Category Archives: Rex Stout

Silk Pyjamas*

An interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about sleepwear. That’s right, robes, pyjamas, oversized tees, and other nightwear. One of the really interesting things about sleepwear is the way it’s changed over time, at least for a lot of people. It’s true in real life, and we can see it in crime fiction, too.

For example, in my novel Past Tense, I mention that my sleuth’s wife, Laura, wears an oversized tee to sleep. And she’s not alone; lots of people do that. Others sleep in shorts and a tee, or something else comfortable.

One of the points that Moira makes (you really want to read that post if you haven’t) is that, with so many hotels and other such places having en suite facilities, there’s not a need these days for things like robes and dressing gowns. People don’t need to be concerned about who sees what they wear to bed. But it wasn’t always that way.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express takes place mostly on board the famous Orient Express train as it makes its way across Europe. On the second night of the journey, one of the passengers, Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed in his compartment. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and he works to find out who is responsible. As he questions the passengers, several mention a lady wearing a scarlet dressing gown with dragons embroidered on it. So, he asks every female passenger what her dressing gown looks like. For many, it’s at the very least an odd question. One of them even says,
 

‘‘I must suppose you have a reason for such a question.’’
 

All of the women answer the question, so we learn about their nightwear. And Christie matches nightwear to what you might call station in life, as well as temperament. So, Poirot also learns something about the women as he asks that question.

Ed McBain’s Cop Hater introduces his 87th Precinct team, in particular, Steve Carella. In the novel, two police officers are murdered; and, at first, it looks as though someone has some sort of vendetta against the police. Carella follows up on that possibility and traces the whereabouts of several former convicts who might resent the cops. One of them is staying at a brothel, so Carella visits the place. It’s owned by someone he knows, Mama Luz. When Mama Luz opens the door to Carella, she’s wearing a silk kimono that, you could argue, befits her status as the madam. She and Carella have known each other for a while, and they have an understanding. He basically leaves her business alone; she sees that things at the brothel stay under control.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little is the story of Lora King, a teacher in 1950s Padadena, California. She’s very close to her brother, Bill, so she takes interest when he starts dating a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant named Alice Steele. She tries to be happy for Bill when he and Alice marry, but Alice makes her uneasy. And, little by little, she starts learning some things about her new sister-in-law that make her even more uncomfortable. At the same time as she is repulsed by Alice’s life, though, Lora also finds herself drawn to it.  A note from Alice (that actually mentions a nightgown) perhaps expresses this best:
 

‘You liked the voile nightgown you saw in my closet, touched it with your milky fingers and asked me where I’d gotten it. When I bought you one of your own, your face steamed baby pink, but you wore it. I knew you’d wear it.’ 
 

Then, there’s a murder. And Alice might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s doing it to protect Bill, Lora starts asking questions. And she finds herself drawn in in ways she wouldn’t have imagined.

In John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, Royal Thai Police detective Sonchai Jitplecheep investigates the murder of a US Marine named William Bradley. Sonchai’s police partner, Pichai Apiradee, was killed as a result of this case, so Sonchai is especially motivated to find out who is responsible. The trail leads at one point to the home of a Russian pimp named Iamskoy. Here’s part of the description we get when Sonchai gets to the place (just about lunchtime, when Iamskoy’s employees are still asleep, or just getting up):
 

‘…a woman answers the door. She is wearing a black dress…and reveals a lot of cleavage…
‘Andy,’ she calls without anxiety. Instead of Iamskoy, another woman appears in shorts and T-shirt. Then another. A fourth is dressed in a long nightgown, done up firmly at the neck.’
 

All of these women are in the same business, and it’s interesting to see how their different personalities are expressed in their sleepwear.

