Category Archives: Sharon Bolton

I Never Tire of Legends Grown*

As this is posted, it’s the 120th anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Of course, stories of vampires have been told since long before Stoker came along. And since that time, the vampire has become enshrined in popular culture.

What is it about folktales like the vampire that capture people’s imagination? I’m not a cultural anthropologist, so I can’t give a sophisticated, informed answer. But part of the explanation may lie in human curiosity. We like to understand our world, and certain folk tales may explain certain phenomena. Then, too, the scarier stories have been used as ways to discipline children and teach them the mores of their society (e.g. ‘You’d better come inside when I tell you or La Llorona will get you! [This refers to a South American/Mexican legend about a ghost who goes searching for her children. You can read a version of it here]).

Whatever the reason, those folk legends are woven into the history of many cultures. And we see them in crime fiction, too, and not just in speculative or fantasy stories. People’s belief in such folktales finds its way into more conventional stories, too.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, whose body was found in a park on the family property, Baskerville Hall. The legend in the area is that there is a phantom hound that haunts the Baskerville family, and has for many generations. It’s that hound that has caused Sir Charles’ death. But Holmes doesn’t believe in phantoms or other folktales. He is convinced only by logic and science. He’s unable to leave London at the moment, so he sends Watson to Baskerville Hall to start looking into the matter. Later, he joins his friend there. They find that there is a very prosaic explanation for Sir Charles’ death, and that it has nothing to do with legends or curses.

Some folktales are told about real people. For example, in Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger, there’s a robbery of a Ute casino, and the thieves get away with a large haul. Officer Teddy Bai is suspected of being an ‘inside operator,’ working with the gang. But Navajo Tribal Police Officer Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito doesn’t think so. She asks Sergeant Jim Chee to help find out the truth. And that truth turns out to be connected to a Ute legend about a man named Ironhand. It seems that Ironhand was able to almost magically steal Navajo sheep and escape without ever being caught. Stories were told among the Ute about him and his descendants, and those stories turn out to be quite useful to Chee and (now-retired) Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn as they look into the case.

Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money features Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan, who’s turned private investigator. Madeleine Avery hires Quinlan to find her brother, Charles, who’s gone missing from his home in Bangkok. Quinlan travels to Bangkok, and visits Avery’s apartment. There, he finds the body of Avery’s business partner, Robert Lee. There’s no sign of Avery, but Quinlan finds evidence that his quarry has gone on to Cambodia. With help from journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin, Quinlan traces Avery to the north of Cambodia. There, he learns of a legend about spirits who haunt that part of the country, and who capture humans. That folk tale helps Quinlan and Sarin find out the truth about what happened to Avery, and where he is now.

I’m sure you’ve heard legends of mermaids. One of Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous stories is about one. And there are all sorts of other mermaid stories told by sailors and other people who’ve been out on the sea. Mermaids even swim their way into Sharon Bolton’s A Dark and Twisted Tide. In that novel, Detective Constable (DC) Lacey Flint is working with the Marine Unit, where she’s looking forward to less-stressful police work, such as checking for boat licenses and warning people about unsafe conditions on the Thames, and so on. Everything changes, though, when she discovers the body of an unknown woman in the river. The victim is probably Middle Eastern or South Asian, but she has no ID, and it’s going to be very hard to trace her identity, let alone find out who killed her or why. Once the woman’s death is classified as a homicide, Flint works with Detective Inspector (DI) Dana Tulloch and her team at the Met to find out the truth about this murder. Mermaids aren’t responsible for murdering the victim. But the legend of people who are half-fish, half-human play a role in the novel.

