Category Archives: Dorothy L. Sayers

I Depend on You*

In many crime novels, there’s a main sleuth (usually, but not always, the protagonist), and an assistant/second-in-command. The main sleuth is usually the one who puts the major pieces of the puzzle together and solves the case. But don’t underestimate the assistant. There are plenty of them out there who quietly do more than their share of solving cases and making the main sleuth look good as a result.

These can be really interesting characters, too, in their own right. Sometimes they’re a bit enigmatic; sometimes they’re more transparent than that. Either way, it can add to a story when the assistant is at least as skilled as (sometimes even better than?) the main sleuth.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, for instance, is a brilliant detective. He often puts together very difficult cases, and his reputation is well-deserved. But make no mistake; his assistant, Archie Goodwin, has quite a lot of skill of his own. In fact, it’s a good question whether he is actually an employee (well, technically, of course, he is) or a business partner. Certainly his ‘street smarts’ and other detecting skills are a match for just about anyone. He’s also an interesting character in his own right.

Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is the main detective in the novels featuring him (although Harriet Vane does more than her share of detecting as the series goes on!). He’s gotten a certain reputation for being good at solving mysteries, too. But you’d be wrong to underestimate his assistant, Mervyn Bunter. Bunter is Lord Peter’s valet, among other things, so they’re not social equals. But Lord Peter doesn’t make the mistake of discounting what Bunter thinks and says. Bunter is intelligent and observant, and he’s been known to put some of the pieces of a case together. What’s more, because he’s a valet, he fits in with others of the ‘serving class,’ and finds out things that his boss couldn’t. He has his own way of thinking, too, that’s very helpful to Lord Peter.

Helene Tursten’s Inspector Irene Huss is a Göteborg police detective who works with the Violent Crimes Unit. She is the protagonist of the series, so the novels follow her share of the detective work. But that doesn’t mean she does all of the work on her own. She relies on all of her teammates, and her boss. One of the more interesting of those teammates is Harmu Rauhala. The only Finn among the group of Swedes, he’s a bit enigmatic, and he’s not one to spend a lot of time chatting and so on. But he has a way of getting information, of putting the puzzle pieces together, and of being right where he needs to be. And he’s an interesting character, too. He always seems to have a solid sense about a case, and the other members of the team know to pay attention to what he says and does.

Carl Mørck is Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Copenhagen homicide detective. He’s in charge of ‘Department Q,’ which is dedicated to cases of ‘special interest’ – basically cold cases. The department was originally set up in part to respond to media and political pressure to tackle unsolved crimes. It’s a small department, consisting of three people: Mørck; his assistant Hafez al-Assad; and their secretary, Rose Knudsen. Mørck is an excellent detective, if abrasive and often difficult. He does his job well, and he gets results. But just as skilled in his own way is Assad. He has a very mysterious background, and we don’t get to know him as well as we know Mørck. But he is skilled, smart, and shrewd. And he’s sometimes the one who puts the team on the right path or gets information. And Rose is no slouch, either. Mørck knows, whether or not he’ll admit it, that he depends on both Assad and Rose.

Emily Brightwell’s historical (Victorian Era) series features Inspector Gerald Witherspoon of the (London) Metropolitan Police Department. Witherspoon is intelligent enough, and he is a dedicated detective. But he has a reputation for solving cases that’s greater than his actual skills would suggest. That’s in large part because of his housekeeper, Mrs. Jeffries. She’s got a natural ability to put puzzle pieces together, and the supervises a staff of people who do the ‘legwork.’ What’s interesting about Mrs. Jeffries is that, as housekeeper, she is not her employer’s social equal. In that time and place, it doesn’t help that she’s a woman. So, she has to be creative about finding ways to point Witherspoon in the right direction.

And then there’s Brian Stoddart’s Police Sergeant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah. He lives and works in 1920s Madras (now Chennai). It’s the last few years of the British Raj, and Habi is neither white nor Christian (he is Muslim). He’s not English, either. So, there’s only so far he can rise in the ranks of the police. But he is a dedicated and skilled detective. His boss, Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu knows that Habi is a trustworthy, skilled detective, who has to be, as the saying goes, twice as good to get half as far. So, he gives Habi as much authority as he can, and supports him. He depends on Habi, too, to help solve cases. Things become very difficult for both of them in A Greater God, during which there is increased bigotry and worse against Muslims. And Le Fanu’s boss, Arthur Jepson, doesn’t make anything easier with his racist beliefs. Le Fanu knows that Habi can be trusted to do his job well. But there are people on the police who believe that Habi will side with his own people. And he is torn, as he sees what’s happening. It makes for real tension in the novel.