Of course, sleuths have sleepwear, too. In Frankie Y. Bailey’s The Red Queen Dies, for instance, Albany, New York police detective Hannah McCabe and her police partner investigate three murders. They all have the same murder method, but nothing else really links the victims. So, one important part of solving these murders is looking into the victims’ pasts to see if they have ever met, or ever would have had contact with each other. That involves background research done on the computer, and McCabe chooses to work at home,
 

‘…on the sofa in the living room, in her cotton nightgown and robe.’
 

And she’s not the only sleuth who sometimes works that way.

Of course, no discussion of sleepwear in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. As any fan can tell you, his preferred nightwear is a large pair of yellow silk pyjamas. He wears them in several novels and stories. In fact, Gail Bowen pays tribute to them in The Gifted. In one scene in that novel, her sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, goes to a costume party with her husband, Zack. She goes as Archie Goodwin; he goes as Wolfe. And he is dressed in…. yellow silk pyjamas.

See what I mean? Sleepwear is an important part of crime fiction.  Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Now, folks, please give yourselves a treat and go visit Moira’s excellent blog. Lots of interesting reviews and commentary on clothes and culture in fiction, and what it all says about us.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Thomas Dolby.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Frankie Y. Bailey, Gail Bowen, John Burdett, Megan Abbott, Rex Stout

Glory – One Blaze of Glory*

There’s something about the creative drive that can be all-consuming if it’s not checked. Whether it’s art, music, dance, writing, or something else, the need to create something meaningful can be powerful.

It can also add a great deal to a crime story. That urge can, for instance, shut someone off from others. Or it can lead to all sorts of tension and conflict – or worse. The creative drive can also be an important layer of character development.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, for instance, we are introduced to a sculptor named Henrietta Savernake. She is driven by her need to create, and it often impacts what she does. As the story begins, she’s having an affair with Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. As it happens, they are both invited to spend the weekend at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. On the Sunday, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited to lunch (he is staying nearby) and arrives just after the shooting. He works with Inspector Grange to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim, and it turns out that more than one person had a motive. As a part of the investigation, he gets to know a little about Henrietta Savernake, and he learns about her creative drive. In fact, she doesn’t know how to grieve for Christow, other than by creating:
 

‘She stirred uneasily . . . Why had that thought come into her head?
Grief. . . . Grief. …A veiled figure . . . its outline barely perceptible–its head cowled . . . Alabaster . . .
She could see the lines of it— tall, elongated … its sorrow hidden, revealed only by the long mournful lines of the drapery. Sorrow, emerging from clear transparent alabaster.’
 

It’s hard for her, but she doesn’t know any other way. You’re absolutely right, fans of Five Little Pigs.

In Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks, Nero Wolfe is persuaded to attend a meeting of Les Quinze Maîtres, the fifteen greatest chefs in the world. They will be gathering at the ultra-exclusive Kanawha Spa in West Virginia. Wolfe’s not happy, of course, at leaving his home, but this opportunity is irresistible. When he and Archie Goodwin arrive at the spa, they settle in and meet the chefs. Then, everything changes. Master chef Phillip Laszio is murdered. Suspicion immediately falls on another chef, Jerome Berin. But Wolfe doesn’t think he’s guilty. So, very much against his better judgement, he starts asking questions. Throughout the novel, it’s very clear how passionate these chefs are about their creations and what they do. That drive impacts a lot of their interactions and their views; and Wolfe, who is very much a gourmand, understands their devotion to what he considers more or less an art form.

Fans of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series will know that Joanne’s adopted daughter, Taylor, is a gifted artist. She is passionate about what she does and driven by her inspiration. Sometimes, that makes her difficult to be around, but it is an essential part of her character. And fans of this series will know that Taylor’s biological mother, Sally, was also a gifted artist who was driven by creativity.

