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Category Archives: Noir

DOROTHY B. HUGHES. The So Blue Marble (1940).

SoBlueMarble1The Montefierrow twins, the villains who drive this very offbeat début novel, appear to hail from the darker reaches of our collective unconscious. With their matching tophat-and-tails apparel, their walking sticks that contain concealed weapons, and their monogrammed (and narcotically infused) cigarettes—above all, with their preternatural air of self-possession—they embody a dream logic. Floating through an otherwise realistic Manhattan cityscape, they come across less as characters in the usual sense than as fragments of a nightmare. From the novel’s first scene, they cast a haunting pall over the heroine, Griselda Satterlee, and in doing so they push the tale halfway into the horror genre. In its overall structure, however, The So Blue Marble unfolds as an early example of the mid-century noir thriller. It’s a cat-and-mouse tale in which Griselda, a former movie actress who now works as a fashion designer, plays a reasonably sympathetic “mouse” to the twins’ demonic “cat.”

Aside from their bizarre accoutrements, the Montefierrows’ most distinguishing features are their astounding looks and charm, their apparently limitless wealth (which bestows an aura of impunity on them), and their homicidal zeal to possess a certain blue marble, which they believe Griselda either has or knows how to find. That eponymous bauble—a thing not only of great beauty and great value, but also of supposedly occult power—serves as the novel’s MacGuffin. It has a blood-soaked back-story that recalls the one that Dashiell Hammett gave to the Maltese falcon in his novel of that name, but Hughes handles this motif less deftly than Hammett did. Other parties are chasing after the marble, and among them is a government entity called X, staffed by so-called X-men and led by a quasi-mythic figure named Barjon Garth. It’s an outlandish plot element, worthy of a comic book. Equally outlandish is a string of murders that seem to attach as much to Griselda as they do to the marble; she isn’t responsible for them, but they are part of the phantasmagoria that surrounds her.

Even as the tale draws on the surreal logic of dreams, it also follows a movie logic: Hughes peoples it with vain Hollywood stars, wisecracking reporters, high-strung High Society women (including Griselda’s sisters, Ann and Missy), and dashing bachelors (including Con Satterlee, Griselda’s former husband, and “Gig” Gigland, a Columbia University professor). SoBlueMarble2In various combinations, these characters race across city streets—and back and forth to a small upstate town—in vivid, cinematically paced scenes. An actual movie adaptation, in fact, might have improved the story by wresting Hughes’ plot into a tighter, more conventional shape.

A couple of minor surprises enliven the final stretch of the novel, but ultimately it is not a work of mystery, and even its capacity for eliciting suspense—that sense of needing to know, and yet fearing, what will happen next—is fairly weak. The fantasy-like strain that runs through the piece makes it hard to believe, or care much about, Griselda’s predicament. Will the heroine elude the twins’ vendetta against anyone who might thwart their quest for the marble? Will she find not just safety but also love amid the human wreckage that ensues from their evil project? Hughes, although she displays a high level of literary craft for a first-time novelist, provides answers to those questions that are neither surprising nor compelling.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2020 in American, Noir, Novel

 

MARGARET MILLAR. Wall of Eyes (1943).

When Millar introduces Detective-Inspector Sands of the Toronto Police Department, she notes how little about him is actually worth noting. “He had no strong sense of identity,” she writes; somewhat hyperbolically, she adds that “he lived in a vacuum.” Millar is a sly creator, however, and her creation is no less sly. As multiple suspects discover, there is far more to Sands than meets the eye. In a story that revolves around what people do or don’t see, the unobtrusive inspector sees just about everything, and he counts on others’ failing to see him in full. His very lack of definition allows him to serve a critical function for any detective hero—that of navigating the disparate sectors of a complex social landscape.

