Category Archives: Ross Macdonald

We Ain’t no Delinquents*

Fictional police officers and PIs come from all sorts of different backgrounds. Not all of them come from steady, stable homes where the law is respected (although there are plenty of fictional police detectives whose parents were also police officers). In fact, it’s interesting to see how many of them started out as juvenile delinquents, or close to it. In some ways, it doesn’t make sense for someone who’s used to flouting the law to enforce it.

But there is some logic to it, if you think about it. For some of these fictional characters, finding a place in law enforcement gives them a sense of purpose. For others, it gives them a pseudo-family. Or a chance to make things right. Whatever the reason, it can make for an interesting layer of character development to have someone make the choice to move from breaking the law to being ‘on the side of the angels.’

Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer is that sort of character. He was a troubled child from what seems to have been an abusive home (he mentions taking the strap away from his father in The Doomsters). As he got older, he became a petty thief. But a veteran cop befriended him, and Archer changed his perspective. He joined the Long Beach (California) Police but saw too much corruption there. Now, he’s a PI, who does what he can to make things right.

There’s another, slightly similar example in the case of David Whish-Wilson’s Frank Swann. As a young person, he committed his share of petty crime, and got into his share of trouble. He didn’t really have a sense of purpose until he met Marion Monroe. When they started dating, he got the chance to meet her father, George Monroe, who was a police officer. Monroe treated Swann with dignity and found ways to reach out to him. Ultimately, that helped lead Swann to choose a career as a police officer. He’s hardly perfect and doesn’t always do things ‘by the book.’ But he’s got a sense of purpose, and he’s developed a core of integrity.

Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone also had a difficult start in life. After the death of her parents in a car wreck, she went to live with her aunt. Aimless in high school, she became a delinquent. Still, she finished high school and tried community college. That wasn’t a success, though, and it wasn’t until she became a PI that Millhone found a sense of purpose. Fans of this series can tell you that she doesn’t always walk the proverbial straight and narrow. But her life has focus, and she’s ‘on the side of the angels’ now.

Carol O’Connell’s Kathy Mallory started out as a homeless child who’d fled from her native Louisiana to New York City. When she was eleven, NYPD detective Louis Markowitz caught her stealing. Instead of turning her over to the juvenile justice system, Markowitz took her in and raised her as his own. As they’ve gotten to know each other, he’s learned about her past, and it’s a dark one. In fact, she’s a nearly-feral ‘baby sociopath.’ But they’ve forged a bond, and Mallory respects her surrogate father. When Markowitz is killed in a line-of-duty incident, Mallory takes it upon herself to find his killer. Later, she enrolls in the police academy and begins a law enforcement career of her own. Her mentor (and Markowitz’ former partner) Sergeant Riker, does his best to help her. It’s not always successful, since Mallory still has plenty of ‘baggage.’ But she’s working at making a life on the right side of the law.

Jean-Claude Izzo’s Fabio Montale grew up in a not-very-nice part of Marseilles. He and his friends, Manu and Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini, committed plenty of petty and sometimes more serious crimes. They probably would have continued this way, and even done worse things, but everything was changed by a tragedy. Montale left Marseilles and joined the military. In Total Chaos, he’s returned, and is now a police officer in the very area where he grew up. It’s not spoiling this trilogy to say that Montale gets fed up with a lot of what he sees on the police force, and that has a real impact on his own choices. But he’s made the choice not to get drawn into the criminal underworld.

These are only a few examples of fictional sleuths who started out as delinquents (or worse). And it’s an interesting question why they make the choice to enforce the laws they flouted. Each sleuth has a different pattern of reasons for that decision, and it adds to that sleuth’s character.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Gee, Officer Krupke!

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Filed under Carol O'Connell, David Whish-Wilson, Jean-Claude Izzo, Ross Macdonald, Sue Grafton

Clinical, Intellectual, Cynical*

Life’s not always kind, and people who’ve seen a lot of that unkindness sometimes react to it by becoming cynical. If you think about it, a certain amount of cynicism is self-protective. It prevents too much vulnerability and disappointment (at least on a conscious level) when someone proves not to be trustworthy.