Many journalists are driven by and passionate about their work. One the one hand, this can push them to write excellent stories and essays. On the other hand, that drive can have a real impact on a journalist’s personal life and even professional connections. For example, in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red, we are introduced to Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne. She loves what she does, and she wants to be at the top of New Zealand’s journalism scene. But she knows that there are a lot of hungry young people coming up behind her as the saying goes. So she wants the story that will establish her. She thinks she finds that story in the case of Connor Bligh, who’s been in prison for years for the murders of his sister, her husband, and their son. Now, little pieces of evidence suggest that Bligh may be innocent. If he is, then this could be the story Thorne’s been waiting to do. She looks into the case, and soon finds herself getting closer to it than she thought she would. And the process of getting the story has real impacts on several of her relationships.

In Paul Cleave’s A Killer Harvest, we are introduced to Christchurch surgeon Dr. Toni Coleman. She’s created a surgical procedure that allows for eyes to be transplanted. She’s dedicated to perfecting the procedure, so that more people’s eyesight can be restored. One of her patients is sixteen-year-old Joshua Logan. He’s been blind all his life; but, when his father, Mitchell, is killed in the line of (police) duty, he has a chance at sight. Dr. Toni plans to transplant Mitchell’s eyes in his son. The operation seems to be a success; and, physically, Joshua begins to heal. Most importantly, he can see. At the same time, he starts to have unsettling dreams/visions. One of his new eyes is working as it should, but the other isn’t. As Joshua starts to learn to function as a seeing person, he learns some very unsettling things about his father, and that leads him to some real darkness. For Dr. Toni’s part, she is so dedicated to what she has created, that it’s hard for her to see the consequences. And that plays a role in the story.

That’s the thing about being driven by creativity. It can result in truly fine work. But it can also have serious negative consequences.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jonathan Larson’s One Song Glory.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Paddy Richardson, Paul Cleave, Rex Stout

When Sleuths Get Their Taxes Done ;-)

I’m not sure how annual tax filing is done in other countries; but, in the US, people are already gathering their documentation and getting ready to file. The deadline is 15 April, and plenty of people don’t want to wait that long if they’re getting a refund. So, this is a very, very busy season for accountants.

It’s all got me thinking about what it might be like for our top fictional sleuths when it’s time to file that paperwork. It can’t be easy when you’re a sleuth to explain all of the – erm – miscellaneous expenses that come up. If you’ll invite your disbelief to take some friends and go get pizza, here’s a look at what happens…

 

When Sleuths Get Their Taxes Done

 

I. Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)

Accountant: I must say, M. Poirot, your papers are very neatly docketed and arranged.
Poirot: Merci. Me, I know the importance of order and method. Whether it is the taxes or a case I am investigating, order and method are my watchwords.
Accountant (slowly looking through Poirot’s papers): Hmm… travel expenses, business expenses, it all seems to be here. Wait just a moment. What is this item? He points to one item on Poirot’s list.
Poirot:  Ah, that is my moustache wax and grooming tools.
Accountant: But, M. Poirot, I’m afraid you can’t deduct those expenses.
Poirot: But why not?
Accountant: Well, they aren’t necessary for the running of your business.
Poirot (Bristling with annoyance): How can I be expected to solve cases if my moustaches are not shown to perfection? It is essential!

 

II. Inspector Morse (Colin Dexter)

Accountant: Good of you to come in, Morse. I’ve just been looking through your paperwork.
Morse: All there, I hope?
Accountant: Well, I do have a few questions about your office expenses.
Morse (Somewhat irritated): All right, go on.
Accountant: You’re provided office space at the police station, isn’t that right?
Morse: Of course I am!
Accountant: Then you can’t claim your expenses at The Crown and Feather as office expenses. It’s not your office.
Morse: Well, it’s where I do most of my work.

 

III. Aimée Leduc (Cara Black)

Accountant: I’m glad to see you’ve got your forms ready early this year, Mlle. Leduc.
Aimée: Might as well get it all out of the way (Takes a seat).
Accountant: Well, then, let’s see what we have here. (A few moments of silence as the accountant looks through the paperwork). Hmm…. I’m not sure of this one.
Aimée: Which one? (Leans over to look at the papers)
Accountant: The coffee beans. You’re not a coffee supplier, café, or restaurant. You really can’t count these as a legitimate business expense.
Aimée: There is no way that I can conduct my business without good coffee! Next, you’ll be telling me I can’t claim my new Christian Louboutin boots!

