Category Archives: Robert Crais

‘Cause I’m Unpredictable*

Some of the more interesting characters in crime fiction are appealing because one can never be sure exactly what they’re going to do. In order to make such a character credible, the author has to make sure there’s some stability (i.e. ‘Yes, that’s the sort of thing X might do’). But at the same time, these characters are just unpredictable enough that anything might happen. It’s a delicate balance, but when an author achieves it, that sort of character can be memorable.

For instance, James Lee Burke’s sleuth is New Iberia, Louisiana, police detective Dave Robicheaux. His best friend, and former police partner, is Cletus ‘Clete’ Purcell, who’s an interesting character in his own right. He drinks more than he should, and doesn’t always steer clear of trouble. In that way, he’s a little unpredictable. But he is loyal to Robicheaux, and he’s not afraid to get into a fight and knock heads together if needs be. And Robicheaux knows that Purcell won’t desert him when things get dangerous. Purcell’s character adds a dimension to Robicheaux’s personality, and has allowed Burke flexibility about plot lines, suspenseful scenes, and tension building.

We could say similar things about Walter Mosley’s Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander. He’s an old friend of Mosley’s protagonist, Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. The two grew up together in Louisiana, and have remained friends ever since. On the one hand, Mouse can be what’s sometimes called a ‘loose cannon.’ He has a hair-trigger temper and very few boundaries. He’s not the sort of person you want to upset. And he’s caused more than his share of trouble, in his way, for Rawlins. But he is loyal to his friend. And he’s completely unafraid. He’s saved Rawlins’ life, and survived an awful lot, including being shot in the back. Mouse isn’t what you’d call a nice person. But Rawlins knows that when it comes down to it, Mouse will be there, if I can put it that way.

Robert Crais’ Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole isn’t the biggest, or strongest, of people. He’s smart and quick-thinking, but that’s not always enough to keep him out of trouble. Fortunately, his PI partner is Joe Pike. A former member of the military, Pike is quick and skilled with weapons, of which he has plenty. He’s not a man of many words, but he can be very intimidating. And he’s not afraid to ‘mix it up’ if that’s necessary. You couldn’t really call him uncontrollable, but he’s certainly not one to stand by, if I can put it that way. And yet, Pike is highly disciplined in his way. And he’s loyal to Cole. When situations get dangerous, as they sometimes do, Cole knows that he can depend on Pike, and the two have a successful partnership. Even Cole’s feral cat approves of Pike; in fact, he’s the only human that the cat trusts.

Leigh Redhead’s Simone Kirsch is a Melbourne-based former stripper (she does an occasional gig) who’s trying to make a success of her PI business. Because of her background, she knows several people in the adult entertainment business. One of them is her best friend, Chloe Wozniak. When we first meet Chloe, in Peepshow, she’s a stripper at a peepshow place called Shaft Cinema. As the series goes on, Chloe opens her own business, Chloe’s Elite Strippers. Although Simone is the main character in this series (it’s told from her point of view, too), Chloe is hardly a ‘shrinking violet.’ She’s not intimidated by clients, strip club owners and managers, or, really, anyone else. In fact, in Peepshow, she’s taken hostage by an underworld ‘tough guy,’ and isn’t intimidated by him either. I don’t think it’s not spoiling the story to say that she doesn’t sit quivering in a corner. Chloe may not be utterly reckless, but she’s not always predictable, either.