There are plenty of cynical characters in crime fiction, and that shouldn’t be surprising. Sleuths see the sometimes-tragic consequences when people act only in their own interests. And other fictional characters can be cynical, too. Carried to the extreme, cynicism has a lot of drawbacks. But a certain amount of it can add a layer of character development.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, we are introduced to Miss Pamela Horsefall, a writer for the tabloid Sunday Companion. One of her articles is a ‘Where Are They Now’ piece on women who’ve been involved in infamous crimes. The story itself is quite sentimental, and it suggests that these are all innocent people who’ve been victims of others or of society. That story turns out to be a clue when a charwoman is murdered. Everyone thinks the killer is her unpleasant lodger, James Bentley. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence isn’t so sure about that. He asks Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. When he finds out that Mrs. McGinty wrote a letter to the Companion shortly before she died, he suspects that there might be a connection between the article and her murder. So, he goes to visit Miss Horsefall. He discovers that she is much more cynical about the subjects of her story than it seems. In fact, in each case, she believes that the woman had much more to do with the murder than people think. Miss Horsefall’s cynicism doesn’t solve Mrs. McGinty’s murder, but the article gives Poirot an important lead.

Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy (Total Chaos, Chourmo, Solea) features police officer Fabio Montale. As young people, he and his friends, Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini and Manu, got into plenty of trouble, and had more than one brush with the law. Then, a tragedy changed everything. Montale left Marseilles and joined the military. After his stint in the service, he returned to his old haunts in Marseilles as a police officer. Although he’s on the right side of the law, so to speak, Montale has no illusions about the law, the city, the people, or his fellow coppers. He has seen, in some very ugly ways, just how self-motivated people can be, and how self-interest can come before anything else, including others’ lives. And, yet, Montale tries to be ‘on the side of the angels.’ He tries to do whatever good he can do. It’s an interesting example of a person who’s cynical without giving up, if I can put it that way.

Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes is the story of John ‘Duke’ Anderson. Shortly after being released from prison, he gets a legitimate job at a printer’s. He plans to stay on the proverbial straight and narrow until he gets a chance to visit a posh apartment building on Manhattan’s East Side. When he sees how much wealth there is there, he decides to rob not just one apartment, but the whole building. He knows he won’t be able to pull off the job by himself, so he gathers a group of confederates. Anderson is cynical about their motivations and interests, and he plans accordingly. He’s matched, cynicism for cynicism, by his friend-with-benefits, Ingrid Macht. She has her own dark history and very good reasons for mistrusting everyone. Her view is, ‘Everyone’s out for themselves, so I might as well get mine, too.’ Although she and Anderson are friends, they have no illusions about themselves or each other, and have no problem using one another. Ingrid isn’t one of Anderson’s co-conspirators, really, but she sheds important light on him and his character.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we meet Alice Steele, a former Hollywood wardrobe assistant. She meets Bill King, a junior investigator for the district attorney’s office, and the two begin dating. Bill’s sister Lora has her concerns about Alice. Still, she tries to be nice to her for Bill’s sake. Alice has a murky past, and she hasn’t completely left it. One of her friends, for instance, is Lois Slattery, a former roommate. Lois has a shady past of her own, and a cynical attitude towards life. Occasionally, she visits Alice, and Lora gets a chance to see how these two women seem to think. As time goes by, Lora has more and more questions about her new sister-in-law, and becomes increasingly uneasy about her. At the same time, she is drawn to Alice’s life. Then, there’s a death that turns out to be murder. And Alice could very well be mixed up in it all. Telling herself she’s doing it to protect Bill, Lora starts asking questions about the death. Throughout the novel, we see how cynical both Alice and Lois are. They’ve both seen plenty of life, and their cynicism comes in part from that.

