Category Archives: Tana French

Just the Few of Us*

There are only so many ‘regular’ characters an author can weave into a series without confusing readers. That’s why, even in crime fiction series that are set in large cities, there’s a relatively small group of ‘focus characters.’ That’s just as true of police procedurals as it is of other sorts of series.

It’s easy enough when a series takes place in a small town. Such places may only have one police station with a relatively small number of people who work there. It’s a bit trickier for series that take places in larger cities. Readers couldn’t, for instance, keep track of every fictional police officer in Sydney, Toronto, London, Los Angeles or Moscow. So, how do authors face this challenge?

Some focus on one geographic area. For example, Ed McBain’s long-running police procedural series mostly features the police who serve in the 87th Precinct of Isola, a thinly-disguised New York City. That precinct has a limited number of officers, and serves a limited geographic area. Fans of the series know that there are occasional forays into other parts of the city. But, because the 87th is a finite group, it’s easier to keep track of Steve Carella and the rest of his team. The reader isn’t faced with the challenge of trying to remember the thousands of fictional police officers who might actually serve in such a large city.

Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series also has a geographic focus: New York City’s Chinatown. Yu was born and raised in that part of the city, and in Chinatown Beat, he’s stationed there. The series does see him temporarily assigned to other places, but he basically stays in Chinatown. This allows readers to get to know the area, as well as the various characters with whom Yu usually interacts. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Jean-Baptsite Adamsberg will know that that series, too, focuses on one small geographic part of Paris.

That’s certainly not the only way to address the challenge, though. Some authors focus on just one department (such as Robbery, Homicide, etc.). That’s what Michael Connelly does with his Harry Bosch novels. Fans of this series will know that Bosch has been a member of several L.A.P.D. departments. He’s been a part of Robbery/Homicide, Open/Unsolved, and Homicide Special, among others. This choice has given Connelly (and his readers) some real advantages. One is that, as Bosch works with one team (say, Open/Unsolved), readers get to know that team, and don’t have to try to remember the many other members of other teams. As the series has gone on, and Bosch has been with other departments, it’s kept the series from being restricted to only one small group. This has allowed for different sorts of plots and characters.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss also works with a departmental team. She is a member of the Göteborg/Gothenberg Police‘s Violent Crimes Unit. It’s a relatively small unit, with a focus just on murder and other violent crimes. This choice has allowed Tursten to develop her characters over time, as different members of the department evolve. It’s also allowed (as happens naturally) for members to leave and join.

The same thing’s true of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad. That team, has a small number of members. So, we get to know them. And different members of the squad ‘star’ in the different novels of the series. So, as members leave, join, and so on, we get to see how the team operates in the real world of a large city like Dublin.

Sometimes, police teams are gathered for a specific purpose. For example, at one point, P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh heads up a squad set up specifically for investigations that are likely to attract a lot of media attention. That’s the case in A Taste For Death, when Crown Minister Paul Berowne is murdered. He’s well known and ‘well-born,’ so of course the media take note when he’s killed. The squad, which consists of Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham, and DI Kate Miskin is assigned to the case. They slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together, and find that this is as much about the victim’s private life as it is about his public life.

There’s also Jussi Adler-Olsen’s ‘Department Q.’ Part of the Copenhagen police force, Department Q is tasked with cases ‘of special interest.’ It was set up in part to appease the government’s (and the public’s) demand that the police show they’re looking into all cases, even those that have ‘gone cold.’ This group is headed by Carl Mørck, a homicide detective who has a reputation of being difficult. In fact, he’s so hard to work with that that’s the reason he was given the department in the first place – to keep him off others’ teams. Mørck is crusty and sometimes truculent. And the department has few resources and only a very few members. But the team gets the job done.

And then there’s Christopher Fowler’s London-based Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). That group, led by Arthur Bryant and John May, is tasked with solving strange crimes that the regular police homicide units haven’t been able to solve. It’s a very small group, but that makes it easier for readers to follow the team and get to know the members well.

