Category Archives: Patricia Wentworth

These Are the Stories of Edgar Allan Poe*

As this is posted, it’s 176 years since Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue was first published in Graham’s Magazine. This is the story that introduced the world to C. Auguste Dupin, Poe’s detective. In the story, Dupin solves the murders of Madame L’Espanaye, and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille L’Espanaye. This is often said to be the first ‘real’ detective story, although there are some who argue otherwise.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Poe, it’s hard to deny his influence on crime fiction. Just a quick look at The Murders in the Rue Morgue offers glimpses of several tropes that we see in later crime fiction.

For example, Dupin’s adventures are narrated by a friend and sidekick. Although this particular narrator isn’t named, the approach to storytelling is reflected in lots of other, more modern, crime fiction. To offer just a few examples, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories can tell you that they are, by and large, told by Holmes’ sidekick, Dr. Watson. Several of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories are narrated by his friend and sidekick, Captain Arthur Hastings. There are also a few in which the narrator is someone else.  And, much more recently, Chris Grabenstein’s John Ceepak/Danny Boyle novels are narrated in first person by Ceepak’s sidekick, Danny Boyle. In all of these cases (and they’re not the only one), we have a narrator who tells the story in first person, and gives the reader a different perspective on the main sleuth. This allows the author to share what the main sleuth is like without going into too much narrative detail. It also allows the author to share the sleuth’s thinking at a strategic point (more on that shortly).

In The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dupin solves the murders through a process of logical reasoning and deduction. He doesn’t make claims based just on superficial evidence. Rather, he uses logic to put the facts together. In this, we see the beginnings of the sort of detective Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes turned out to be. Holmes might beg to differ – in fact, he does in A Study in Scarlet. He sees Dupin as not nearly as much of a genius as it may seem. That said, though, there are several parallels between Dupin’s way of putting evidence together, and that of Holmes. You might even argue that there are traces of this approach in some of the Ellery Queen stories.

Dupin doesn’t share his thought processes with the reader as he solves the mystery of the two murders in the story. Instead, he waits until the end to explain how he reached the conclusion. And we see that storytelling strategy in a great deal of crime fiction. For example, fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he admits to liking an audience. Several of the Poirot novels (I’m thinking, for instance, of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Five Little Pigs) include dramatic ‘big reveal’ scenes. The suspects are gathered, and Poirot names the murder, and then explains his thinking. Some of Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver novels are like that, and so are some of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn novels. That dramatic scene in the drawing room, or a lounge, or some other place, where all of the suspects come together, is a trope that’s closely associated with the Golden Age. But it’s in more modern crime fiction, too. For instance, Margaret Maron’s One Coffee With has a similar sort of scene.

One of the witnesses in The Murders in the Rue Morgue is a clerk named Adolphe Le Bon. Due to a series of circumstances, he’s arrested for the crime and imprisoned. He claims he’s not guilty, and Dupin clears his name. This trope – the innocent person who’s wrongly accused – has become an integral part of the genre. Golden Age/classic, police procedural, PI, cosy, just about all of the sub-genres include plenty of examples of stories where the wrong person is accused, if not actually convicted. There are far too many examples for me to list them here. But they all add tension to the story.

Does this mean that The Murders in the Rue Morgue is without problems? No. Many people have argued that the explanation – the real story of the murders – is too improbable. What’s more, neither Dupin’s character nor that of his narrator is what we would now call ‘fleshed out.’ The focus in the story is entirely on the intellectual mystery. Modern readers would certainly notice this, and might call the story lacking on that score. There’s also the issue of the way the police are portrayed in the story. Poe doesn’t treat them with a great deal of respect. And there are several ‘isms’ in the story that modern readers would notice.