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s Model For Murder. Nelson’s sleuth is retired milliner Blake Heatherington, who lives in the village of Tuesbury. One of the sources of pride in town is a small model village that depicts the various businesses and buildings. One day, newsagent Harold Slater is murdered, and his body found in a local wood. Then it’s discovered that there’s a cross painted on the model newsagent, and the figure representing Slater is missing. And that’s just the first murder that’s marked in the model. There are signs that these murders might be connected with the Vodou beliefs of many people in Jamaica and Haiti. As it turns out, the murders are not caused by religion or even spirituality. They have a more prosaic motive. But there are some interesting discussions in the novel about the differences between traditional Vodou and many of the folk tales associated with it. For example, there’s a mention of Juju dolls, which have become the stuff of folklore. And there’s even a word or two about zombies. Nelson doesn’t go into any description, but I don’t have to tell you how folktales of ‘undead’ corpses have become a part of our culture.

Even people who absolutely don’t believe in the truth of any folktale sometimes enjoy going to see a ‘zombie film,’ or reading a story that involves werewolves or vampires. We humans do seem to enjoy those stories, even though we know a lot of them aren’t true. Little wonder they find their way into crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Big Country’s Hold the Heart.

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Filed under Andrew Nette, Arthur Conan Doyle, D.S. Nelson, Sharon Bolton, Tony Hillerman

If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words*

Cover ArtIn yesterday’s post, I mentioned the cover of David Rosenfelt’s Unleashed. As you see, it prominently features a Unleasheddog. So do several other entries into Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter series. And the novels do include dogs (Carpenter is a dog lover and owner of an animal rescue shelter). Rosenfelt, too, is heavily involved in animal rescue. So on that level, it makes sense to feature dogs on the covers. But these novels aren’t really about dogs. They aren’t cosy mysteries in which dogs find the clues, solve the mysteries, and so on. Instead, they feature a New Jersey attorney (Andy Carpenter) who does his best for his clients.

All of this has got me thinking about the messages that crime fiction fans get from the covers of their books. After all, a cover quite frequently gives a first impression of a novel. And many people believe that a cover ought to tell something about the story (without, of course, giving away spoilers).

quite-ugly-one-morning-coverSome book covers tell almost nothing about the book. Here, for instance, is the cover of my edition of Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning. All you see here is the title and Brookmyre’s name. The novel tells the story of journalist Jack Parlabane, who unwittingly stumbles onto a murder scene, and gets himself involved in a crime that leads to some high places. The cover doesn’t show any of that. On the one hand, the title and author’s name are prominent – hard to forget. On the other, would some sort of image help draw reader attention?

There are covers that give small hints as to the story. For example, A Dark and Twisted Tidethis is the cover of my edition of Sharon Bolton’s A Dark and Twisted Tide, part of her Lacey Flint series. The vaguely hints at a river, and this novel really does feature the Thames as a main setting. And the character on the cover is a reminder of Flint herself. It’s not particularly specific, though. And many people like it that way, as they don’t want hints as to the novel’s contents.

The Holy ThiefWe also see that sort of thing in this cover of my edition of William Ryan’s The Holy Thief. The cover places the reader in Stalin’s Soviet Union. And that’s where this series takes place. It features Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev, who works with his assistant, Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka. In this novel, Korolev is assigned the murder of a young woman whose body is discovered in a former church. He’s working on this case when there’s another murder. And another. These murders have ties to the dreaded NKVD as well as to the just-as-dangerous Moscow Thieves. So solving them may cause as many problems for Korolev as not solving them would. The cover doesn’t specify the church, or give other clues as to this investigation, but it does situate the reader.

There are also book covers that give more specific clues to the mystery. This, for example, is theHickory Dickory cover of my edition of Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock. That novel takes place at a hostel for students. It involves the murder of a young woman, Celia Austin, by means of poisoned coffee. And there’s a backpack/rucksack in the novel, too. So it’s easy to see why those things are represented on the cover. And of course, since Hercule Poirot is the sleuth in this story, it makes sense that he’s pictured on the cover as well. And yet, the cover doesn’t give the story away.

cop_hater_signet

The same might be said for the cover of my edition of Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, which you see here. This novel introduces the members of the 87th Precinct, in particular Steve Carella. And the focus of the story is the investigation of two murders of police officers. This cover depicts that, as well as the hints at the fact that this isn’t a light mystery.