These small units, whether they’re based on geography, on department, or on special assignment, allow the author to develop characters. And they make it much easier for readers to follow along and keep track of those characters. I’ve only mentioned a few; which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s It Takes Two.

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Filed under Christopher Fowler, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, Henry Chang, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Connelly, P.D. James, Tana French

Standing on My Own Two Feet*

One of the writing projects I’m working on right now is a standalone that features one of the characters from my second Joel Williams novel, B-Very Flat. It’s a bit of a risk. After all, it’s one thing for a character to appear – even to have an important role – in a novel. It’s quite another for that character to feature in the lead role.

And yet, there are cases where it’s done successfully. And sometimes, that character has enough backstory, personality, and so on to make a novel (or even a new series) interesting. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

K.B. Owen’s historical (end of the 19th Century) series (which begins with Dangerous and Unseemly) features Concordia Wells, who teaches at Hartford Women’s College. It’s not so much that she’s overly eager to investigate and solve crimes. And in her world, ‘proper’ ladies do not interest themselves in something as sordid as murder. But she is curious, and she does want to see justice done. So, she gets drawn into mysteries. One of the characters we meet in that series is Penelope Hamilton Wynch, a former operative for Pinkerton’s. She serves as a mentor for Concordia, but she doesn’t ‘star’ in that series. Still, she’s an interesting character in her own right. So, Owen decided to give Penelope her own series. That series, which begins with Never Sleep, starts some thirty years before the Concordia Wells series. It tells the story of Penelope’s work with Pinkerton’s and details some of her cases.

Henning Mankell is perhaps best known for his series featuring Ystad police detective Kurt Wallander. Fans of that series will know that Wallander has a daughter, Linda, with whom he has a complicated relationship. As the series goes on, she begins to come into her own as a character. In fact, Mankell planned a three-novel series in which she was to be the protagonist. The first novel, Before the Frost, was published in 2002. But, tragically, Johanna Sällström, who took the role of Linda Wallander in the Swedish television series, died in 2007, probably by suicide. Her death had a real impact on Mankell, and he never finished the trilogy. It would have been interesting to see Linda’s character develop over time if he had.

Michael Connelly took a very interesting approach to giving a character a ‘spinoff’ series. Fans will know that Connelly’s Harry Bosch is a homicide detective for the L.A.P.D. He is the son of Marjorie Lowe, who was a prostitute, and prominent attorney J. Michael ‘Mickey’ Haller. Bosch never met his father, and his mother was murdered when he was a boy. So, he grew up mostly in a children’s home. In The Black Ice, Connelly shares a flashback in which Bosch discovers who his father is, and learns that he is dying. He decides to pay his father a visit, and, later attends his funeral. Bosch also learns that he has a half brother several years younger:
 

‘The half brother was now a top defense attorney and Harry was a cop. There was a strange congruence to that that Bosch found acceptable. They had never spoken and probably never would.’
 

That half brother turns out to be Mickey Haller, whom we later meet in The Lincoln Lawyer. He has his own backstory, including two ex-wives, a daughter, and his own history with his father. Since The Lincoln Lawyer, Haller has appeared in eight other Connelly novels, and ‘starred’ in five of them. He’s certainly become very much his own character, and fans will tell you that he carries that series quite well.

Tana French has also taken an interesting approach to giving some of her characters their own stories. Her Dublin Murder Squad series includes (thus far) six novels. The first two feature Cassie Maddox (although In the Woods really ‘stars’ Rob Ryan). In the second, The Likeness, we’re introduced to Frank Mackey, who is the main protagonist in the next novel, Faithful Place. That sort of shifting of main characters happens in the other novels, too. In real life, police detectives do move in and out of assignments. They join and leave squads, and so on. It makes sense that that would happen in this series, too, and that’s how French has chosen to write it.