All of this said, though, The Murders in the Rue Morgue laid the groundwork for the modern detective story. We have a set of murders, a sleuth who makes sense of the evidence, and an invitation to the reader to ‘match wits’ with that sleuth. On that score, Poe’s work arguably deserves recognition. And, if you haven’t read the story, you might want to, just to see how it all arguably started.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lou Reed’s Edgar Poe.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Chris Grabenstein, Edgar Allan Poe, Ellery Queen, Margaret Maron, Patricia Wentworth

They Might Have Split Up or They Might have Capsized*

shipwrecksIf you’ve ever been on a boat of any kind, you know that there’s always risk involved. Even on luxury cruise liners, there are lifeboat drills and other safety precautions. The thing is, you never know, when you’re out on the water, what’s going to happen.

Certainly, the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down with all hands on this date in 1975, didn’t know for sure what would happen to them. The ship was caught in a sudden storm, and couldn’t make it to safety in time. The loss of ships and other boats is a part of history all over the world, and it’s woven into crime fiction, too. That makes sense, when you think of all the possibilities (e.g. lost treasure, missing people who may (or may not) turn up again, and much more). There’s only room for a few examples in this one post; I know you’ll think of many others.

In Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, we are introduced to Margot Standing, an ingénue who is set to inherit a large fortune from her father, Edward, who’s recently been lost at sea. The only problem is, Margot’s cousin Egbert also has a claim to the money. And the papers that would prove Edward Standing’s intent have disappeared. Egbert proposes that he and Margot should marry, and keep the money ‘in the family.’ This Margot refuses to do, and ends up leaving her home. What she doesn’t know is that she’s the target of a gang led by a mysterious criminal called Grey Mask. The plan is to get rid of her and take her money. She finds an unlikely ally in Margaret Langton, whose former fiancé Charles Moray already knows about Grey Mask’s plot. Together, Langton and Moray try to unravel the mystery of Grey Mask’s identity, and save Margot from their plans. To do that, they get help from Miss Maude Silver, for whom this novel is a first outing. In this case, the treasure wasn’t, strictly speaking, on the ship that went down. But the shipwreck has a lot to do with the plot.

In Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore, Vigo police detective Leo Caldas and his team investigate the death of a local fisherman, Justo Castelo. At first, it looks like a case of suicide. But Caldas soon notes a few little inconsistencies that call that explanation into question. So the team members dig a little deeper. They learn that Castelo didn’t have a wide social circle, and no real enemies. The only lead that seems at all promising is Castelo’s connection to José Arias and Marcos Valverde. Years earlier, the three had been out one night on a fishing boat with their captain, Antonio Sousa. A sudden storm came up, and the boat went down. Sousa died, but the other three made it back to land. And, as it turns out, that death has a lot to do with Castelo’s death.

In one plot thread of Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective, Edinburgh oceanographer Caladgh ‘Cal’ is using his expertise in wave patterns to solve the mystery of his grandfather Uilliem’s disappearance. Years earlier, Uilliem had met his wife on ilean Isagaich Mor, Great Fishing Island, settled there, and prepared to start life. Then, he was lost during a sea voyage. Now, his grandson wants to find out where his body might be and what happened to him. That trail leads back to the island and the relationships among the people there. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at what happens to a community when some of the men are lost at sea.

Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide takes place mostly in and around Brisbane. Allan ‘Tug’ Bretton, who captains the fishing trawler Sea Mistress, broke his leg in an onboard incident (on another boat) connected with the death of a deckhand, Ewan McKay. His daughter, Samantha ‘Sam’, wants to skipper Sea Mistress in his place. On the one hand, Tug’s not sure his daughter is ready for the responsibility. On the other, the boat has to go out, or the family stands to lose a lot of money. So, reluctantly, Tug agrees, and Sam starts to plan for the trip. One thing she’ll need to do is get a deckhand. For that, she hires Chayse Jarrett. What she doesn’t know is that he’s actually an undercover copper who’s looking into McKay’s death. He wants to see if there’s any evidence that Tug Bretton is guilty. The police theory is that McKay’s murder might be connected to the Brisbane-area drugs trade, so Jarrett is also investigating any connection the Bretton family might have to drugs smuggling. The fishing trip gets underway, and turns out to be far more dangerous than either Sam Bretton or Chayse Jarrett thought it would be. And, interestingly enough, it’s all related to a long-ago shipwreck, and the mutiny that led to it.