The protagonist of a crime novel often gets a lot of the attention. But sometimes, the assistant/second-in-command is just as good – even better. And that can make for an interesting story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Dean Friedman.

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Filed under Brian Stoddart, Dorothy L. Sayers, Emily Brightwell, Helene Tursten, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Rex Stout

Why’s Everybody Always Pickin’ On Me?*

An interesting post from writer Carol Balawyder has got me thinking about fictional writers. In the post, she reviews Olga Núñez Miret’s Escaping Psychiatry: Beginnings. I’ll admit I’ve not read this novella, but one plot point in the story really got my attention. In it, the protagonist gets involved in a court case where a writer has been accused of murder.

Now, the real-life writers I know – even the crime writers – are very nice people who wouldn’t consider committing murder. And, yet, there are plenty of crime novels where a writer is accused. Perhaps it’s just that writers have a (completely unfounded!) bad reputation. Whatever the reason, there are several examples of this plot point, and I’m not sure I like it!

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), for instance, a detective novelist named Mr. Clancy is on a flight from Paris to London. One of his fellow passengers, Marie Morisot, dies during the flight of what looks at first to be an allergic reaction to a wasp sting. But that’s soon proved not to be true. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, and he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the real criminal is. The only possible suspects are the other people in the plane’s cabin, so Mr. Clancy becomes a ‘person of interest.’ In fact, two other passengers who interest themselves in the case actually follow Mr. Clancy one evening to see whether he does anything suspicious. Mr. Clancy is, perhaps, not the neatest of housekeepers, and he does get – erm – distracted. But that’s hardly a reason to suspect that he’s a killer.

Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die introduces mystery novelist Frank Cairnes. He is devastated when his son, Martin ‘Martie,’ is killed by a hit-and-run driver. In fact, his diary begins with the sentence,
 

‘I am going to kill a man.’
 

His plan is to find out who was driving the car that killed Martie and exact retribution. Little by little, he learns that a man named George Rattery was probably responsible. So, he finds an ‘in’ to the Rattery home and makes his plans. His idea is to drown Rattery during a boat trip. But that doesn’t happen, and the two go back to shore. Later that day, Rattery dies of poisoning, and it’s clear that the poisoning had been planned in advance. Cairnes is suspected, but, as he tells PI Nigel Strangeways, why would he poison a man he’d already planned to drown? And why try to drown a man he was going to poison? Strangeways takes the case and, in the end, finds out who the real killer is.

Mystery novelist Harriet Vane makes her first appearance in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison. She’s been arrested for murdering her former lover, Philip Boyes, and there is evidence against her. She was the last person known to have seen the victim, and they had quarreled. As the novel begins, she’s on trial for the crime. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and finds himself smitten with the defendant. In fact, he resolves to clear her name, so that he can marry her. He gets his chance when the jury cannot reach a verdict. The new trial is scheduled for a month later, so Lord Peter has to work quickly to find out who the real killer is. His faith in a writer is reassuring.

In Caroline Graham’s Written in Blood, the members of the Midsomer Worthy Writers Circle is trying to decide whom they’ll invite to speak at their next meeting. After a lot of discussion, it’s decided to invite successful author Max Jennings. One of the members of the group, Gerald Hadleigh, has a history with Jennings, so he’s elected to write Jennings and invite him. Hadleigh has good reason not to want Jennings to accept, since their history has been unpleasant. But he doesn’t want the group to know about that, so he reluctantly writes the letter. To his consternation, Jennings agrees to speak to the group. Late on the night of Jennings’ visit, Hadleigh is murdered. Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate, and they look into all of the group members’ relationships to find out who would want to kill Hadleigh.

And it’s not just fictional detective story writers who have to cope with this bias. In Peter May’s Coffin Road, for instance, a man stumbles ashore on the Isle of Harris. He has no idea who he is or what he’s doing there. He soon learns, though, that he is a writer who’s apparently been living on the island for the last eighteen months, working on a book about a local Hebrides mystery: the 1900 disappearance of three lighthouse keepers. In his effort to fill in the missing blanks, so to speak, the writer tries to trace his movements from the time he lost his memory. What he finds, though, is a dead man. Now, there’s a terrible possibility that he’s committed a murder. Detective Sergeant (DS) Gunn investigates, and discovers a link between the lighthouse keepers’ disappearance, the dead man, and an Edinburgh teen who becomes convinced that her father (who is supposed to have committed suicide) is still alive. Just because you’re writing about a place doesn’t mean you’ve killed someone, does it?