And then there’s Kathy Reichs’ Temperance ‘Tempe’ Brennan. She’s a forensic anthropologist who’s moved from North Carolina to Montréal, where she’s called in when the bodies of murder victims can’t easily be identified. Fans will tell you that, along with her professional work, Brennan also has family issues that sometimes come up. And one of those family members is her grand-niece, Tory. Tory doesn’t really play a role in this series, but she does in another series that Reichs has written with her son, Benjamin. That four-book YA series, called the Virals series, tells the story of a group of young people who live in South Carolina. The novels have elements of the speculative (the young people, for instance, acquire special powers through a mysterious infection they get in the first novel). The focus, though, is on the mysteries that they solve.

There are all sorts of ways in which a character in one novel or series can end as the main character in another. It is a bit tricky to do that, as that character has to be strong enough to take the lead. When it works, though, it can make for an interesting new direction for an author.

ps. The picture shows just how well spin-offs can work on television…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jean Beauvoir.

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Filed under Henning Mankell, K.B. Owen, Kathy Reichs, Michael Connelly, Tana French

In The Spotlight: Tana French’s In the Woods

>In The Spotlight: Carl Hiaasen's Skinny DipHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Tana French has gotten international acclaim for her series featuring the Dublin Murder Squad. It’s about time this feature included one of her novels, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on In the Woods, the first in this series.

The Garda Síochána’s Murder Squad is called in when the body of twelve-year-old Katy Devlin is found at the site of an archaeological dig near the small town of Knocknaree, in County Dublin. Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox take the case and begin the investigation.

For Ryan, this is a homecoming, since he was brought up in the same town. It’s a homecoming in other, more chilling ways, too. Twenty-two years before Katy’s murder, Ryan himself was one of three local children who went into the nearby woods to play one evening. Only Ryan was found, injured, but alive, and he has no memory of what happened to the two other children who were with him. Despite a massive search, no trace of the other two children has ever been found, and Ryan’s never been able to be much help.

Maddox, who’s one of the few people who know about her partner’s past, wonders whether Ryan can be objective about the Katy Devlin case, but he insists he can do the job. So, the two get busy on the present-day investigation.

As you can imagine, Maddox and Ryan start with the Devlin family. Immediately they sense that there is something wrong with this family. On the surface, it seems like a normal (if there is such a thing) middle-class family, but several hints suggest something else. Still, there is nothing tangible to connect any member of the family with Katy’s death.

Besides, there are other possibilities. For instance, there is a local conflict over a motorway that’s planned for the area. The road will go right over the archaeological site, and there’s a lot of objection to its placement. In fact, Jonathan Devlin is the chair of the Move the Motorway campaign. He’s gotten his share of threatening telephone calls, and it’s possible that someone might have targeted Katy because of the campaign.

There’s also the members of the dig crew. Katy had been seen at the dig site, and two of the people who work it actually reported her body. So, the Murder Squad has to consider the crew, as well.

And then there’s the fact that there are very few murders in that area. There are even fewer murders of children. So, there’s the chance that the older disappearances – the ones that involved Rob Ryan – are related to Katy’s murder. This possibility has to be explored, too, and that means Ryan has to face his own past. He can’t remember much about what happened, so he tries to help himself to access those memories. Little by little, we find out what really happened to Katy. And the truth turns out to be more complex than Maddox or Ryan had imagined.

This is a police procedural, and that context is an important element in the novel. Readers follow along as Maddox, Ryan and colleague Sam O’Neill make sense of evidence, interview witnesses, and so on. We also see just how intense such an investigation is. Maddox and Ryan are already friends (‘though not lovers, as the gossip sometimes suggests). During this investigation, they and O’Neill spend days and nights together, going over the case, reading reports, and the like. Although it’s cliché, you might say they live and breathe the case, and it draws them into a sort of 24-hour relationship. There’s a lot of camaraderie between Maddox and Ryan, and some funny ‘inside jokes’ that they share.

It’s also worth noting that, as the Murder Squad series continues, the composition of the squad changes. There are personnel shifts, just as there are in real-life police squads. In that sense, the depiction of the squad over time is authentic.