 

IV. Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton)

Accountant:  Glad you could stop by. Let’s talk about these forms now.
Kinsey: OK. Is there a problem?
Accountant: There are a few things here that I don’t think are going to be deductible.
Kinsey:  What things?
Accountant: Well, here, for instance. You’re claiming over a thousand dollars in fast food as a business expense.
Kinsey: Hmmm… I thought it’d be more.
Accountant: That’s not the point. The point is, unless you’re taking clients to eat at McDonalds or something, you can’t claim those receipts as business expenses.
Kinsey: You haven’t tasted my cooking. Without fast food, there’d be no business.

 

V. Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin (Rex Stout)

Accountant: Your boss has some odd expenses.
Archie: Yeah, well, my boss is a little odd.
Accountant: But some of these expenses – I just don’t know.
Archie: Like which ones?
Accountant: Well, for instance, there’s this elevator repair. Don’t you and Wolfe do business in your own home?
Archie: Yeah, why?
Accountant: You have an elevator in your home?
Archie: Doesn’t everyone?
Accountant (Not amused at the joke): Well, it’s a private home.
Archie: Exactly. So, Wolfe sees clients in his downstairs office. The bedrooms and private rooms are upstairs.
Accountant: He can’t use the stairs like everyone else?
Archie: Like I said. My boss is odd…

 

VI. The Nameless Detective (Bill Pronzini)

Accountant: So, Mr. – er –
Nameless (Taking a seat): Thanks for seeing me.
Accountant: Now, let’s see what we have here (Takes a few minutes to look through the papers that Nameless has brought along). I see you’re claiming several copies of Black Mask?
Nameless: Yeah, I have a lot of them, and collect them whenever I find one I don’t have.
Accountant: I’m sorry, but I don’t think you can claim them as a deduction.
Nameless: But they’re important to my business. I’m a private investigator.
Accountant: I know that, but Black Mask isn’t necessary to run your business.
Nameless: They’re learning materials. I use them for research!

 

See what I mean? Sleuths have it hard enough, and trying to explain themselves at tax time doesn’t make anything easier. These are only a few examples. Care to add any?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bill Pronzini, Cara Black, Colin Dexter, Rex Stout, Sue Grafton

Such a Shame She Wandered Into Our Enclosure*

Colonialism, tourism and other forces have created a very interesting social reality: enclaves of people (often privileged) from one culture, who live in another culture. These enclaves have their own cultures and social rules and are sometimes completely disconnected from the local cultures. Even when there is some connection, it’s often a case of two very different cultures living side by side.

This context can be a really interesting one for a crime novel. The social dynamics within an enclave can add to character development and tension. So can the dynamics between an enclave and the larger community.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, Miss Marple travels to the Golden Palm resort on the Caribbean island of St Honoré. She’s been in poor health, and her generous nephew has paid for her to spend some time recuperating. The Golden Palm is a privileged British enclave on the island, although many the staff are from the local area. And the dynamics among the English people add to the tension in the story. That tension is heightened when Miss Marple hears a story from another guest, Major Palgrave, about a man who got away with murder more than once. Oddly enough, Palgrave stops mid-story and changes the subject when he sees a group of people not far away. Later, he is murdered, and Miss Marple is certain that his death s connected to the story he had started. She’s right, too, and she finds that this murder has everything to do with past secrets that someone is hiding. At one point in the story, we see a glimpse outside this enclave, in a few domestic scenes with one of the staff members, Victoria Johnson. It’s an interesting contrast to the Golden Palm. I see you, fans of Murder in Mesopotamia.

Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks sees Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin travel to the exclusive Kanawha Spa in West Virginia. Wolfe has been tapped to deliver the keynote address at Les Quinze Maîtres, a meeting of the world’s top chefs. The resort is beautiful and all-inclusive, with the amenities you’d expect at a very upmarket place. And it’s nothing like the surrounding area. The chefs and those with them duly arrive and the gathering starts. Then, one of the master chefs, Phillip Laszio, is murdered. The evidence seems to point to another chef, Jerome Berin, as the guilty party. But Wolfe doesn’t think Berin is the killer. He’s reluctant to get involved in the case, but he starts investigating, and, in the end, finds out who the killer is. In a few scenes in the novel, we see the contrast between the chefs and other guests, who are a part of this enclave, and the staff members who live outside it.

Roderic Jeffries’ Mistakenly in Mallorca introduces his sleuth, Inspector Enrique Alvarez.  In the novel, John Tatham travels from England to Mallorca to stay for a time with his great-aunt, Elvina Woods. She grows fond of him, and even tells him that she is set to inherit a large fortune, which she wants him to have when she dies. She even promises to make a new will indicating that wish. Then one day, Tatham, who’s been out, returns to the house he’s sharing with Aunt Elvina, only to find that she has died of a fall from a balcony. Now he has a serious dilemma. If he reports her death immediately, as he should, he has no way of knowing whether her benefactor has predeceased her. If not, he won’t get any of the money. If, on the other hand, he keeps her death to himself until he hears that her benefactor has died, he’ll inherit the money. Against his better judgement, that’s what he decides to do. He duly waits and then reports the death to the police. Inspector Alvarez looks into the matter, and, at first, is prepared to treat it as an accident. But little signs suggest otherwise. Soon, it’s a sort of battle of wits between Tatham and Alvarez as Tatham tries to hide what’s happened, and Alvarez tries to find out the truth. Throughout the novel, there’s an interesting contrast drawn between the mostly-British ex-pat/second home community and the local Mallorcans. Neither side is particularly fond of the other, although the British know that they depend on the locals, and the locals know that the British enclave adds to the economy. It’s an interesting dynamic.

Jassy Mackenzie’s Random Violence begins as private investigator Jade de Jong returns to her native Johannesburg after an absence of ten years. She’s there for her own personal reasons, but she is drawn into the case of the murder of Annette Botha. At first, the victim’s murder looks like a carjacking gone tragically wrong. But little pieces of evidence begin to suggest otherwise. Inspector David Patel wants to look into the matter further, but he’s under a lot of pressure to get the case solved and shelved quickly. He asks de Jong, whose father was his mentor, to help in the investigation, and she agrees. Then, there’s another murder. And another. The murders turn out to be tied together, and when de Jong and Patel find the link, they learn what’s behind the killings. Throughout the novel, there’s a strong sense of the divide between the wealthy, mostly-white enclaves, and the ‘regular people,’ mostly non-white, who live elsewhere. Security in those wealthy enclaves is of paramount importance, and it’s interesting to see how those who live in them set themselves apart from others.

And then there’s Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series. These novels take place in 1920’s India, towards the end of the British Raj. The British are still in control of the country, although there is agitation for Home Rule. Many of the British live near each other in certain areas and have formed their own networks. Other than the members of their domestic staffs, they don’t mix much with those who aren’t British, and their social interactions are usually with other British people. It’s an interesting case of a ‘world within a world.’

And that’s the thing about enclaves. They’re small, sometimes-exclusive communities set in larger communities. And sometimes the two groups have little in common. These are only a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Time Rice’s Perón’s Latest Flame.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Jassy Mackenzie, Rex Stout, Roderic Jeffries

More Than We Bargained For*

Most of us, if asked, would say that we wouldn’t commit a crime, or abet one. And, yet, sometimes people do get drawn into a crime plot, even if they aren’t aware at first of what’s happening. It might something as simple as dropping off a package for an acquaintance, but even something that innocuous can lead to a crime.