You see what I mean? Writers are very nice people. I don’t know a single one who would commit murder. And, yet, they keep coming up as suspects in crime novels. One has to wonder about the bias…

Thanks, Carol, for the inspiration. Folks, do visit Carol’s fine blog. And check out her writing. You won’t be sorry.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Charlie Brown.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Nicholas Blake, Peter May

I Don’t Want to Work*

A lot of people eagerly look forward to weekends, and they aren’t especially happy to go back to work on Monday. And that’s not surprising, when you think of how dangerous work can be. Offices are simply not safe places – well, not if you read crime fiction. And that makes sense, really. Office tensions can run high, and people often spend a lot of time at their offices. That mix makes it quite plausible that someone might be killed at the office.

Just ask Henry Morley, a dentist whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death). One morning, Morley goes to his surgery as usual. Sometime late that morning, he is shot. There doesn’t seem to be a personal motive for the murder, as he didn’t have a fortune to leave, and he hasn’t made a lot of enemies. One of his patients, though, is well-known powerful banker Alistair Blunt, who does have his share of enemies. It’s very possible that one of those enemies killed Morley to try to get to Blunt. Hercule Poirot was at Morley’s surgery on the morning of the murder, so Chief Inspector Japp asks him to help investigate. They’ve just started when one of Morley’s patients goes missing. Then, another dies of what looks like a botched use of anaesthetic. It turns out that this case is more complex than either Poirot or Japp thought it would be.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, we are introduced to Victor Dean, a copywriter at the prestigious and very respectable Pym’s Publicity, Ltd. One afternoon, he is killed after he is pushed down a staircase at work. The executives at Pym’s are very concerned about the company’s reputation, and don’t want the police involved. So, they hire Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover at the company and find out who the killer is and what the motive is. Wimsey goes to work at Pym’s under the guise of Dean’s replacement, and slowly gets to the truth of the matter. It turns out that someone at the office had been using the company’s resources to arrange meetings between a dangerous drugs ring and local drug dealers. Dean found out, and was foolish enough to try to benefit through blackmail. And that, as the saying goes, sealed his fate.

Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead takes place mostly on Bendigo island, a private place owned by successful munitions manufacturer Kane ‘King’ Bendigo. When he starts receiving threatening letters, he makes light of them. But not everyone does. Soon enough, his brother, Abel, gets Inspector Richard Queen and his son, Ellery, involved, and the US government considers this enough of a national security issue to pressure the Queens to co-operate. They end up going to Bendigo Island to find out who’s   responsible for the threat to Bendigo’s life. One night, the threat is carried out. Bendigo and his wife, Karla, are working in his sealed-off office when a gun goes off, wounding Bendigo, but not killing him. This isn’t a ‘normal’ shooting, though. For one thing, no-one entered or left the office at the time of the shooting, and there is no gunshot residue on either Bendigo or his wife. For another thing, the gun that was used in the attack was fired by Bendigo’s brother, Judah, who was in another room. In fact, Queen was with Judah at the time, and can attest to the fact that the gun didn’t go off. So, Queen is faced with a challenging ‘impossible mystery.’

In Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s An Easy Thing, Mexico City PI Hector Belascoarán Shayne works on a few cases. One of them is the murder of Gaspar Alvarez Cerruli, who was killed in his office at the Delex consortium. Matters are made complicated because at the time of the killing, there’s a serious conflict between union and management at the consortium. And it is certainly possible that a union agitator is the killer. But at the same time, the Santa Clara Industrial Council, which hired Belascoarán Shayne in the first place, has its own agenda. So, it’s not out of the question that a member of that group is responsible for the murder. There are other possibilities, too, and it proves to be a very delicate matter.

And then there’s Henry Beck, whom we meet in Geoffrey Robert’s The Alo Release. He works for a Los Angeles-based company called Vestco, which has developed a new seed coating that it promises will drastically increase food production, thereby dramatically reducing the amount of starvation in the world. Everyone’s excited about the new release – everyone except the members of the Millbrook Foundation, an environmentalist watchdog group. Millbrook has found evidence that Vestco’s claims may not be true. What’s more, the seed coating could have very dangerous consequences. But their work hasn’t been enough to stop the release, which is now only nine days away. One day, Beck is killed in his office. The killer finds a way to frame three Millbrook employees, who are on a plane to New Zealand at the time Beck’s body is discovered. When they land in Auckland, they soon become fugitives, although they are innocent. Now, they have to find the real killer, and stop the release of the seed coating if they can.

