy snowstorm when he has an accident in which he’s injured. He is rescued by Annie Wilkes, who happens to be a devoted fan of his work. Grateful for her help, he decides to get back to work on his latest Victorian romance manuscript, which features his main character, Misery Chastain.  At first, it seems that all will be well. But then, Annie decides she doesn’t like the way in which the story is going. She has her own ideas for how this novel should develop, and she has her own ways of wanting to ensure that it goes her way. Her devotion to Misery ends up having disastrous consequences.

And that’s the thing about fictional creations of fictional characters. When they’re done well, even they can seem entirely real. Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration! Now, please, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Brad’s excellent blog. Thoughtful, well-written, interesting discussions of crime fiction await you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Hassles’ Every Step I Take (Every Move I Make). Yes, that’s Billy Joel doing lead vocals. He was a member of the Hassles before he started his solo career.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Janice MacDonald, Kate Atkinson, Martha Grimes, Stephen King

I Don’t Want the Job*

A popular image of the fictional police detective is of a dedicated professional who’s determined to solve the case and find the ‘bad guy.’ And a lot of fictional police officers are just that way. That perseverance and curiosity carry them through some very difficult cases.

But that’s not so for all fictional coppers. There are cases where the police detective is reluctant, or even unwilling, to investigate. A police detective might have any number of reasons for not wanting to look into a case, and we see several of them in crime fiction.

For example, in Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, we are introduced to New York police detective Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley. The futuristic world in which he lives is more or less divided between two groups of people. Spacers are the descendants of people who explored space and returned. Earthmen are the descendants of people who never left Earth. The two groups have very different outlooks on life, and different world views. There’s a great deal of conflict between Earthmen and Spacers, to the point where they live in different self-contained places. When a prominent Spacer scientist is shot, Baley is called into the office of his superior, Police Commissioner Julius Enderby. He’s asked to take on the investigation, as a way of demonstrating that Earthmen weren’t responsible for this murder. Baley isn’t interested at first. He’s even less interested when he hears he is to be paired with R. Daneel Olivaw, who is a positronic robot. If there’s anything Earthmen hate and fear more than Spacers, it’s robots. So, this is very difficult for Baley. But he isn’t given much choice. What’s more, he knows that the ‘perks’ he has come largely from his position as a homicide investigator. Losing that job would cause serious problems in his personal life. So, he reluctantly agrees to look into the matter, and begins to work with Olivaw. And they find out that this case is more complex than they thought.

Police officers are human, just as the rest of us are. Their jobs are stressful, and they want the occasional weekend or holiday away from work. The news that there’s a new case isn’t always welcome when one’s about to enjoy some time off, but that’s what happens to Inspector Richard Jury in Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace. Jury is packing to spend some time visiting his friend, Melrose Plant, at Long Piddlington. He gets a call from Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) Racer that changes everything.  A human finger has been found in the village of Littlebourne, and there’s no-one else available to investigate. Jury’s none to happy about it, but he doesn’t have much choice. So, he goes to Littlebourne, and begins to look into the matter. It turns out that the finger belonged to Cora Binns, a secretary who worked for a temporary placement agency. She was in Littlebourne for a job interview, but never made it to that interview. Plant joins his friend, and the two work to find out what happened to Cora, and who would want to kill her.

Police departments have finite resources, and finite numbers of people. So, those who are in supervisory positions have to make choices about what the police investigate, and what they don’t investigate. And they’re not likely to want to look into a matter if it isn’t a genuine case for the police. That’s what happens with Inspector Tom Barnaby in Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine. Financial advisor Dennis Brinkman has died in what looks like a terrible accident. He collected ancient and medieval machines, and it sees as though a malfunction in one of them killed him. But Brinkman’s friend, Benny Frayle, doesn’t think so. She is convinced he was murdered and goes to the police to insist that they investigate. Barnaby hears her out, and in fact, looks over the file on the case. But he can’t see any way in which the original investigating police officer was negligent. So, he decides not to pursue the case. Then, there’s another murder which is connected to Brinkman’s death. Now, Barnaby has little choice but to re-open the initial investigation. And he’s a good cop, so he does want to find the guilty person. And, in the end, he and Sergeant Gavin Troy do just that.

There are cases where police don’t want to investigate a case because doing so could get them into danger. There’s a thread of that in Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack. Vanancio ‘Perro’ Lescano is a police detective in late-1970s Buenos Aires. It’s a very dangerous time, with the military government firmly in place, and any kind of (even perceived) dissent viciously punished. Everyone knows to keep quiet, don’t call attention to yourself, and so on. One morning, Lescano is alerted when a body is discovered near a river bank. Not far away are two other bodies, obviously of victims of an army ‘hit.’ Lescano knows to give those two deaths only a very cursory treatment, and not question them. But the third death looks just a little different. He doesn’t look for opportunities to run afoul of the higher authorities, but Lescano does try to be a good cop. He reluctantly starts to ask a few questions and finds out that this death isn’t what it seems like on the surface. The body belongs to a pawn shop owner/moneylender named Elías Biterman, and there are plenty of police who won’t bother to investigate the death of ‘just another Jew.’ But Lescano chooses not to give up. There are, of course, plenty of other novels where the police don’t want to investigate because the victim is, ‘Just another….’

There are, of course, a few police detectives who are lazy who see no point in exerting themselves if it’s not absolutely necessary. Why waste energy? Such a police officer is Inspector Alvarez, who ‘stars’ in Roderic Jeffries’ series. He lives and works on Majorca, and quite frankly, would rather relax, eat fine food, and have a nice drink than investigate. He gets drawn into cases when he sees no other option. When he does start asking questions, Alvarez finds the answers. But he’s not particularly eager to be the higher-ups’’ lackey, so to speak.

There are several reasons for which a police officer – even a good one – might not want to take a case. I’ve only touched on a few. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Hawk Nelson’s The Job.

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Filed under Caroline Graham, Ernesto Mallo, Isaac Asimov, Martha Grimes, Roderic Jeffries