 

What do you think about all of this? Do you pay attention to covers? Do you look for hints about what’s inside when you see a book cover? What about those situations where the cover either doesn’t match the story, or says nothing about it? If you’re a writer, how do you go about matching your story to a good cover (if you have a say in the cover)?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bread’s If.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Brookmyre, David Rosenfelt, Sharon Bolton, William Ryan

Why is it Always a Fight?*

Own Worst EnemyThere’s something to the old expression about people being their own worst enemies. It’s such a common human experience that ‘war against self’ is one of the basic conflicts that we find in literature. That’s just as true of crime fiction as it is of any other sort of fiction.

The ‘war against self’ can take many forms, too. It can be a matter of conquering a fear, overcoming a self-destructive habit, or even learning a new (but difficult) skill. You’ll notice as I go on today that I won’t be mentioning the all-too-common version of this where a dysfunctional sleuth battles the bottle and can’t keep a relationship. There are many such characters, and I’m sure you could name more than I could. The reality is, though there are plenty of other ways to portray this ‘war against self.’

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock, we are introduced to Len Bateson. He’s a London medical student with St. Catherine’s Hospital, who lives in a student hostel. Bateson’s a friendly enough person, who enjoys a good laugh. But in several ways, he’s his own worst enemy. For one thing, he has a temper that sometimes gets in the way of his judgement. For another, he has a secret – one that holds him back, at least in his own mind. He gets drawn into a strange mystery when his stethoscope disappears, along with other odd things (a shoe, some light bulbs, and a cookery book, among other things). Matters take a murderous turn when a fellow resident, Celia Austin, dies in what looks at first like a suicide. When it’s proven that she was murdered, Inspector Sharpe investigates. Also involved is Hercule Poirot, mostly at the request of the hostel’s manager Mrs. Hubbard, the sister of Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary, Felicity Lemon. As Sharpe and Poirot look into the death, they find that several people in the hostel are hiding things, and some are not what they seem to be. Admittedly, Bateson’s struggle with himself is not the major plot point in this novel, but it adds to one plot thread.

Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone tells the story of Eunice Parchman. When the wealthy and well-educated Coverdale family hires her as housekeeper, she’s glad of the job. But she is keeping a secret – one that truly has held her back. She’s very much her own worst enemy in that she doesn’t really take any positive steps towards dealing with that secret. Rather, she’s desperate that no-one will find out the truth, and goes to great length to prevent that. As fans of the story can tell you, that leads to terrible tragedy. One thing that makes this story all the more tragic is that there are several points along the way where it all might have been avoided.

Fans of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series will know that in many ways, he’s his own worst enemy. Certainly he is when it comes to his health He knows very well that he doesn’t eat well, doesn’t take care of himself, and so on. He’s not particularly good, either, at reaching out for help or at the social glue that holds relationships together. He’s intelligent, too, so he’s aware that he’s often his own greatest obstacle. But as I’m sure we can all attest, knowing something doesn’t always translate to making better (or at any rate, more healthful) choices.

Jassy Mackenzie’s PI/bodyguard protagonist Jade de Jong is also arguably her own worst enemy. When we first meet her in Random Violence, she’s just returned to her native Johannesburg after being away for ten years. Many people would say that, as the saying goes, her heart’s in the right place. But she faces plenty of battles with her own demons. She has a dark past, and is trying to come to terms with it. What’s more, she’s coping with the fact that her father was murdered. As the novels go on, she becomes a little more mature, and slightly less alienated. But that doesn’t mean things magically become easier for her.

We might say a similar thing about Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint. She’s a police detective who has her share of personal issues. She has some real darkness in her past, and finds it difficult (at least at first) to trust anyone. That’s one of several reasons that she doesn’t reach out when she might be better served by doing so. And although she’s not what you’d call a stereotypical ‘maverick,’ she does go out on her own without always thinking of her own safety or the consequences. She finds trust quite difficult in her personal life, too, which certainly doesn’t make life easier. On the one hand, Flint is not a demon-haunted sleuth who can’t stay away from the bottle, and can’t care about anyone else. On the other, she often has to overcome herself, if I can put it that way. And it’s interesting to see how she’s doing that as the series goes on.