Wall of Eyes draws the strands of its plot from two very different segments of Toronto society. The main venue of action is the Heath family home, located in a part of town where old money goes to establish just how old and how moneyed it is. Denizens of the house include Kelsey Health, who is blind but has visions of unnamed people who are out to get her (she speaks of being menaced by a “wall of eyes”); Alice Heath, a tightly wound woman who is beginning to accept her impending spinsterhood; Johnny Heath, a former athlete whose youthful charm is starting to fade; and Philip James, a penniless musician who clings to his status as a family protégé. All of them live in an atmosphere of quiet gloom and steadily worsening decadence. WallEyesThe rest of the action occurs in and around a nightspot called Club Joey. Inhabitants of this locale include Mamie Rosen, a lovelorn torch singer; Tony Murillo, a small-time hoodlum who has shacked up with Rosen; Marcie Moore, a prim dancer with grand pretensions; and Stevie Jordan, a master of ceremonies who is a slave to his free-ranging fears. The mood among this crew is one of ersatz frivolity and genuine despair. The original connection point for these two realms is a car accident that occurred two years previously. Kelsey Heath and Philip James, who had become a couple, were traveling with Johnny Heath and his date, a singer at the nightclub named Geraldine Smith. Their car crashes, leaving Kelsey blind and Geraldine dead. Now, in the present, reverberations from that event lead to new anxieties—and to new spasms of violence.

The juxtaposition of these worlds, and the implication that both of them are corrupt in distinct (yet tragically complementary) ways, align this tale with the social vision around which Millar’s husband, Kenneth Millar—who wrote under the name Ross Macdonald—would famously build his cycle of hardboiled detective novels. As in Macdonald’s fictional universe, the intermingling of “high” society and it “low” counterpart operates as both a cause and an effect of spiritual malaise, and that dynamic impels certain characters to take criminally desperate measures. Indeed, hardboiled inflections are a feature in both writers’ work. Millar, because she often wrote about female protagonists and because many of her novels fall into the “domestic suspense” category, sometimes gets tagged as a “cozy” writer. But, as this early work demonstrates, she has a special talent not for giving readers a comfy feeling but for unsettling them. Again and again, Millar adopts the perspective of a given character as a means of highlighting the deceptions (of self and others) that mark the sorry, slippery nature of human life.

In blending elements that are alternately hard and soft, high and low, Millar offers a preview of more masterful work to come. The story that she tells here occasionally threatens to dissolve under the pressure of her elusive, involuted style. So subtle, so elaborate, are her renderings of various characters’ internal lives that readers are apt to lose track of the characters’ external actions. A noir-like miasma hovers over the edges of the narrative. But then, as the novel nears its finish, a twist arrives that illuminates the vital link between the milieu of the nightclub and the milieu of the Heath residence, and the tale reverts to classic detective-story form. In the aftermath of that twist, Sands explains how he elucidated the truth from a series of tangible clues—a pile of clothes borrowed from a missing man’s closet, a box of matchbooks that advertise Club Joey, a set of photographs taken after the car accident, and so forth. Like any top-grade sleuth, he is adept both at seeing what’s in front of him and at gleaning what lies beneath social appearances.

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2020 in American, Noir, Novel, Puzzle

 

HELEN McCLOY. Do Not Disturb (1943).

For her first novel that doesn’t feature the series detective Basil Willing, McCloy relies heavily on tropes used in various movie thrillers of the prewar and wartime eras. It recalls, in particular, the ur-plot of several Alfred Hitchcock films: An innocent hero, whom fateful circumstances have cast in the role of a guilty fugitive, scurries across urban and pastoral landscapes as unfamiliar threats lurk around every apparently familiar corner. Do Not Disturb also calls to mind the work of Cornell Woolrich, along with the cycle of noir-inflected novels and films that followed the angst-filled trail that Woolrich blazed. These works conjure up a world marked by freakish coincidences (or, rather, by events that seem to be coincidental). DoNotDisturb.jpg They reflect a vision of modern life in which a faceless crowd can suddenly become a swarm of people who are all “out to get you”—“you,” in this case, being a beleaguered protagonist who stands in for the everyman (or every-woman) reader.