The reality that one’s abetted a crime, however unwittingly, can hit hard. And that can add a great deal to a crime novel. Different people behave differently under those circumstances, which can add layers to a character. There’s also the tension and suspense involved as the sleuth gets closer to finding out what really happened.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, a French moneylender, Marie Morisot, is poisoned during a flight from Paris to London. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the same flight. Hercule Poirot is one of those passengers, and he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find the killer. In the course of the investigation, Poirot learns that the victim went to London frequently, but usually took a different flight. At first, the airline representative says that the usual flight was fully booked. But Poirot has found out that’s not true. He pushes the matter and the representative finally admits that he was paid to say the flight was booked. He’s terrified to say so at first, because he hadn’t known there would be a murder. But he tells the truth and gives Poirot some useful information.

Rex Stout’s Fer de Lance begins as Nero Wolfe gets a new client, Maria Maffei. She’s worried because her brother Carlo has gone missing. On the surface, it looks as though he stole some money and returned to the family’s home in Italy. But Maria is sure that Carlo wouldn’t do such a thing. Wolfe agrees to look into the matter, and it’s not long before Carlo is found stabbed to death. A newspaper clipping in his possession suggests a link between his death and the death of Holland University President Peter Barstow. It seems that Barstow was killed on a golf course by what turns out to be poison. It was delivered through a specially-constructed golf club that Maffei designed. He himself hadn’t known it was going to be used for murder; and, when he found out, the killer had to silence him.

In Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain, we meet twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrand. He’s a bit bored with life in his small town, and restless to do something. One day, he happens to meet Simon Marechall, and the two get to talking. Marechall discovers that Ferrand has a driving license, which is exactly what he needs. Marechall is a contract killer who’s getting ready to retire from the business, but he wants to do one last job. For that, he needs someone to drive him to the French Coast. So, without telling Ferrand his business, Marechall asks his new acquaintance to do the driving. Ferrand isn’t doing anything else with his life, so he agrees. With that choice, he becomes Marechall’s unwitting accomplice. By the time he finds that out, though, it’s too late, and matters soon spin out of control.

In one plot line of Charles Stross’ Rule 34, we are introduced to ex-con Anwar Hussein. Since his release from prison, he’s made a sort of living as an identity thief. Then, through one of his contacts, he gets an opportunity to ‘go legit.’ It seems that the newly-formed Central Asian nation of Issyk-Kulistan has decided to set up a consul in Edinburgh, and they want Hussein to fill the post. The work is very easy, the pay is decent, and, best of all, it’s work of which Hussein’s wife will approve. He takes the job; and, at first, all goes well enough. But soon, he starts to wonder about some of the things that are happening at this consul. And by the time he discovers what’s going on, he’s already drawn into a situation from which he can’t really extricate himself. It turns out that Hussein’s story is linked to several murders – murders he didn’t know about and wouldn’t have agreed to if he had.

And then there’s Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club, which takes place in 1950s Auckland. A ship has arrived in Auckland, bringing several passengers whose stories become a part of the plot. One of those passengers is Fenella Grayson. She has with her three orphan girls, who are to be placed in Brodie House, an orphanage run by a man named Lindsay Pitcaithly. The girls are duly taken to their destination, and Fenella begins looking for work. Her mother, Rachel, is from Auckland, so she already has some contacts. She ends up working in the Grand Palais, a ‘gentlemen’s club’ that offers ‘extra services’ for those willing to pay. And that’s how she gets involved with the club’s owner, Rita Saunders. Little by little, Rita learns that something terrible is going on at Brodie House, and that Pitcaithly isn’t the person he seems to be. But he is powerful, and it’s not going to be easy to prove what’s happening. In the meantime, Fenella finds that she’s been more drawn into the situation than she thought. Now, she’ll have to make some choices about what to do.

Plenty of fictional characters knowingly – even willingly at times – get involved in crime. But there are also characters who didn’t bargain for crime, especially a crime such as murder. And it’s interesting to see how authors handle those characters.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jon Bon Jovi.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Stross, Jen Shieff, Pascal Garnier, Rex Stout