And then there’s John Clarkson’s Among Thieves, in which we are introduced to James Beck. He and some of his friends own a bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Very few people know that he bought the bar with money he won in a wrongful conviction lawsuit after he spent eight years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. His co-owners are all people he met in prison, and who are now ‘going straight.’ One of those people is Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Guzman, who used to be a gang leader. He’s not in that life any more, but he hasn’t lost his toughness. He can be unstable, too, although he’s not mindlessly rash. Beck knows that Guzman is perfectly capable of following through on any threat he might make, and he’s not afraid to do so. That’s why he’s so concerned when he learns that Guzman has said he’s going to kill someone. Then, he finds out the reason. Guzman’s cousin, Olivia Sanchez, has asked for his help. She says that she was fired from her job at an upmarket investment firm, and ‘blacklisted’ so that she won’t be able to find a job elsewhere. All of this has happened because she was going to ‘blow the whistle’ on some very questionable transactions. She’s filed a lawsuit against one of her colleagues, Alan Crane, who she says threatened her, breaking two of her fingers. Crane says that she attacked him, and that he was defending himself. When Guzman hears what his cousin has to say, he’s ready to take care of Crane in his own way. But Beck convinces him to wait, and at least talk to both parties first. Guzman reluctantly agrees. This case turns out to be much more complicated than a dispute between two ex-colleagues. And before they know it, Beck and his friends (including Guzman) are mixed up in a case involving Russian gangsters, US arms dealers, and more than one dangerous thug. Through it all, Guzman remains on ‘hair trigger’ alert, and that adds to the tension in the story. At the same time, he is loyal to Beck, and he understands the consequences if he lets rash decisions get in the way of helping his cousin.

And that’s the thing about such characters. They may be unpredictable, and sometimes even a little reckless. But they’re smart, and they’re loyal. And they can add much to a crime novel. Which have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from James Robertson and Skye Sweetnam’s Unpredictable.

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Filed under James Lee Burke, John Clarkson, Leigh Redhead, Robert Crais, Walter Mosley

I Have a Thick Skin*

Life teaches most of us to develop a thick skin, as the saying goes, at least professionally. Criticism isn’t always fun, and dealing with it takes skill. And it helps – a lot – to have a thick hide. Having one doesn’t mean you enjoy criticism, or think it’s fun. It means you learn not to take it personally.

In crime fiction, having a thick (or thin) hide can add a really interesting layer of character development. It can also add to a plot, if you think about it. After all, a thin skin can lead to all sorts of interesting conflict and suspense.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, for instance, we are introduced to Elsa Greer (later, Lady Dittisham). She is one of the five people ‘on the scene’ on the day that famous painter Amyas Crale is poisoned. His wife, Caroline, is the main suspect, and there’s plenty of evidence against her. In fact, she is arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter. A year later, she dies in prison. Sixteen years after the murder, the Crales’ daughter, Carla Lemarchant visits Hercule Poirot. She is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to clear her name. Poirot agrees, and looks into the matter. In order to get to the truth, he interviews the five people most closely concerned (including Elsa), and gets written accounts of the murder and the days leading up to it from each one. We soon learn that Elsa was Crale’s mistress, a fact which certainly came out at the trial. She’s described as ‘hard boiled,’ and tells Poirot that she didn’t care about the insults she got from people who thought of her as a ‘home wrecker.’ In fact, she developed a tough hide about all that sort of thing, even though ‘ladies’ were supposed to shrink from public criticism. On that level, she’s an interesting character.

Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel also has a very thick skin. Like most of us, he doesn’t think criticism is fun. But he doesn’t take it personally, and fans of this series knows that he gives as good as he gets, as the saying goes. In fact, that’s one thing that Peter Pascoe, Edgar Wield, and the other members of Dalziel’s team have to learn. When you work with Dalziel, you have to have a thick hide. He’s hardly gushing in his praise, and he doesn’t mince words when he dresses people down. It takes Dalziel’s staff some time to get used to his forthright ways, and not take it personally. When they do, they learn that he is also loyal to them, and willing to take on ‘the top brass’ on their behalf if necessary.

Another character with a thick skin is Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. And for him, that’s a job requirement. His boss is Nero Wolfe, who can be very caustic in what he says, and isn’t afraid to say it. But many people think of Archie as an employee in name only. Really, he’s more of a partner, even though Wolfe pays his salary. Archie has learned not to take Wolfe’s diatribes personally, and he’s not afraid to give it right back, as the saying goes. He’s one of the few people whom Wolfe doesn’t intimidate. Archie’s not overly intimidated by the police, either, and doesn’t take their remarks to him personally. Sometimes, he even gets himself into trouble because he doesn’t react in an ‘appropriately’ humble way when the police lay into him. In fact, fans of this series know that some of the funnier lines in these novels come from Archie.