And then there’s Robin Blake’s historical (1742) novel, The Hidden Man. In that story, Attorney and Coroner Titus Cragg works with his friend, Dr. Luke Fidelis, to find out who killed pawnbroker and would-be banker, Philip Pimbo. Cragg and Fidelis learn that Pimbo had financially backed a ship called The Fortunate Isle. A few weeks before the murder, Pimbo’s business partner, Zadok Moon, had filed a claim with the firm that insured the ship. According to that claim, the ship and its cargo were a total loss. That claim, the ship, its cargo and its fate, turn out to be important to solving the murder. One interesting thing this novel highlights is the way insurance companies are traditionally involved in sea voyages.

Of course, not all trips by sea end tragically. Most of the time they don’t. But the fact that they might can add a lot of interesting suspense to a novel. Right, fans of Martin Cruz Smith’s  Polar Star? These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 

In Memoriam

 
efitzgerald

This post is dedicated to the memory of the 29 members of the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I hope their families have found peace and healing.

 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

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Filed under Domingo Villar, Mark Douglas-Home, Martin Cruz Smith, Patricia Wentworth, Sandy Curtis

I Keep My Visions to Myself*

cards close to the chestOne of the many balances that crime writers consider is how much to share with readers. As the sleuth gets information and forms theories, is it better to let readers in on that thought process, or is it better for the sleuth to ‘hold the cards close to the chest?’ On the one hand, most people agree it’s important to ‘play fair’ with readers and give them the information they need to make sense of the mystery. On the other hand, many readers enjoy being challenged and not always knowing what the sleuth is thinking and what her or his theories are. And readers want to remain engaged in a story; so if the author is going to reveal the sleuth’s thinking process, there need to be other aspects of the story that keep readers invested.

Different authors have taken different approaches to this question. In some cases, the sleuth is quite tight-lipped about what she or he is thinking until ‘the big reveal.’ For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is like that. By the end of a given story, we know what the clues are that led Holmes to a given deduction. And fans will know that Holmes is a stickler for following evidence in a scientific way. But he doesn’t reveal his theory until he’s ready. In The Sign of the Four, for instance, Watson asks about Holmes’ theory about certain footprints. Holmes’ reply is:
 

‘You know my methods. Apply them, and it will be instructive to compare results.’
 

Watson is no mental slouch; still, he never fails to be surprised by Holmes’ deductions. Neither do we.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is a bit like that too. As he himself says, he doesn’t always look for things such as cigarette ash or unusual shoe prints. But like Holmes, he tends to keep his theories to himself. He says it’s because he may be wrong, and doesn’t want to sway anyone else if he is. But in Death on the Nile, he hints at another reason for which he doesn’t reveal his theories until the last moment:
 

‘‘I like to say, ‘See how clever is Hercule Poirot!’’
 

Even die-hard Poirot fans will admit that he does like to be the admired focus of attention. Christie fans will also know that Miss Marple isn’t always exactly forthcoming about her theories either. She offers hints here and there, but seldom explains herself before the ‘big reveal.’

Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver is another sleuth who doesn’t share much about her thought process as a story goes on. She listens to her clients, makes suggestions, does her own investigation and the like. But we often don’t know exactly what her theory is until she’s ready to explain it all. There are a lot of other fictional sleuths who take a similar approach (I know, I know, fans of Ellery Queen).