Narrated in the cultivated but slightly neurotic voice of its heroine, a divorcée named Edith Talbot, this standalone tale begins with Talbot’s desperate nighttime search for lodging in a Manhattan where the U.S. Army has commandeered many of the local hotels for the quartering of troops. That opening sequence sets the tone for a story in which the war-skewed city becomes a strange and menacing place—a place where nothing is predictable and no one is worthy of trust. At the Hotel Majestic, where she eventually lands a room, Talbot encounters circumstances that most certainly do disturb her: She hears a man crying in the room next to hers. She meets a man in that room who identifies himself as a member of New York’s Finest. She comes back to her own room one night and stumbles upon a corpse. This sequence of inhospitable occurrences leads her to flee the hotel. But where can she go? She dare not go to the police, because the cop whom she met next-door appeared to be giving the “third degree” to the very man who later turned up dead in her room. Her frantic quest for both truth and safety propels her to rural Pennsylvania and then back to the urban jungle and finally to a (literal) cliffhanger scene in which she confronts the main villain, a fascist sympathizer whose motive for various crimes gives this thriller a contemporary political twist.

McCloy brings her usual verve to this topsy-turvy adventure, but ultimately it isn’t the kind of story that suits her talents or her sensibility. Like Willing, she possesses a confidently rational mind; she lacks the paranoid spirit that enables a writer like Woolrich to create a febrile, dreamlike atmosphere in which improbable events take on an air of inevitability. A later novel by McCloy that centers on a fearful, besieged heroine—Through a Glass, Darkly (1950)—unfolds more convincingly, partly because of Willing’s calm presence and partly because it doesn’t rely on first-person narration. McCloy has clearly put much of herself in Talbot. Both women are well bred and well educated, and each of them occupies a social position in the upper reaches of the American class system. But in reading Talbot’s account of her ordeal, one can’t shake the sense that her creator would never deign to get caught in such a predicament.

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2019 in American, Noir, Novel

 

LESLIE FORBES. Bombay Ice (1998).

India, confined to a mere subcontinent of space, famously contains enough life to fill several continents with an ample supply of beauty, sordor, and intrigue. The temptation to duplicate that quality of excess in literary form has afflicted countless writers from the West, including the author of this hyper-intelligent thriller. BombayIce.jpg Here are some of the elements that swirl about in Forbes’s veritable monsoon of a novel: the history of alchemy, sibling rivalry, the cinematic achievements and social vicissitudes of Bollywood (India’s answer to Hollywood), colonialism, the culture of the hijra (the pre- and post-op eunuch prostitutes who haunt and enliven the streets of Bombay), suicide, the practice and lore of gilding, Indian nationalist politics, biracial mating and its offspring, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the smuggling of antiquities, the craft of art forgery, meteorology, high technology, the deadly allure of water, the dispensability of wives, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest (which one character, an Indian version of Orson Welles, has worked for decades to bring to the Bollywood screen).

Rosalind Benegal—sired by a polymathic philanderer from Kerala, borne of a self-destructive Scottish mother, named after a hearty Shakespearean heroine—returns to the India of her anguished youth. There, she soon discovers, signs and rumors abound to suggest that someone intends to kill her estranged half-sister. A journalist by trade and a seeker of truth by neurotic inclination, Rosalind delves further and further into a maelstrom of human desperation and omnipresent deceit. Bombay, through her eyes, becomes a landscape of cheapened lives and richly imagined schemes. Yet the abundance of mirrors and baubles that grace the surface of this narrative keeps the story from functioning well at a deep level. Bombay Ice features superb writing and generous erudition, but it culminates in a confusing, inconsequential finale. Rosalind, who narrates the book, notes at one point that Indian music has nothing like the self-contained structure of Western music. Forbes errs in giving this novel a similar quality: What works in a raga fails to serve the needs of a detective tale.

 

 
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Posted by on November 29, 2018 in International, Noir, Novel

 

DENNIS LEHANE. Darkness, Take My Hand (1996).

Lehane, in this second book to feature the sleuthing duo Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennarro, has put the Dorchester section of Boston on the map of places that have a presence in myth that no region could ever attain in mere space. In his Dorchester, killer clowns rule the night, cruising Savin Hill Avenue in an ominous-looking white van and laying the groundwork for a vengeful murder spree that will occur twenty years later. DarknessTakeHand.jpg In his Dorchester, the sins of fathers and mothers, born of the vigilante passions that roiled white working-class Boston during the school-busing crisis of the 1970s, linger as a curse upon their progeny.