And then there’s Peter May’s Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod, whom we first meet in The Blackhouse. MacLeod is an Edinburgh police detective who returns to his home on the Isle of Lewis when a murder there looks suspiciously like another murder he’s investigating. Fin’s past plays a major role in his interactions with the other characters, and in the actual case he’s working. In many ways, that past holds him back. Facing it and dealing with it are hard to do, but that’s the battle with himself that Fin faces.

And that’s the thing about being our own worst enemies. Sometimes people spend more time throwing up obstacles themselves than they do getting past hurdles anyone else sets up. It’s a common human tendency, so it’s little wonder we see it as much as we do in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Man on Mulberry Street.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Henning Mankell, Jassy Mackenzie, Peter May, Ruth Rendell, Sharon Bolton

In The Spotlight: Sharon Bolton’s A Dark and Twisted Tide

In The Spotlight A-LHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Sharon Bolton (who’s also written as S.J. Bolton) has gotten quite a lot of recognition. She’s written several standalones, but she’s gotten perhaps the most notice for her series featuring Lacey Flint. Let’s take a look at Bolton’s writing and turn today’s spotlight on A Dark and Twisted Tide, the fourth in her Lacey Flint series.

Recent events (See Like This Forever (AKA Lost) for the details) have convinced DC Lacey Flint to leave the Homicide Unit and get back into uniform. So she has transferred to the Marine Unit, where she’s hoping to do the regular and less stressful work of checking licenses, warning boaters about unsafe conditions, and so on. She’s gotten her own houseboat, too, on Deptford Creek, and has joined the community of those who live along the canals of the Thames.

One morning, she’s swimming in the Thames (something that’s risky enough in itself) when she discovers a body. Forensics tests show that it’s the body of a young woman, probably Middle Eastern or South Asian. And it doesn’t take long to establish that she probably drowned. What’s more, it was not a suicide. There’s evidence that it might have been a ritual killing; but even if it’s not, it’s most likely homicide. As if that isn’t disturbing enough, there’s a very good possibility that the body was left deliberately where Flint would find it. So, someone may either be targeting her, or trying to find a way to confess.

Other strange and unsettling things also happen, all of them seeming to show that someone, possibly the killer, has a particular interest in Flint. In the meantime, it looks as though the murder the team is investigating may be linked to another death. So, despite her determination to step away from investigating murders, Flint finds herself drawn into this case.

Since this is now a homicide investigation, Flint begins to work with DI Dana Tulloch and her team at the Met as well as with the Marine Unit. The more information they get, more certain they are that this could be much more complicated than they thought – and much more dangerous for Flint.

Like the other Lacey Flint novels, this one’s got a strong sense of the police procedural. There are briefings, interviews with witnesses and ‘people of interest,’ and so on. Readers follow along as the police make sense of forensic evidence and use other clues, too, to close in on the killer. In this case, we also see an interesting situation where there’s cooperation between the Tulloch’s Homicide Unit and the Marine Unit, which is headed by DCI Dave Cook. Given the nature of the investigation, that makes sense. The two teams work well together, with Flint a part of both teams, even though she’s nominally only a part of the Marine Unit. There’s some almost good-natured commentary about which squad’s budget will be tapped for some of the operations, but there aren’t the ‘patch wars’ we sometimes see in police procedurals. And there is camaraderie among the police.

Much of the action takes place on and near the Thames and its creeks and other tributaries. So the river itself is a very important element in the novel. It can be beautiful and very dangerous, and there are parts of it that most people never get to see. Here, in fact, is what Bolton herself says in the Author’s Note:

 

‘Please do NOT swim in the tidal Thames…The Thames is deep, fast and dangerous. As is Deptford Creek.’