Another element in the novel is the setting for most of it. The story takes place in modern small-town Ireland. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone has an opinion on the Devlin case. There are still people living there who remember the older case, too. As the team investigates, readers get a look at what life is like in a small Irish town.

The story is told from Ryan’s point of view (first person, past tense). So, we also get to know his character, as well as his perspective on Cassie Maddox. He’s been profoundly impacted by what happened to him as a child, although he doesn’t remember much. And yet, he’s not debilitated by it. Coming back to Knocknaree doesn’t send him into emotional paralysis, but it’s obvious that he feels both a connection to, and a real distance from, the place and its people. It’s not spoiling the story, either, to say that we learn about the events and the people involved from Ryan. And that’s only one perspective on everything.

This is a story about two cases involving children. Readers who dislike stories in which children are harmed, or at risk, will want to know this. That said, though, there aren’t drawn-out ‘on stage’ scenes of terrible violence.

This isn’t a story with what you’d call a happy ending. Knowing what really happened to Katy Devlin certainly doesn’t bring her back. And the truth doesn’t bring peace and healing to the community. Readers who prefer light, cosy mysteries will notice this. Still, we do learn Katy’s story, so there is closure in that sense.

In The Woods is the story of the devastation that a tragedy can bring to a family, and the effects, even years later, of trauma. It introduces a smart, dedicated group of police investigators, and takes place in a distinctive context. But what’s your view? Have you read In the Woods? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 13 February/Tuesday, 14 February – The Hidden Man – Robin Blake

Monday, 20 February/Tuesday, 21 February – China Lake – Meg Gardiner

Monday, 27 February/Tuesday, 28 February – River of Darkness – Rennie Airth

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Filed under In The Woods, Tana French

The Friendship is Toxic*

Toxic FriendshipsAn interesting post from Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books has got me thinking about what you could almost call an alternate take on the domestic psychological thriller. Instead of the main characters being partners or family members, this sort of novel looks at friendships.

For most of us, friends are the sort of glue that holds life together and makes it better. But some friendships, even if they start out well, can turn quite toxic. And those toxic relationships can make for a compelling context for a thriller. There are several of them out there; I know you’ll think of more than I could.

As L.R. Wright’s The Suspect begins, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just murdered eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. Not very long afterwards, he reports the crime, saying that he stopped in and found Burke dead; RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg investigates. Word of the murder gets around the small town of Sechelt, British Columbia, very quickly, and there’s soon lots of speculation. But Alberg doesn’t have any real leads, as there doesn’t seem to be a motive. Burke hadn’t made any obvious enemies, and didn’t have a large fortune or valuable possessions that would have been worth stealing. As the novel goes on, we learn more about the background between Wilcox and Burke. And we learn what happened in the past that led to the murder.

Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep introduces readers to Marion Seeley. Her husband, Everett, has lost his medical license due to drug use, so he decides to go to Mexico to start over. While he’s getting settled, he arranges for Marion to live in a Phoenix apartment, and take a clerical job at the exclusive Werden Clinic. In the course of her job, Marion meets Louise Mercer and her roommate, Ginny Hoyt. Their lifestyle involves plenty of parties, drugs and men. Slowly, Marion becomes friends with Louise and Ginny, and drawn into their lives. And that friendship plays a major role in the tragedy that’s at the core of this novel.

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle also explores what you might call a toxic friendship. Andreas Winther’s best (really, only) friend is Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. They do everything together, and depend on each other. Then, one day, Andreas goes missing. His mother, Runi, gets concerned, and goes to the police. But there are plenty of reasons why a young man might take off for a few days without telling his mother where he is. So at first, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer isn’t overly concerned. But when time goes by and Andreas doesn’t return, he starts to investigate. Sejer is sure that Zipp can give him useful information, but Zipp refuses to be helpful. Still, Sejer persists. Little by little, we learn what happened on the day Andreas disappeared, and we learn how the friendship between the two young men played a role.