Through artful storytelling, Lehane makes us want to believe in that Dorchester—and makes us need to believe in his two homegrown heroes, who winningly demonstrate their ability to transcend the violence that marks their neighborhood. He does less well in other respects. An air of Hollywood-inspired banality clings to much of the dialogue and to some of the characterization. The byplay between Kenzie and Gennaro, which swerves from the fraternal to the sexual and back, is cutesy and obvious rather than clever. (One critic shrewdly hears in it an uninspired echo from the TV show Moonlighting.) And the plot, though powerful as a whole, does not work as smoothly as it might; it has a couple of hard-to-ignore holes, and its final sequence goes on too long. But for a novelist, it’s no small thing to transfigure a humdrum patch of earth into an arena of epic adventure. In creating a fit place for Kenzie and others to confront their demons, internal as well as external, Lehane has achieved that feat.

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2018 in American, Noir, Novel

 

ARNALDUR INDRIDASON. Jar City (2000).

“He thought about mothers and daughters and fathers and sons and mothers and sons and fathers and daughters and children that were born and no-one wanted and children who died in that little community, Iceland, where everyone seemed related or connected in some way.” The agent of these musings on the vagaries of paternity and maternity, and on the intricacies of the Icelandic “family,” is Erlendur Sveinsson, detective inspector on the Reykjavik police force.

Following the now-standard format for gritty procedurals, Erlendur functions less as a traditional protagonist than as a prism through which his creator can refract multiple rays of investigative, personal, and social drama. (An introductory note explains that Icelanders generally go by their first name; they don’t have surnames in the usual sense of that term.) Indradason surrounds the inspector with a cast of supporting players who function as a work family—Sigurdur Oli, an up-and-coming fellow with a degree in criminology; Elinborg, a female junior officer; Marion Briem, a crusty senior officer; and so on. On the home front, meanwhile, Erlendur faces challenges that are typical of put-upon fictional cops everywhere: He has a troubled daughter, Eva Lind, and his stumbling efforts to maintain a connection with her form a major subplot in the novel. JarCity.jpg

Erlendur is also keenly aware of his membership in a distinctive national family. Iceland has a population no bigger than that of a mid-size American city, and its people can trace their ancestry back many centuries. Consequently, the country has been able to create a database that combines information on the health and family histories of virtually all of its citizens. Affiliated with this vast genealogical undertaking is a laboratory that retains specimens of biological material from a vast assortment of Icelanders; the book’s title is a mordant reference to that facility. The scientific value of these projects derives largely from the country’s genetic homogeneity. Even so, Indradason manages to suggest that there are an infinite number of stories to be found in Jar City.

There is, for instance, the story of Holberg, a 69-year-old truck driver whose penchant for sexual vice appears to have been the only notable element of an otherwise drab existence. Acting on a neighbor’s tip, Erlundur and his team enter a seedy basement apartment in the Nordurmyri neighborhood of Reykjavik and discover that someone has bludgeoned Holberg to death. What follows is an engrossing tour through the seemingly ordinary lives of people whose fates had intersected with that of the murdered man. Attention turns before long to a set of women who were, or may have been, raped by Holberg—and to people who have familial connections with these victims. (That’s where the revelations of Jar City come into play.) Within this group, presumably, Erlendur will locate a culprit whose yearning for vengeance found an outlet in the savage murder of a sad, dirty old man.

Although Indradason suffuses the tale with an ample portion of Nordic dourness, he avoids the plodding exposition that mars some works of Scandinavian noir. Indeed, the most compelling element of this novel—the third in the Erlendur series—is the author’s careful management of suspense. From chapter to chapter, Indradason switches between one investigative lead and another, and he further varies the mix with chapters about Erlendur and Eva Lind. By braiding his narrative strands in this way, he creates a sequence of cliffhangers that are small in scale but cumulatively large in impact.