Of course, not all fictional characters are thick-skinned. And sometimes, characters can hide that thin skin beneath false bravado. For example, in Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town, we are introduced to famous director Peter Alan Nelson. On the one hand, he is a well-known director, and every word he says counts. He’s waited on hand and foot, and is very accustomed to getting his way. But he doesn’t handle demurrals or criticism well at all; underneath, he has a thin skin. He does not like to be wrong, and doesn’t deal well with objections. Years earlier, he was married to Karen Shipley, and they had a son, Toby. The marriage ended, and Karen and Toby left. Now, Nelson wants to re-establish a relationship with his son, and he hires Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole to find them. At first, Cole demurs. After all, there are any number of reasons that these people might want to go on with their own lives. But Nelson insists, and a fee is a fee. So, Cole tracks Karen and Toby down, and discovers that they’re living in a small town in Connecticut. It seems like a straightforward case – until he also discovers that she’s mixed up with some very dangerous Mob types…

And then there’s Louise Penny’s Yvette Nichol. When we meet her in Still Life, she’s recently been named to the Sûreté du Québec, and she’s thrilled about it. She’s also determined to ‘make good,’ as much because of her personal situation as anything else. So, when she is appointed to work with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache on a murder case, she does everything she can at first to ingratiate herself with him. But she is new at her job, and knows a lot less than she thinks she does. What’s worse, she has a thin skin and doesn’t deal well with criticism. She’d rather blame others than reflect on her own actions. When she makes mistakes, as we all do, Gamache tries to counsel her and help her become a productive part of the team. She won’t listen to him, though, in part because she can’t deal with criticism. That causes all sorts of problems which, as fans know, are part of a story arc in this series.

For most of us, it’s important to develop a thick skin, at least in our professional lives. We all have to handle criticism, and sometimes it can hurt. It’s healthy to learn deal with it in ways that don’t debilitate us. Some fictional characters can do that well – some can’t…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joy Ike’s Nomad.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Louise Penny, Reginald Hill, Rex Stout, Robert Crais

Rows of Houses That Are All the Same*

One of the most important socioeconomic changes of the post-WWII world was the growth of the suburb – the commuter town. The suburb was billed as close enough to the city for access, but with lower taxes, more affordable housing, and even better schools. And people moved to suburbs en masse.

Suburban life gave rise to a whole new sort of culture – and a new sort of crime novel. We certainly see it in a lot of contemporary domestic noir novels. But it’s woven into other sorts of crime fiction, too.

In Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, for example, much of the action takes place in the suburban town of Woodleigh Common. It’s the sort of place where people come and go (although there are people who’ve been there a long time), and where people tend to commute to their jobs. Christie’s fictional detective story writer, Ariadne Oliver, has been invited there to visit her friend, Judith Butler, and Judith’s daughter, Miranda. During her visit, Mrs. Oliver attends a Hallowe’en party intended for the young people of the area. The party ends in disaster when one guest, thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds, is murdered. Mrs. Oliver isn’t an overly fearful type of person, but the incident leaves her badly shaken. So, she asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. Poirot discovers that, on the day she was killed, Joyce boasted of having seen a murder. Someone overheard that remark and was so afraid of being found out that the only option seemed to be killing the girl. In the process of finding out who killed Joyce, Poirot uncovers a past murder, and some ugly secrets, in Woodleigh Common.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives takes place in Stepford, Connecticut, a suburban town with access to New York City. Walter and Joanna Eberhart move to Stepford with their two children, Pete and Kim. They’re hoping to take advantage of lower taxes, good schools, and better prices on property. At first, all goes well enough, and the children settle in at their school. Then, Joanna’s new friend, Bobbie Markowe, begins to suspect that something is very, very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t agree. But it doesn’t take long, or many incidents, to convince Joanna that her friend is right. As she starts to ask more questions, Joanna learns that there may be real danger in Stepford. Then, a frightening event proves just how much danger there really is in that supposedly peaceful town.