Keeping one’s cards close to the chest can be effective in a story. But readers can also be drawn in when they have the opportunity to follow along as the sleuth works things out. This allows for certain plot twists and other events when the sleuth makes the occasional mistake. After all, sleuths are only human…

There are a lot of examples of this approach. One is Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series. Marconi is a detective with the New South Wales Police. As she investigates cases, she frequently talks over her ideas with her police partners Dennis Orchard and, later, Murray Shakespeare. Fans of this series will know that it also features paramedics who figure in some way or other into each plot. Howell shares their thoughts as well. But Marconi is sometimes wrong, and in any case, isn’t privy to everything. So Howell can build suspense without having Marconi keep her theories to herself.

Readers are also ‘in on’ the way Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace thinks. And so are his colleagues. As he investigates murders, he often shares ideas with his team-mates, particularly his second-in-command, Glenn Branson. The tension is built in these novels in part because the reader also knows some things that the detectives don’t know. We aren’t told everything of course, but James shares the points of view of several characters. This strategy gives the reader some omniscience and allows for suspense (i.e. ‘Is Grace going to find out that X knows about Y, and is lying about it?’). So even though we know what Grace and his teammates are thinking, there are still plot twists in the series.

One of the more interesting examples of sharing what detectives are thinking is the case of H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay/Mumbai Police. Ghote is a reflective police officer who often mulls over things. For instance, at the beginning of Inspector Ghote Breaks an Egg, he’s sent to a small town to investigate a fifteen-year-old murder as quietly as possible. This mission concerns an Eminent Figure of such high rank that it’s thought Ghote ought to use some sort of guise, rather than go as a police officer. The Eminent Figure instructs Ghote to go as a salesman for a new chicken-feed product. Here’s what Ghote thinks about it:
 

‘Ghote had rejected the notion of explaining to the Eminent Figure that…in the remote part of the state to which he was being sent chickens were just one more set of scavengers feeding where they could on what they could find.
After all, one did have a duty to feed one’s family. There could be no gainsaying that.
But he hoped profoundly, now that he had arrived, that the disguise the bold, orange box provided would be sufficient.’
 

Ghote ponders his cases themselves in the same way. So in that sense, he doesn’t hold the cards particularly close to his chest as far as the reader is concerned. At the same time, there are enough surprises that the reader doesn’t know everything right away.

The decision on whether to have a sleuth hold a lot back or not arguably depends on the kind of story the author is creating and the sort of suspense the author wants to build. What do you think about this strategy? Does it bother you when the sleuth holds the cards very closely? Do you like to know what the sleuth is thinking the whole time? If you’re a writer, how do you handle this matter?

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, H.R.F. Keating, Katherine Howell, Patricia Wentworth, Peter James

And She Only Reveals What She Wants You to See*

Sleuths' ThoughtsOne of the major developments we’ve seen in crime fiction over the years has arguably been the move from the sleuth as a third person – as someone whose thoughts we don’t always know – to the sleuth as the first person. Of course, not all modern crime novels are written in the first person. But in many of them, the reader is privy to what’s going on in the sleuth’s mind. And that makes sense, since today’s crime fiction fans want their characters, by and large, to be well-developed.

But as those who’ve read classic and Golden Age crime fiction know, that hasn’t always been the style. Here are just a few examples; I know that those of you who’ve read classic and Golden Age detective fiction will be able to provide lots more than I could.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is (at least to me) an interesting case in point. He does let us know how he deduces things. He also occasionally gives his opinion about one thing or another. For instance, we know that he’s not much of a fan of the police (with one or two exceptions). But as a rule, readers aren’t privy to what he’s really thinking. Rather, we learn about Holmes ‘from the outside,’ mostly through Dr. Watson. On the one hand, this invites the reader to get caught up in the mystery and try to get to the solution of a case. On the other hand, we can often only speculate on what Holmes really thinks about it all. He keeps the cards, as the saying goes, close to his chest.