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2018 in International, Noir, Novel, Procedural

 

ROBERT SILVERBERG. Blood on the Mink (1962).

“Vic Lowney,” the wise-guy hero of this trim thriller, is about as real as the counterfeit $5 and $10 bills that his nemesis, a Philadelphia crime boss named Henry Klaus, has begun to put into circulation. To be sure, the man himself is real enough: He’s an agent of an unspecified federal department, charged with bringing Klaus to justice and with securing the engraving plates used to print Klaus’s funny money. But for nearly the entire tale, the agent remains incognito. (We learn his first name, but only that, in the final pages of the book.) The real Vic Lowney is a high-ranking operative in an LA crime syndicate. In the opening scene, the feds kidnap this thug during a cross-country flight to the City of Brotherly Love, so that their agent can take his place in a planned negotiation to distribute Klaus’s home-made cash on the West Coast. BloodMink.jpg The agent, who narrates his adventure in the snappy manner that typifies mid-century crime fiction, dons the “Vic Lowney” guise and proceeds to improvise his way into a dark corner of the Philly underworld. He tangles violently with Klaus’s right-hand man; he tangles romantically with the Klaus’s kept woman; he tangles conspiratorially with other mobsters who want a piece of Klaus’s counterfeiting operation. The risk that someone will blow the Lowney cover looms over every scene, but the agent maintains his subterfuge just long enough to complete his mission. From start to finish, he conducts his exploits in the ersatz currency of tough talk and brute action.

Somewhat disappointingly, Silverberg doesn’t do much with the rich theme of fakery. A writer with grander ambitions for this work might have leveraged its core plot to explore the metaphysics of imposture—to evoke the quandary of a good guy who must act in bad faith, or to probe the ironies that surround a counterfeit crook who pursues counterfeit money. Instead, Silverberg plays it straight, generating a story that functions almost wholly at the level of action. According to an afterword that Silverberg penned in 2011, he wrote the novel back in 1959 for a magazine publisher that went bust before the story could appear in print. A few years later, he yanked it out of his files to meet the needs of another publication, a magazine called Trapped. “Too Much Blood on the Mink” (as that magazine titled it) was an object of mass production, pure and simple. That fact is particularly evident in Silverberg’s prose, which is awkward in some places and flat or clichéd in others. Nonetheless, the style here is equal to the substance of the narrative. Blood on the Mink (as Hard Case Crime titled its soft-cover version of the book) offers a worthy sample of the wares that a fictioneer like Silverberg could churn out during his prime, and it embodies a casual professionalism that would do “Vic Lowney” proud.

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Noir, Novel

 

HELEN EUSTIS. The Horizontal Man (1946).

In the 1940s, at the moment when the classic whodunit reached unmatched heights of intricacy and sophistication, another kind of mystery tale started to overshadow that once-popular form: the novel of psychological suspense. HorizontalMan.jpgMysteries of the mind, in short, began to usurp mysteries of fact and circumstance. Stories that feature clues perceptible to the five senses and decipherable by rational thought gave way to stories that draw generously on psychoanalysis, a mode of thought and practice that attained its peak of public awareness during this era. This novel illustrates and embodies that transition.

Set within the confines of a New England women’s college, The Horizontal Man begins and moves through its early stages in the usual Golden Age manner. An instructor of English who had served extramurally as the campus Lothario is bludgeoned to death, and an assortment of jealous women and envious men loom as worthy suspects in his killing. But no detective emerges to sift through the clues, which in any case are fairly cursory. Instead, a loose-knit trio of amateurs—a love-struck reporter, the brainy co-ed on whom he has a crush, and a stereotypically wise psychiatrist—worry over the problem until a solution practically erupts in their faces. Although Eustis foreshadows the psychosexual nature of the crime, it’s unlikely that any reader, or indeed any plausible fictional sleuth, could have detected it. The handling of the pivotal trick reflects a shrewd and confidant authorship, but it falls short of what others have accomplished in this vein (see, for instance, Beast in View, by Margaret Millar), and from a 21st-century vantage point, it seems almost naive: So often and with such deftness have others turned this kind of trick over the past half-century that it now takes more to shock us than Eustis delivers.