As any fan of the ‘hardboiled’ PI novel can tell you, several fictional PIs are also cynical, even though they go after the ‘bad guys.’ Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, for instance, has no illusions about the motives of the clients who hire him, or of the people involved in his cases. He himself tries to do the right thing. But he’s seen enough in his time that he’s well aware of the dark side of many people. A similar thing might be said of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. There are plenty of other examples, too.

Cynicism certainly has its place in crime fiction. A dose of it can be useful in real life, too. And it’s interesting to see how it plays out in fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Supertramp’s The Logical Song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Jean-Claude Izzo, Lawrence Sanders, Megan Abbott, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald

I Want to Protect You*

Most of us have private things in our histories – even secrets – that we don’t necessarily want to share with others. And when those ‘others’ are our children, it may be especially important to us to keep those things to ourselves. There are all sorts of reasons for which parents don’t always tell their children all the details of their histories. Sometimes it’s because those details are embarrassing. Sometimes it’s because knowing the truth could be hurtful. And sometimes, it’s because parents want their children to have a certain image of them, and that image would be damaged if the truth came out.

Whatever the reason, there are plenty of examples in crime fiction of parents who want to keep things from their children. And there are examples of children who are just as determined to find those things out. It makes sense, too. Not only is that realistic, but it’s also a solid source of interest and conflict in a novel.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s novella Dead Man’s Mirror, Hercule Poirot is summoned to the country home of Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore. It seems that Chevenix-Gore believes that someone is stealing from him, and he wants Poirot to find out the truth. At first, Poirot doesn’t want to look into this matter, as he’s not pleased about Chevenix-Gore’s highhandedness. But he agrees to go. Shortly after his arrival, though, Chevenix-Gore is shot. In the beginning, it looks very much like a suicide. But there are little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise, so Poirot starts to ask questions. He soon learns that more than one person might have wanted to kill the victim. One of the people involved is Chevenix-Gore’s adopted daughter, Ruth. In the course of the story, we learn something about her past – something that no-one has told her. And it plays a part in the story.

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar introduces readers to the Hillman family. Ralph and Elaine Hillman have sent their son, Tom, to Laguna Perdida, a residential school for ‘troubled youth.’ When Tom goes missing, the school’s owner/director, Dr. Sponti, hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy. As they’re discussing the case, Ralph Hillman comes to the office, and says that Tom’s been abducted, and he’s had a ransom demand. Archer goes back to the Hillman home to see what he can do to help. Soon enough, though, he learns that this is not a case of a wealthy family being extorted for money. There’s something more (and darker) going on here. And when it comes out that Tom may have gone willingly with the people who have him, it’s even clearer that this is a different sort of case. Archer perseveres, despite the hurdles he faces, and finds out the truth. It turns out that one important factor here is a set of secrets that Tom’s parents have kept from him.

John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a Bangkok-based member of the Royal Thai Police. His mother, Nong, is a former bar girl who’s now embarked on a new career. Sonchai and his mother are close, and he treats her with respect. She loves him, too, and cares very much about him. But there’s one thing that she won’t tell him: the name of his father. Sonchai is half farang (foreigner), so he knows that his father is not Thai. But he doesn’t know the man’s name or background, and his mother won’t share that information with him, at least at the beginning of the series. It’s one of the few real sources of tension between them.

In Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands, we meet twelve-year-old Steven Lamb. He lives with his younger brother, Davey, his mother, Lettie, and his grandmother, Gloria. They’re not well off (‘though they’re not desperate), and on the surface, you’d think it was a normal, working-class family. But it’s not. Nineteen years earlier, Lettie’s brother (and Steven’s uncle), Billy Peters, disappeared and never returned. Despite a thorough search, Billy was never found – not even a body. Lettie’s and Gloria’s way of coping with the devastation has been silence. They don’t discuss Billy or the events of that time. Steven knows a few things about what happened, and about his uncle, but not much. The adults in his life have tried, in their way, to protect him, but you could almost say that it’s had the opposite effect. Steven is almost obsessed with wanting to know what happened to his Uncle Billy. He’s learned that a man named Arnold Avery most likely abducted and killed Uncle Billy. He’s hoping he can get Avery to tell him where his uncle’s body is. So, he decides to contact Avery, who’s in prison for other child murders. The two begin a suspenseful exchange of letters, which Steven does his best to hide from his family. In the end, that exchange opens up some very old wounds, and opens up some of the silences in the family.