In Ruth Rendell’s To Fear a Painted Devil, we are introduced to Patrick and Tamsin Selby. They live in the attractive suburban community of Linchester, and have settled in there. Then, the Selbys decide to celebrate Tamsin’s twenty-seventh birthday with an outdoor party.  They invite all of the local people, and it promises to be a fun event. During the party, a group of wasps begins to annoy the guests. So, Patrick climbs up a ladder to one of the eaves of the house, where the wasps have built their nest. As he’s trying to get rid of the nest, he’s badly stung.  A few days later, he dies. At first, Patrick’s death is put down to a massive allergic reaction. But, Dr. Max Greenleaf, who treated the victim, isn’t so sure that’s true. So, he starts to ask some questions. As he gets closer to the truth, we learn that the beautiful little suburb of Linchester has been hiding some dark secrets.

Science fiction novels Zack Walker learns how dangerous suburbs can be in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move. Walker convinces his wife, Sarah, to move from the city where they live to the suburban development of Valley Forest Estates. He’s sure that life there will be more peaceful and much safer than it is in the city. Besides, it’ll be much less expensive. The Walker family makes the move, and, although the children aren’t happy with their new school, everyone settles in. Then one day, Walker goes to the Valley Forest sales office to complain about some problems he’s having with their new house. During his visit, he witnesses a loud argument between one of the Valley Forest executives and local environmental activist Samuel Spender. Later that day, Walker finds Spender’s body at a nearby creek. Against his better judgement, Walker gets drawn into the mystery, and finds a web of fraud, murder and more. Valley Forest Estates certainly doesn’t turn out to be as safe and friendly as it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town. Famous Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson hires LA PI Elvis Cole to find his ex-wife, Karen, and their son, Toby. It seems that Nelson and his wife had parted ways years ago, but now, he wants to be a real father to his son. The only problem is, Karen and Toby have disappeared. At first, Cole is reluctant to take the case. After all, people can have any number of reasons for not wanting to be found. But he’s finally convinced to look into the matter. It doesn’t take a lot of work for him to discover that Karen and Toby moved to a small Connecticut suburb of New York City. When he finds her, he learns that Karen has a solid job in a local bank and no interest at all in reuniting with her ex. Cole also discovers that Karen is working for some very dangerous people who do not want to lose their ‘bank connection.’ Now, Karen and Toby are in real danger, so Cole is going to have to protect them and try to convince them to at least meet with Nelson. He may have a persuasive way, but he’s going to need help from his PI partner, Joe Pike, to go up against the Mob members who are after Karen.

The suburbs may certainly have their advantages. And they can be lovely places to live. But safe? Not as much as you’d think (right, fans of Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows?).

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Pleasant Valley Sunday, made famous by the Monkees.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Ira Levin, Linwood Barclay, Robert Crais, Ruth Rendell

We Stand as One…Undivided*

pi-partnershipsWhen we think of fictional PIs, the ones who may quickly come to mind are ‘lone wolves,’ such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. There are plenty of other examples, too, and it makes sense that we’d think of them. A lot of PIs have their own businesses. And some, such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, work with associates who aren’t business partners.

But there are benefits to having an official PI partner. For one thing, the costs and risks are shared. For another, two PIs can work on more cases than can one PI. That means more business. So plenty of PIs, both real and fictional, work with a partner rather than go it alone. It’s not always an easy relationship, of course. There are logistics, matters of finance, and decision-making that have to be worked out between people who are bound to disagree at times. But a PI partner can add a variety of strengths to a business. After all, no one person can do everything, let alone do it well.