 

As trite as it sounds, it’s not so far wrong to say that the river is almost another character in the story.

There are several sub-plots in this novel, and they form another important element in it. For example, Tulloch and her long-time partner, Helen Rowley, have decided they want to become parents. Readers follow along as they investigate fertility clinics and other options for having children. There’s also a sub-plot that concerns Flint’s romantic interest, DI Mark Joesbury, who’s gone undercover on a special operation. Readers who prefer just one main plot will notice this.

There’s also the character of Lacey Flint herself. As fans know, she has her own past issues and secrets to deal with, and they play their role here. She is independent and sometimes reckless (even her creator admits that). But she’s not a stereotypical ‘maverick copper who can’t work with anyone.’ In general, she sees herself as part of a unit, and understands her responsibility to the people in it. She has a solid relationship with both Cook and Tulloch, too, and it’s obvious that each respects her and vice versa.

This is the fourth novel in the Lacey Flint series, so there are some story arcs that come up in it. References are made to earlier novels, too. Readers who like to follow a series from the beginning, and who aren’t familiar with this series, will notice that. The mystery itself, though – the deaths and what’s behind them – are self-contained, so that it’s not difficult for a reader new to the series to follow along.

The story is told from multiple points of view, including Flint’s, Tulloch’s, and others. Those who prefer only one point of view will notice this change in perspectives. That said, though, each chapter is identified by the name of the person/people whose point(s) of view are being shared. It’s worth noting that the same is true of the timeline. Whenever the timeline shifts from current events (which it does in some places), it’s made clear.

A Dark and Twisted Tide is the story of some unusual deaths, and the two teams of police who investigate them. It’s set against the backdrop of one of the world’s most famous rivers, and features a complex and layered protagonist who’s finding her way as a member of the police force. But what’s your view? Have you read A Dark and Twisted Tide? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 11 April/Tuesday, 12 April – Unidentified Woman #15 – David Housewright

Monday, 18 April/Tuesday, 19 April – The Page Three Murders –  Kalpana Swaminathan

Monday, 25 April/Tuesday, 26 April – The Cask – Freeman Wills Crofts

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Filed under A Dark and Twisted Tide, Sharon Bolton

From Astrophysics to Biology*

ScienceScience and scientists have a particular way of thinking about their professions. Reputable scientists develop theories and hypotheses about the way something works. As best they can, they put those hypotheses to the test and accept what the data tell them. They don’t make too many assumptions, they don’t rely only on their own opinions, and they do their best (they are humans, after all) not to be too vested in one or another outcome. That’s how scientific research goes forward.

If you think about it, that’s exactly the kind of thinking that helps in detection too. The sleuth considers what the evidence suggests, forms a theory, tests that theory and accepts what the data say. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that, because sleuths deal with the complexity that is human life and human thinking. And that can muddy the proverbial waters considerably. Still, it’s little wonder that we see so many scientists in crime fiction.

In fact, there are so many fictional scientists out there that there’s only space in this one post for a few examples. You’ll notice, for instance, that I won’t be mentioning the myriad forensic scientists, medical examiners, pathologists, archaeologists, or physical anthropologists there are in the genre. Too easy! And too many! You’ll also notice that I won’t be mentioning the many social and psychological scientists (e.g. psychologists, educators, criminal law scientists, political scientists). Again – too many! But they’re out there.

There is, as you can imagine, quite a lot of chemistry involved in crime detection. Agatha Christie fans, for instance, will know that she had a background in chemistry, and it shows in her work. Poisoning plays a role in several of her stories, and quite often, chemistry provides the solution (yes, pun intended 😉 ) to the puzzle. Of course, Christie didn’t ignore other branches of science. In Sad Cypress, for instance, botany plays an important role in solving the murder of Mary Gerrard. Elinor Carlisle is charged with the murder, and she had motive, too. But local GP Dr. Peter Lord is smitten with her and wants her name cleared. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Chemistry and botany both help Poirot find out who the killer is.