And then there’s Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass. In that novel, pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman returns from London to her native Auckland. With her, she brings her partner, Yossi Shalev, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Roimata ‘Roi.’ While Yossi and Roi are eager to start over again in Auckland, Claire’s been very reluctant. She doesn’t want her family’s past dug up, and she wants to protect Roi, in particular, from her own past. Soon enough, we see why Claire’s so concerned, In 1970, seventeen-year-old Kathryn Phillips went missing and never returned. Claire’s father, Patrick, was accused of abduction and murder. He was even tried and convicted. But there was never enough evidence to sustain the conviction on appeal. So, he was released. Still, plenty of people think he’s guilty. When a hospital case thrusts Claire into the media spotlight, the old case comes up again, and now Claire wants desperately to hide it all from Roi. In the meantime, Roi wants to know more about her own background. Claire’s told her that her birth father was a Māori man with whom Claire had a brief affair, but nothing more than that. Now, Roi would like to find out more, and get to know her Māori family. And she’s as determined to get her answers as Claire is to protect her from them.

There are plenty of reasons parents might not want to share everything with their children. Sometimes, keeping things quiet is the right choice. Other times, it’s not. Either way, it makes for an interesting layer of character or source of tension in a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Eels song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Belinda Bauer, John Burdett, Ross Macdonald, Sue Younger

Taken Away and Held For Ransom*

1932-lindbergh-baby-poster-630x1103As this is posted, it’s 85 years since Charles Lindbergh, Jr., aged 20 months, was kidnapped. He was, as you’ll know, found dead. During the investigation, the case made world headlines. Bruno Richard Hauptmann was convicted and executed for the murders, but he protested his innocence all along. And many people agreed with him. There’ve been several books and articles pointing to other leads the police didn’t follow, other possible explanations, and so on.

Whatever the real truth about the Lindbergh kidnapping, it had a profound impact on the news, on society, and on crime fiction. There are many books that feature a plot where a child is captured for ransom; here are just a few.

One that was directly inspired by the Lindbergh case is Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. In that novel, American businessman Samuel Edward Ratchett is on board the famous Orient Express train, en route across Europe. On the second night of the journey, he is stabbed to death. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and he’s prevailed upon to find the killer as soon as possible, so that the culprit can be handed over to the police at the next border. Poirot interviews all of the possible suspects, and uses that information, plus other clues he finds, to discover who killed Ratchett. As it turns out, this murder is related to a tragic case from several years earlier. Three-year-old Daisy Armstrong was kidnapped from her home, and later found dead. Saying more would get too close to spoiling the story for my taste, but that incident does play an important role in the novel.

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar begins at an exclusive Southern California boarding school called Laguna Perdida. Its purpose is to serve ‘troubled’ students. Dr. Sponti, head of the school, has called in PI Lew Archer because one of the pupils, seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman, has gone missing. The boy’s parents are wealthy and well-connected, and Sponti doesn’t relish the thought of having to tell them that their son has disappeared. Archer agrees to see what he can do to find the boy. He and Sponti are still discussing the matter when Tom’s father, Ralph, rushes into to Sponti’s office. He says that Tom has been abducted, and that there’s been a ransom demand. Archer goes back to the Hillman home with Ralph, and tries to help. But soon enough, Archer gets the sense that there’s more going on here than a simple demand for ransom from a wealthy family. For one thing, why are the Hillmans so reluctant to give Archer a lot of information about Tom? And why does it seem that Tom may actually be with his captors (if that’s the right word) of his own will? It’s a much more complex case than Archer thinks at first.