There are plenty of PI partnerships in the genre, too. For instance, technically, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is Archie Goodwin’s employer. So in that sense, they are not partners. But any fan of the series can tell you that Goodwin makes plenty of the decisions, has plenty of autonomy, and actually runs the business to a much greater extent than Wolfe would probably care to admit. So, although you may disagree with me (and feel free to if you do), I think of Wolfe and Goodwin as PI partners more than employer and employee.

Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole and Joe Pike offer an interesting contrast when it comes to a PI duo. Cole is more personable and outgoing than his partner. He has his quirks (do you know another fictional PI who wears a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and has a Disney clock in his office?). But he’s the one, in general, who interacts with clients. He can be snarky at times, but he’s the one who does the talking. Pike, on the other hand, is taciturn. He’s a former US Marine who now owns a gun shop. He is, in a way, the ultimate ‘bad boy’ who wears sunglasses all the time, always carries weapons, and so on. But at the same time, he’s got his own code. And he’s the only one who can interact with the feral cat that shares Cole’s home. In many ways, he and Cole couldn’t be more different. But they respect each other and they depend on one another’s skills.

Betty Webb’s Lena Jones and her business partner, Jimmy Sisiwan, own Desert Investigations, a Scottsdale, Arizona PI firm. Jones is a former police officer with her own history and personal scars. She’s able to use her police background and the grit that comes from her personal past as she investigates. Sisiwan is a member of the Pima Nation. He lives in a trailer on the Reservation, and prefers a simple, uncomplicated life. He’s the computer expert of this PI team (in fact, in Desert Run, Sisiwan is lured away from the PI world by Southwest Microsystems). Jones and Sisiwan have a number of differences, but their skills are complementary, and they make an effective team.

S.J. Rozan has chosen an interesting approach to writing her Lydia Chin and Bill Smith series. Each is an independent PI, but they do work together on some cases. And in many ways, they’re very different people. Chin Ling Wan-ju, who usually goes by the name of Lydia Chin, is an American-born Chinese PI. She lives and works in New York City’s Chinatown. She keeps some of the traditions of her Chinese family, but she’s also American. Her family strongly disapproves of her occupation, and her mother would like very much for her to find a Chinese man and settle down. But Chin has other plans. She’s as comfortable speaking English as she is speaking Cantonese, and her ability to negotiate both cultures is an asset. Bill Smith, twelve years older than Chin, lives alone over a bar. He’s seen plenty of life, and is much more cynical than Chin is, although he’s not hardened. Fans of this series will know that the books are written from alternating points of view, in first person. Some are written from Chin’s perspective; others are written from Smith’s. This allows readers to get to know both PIs, and lets readers in on how they perceive each other.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney and Rajiv Patel. They’re a Bangkok-based PI team, and partners in life as well. Their partnership has taken adjustment on both sides. Keeney is Australian by birth and culture, but has adapted to living in Thailand. She speaks fluent Thai, and is very much accustomed to living independently and making her own business and personal choices. Patel is originally from India, but moved to Bangkok in part to help in his uncle’s book shop (that’s how he and Keeney met).  Learning to work as a team isn’t always easy for these two PIs. They’re both bright, strong-willed people who have very different cultural backgrounds and different perspectives. But they’ve found that they have complementary skills and knowledge. And they care deeply for each other.

And that’s the thing about PI partnerships. In the most successful ones, the partners bring different strengths to the job, and learn to trust each other. They know that they do much better working together than either could do alone. They might argue from time to time; but in the end, they respect each other and work together, rather than at cross purposes. This post has only allowed space for me to mention a few PI teams. Which ones do you like best?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bon Jovi’s Undivided.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Betty Webb, Rex Stout, Robert Crais, S.J. Rozan

My Mustang Ford*

fordAs this is posted, it’s the 103rd anniversary of the first moving assembly line. It was originally installed in a Ford Motor Company factory for the production of the Model T – the famous ‘Tin Lizzie.’ The assembly line made profound changes in the workplace and in production. You can say those changes have been beneficial or quite the opposite; it’s hard to deny the impact, though, of the assembly line.