In Tana French’s The Likeness, Dublin detective Cassie Maddox has recently been transferred from the homicide investigation team to the domestic violence investigation team, as a way to help her recover from the impact of an earlier case. Then one day, the body of a young woman is discovered. What’s especially eerie about this murder is that the victim looks exactly like Cassie. What’s more, her identification indicates that her name is Alexandra Madison, the same alias that Cassie used in her last assignment. As a part of the investigation, the police try to trace the young woman’s last days. They find that she lived in a house called Whitethorn House, outside of Dublin. So Cassie goes undercover there as Lexie Madison. She gets to know the other people who lived at the house, and she learns the real truth about their relationships, and about the young woman who was killed. She discovers that there was plenty of toxicity there, and that what happened in the house certainly played a role in the murder.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Last Rituals introduces Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. One day, she gets a strange call from Amelia Guntlieb, who lives in Germany. It seems that her son, Harald, was a student at the university in Reykjavík when he was murdered and his body mutilated. The police think that his friend, Hugi Thórisson, is guilty. In fact, he’s already been arrested. But Amelia doesn’t think he’s responsible. She wants Thóra to clear Hugi’s name, and find out the truth about Harald’s death. And she’s sending the family banker, Matthew Reich, to work with Thóra. At first, Thóra’s not sure why Amelia chose her, but when Amelia explains that it’s because Thóra speaks fluent German, the matter begins to make more sense. Thóra and Matthew begin to ask some questions, and they soon discover that Hugi was by no means the only one who might have had a motive for murder. Harald had a very close-knit and almost secretive group of friends. And when Thóra meets them and tries to talk to them, she finds that they’re not at all forthcoming about their friendship with Harald. As the novel goes on, we learn the secrets they’re hiding, and we see how this friendship impacted everyone.

And that’s the thing about friendships. The best ones, of course, are nourishing and enriching, and we benefit immensely from them. But there are others that can be very toxic indeed. Which novels featuring this plot point have stayed with you?

Thanks very much, Cleo, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest that your next blog stop be Cleo’s fantastic blog. Fine reviews and updates await you!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kate Miller-Heidke’s I Like You Better When You’re Not Around.

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Filed under Karin Fossum, L.R. Wright, Megan Abbott, Tana French, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Today I Saw Somebody Who Looked Just Like You*

ImpersonationIt’s surprising how little attention we sometimes pay to other people – even people we know. That’s why impersonation can sometimes be quite successful. An impersonator who learns to mimic someone’s basic appearance, mannerisms and the like can often get away with living that other life for quite some time. Impersonation can be a really interesting plot point in a crime fiction novel, too. It allows for an interesting plot twist when the impersonation is revealed. It also allows for some fascinating backstory (Who is the impersonator? Why does s/he agree (or plan) to impersonate?). And it allows for character development.

On the other hand, impersonation can be contrived if it’s not done credibly. It’s an all-too-convenient device to fill up a ‘plothole,’ too. So the author has to handle the plot point carefully. But that said, it can be an interesting thread in a novel.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Violet Hunter. She’s been offered a job as governess to Jephro Rucastle’s six-year-old son. She’s not sure if she should accept the offer and asks for Holmes’ advice. He has some serious doubts about the job, especially when she tells him some of the unusual things that Rucastle has asked of her. At first she listens to Holmes’ counsel and refuses the position. But when Rucastle increases the salary offer, she can no longer resist, and she takes the job. As it turns out, the Rucastle home is hiding some strange and unhappy secrets, and by the time Violet Hunter realises even a bit of what’s going on, she is in real danger. She writes to Holmes asking him to come, and he and Watson oblige – just in time to save her life. Impersonation plays an important part in this story, and once Holmes deduces its role, he’s able to find out the truth about Copper Beeches.