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2017 in American, Noir, Novel

 

L.R. WRIGHT. Prized Possessions (1993).

Where does one draw the line between the mystery novel and the work of serious fiction? In some instances, that line blurs to the point of nonexistence. Those who write about crime often work to attain—and often do attain—the depths of psychological insight and the lofty reaches of social observation that great novelists have traditionally claimed as their exclusive literary domain. Mainstream writers, meanwhile, often descend into the precincts of genre fiction, if only because a work presented as “A Mystery” will sometimes garner more readers than one marketed as “A Novel.” PrizedPossession.jpg

Somewhere between those publishing trends falls this tale. Issued as a “crime” novel, it has a good deal in common with a straight novel that came out in roughly the same era: Paris Trout, by Pete Dexter. Like that work, it traces the process by which a handful of characters converge—slowly, tortuously, inexorably—upon acts of horrific violence. At no point is there any doubt as to “who” or even as to “what.” In the fictive world that Wright has built, only the question of “how” appears to matter. How will the perpetrators find their victims (or vice versa)? How will the murderous impulses foreshadowed in the novel’s earliest scenes finally be unleashed? Nothing beyond the presence of a professional detective, one Karl Alberg of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, signals that we are reading a genre piece rather than a “literary” product.

Alberg, in fact, performs no detection. He merely goes about his business, most of it personal, while just over the horizon of his life in staid, orderly Vancouver, two stories of conflict between the sexes unfold—stories of desire thwarted and transposed into hate. In one, a drugstore clerk of subnormal intelligence, believing that a haughty college girl has snubbed him, sets forth to demand an apology from her. Not really knowing why, he takes a gun along with him. In the other, a woman has invested every resource at her disposal into being the perfect wife, only to discover that she has failed. When she goes in search of the husband who has left her, she too carries a gun. The two dramas proceed separately, in parallel fashion, for most of the novel. Then they intersect with one another, and with Alberg, in a concluding sequence that is none the less explosive for being perfectly predictable.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2014 in International, Noir, Novel, Procedural

 

ELLERY QUEEN. Cat of Many Tails (1949).

This foray into the realm of serial murder stands out for being a departure for an author who typically focused on less anonymous forms of killing. In a postwar New York that feels grittier and more prosaic than the stylized metropolis of the early Queen books, a series of people are found slain by the same method—strangulation with a cord of Indian tussah silk—over the span of just a few weeks. CatManyTails.jpgNo apparent link exists between one victim and another, and the dead hail from every corner of Manhattan and from every rank in society. Tabloid newspapers, eager to exploit popular fear, dub the murderer “the Cat” and liken each victim to a cat’s tail; the escalating number of figurative feline appendages yields a sinister image that captures and discombobulates the collective mind of the city. Gotham authorities enlist Ellery Queen to apprehend the killer and to quell the frenzy, and he succeeds on both fronts, but not before the Cat has grown its ninth tail.

For both Queen the detective and Queen the author, serial murder poses an all-too-obvious challenge: Where motive appear to be absent, as it does here, everyone is a suspect. Or no one is. The author handles that problem ably, in part by deploying well-disguised clues that ultimately point to the motive and hence the identity of the Cat. Equally important, Queen in this outing tilts the narrative emphasis away from the genteel matching of wits between reader and detective—the hallmark of most earlier tales in the Queen cycle—and toward the careful depiction of a world shadowed by the specter of total war. (It’s intriguing to pair this work with another that appeared in the same era: “Here Is New York,” E.B. White’s famous ode to the city. As Queen does in this novel, White celebrates New York in all its quotidian glory, but an acute sense of dread colors his otherwise loving portrait of the place and its people.) Like others who had lived through the 1940s, the men who wrote the Queen books reached the end of that decade with a diminished faith in human rationality. One result of that change of perspective, not just in their work but across the entire genre, was a move toward telling stories in which the mechanics of crime and crime-solving give way to the dynamics of mental and social chaos.

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2014 in American, Noir, Novel, Puzzle