See what I mean? Anything can happen at work! Perhaps that research about an increase of deaths on Mondays makes some sense…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Todd Rundgren’s Bang the Drum All Day.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ellery Queen, Geoffrey Robert, Paco Ignacio Taibo II

There’ll be Swingin’, Swayin’, and Records Playing*

As this is posted, it’s sixty years since Berry Gordy founded Motown Records. As you’ll know, ‘the Motown sound’ has had a powerful influence on popular music. Even today, it’s easy to see its impact on modern pop, rock, rap, and other music.

But Motown wasn’t universally embraced, at least at first. In its way, it was revolutionary, and many people didn’t want to adjust to it. That in itself is interesting. But the fact is, there’ve been lots of major musical influences that were considered unacceptable at first. And we see that in crime fiction, just as we’ve seen it in real life.

Before there was Motown, there was ragtime, which grew to major popularity at the very end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th. There were, of course, other major changes in society at that time, and not everyone was eager to embrace them. And plenty of people didn’t see ragtime as ‘appropriate’ music. Readers get a look at the ragtime music culture in Larry Karp’s The Ragtime Kid, which begins in 1898. In in, we meet fifteen-year-old Brun Campbell, who loves playing and listening to the piano. One day, he happens to hear Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, and is entranced. He wants to know more about Joplin and ragtime music, and he can’t get that new sound out of his mind. So, a year later, he travels from Oklahoma, where he lives, to Sedalia, Missouri, where Joplin lives. He’s wants to get started there and learn more ragtime, but instead, he gets mixed up in a case of murder. One night, he accidentally trips over the body of a young unknown woman. She is identified as Sallie Randolph, and it turns out that she has what used to be called a ‘checkered past.’ As Brun asks questions about her death, and does some growing in the process, readers also learn quite a lot about Joplin and the world of ragtime.

Jazz was also arguably a revolutionary change in music. As you’ll know, it became popular during the 1920s, a time of many other major changes. And those who loved jazz were often looked at with a lot of suspicion. Certainly ‘nice girls’ didn’t go to ‘those sorts of places,’ and listen to ‘that kind of music.’ And yet, jazz has had a profound impact on the music we listen to now. We see that reflected in crime fiction, too.

For example, in several of Agatha Christie’s novels (I’m thinking, for instance, of Peril at End House, and Dumb Witness), we meet characters who are a part of the Jazz Age culture. They listen to the music and have adopted the styles and culture that are associated with jazz music of that time. And that lifestyle (and the music) are seen by some as not entirely respectable, perhaps even vaguely disreputable. That view of jazz isn’t the reason for the murders in those stories. But it’s interesting to see what the perception is.

There’s a similar perception in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates the deaths of two people: General Fentiman (who is a member of Lord Peter’s club), and Fentiman’s wealthy sister, Lady Dormer. At one point, Wimsey is having a conversation with Fentiman’s grandson George and his wife. George has this to say about the effect of jazz and the jazz culture:
 

‘‘In the old days, heaps of unmarried women were companions, and… they had a much better time than they have now, with all this jazzing and short skirts…the modern girl hasn’t a scrap of decent feeling or sentiment about her.’’ 
 

The assumption is that jazz music has had a dangerous influence on the younger generation.

After World War II, there were other music revolutions. The ‘Beat Generation’ changed the way people thought about music and the other arts. We see a bit of that in Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates. The novel was published in 1961, a time of great change in Japan. Those changes are an important element in the background for this novel. In it, Tokyo police detective Imanishi Eitaro and his team look into the murder of Miki Ken’ichi, whose body was discovered under a train. After some effort, Imanishi learns that the victim had come from Okoyama to Tokyo, but there’s no clear reason why. He was much beloved in Okoyama, and didn’t really know anyone in Tokyo, so there seems to be no motive for his murder. Little by little, Imanishi and the team discover connections between this death, a suicide, and the Avant-Garde Theatre, which is a haunt for musicians and other artists who are breaking new ground. One of the elements in the novel is the sense of unease about this new revolution in music and culture. These young people want to break with the traditional past. And that’s not always seen as a good thing.

And then there’s Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses, much of which takes place in 1966 South East London, a mecca for Mods, Rockers, and lots of social and cultural change. Caught up in it all are sisters Bridget ‘Bridie’ and Madeline ‘Midge’ Dolan. They’ve had a sheltered life and are considered ‘good girls.’ But they want to be a part of the social life of the era. One Friday night, they get their wish. They wangle permission from their mother to go to the Palais Royale, so long as their cousin Jimmy takes them and brings them home. The girls readily agree to this and get ready to go. The music is revolutionary and exciting, although it all makes Bridie a bit nervous. Before the night is over, there’s a tragedy that impacts the girls for the rest of their lives. And it has repercussions years later, when the body of a vagrant is found in a South London Underground station, and the police receive an anonymous letter confessing to the murder.