The same might be said of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. We get a sense from things that he says that he has a philosophical side. And we also learn some of his views about religion and about what it means to be a good person. There are a few other things we learn about his thought processes too. But readers don’t really ‘get into his head.’ The Father Brown stories don’t, for instance, follow him home at night as he makes tea and thinks about whatever case he’s involved in at the moment. Readers also don’t learn what his opinions are about a given case. That’s not generally revealed until close to the end of the story, as Father Brown explains how he came to certain conclusions.

That’s also often the case with Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver. Readers follow along of course as Miss Silver meets new clients, discusses their cases and so on. We know a bit about Miss Silver’s background (former governess turned private investigator), and we know something of her methods too. But readers don’t know what she’s thinking as she puts the pieces of the puzzle together, so to speak. She has her ways of ‘saving the day,’ but we don’t know what she thinks about it all, except for what she says. In other words, readers don’t ‘get in her head.’

Several of Christianna Brand’s novels feature Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police. He’s a police detective, so in that sense, we know the way he goes about solving crimes. He talks to witnesses and suspects, observes the evidence and so on. In fact, sometimes Brand lets the reader in on the main clues that Cockrill notices. Readers are also privy to certain thoughts Cockrill has (from Green For Danger):
 

‘Cockrill had been waiting for something, but not for this.’
 

But we don’t always know what he’s thinking as he investigates. The stories are told more or less ‘from the outside.’

And then there’s John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell. We know a few things about his personal life, and we do learn how he draws the conclusions he draws. He explains himself, so that the reader can see how he came to suspect the killer. But readers aren’t really privy to what he’s thinking as the case develops. We don’t ‘get in his head’ as he looks through the clues and listens to what people say, either. In fact, we don’t always know what he thinks of the various people with whom he interacts.

Agatha Christie lets us in on a few of Hercule Poirot’s and Miss Marple’s thoughts. For instance, readers know how Miss Marple feels about being ‘looked after’ by Miss Knight in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Cracked). If you haven’t read that one, you can, I am sure, imagine how she might feel with an overzealous paid nurse/companion watching everything she does, eats, and so on. Readers are privy to Poirot’s feelings about things too. For example, we know Poirot is not fond of then-modern standards for beauty and dress. In several stories, Christie lets us in on his thinking about that topic. Poirot also often lets clues drop when he notices something. But he is notoriously close-mouthed about the theories he develops and his views about a given case. He says that it’s because he may be wrong and doesn’t want to influence anyone else’s thinking. But that strategy also serves to invite the reader to match wits with him.

One really can’t say that anything is true of all classic/Golden Age mysteries (or any other sub-genre, for the matter of that). There are well-written modern mysteries that don’t let readers in on much of the sleuth’s thinking. And there are well-written mysteries from earlier times in which we do know much of what the sleuth is thinking. That said though, as a general pattern, we see more crime fiction now where we ‘get into the sleuth’s head.’

A possible reason for that might be the larger, more general distinction between plot-driven and character-driven stories. Another might be the increasing interest over the years in psychology and psychological plot threads. There could well be other reasons too.

What do you think about all this? Do you see this pattern? If you do, do you have a preference as to whether you know what the sleuth’s thinking is? If you’re a writer, how do you decide how much to tell the reader about the sleuth’s thoughts?
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Always a Woman.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christianna Brand, G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Wentworth

Here I’m in the Library*

LibrariesIn Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are discussing the ideal sort of crime. They quickly agree that the crime would be murder, and here’s what Hastings says about the scene of the crime:

 

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

 

He may have a point. One of the mainstays of older homes of the well-off was always a library. It may not be as common today but the home library has left its mark on crime fiction. I’m only going to mention a few examples; I know you can think of many more than I can.

Christie herself makes effective use of a library in The Body in the Library. One morning, Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly awake to learn that the body of an unknown young woman has been found in the library of their home Gossington Hall. Neither claims to know the victim, although the police are not completely satisfied about that. Nonetheless, they investigate other possibilities too. The first thing of course is to identify the dead woman. A search of missing person’s records turns up a match with Ruby Keene, an eighteen-year-old professional dancer. There are several suspects, so the police and Miss Marple begin to sift through the possibilities. Then another body is found in a charred car belonging to the last person known to see Ruby alive. Now Miss Marple has to work to find out how the two crimes are related and who could have wanted to kill both victims.