Several of Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories feature impersonation. One of those stories is Jane in Search of a Job. Jane Cleveland is out of work and her financial situation is getting more and more serious. The she sees an odd advertisement in The Daily Leader. The notice gives very particular requirements for physical description and insists that the applicant be able to speak French. Conscious that this could be dangerous, but at the same time desperate for a job, Jane goes to the address mentioned in the notice. After a thorough ‘vetting,’ she’s offered the job, and told that she will be acting as a ‘double’ for the Grand Duchess Pauline. Pauline tells Jane there have been rumours that a group of terrorists is going to try to kidnap her, and Jane’s role will be to impersonate the Grand Duchess at public events until the threat is over. Jane takes the job and when she is kidnapped, she learns that very little is really what it seems. Want another take on this story? Check out this post at Clothes in Books. And while you’re there, consider following that excellent blog if you’re not already doing so. It’s a terrific resource for discussions about how clothes figure into our personalities, our lives, and novels.

Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar also features a character who agrees to be paid to impersonate someone else. In that novel, we meet the various members of the Ashby family, a once-proud ‘better’ family that’s come upon very hard times. But for twenty-year-old Simon Ashby, things will change on his twenty-first birthday. He’s slated to come into a fortune left to him by his mother. He’ll also get the land and the Ashby title. Into this family situation comes Brat Farrar, a down-on-his-luck American who’s come to England to start over. One day he’s approached by out-of-work actor Alec Loding, who has mistaken Farrar for Simon Ashby. That striking resemblance gives Loding an idea. He knows the Ashby family and its history very, very well, and decides to use that information. The plan is for Farrar to impersonate Simon Ashby’s twin brother Patrick, who everyone thought committed suicide by drowning years earlier. Since Patrick was slightly older than Simon, if Farrar can pull this off, he’ll get the fortune, the title and the land. In return for helping him, Loding wants a share of the money. Farrar agrees, and Loding spends a few weeks coaching the young man in his part. They even figure out a plausible tale for Patrick Ashby’s long absence. At first all goes well enough, but Ferrar soon learns that he is in great danger. It seems that Patrick Ashby did not commit suicide, as everyone had thought. Instead, he was murdered. Now the same person wants to try again…

In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee is on the trail of the person who killed Albert Gorman. Gorman was a Los Angeles Navajo who’d recently moved to the Reservation. When his body is discovered not far from the home of one of his kinsmen, Chee starts to follow the trail. It takes him to Los Angeles, where he discovers a connection to a dangerous car theft ring. That trip gives Chee some vital information he needs to solve the case and tie it in with the disappearance of a teenage girl who is distant kin to Gorman. In the process of solving the case, Chee finds out that one of the people he’s been talking to about it is an impersonator. That person has taken on another identity to move the killer’s plan forward. Once Chee makes that discovery, he’s able to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Tana French’s The Likeness offers a different kind of twist on the impersonation plot point. In that novel, Dublin detective Cassie Maddox has recently returned to the Murder Squad after taking some time away. One day she’s called to a very unusual crime scene. A young woman has been stabbed in an abandoned house not far from Trinity College. What’s especially eerie is that the woman is identified as Alexandra ‘Lexie’ Madison, an alias that Maddox used once in an undercover operation. The victim looks very much like Maddox, too. Now there are two questions: who killed the victim, and who was the victim? Since there never really was a Lexie Madison, the victim has to have been someone else. A reluctant Maddox is persuaded to impersonate the victim, using the cover story that she survived the stabbing attack. As ‘Lexie Madison,’ Maddox will move back into the house that the victim shared with four other people, and try to find out who killed her. As time goes on and Maddox continues to live as the other woman, she gets more and more drawn into the lives of the small group of people who share the house. In the end, we do find out the truth about ‘Lexie Madison,’ but not before Maddox comes close to losing herself.

The impersonation plot point isn’t easy to pull off successfully. But it can add a strong layer of tension and interest to a story. Do you ‘buy’ that plot thread?

 

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Thom Bell and Linda Creed’s You Are Everything, made famous by The Stylistics.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Josephine Tey, Tana French, Tony Hillerman