Anyone who’s made wine knows that science is key to producing a delicious vintage. And no-one knows that better than Benjamin Cooker, noted oenologist and ‘star’ of Jean-Pierre Alaux and Nöel Balen’s Winemaker Detective series. Cooker is an expert on wine, so in Treachery in Bordeaux, he’s the first one Denis Massepain calls when he discovers that four barrels of his wine have been sabotaged. Massepain owns Château Les Moniales Haut-Brion, a very highly-regarded vineyard. If his winery turns out poor product, he’ll lose that all-important reputation. Cooker and his new assistant Virgile Lanssien agree to look into the matter. For help in this investigation, they turn to biologist and biological testing expert Alexandrine de la Palussière. With her expertise, they discover that the wine has been contaminated with brettanomyces, a yeast-like spore that can quickly ruin wine. What’s worse, this particular spore is highly contagious, so Massepain’s entire output is at risk. Cooker and Lanssien investigate to find out who would have wanted the winery to be ruined. And in the end, they discover the culprit.

Mining and oil drilling companies rely heavily on the work of geologists to help them take decisions about their businesses. For example, in Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins has used his background in geology for a long time both as an independent prospector and for various companies. But he has his own ideas and theories about the land, and it’s gotten him into trouble more than once. One night after a drunken quarrel at a pub, he returns to his shack, where he is found murdered. At first, the police assume the murder is the result of that quarrel. But Emily Tempest, who’s just become an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) isn’t so sure. Her temporary boss Bruce Cockburn warns her to ‘fall in line’ with the police account, but Tempest continues to ask questions. It turns out that Ozolins’ geological knowledge was dangerous for him.

In S.J. (now writing as Sharon) Bolton’s Awakening, we are introduced to wildlife veterinarian Clara Benning. She works at a wildlife hospital, and has particular expertise with all sorts of species of snakes. Her scientific knowledge proves to be of real value when snakes begin to cause a threat to the village where she lives. First, a mother discovers a deadly adder in her child’s crib. Then, another villager dies of an adder bite. But forensics reports show that there was much more venom in his blood than would be caused by one snake. Now, ACC Matt Hoare, who also lives locally, taps Benning’s expertise to get to the truth about this case.

Keigo Higashino’s series features Tokyo physics professor Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. In Salvation of a Saint, for instance, his knowledge proves to be extremely valuable when Junior Detective Kishitani and Junior Detective Kaoru Utsumi are faced with what looks like a suicide. Yoshitaka Mashabi seems to have killed himself with a cup of coffee laced with arsenous acid. Bit by bit though, the evidence begins to suggest that he was murdered. What the police find hard to prove is how he got the poison. They have some suspects in mind, including the victim’s wife Ayane Mita and her assistant/apprentice Hiromi Wakayama. But for different reasons, it’s not easy to show who actually committed the crime. That’s where Galileo’s expertise turns out to be useful. He is able to demonstrate exactly how the poison could have been administered and when it happened.

And then there’s Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. This novel introduces readers to Edinburgh Ph.D. candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill. He is an oceanographer and an expert in wave patterns, and wants to use those skills for personal as well as professional goals. He’s hoping to find out the truth about his grandfather Uilliam, who disappeared during a fishing trip years earlier. With his own expertise, as well as help from other oceanographers, he eventually finds out the truth. He also uses his knowledge in another case. Basanti and her friend Preeti were taken from their homes in India to Scotland as a part of the international sex trade. There, they were separated. Basanti has managed to escape the people who held her, but she hasn’t been able to find Preeti. Her search leads her to McGill, who is able to use what she remembers to find out what happened to Preeti and to go after the people who involved in Scotland’s human trafficking trade.

As you can see, natural science is a big part of crime fiction. I think Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation Sherlock Holmes would approve…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from They Might Be Giants’ Science is Real.

 

MC

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Keigo Higashino, Mark Douglas-Home, Nöel Balen, S.J. Bolton, Sharon Bolton