Whether you like Motown music or not, it’s hard to deny its influence. It really did represent a major change in music and has had a profound impact since it began. And, as we see from crime fiction, there’s often a bit of danger when something revolutionary comes along…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Gaye, William ‘Mickey’ Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter’s Dancing in the Streets, made unforgettable by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. I know, fans of Mick Jagger and David Bowie. I’m just saying…

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Larry Karp, Matsumoto Seichō, Steph Avery

What’s the Use of Wonderin’ if He’s Good or if He’s Bad*

Being arrested/accused of murder takes a real toll on people who are close to the accused. Whether or not the suspect is actually guilty, the experience tests any relationship. Of course, there are some people who trust implicitly in the accused person, even to an unhealthy extent. Those people will stand by the accused, no matter what, whether or not that person is actually a murderer.

We certainly see examples of that sort of person in real life. There are plenty of characters like that in crime fiction, too. Sometimes their faith is justified; sometimes it’s not. Either way, it can make for an interesting layer of character development. It can move a plot forward, too.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, we are introduced to Alice Turner. She is engaged to James McCarthy, so she is devastated when he is arrested for murdering his father, Charles. There is evidence against him, too. He was seen quarreling with his father shortly before the murder, and physically appearing to threaten him. McCarthy says he left his father alive. When he returned shortly afterwards, his father was already near death. The case against McCarthy is strong, but Alice believes in him, and asks Inspector Lestrade to look at the murder again. He asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate, and Holmes agrees. He finds that the dead man’s last words give an important clue as to the murderer. In this case, Alice’s faith in her fiancé is justified.

Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress is the story of Elinor Carlisle. She’s engaged to Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman, and the two are planning their future together. Part of that plan includes Elinor’s expectation that she will inherit from her wealthy Aunt Laura. Roddy is related to Aunt Laura, too, on the other side of the family. So, regardless of which of them inherits, they seem financially secure. Then, Elinor receives an anonymous letter hinting that someone is out to get Aunt Laura’s money. She and Roddy travel to Hunterbury, the family home, to visit and, truth be told, to see if that letter is telling the truth. There, they reacquaint themselves with the lodgekeeper’s daughter, Mary Gerrard. Roddy is quickly smitten with her – to the point where he and Elinor break off their engagement. Shortly afterwards, Mary is poisoned. With at least two separate motives for murder, and the opportunity, Elinor is soon arrested and held over for trial. The local GP, Dr. Peter Lord, has fallen in love with Elinor, and wants her name cleared. He asks Hercule Poirot to do just that and makes it clear that he doesn’t care whether Elinor is really innocent or not. Poirot investigates, and finds out the truth about Mary’s death.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is arrested and put on trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. As it happens, Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial, and finds himself falling for the accused. When the jury cannot reach a verdict in the case, Lord Peter decides to clear Harriet’s name, so that he will be free to marry her. He’s got a month in which to do it, and soon sets out investigating. He finds that there are other possible suspects in the murder, and eventually gets to the truth of what happened.

Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow begins as the body of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine is discovered in an abandoned mineshaft on Windigo Island. She’d gone missing several months earlier, and Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police Department investigated that case. Now that she’s been found, it falls to him to inform her mother and look into the murder. There’s a good possibility that this abduction and murder is related to two other disappearances. Matters get even more urgent when another teenager goes missing. Cardinal works with Detective Lise Delorme to get find out the truth about these cases. An important part of the case involves an almost blind loyalty to someone, regardless of what that person has done.

And then there’s Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness, which introduces his sleuth, Bari attorney Guido Guerrieri. In the novel, he gets a visit from Abajaje Deheba, and with it, a new case. Deheba tells him that her partner, a Senegalese immigrant named Abdou Thiam, has been arrested and imprisoned for the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. There’s plenty of evidence against him, too. For one thing, he admits that he knew the boy. For another, he can’t reliably account for his whereabouts at the time of the crime. And there’s a witness who claims to have seen him in the area where the boy was abducted. But Deheba believes that Thiam is innocent. She wants Guerrieri to defend Thiam. Guerrieri agrees to meet with Thiam, and finds that his client says he’s innocent, but has become almost resigned to spending the rest of his life in prison. Still, he agrees to work with Guerrieri, and the two get started. It turns out that Thiam is not the only person who could have abducted and killed Francesco.

Sometimes, faith in someone who is accused of murder is justified. Sometimes it’s unhealthy – even dangerous. Either way, it’s interesting to see how that quality plays out in crime novels. These are only a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s What’s the Use of Won’drin’.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Gianrico Carofiglio, Giles Blunt