It also changed transportation. Now, instead of cars being a plaything for the rich, they became affordable for ordinary people. And ordinary people started to buy them. That made permanent social, recreational, and demographic changes in many societies. Now, the automobile is omnipresent, and there’s more variety in terms of prices, features and so on than ever before. Just watch television for a short time and you’re likely to see an ad for one car maker or another.

Cars have driven into crime fiction, too. For example, one of the early scenes in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None features Anthony ‘Tony’ Marston. He’s driving a Dalmain on the way to meet a ferry that’s going to take him to Indian Island, where he’s accepted an invitation. Marston gets quite a lot of attention as he goes. He’s good-looking to begin with, and drives,

 

‘A car so fantastically powerful, so superlatively beautiful, that it had all the nature of an apparition.’

 

Marston finds that other people, too, have been invited to the island, and joins them on the ferry. When they get there, they find that their host has been delayed. Still, dinner is served and everyone settles in. After the meal, though, the guests are shocked when each is accused of killing at least one other person. In Marston’s case, it has to do with his driving; he’s accused of the hit-and-run killing of two children. Not long afterwards, he dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night, there’s another death. And then another. Now the people on the island know that they’ve been lured there, and that someone plans to murder them. So the survivors have to find and stop the killer if they’re to stay alive.

If you’re a fan of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, and especially if you’ve seen the television series, you’ll know that Morse drives a Jaguar. Somehow, it seems to suit him. But did you know that, in the earlier novels, he actually drove a Lancia? What’s interesting is that in this case, the novels and the television show were very closely integrated. Partly that’s because Dexter was very much involved with the show’s production. After the various episodes were aired (showing the Jaguar), later editions of the novels changed the Lancia to a Jaguar.

Some sleuths depend very heavily on their cars. For example, in Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, we are introduced to Los Angeles attorney Mickey Haller. He doesn’t do business from an office, although he does, technically speaking, have a business address. Instead, he has a ‘portable office’ – his Lincoln Town Car. He has a driver, Earl Briggs, and conducts his business as he goes between places. Connelly was inspired for this character by a real-life attorney, David Ogden. I read that Ogden actually drives a Ford Five Hundred SEL, but I’m not sure if that’s still true. Even if it’s not, it’s still really interesting to think of a car as a place of business.

Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole has a signature 1966 Corvette. That’s not a surprising choice, given that he lives and works in car-addicted Los Angeles. And if you’ve seen Corvettes from that era, and you’re familiar with Cole’s personality and style, you may find yourself agreeing that the car matches the man.

Some sleuths drive even more unusual cars. For example, Mike Ripley’s sleuth is Fitzroy Maclean Angel, a jazz trumpeter who drives an unlicensed cab. He’s named his car Armstrong – yes, for Louis Armstrong – and finds his transportation quite useful. After all, if someone mistakes his car for an actual cab and pays him for a ride, who is he to argue? In Just Another Angel, that’s the mistake that Josephine ‘Jo’ Scamp makes. But Angel gets much more than he bargained for when she gets into his car. One night with Jo ends up drawing Angel into a case involving robbery, some unpleasant thugs, and Jo’s very angry husband…

And I don’t think I could discuss cars and sleuths without mentioning television’s Lieutenant Columbo. Any fan of this show will tell you that he drives a sometimes-unreliable battered Peugeot. Sometimes there are jokes made about it, and he himself knows it’s not exactly upmarket. But he loves his car, and it would be hard to imagine him without it.

And that’s the thing about cars. Thanks in no small part to the moving assembly line, many people can now afford a car, even if it’s not the car of their dreams. And cars have become so varied that they often reflect their owners’ tastes and personalities. And that includes fictional sleuths.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chuck Berry’s My Mustang Ford.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Michael Connelly, Mike Ripley, Robert Crais