Michael Innes introduces his Inspector Appleby in Death at the President’s Lodging. That story features the murder of Josiah Umpleby, President of St. Andrews College. When Umpleby is shot in his study (another classic setting!), Appleby is called in and begins to unravel the network of relationships among Umpleby and the other members of the college faculty. It turns out that as you might expect, those relationships were both complicated and at times tense. So more than one person might have had a motive for murder. One of the steps Appleby takes is a thorough search of the victim’s private residence, which includes a personal library. And sure enough, Appleby finds an important clue there. It doesn’t immediately solve the mystery of who killed Umpleby, but it provides some vital information.

Patricia Wentworth’s The Watersplash follows the story of Edward Random, who’s recently returned to the supposedly-peaceful village of Greenings after a family quarrel cut him out of the family fortune. The Random family has a complicated history with its share of infighting, and there’ve always been whispers that Uncle James’ will, which doesn’t mention Edward at all, was superseded by a later will in which Edward does inherit. But that will has never been found.  What’s more, Edward’s cousin Arthur has inherited under the official will, and is not willing to give up the family fortune. Then, William Jackson, who serves as one of the family under-gardeners and claims to have witnessed that new will, is found dead, apparently of an accidental drowning. Then there’s another death. Now Edward Random falls under suspicion of murder. Maude Silver had already been aware of the case (no spoilers as to how) and decides to find out the truth about the will and the murders. And the family library, which is currently being re-catalogued, is the scene of some very important action in the story. It also hides an important clue.

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil sees Queen spending some time in Hollywood. He’s taken a house there so he can get some peace and quiet for writing. But that’s not what happens. Instead, nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill asks Queen’s help. Her father Leander Hill has recently died of a heart attack. Laurel is convinced that the heart attack was deliberately brought on by a series of macabre ‘gifts’ her father had received. He never told her what frightened him so much about them, but she does know that his business partner Roger Priam has also gotten unpleasant ‘gifts.’ Queen is reluctantly drawn into the case because the intellectual puzzle presented by those ‘gifts’ fascinates him. So he begins to get to know the people in Leander Hill’s and Roger Priam’s lives. Very slowly he makes sense of the packages they’ve received. Then one night, Priam’s library is broken into and one of the books burned. That provides an important clue, and the library itself shows an interesting aspect of Priam’s personality. Not very long after, Roger Priam is nearly killed. Although he’s been unwilling to give Queen any information up to that point, he does talk to Queen after the attempt on his life. Queen finally establishes that Leander Hill was murdered and Roger Priam nearly murdered because of a secret from their pasts.

Lilian Jackson Braun uses personal libraries in a few of her Cat Who… stories. One of them is The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal. The local community theatre group has been doing a production of Henry VIII under the direction of local high-school principal Hilary VanBrook. On the night of the final performance, his body is found in his car after an impromptu cast party at the home of journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. Qwill and local police chief Andrew Brodie look into the case and soon find that Van Brook had made more than his share of enemies. So there are several suspects. One of the important clues in the case comes from VanBrook’s personal library, and there’s an interesting scene in the novel as Qwill is looking through VanBrook’s collection. For a bibliophile like Qwill, the chance to explore a library is irresistible.

And that’s the thing about libraries. They are such atmospheric settings for murder. And even when the deed itself doesn’t take place in the library, there aren’t much better hiding places for clues. Little wonder so many mystery novels have an old family library in them. What do you think? Professor Plum, in the library, with the revolver?  😉

Now I’ve given a few examples, it’s your turn…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mike + the Mechanics’ A House of Many Rooms.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Michael Innes, Patricia Wentworth