John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler takes place mostly on the campus of Hewes College, in Massachusetts. The novel was published in 1971, so there’s lots of student activism and unrest on campus. Wechsler is a professor in the Classics Department, and is much more concerned about doing the best job that he can than he is about wading into the growing divide between students and faculty on campus. He’s drawn into the controversy, though, when the university’s president, Winthrop Dohrn, summons him to a meeting. It seems that Wechsler’s brother, David, may be involved in some of the radical activities on campus. Dohrn wants Wechsler to contact his brother and find out whether he’s involved in any of the subversive activity. Wechsler wants to keep his job, so he can’t very well refuse the president. And it’s not long before he thinks the president may be right. That becomes even clearer when Dohrn’s granddaughter, Nancy, is kidnapped, and a note bearing David’s signature is sent to Dohrn. Then, Dohrn himself is killed. David, though, claims he’s not responsible for the abduction or the other events. Now, the Wechsler brothers have to work together to find out who’s behind everything.

The first in Bill Pronzini’s ‘Nameless’ PI series is The Snatch. In it, wealthy Louis Martinetti hires Nameless for a very specific task. He tells Nameless that his son, Gary, has been abducted, and that the kidnappers are demanding three hundred thousand dollars in ransom. They have also insisted that one, and only one, person go to the drop site to leave the money. The next day, Nameless goes to the appointed place to do just that, when everything goes wrong. Martinetti wants him to take one course of action; other family members want him to do something else. In the meantime, Nameless is trying to make sense of everything, and develop his own plans. In the end, we learn what happened to Gary, and what it all means for the different characters.

And then there’s Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy. Wealthy São Paolo businessman Olavo Bettancourt has what seems like the perfect life. He has money, ‘clout,’ a beautiful ‘trophy wife,’ Mara, and a healthy young son, Olavinho. But things are not nearly as perfect as they seem. He’s involved in several questionable deals. They’ve made him very wealthy and seemingly powerful, but he’s no less trapped for that. Then, a gang of criminals decides to kidnap Olavinho. Their thinking is that the boy’s father will pay any amount he’s told to get his son back. Plans are made and everything is set. But, by mistake, the culprits get the wrong boy. Instead of Olavinhio, they abduct the mute son of the Bettancourts’ cook/housekeeper. Now, the abductors have to decide what to do with the boy they have, and with their grand scheme. And Bettancourt has to decide what to tell the police and the media. The stakes are high, and both sides work frantically to deal with the matter.

There are, as I say, a lot of other crime novels in which young people are taken for ransom. That plot point can add real suspense to a story. And, when it’s done well, readers get a sense of the desperation families can feel when such a thing happens.

 

The ‘photo is of the ‘wanted’ poster circulated when the Lindberghs’ son was abducted. Thanks, Crime Museum!

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty’s Refugee.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bill Pronzini, Edney Silvestre, John Alexander Graham, Ross Macdonald

Am I Living it Right?*

teaching-lessonsAn interesting post by author and fellow blogger D.S. Nelson has got me thinking about the way stories are used to teach lessons. In oral history cultures, stories are used to teach values, what it means to behave appropriately, and so on. And there are plenty of stories like that in cultures with written histories, too. For instance, many children’s tales teach the value of hard work (The Little Red Hen is one). Others teach other values (honesty, for instance, in The Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf’).

What about crime fiction? Does crime fiction teach values, or a culture’s priorities? Perhaps it doesn’t do so deliberately. I don’t, personally, know any crime writer who consciously integrates a ‘values’ lesson. But there is an argument that an author’s, or a culture’s, values come through in the genre. And that makes sense. Crime fiction is written by humans. And humans have value systems and priorities.

You’ll notice that this post won’t make reference to things such as an author’s political agenda, or to an author’s stance on particular issues. Rather, I mean larger value systems.

For instance, I’m sure you could name dozens of crime novels where we see the lesson that ‘money doesn’t buy happiness.’ If you look at Raymond Chandler’s work (I’m thinking, for instance, of The Big Sleep, but it’s hardly the only example), you see that his Philip Marlowe often works with families that are rich, but miserable. The same is true of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer in The Far Side of the Dollar.

There are plenty of other lessons in crime fiction, too. In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, we are introduced to British special agent Colin Lamb. He’s been looking into the death of a fellow agent, and believes that the key may be a spy ring that this agent was investigating. The trail leads to the small town of Crowdean, and to a street called Wilbraham Crescent. Lamb’s following up on that lead when he gets drawn into a case of murder. It’s not directly related to his own case, but he works with Inspector Richard ‘Dick’ Hardcastle to solve the crime – with help from his father’s friend, Hercule Poirot. At the same time, he’s pursuing his own investigation. And, in the end, he finds the answers. Woven throughout the story (as is the case in a lot of Agatha Christie’s work) is the question of human nature. People are complex – much more than just their intellect – and Christie often makes a point of discussing that complexity. At this end of this novel, Lamb says,
 

‘‘I’m content…to be human.’’ 
 

It’s an interesting reminder that underneath everything, people are human beings, and, Christie seems to say, should be valued as such. Perhaps that’s why Poirot, as he says, does not approve of murder.

Fans of Tony Hillerman’s work will know that most of his stories take place in the US Southwest, among the Navajo people. In fact, his two protagonists, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, are members of the Navajo Nation, as well as being officers in the Navajo Tribal Police. Since many of the characters in these novels are Navajo, readers learn about that culture. And one of the important lessons in the Navajo culture is the concept of hozro – beauty. But in this case, ‘beauty’ doesn’t refer to physical attractiveness or visual appeal. Rather, it means harmony with one’s environment, and peace with one’s situation. All sorts of things can threaten that harmony. Sickness, grief, and encounters with death are just a few examples. So are anxiety and anger. The Navajo culture teaches the value of harmony with others and with one’s environment, and that comes through in Hillerman’s stories. In more than one novel (I’m thinking, for instance, of The Ghostway, among others), characters deal with death, with trauma and so on, and then seek to restore themselves to hozro. It’s portrayed as a desirable state.

Simplicity and being comfortable with oneself are portrayed as valuable in several of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe novels. For instance, as fans can tell you, Mma Ramotswe is ‘traditionally built.’ Normally, she doesn’t worry too much about that fact. She wears flat, comfortable sandals, and clothing that’s roomy enough for her. She makes no attempt to hide her size. And yet, in Blue Shoes and Happiness, she decides to go on a diet. As it turns out, she’s no better off once she starts her diet, and she gets a reminder that she’s not really being true to herself, as the saying goes. In the same novel, Mma’s assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi, has her heart set on a pair of beautiful blue shoes she saw in a shop. They don’t quite fit, and they’re not really right for work wear. But Mma Makutsi is determined, and buys them. In both of these cases, we get reminders of the value of being happy with simple things, and being comfortable with oneself.

Paddy Richardson’s Rebecca Thorne gets a lesson in Traces of Red. She’s a successful Wellington TV journalist who gets what she thinks will be a chance at a story that will cement her position at the top of New Zealand journalism. Connor Bligh has been in prison for years for the murders of his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Only their daughter, Katy, survived, because she wasn’t home at the time of the killings. Thorne learns that there is a possibility that Bligh might be innocent. If so, there’s a major story there, and she goes after it. In doing so, she finds herself getting much closer to the story than is safe. And she learns important lessons about ambition.

Crime fiction may not be written with the purpose of teaching a lesson, as, say, Aesop’s fables were. And readers would probably get annoyed anyway with crime novels that served as ‘morality plays.’ At the same time, there are lessons woven through the genre. And it’s interesting to see how they reflect an author or a culture’s values.

Thanks, D.S., for the inspiration. Folks, do visit D.S. Nelson’s great blog, and try her Blake Heatherington mysteries. They’re terrific.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mayer’s Why Georgia.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Paddy Richardson, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald