Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, and what one can learn from crime novels

Christopher G. Moore's novel Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, written based on travel to Cambodia during that country's administration by the United Nations in 1992 and 1993, is full of didactic and journalistic passages:
“`So I’m going to fill in a gap in your knowledge. We French have been here since the last century. We imported the Vietnamese to run the civil administration of the colony."

“`The French were in Cambodia for fifty years before they built the first school,'” said Calvino."

Photos by your humble blogkeeper, Peter Rozovsky
except for the one obviously by someone else.
"This was Ratana’s Thai way of not just showing loyalty for her boss but taking a much larger step, bringing him into the kinship fold—where family looked after family, checking and double-checking on their safety, consulting with other family members."
"Cambodia in the 90s was a second chance, a new frontier, a new gold rush. And guys like Hatch and Patten weren’t going to miss out this time around."
"These strongmen had the unquestioned right over the peasant population. Who among them would have cared about the fate of one such girl? Hundreds of Khmers were stepping on land mines every day of every week, and it looked like that would keep on happening for the indefinite future."
Me and Christoper G. Moore
at Bangkok's Check Inn 99.
I would not like that sort of thing in most crime novels; I'll read a history book instead. But Moore has two things going for him: Cambodia is, in fact, a mystery to many, if not most, Western readers, who could use a bit of background, and he is forthright about his role as a cultural explorer or rather a cultural detective, to borrow the title he used for his book of reflections about life as a writer in Southeast Asia (a book to which I was honored to write the introduction).

So the didactic moments are pretty easy to get used to. Even if you disagree, you might like Moore's borrowings, of which one, when the protagonist, Vincent Calvino, finds a naked news reporter in his bed, is this:

 "She giggled. `You’re cute.'"

That just might remind you of Philip Marlowe and Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

I write about eight women crime writers in The Philadelphia Inquirer

The Philadelphia Inquirer published my review of Women Crime Writers: Eight Novels of Suspense from the 1940's and '50s, edited by Sarah Weinman for the Library of America.
I had fun writing the piece, especially quoting this timely bit from Vera Caspary's Laura:
"I have never stooped to the narration of a mystery story. At the risk of seeming somewhat less than modest, I shall quote from my own works. The sentence, so often reprinted, that opens my essay 'Of Sound and Fury' is reprinted here:  
" 'When, during the 1936 campaign, I learned that the President was a devotee of mystery stories, I voted a straight Republican ticket.' " 
 © Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Friday, November 20, 2015

Six crime writers and a monkey in Southeast Asia

Newark Airport. All photos by Peter Rozovsky
My flight left just as darkness fell in Hong Kong. We followed the night across the Pacific and North America before arriving at Newark International Airport around 11 p.m. I was so drained when I got home that I slept all day.  I have not seen sunlight for 38 hours, and, after a week and a half of 90 degree heat in Cambodia and Thailand, I had to bundle up against the cold.  If only I drank and smoked to excess, I'd have all the prerequisites for writing a Scandinavian crime novel.

Tom Vater
Until then, here are some of the crime writers I met Sunday evening, when Christopher G. Moore, the host for my Thailand visit and a dean among expatriate crime writers in Southeast Asia, interviewed me on stage at Bangkok's Check Inn 99.

A non-crime-writer
outside Phnom Penh
The list includes Moore; Tom Vater, who also wrote the guidebook I used in Cambodia; Harlan Wolff, who chose his pen name at an Irish friend's suggestion after declaring that his writing career would either take off like Hemingway's or sink like the Titanic; James A. Newman, who did a fine job as the evening's MC; and the irreverent Collin Piprell, who asked lots of questions; and Kevin S. Cummings.

Also in attendance was a man billed as the only person to circumnavigate the world five times by motorcycle. Upon hearing I was from Philadelphia, he walked up and said, "Temple University. South Street."

All in all, not a bad evening.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Crime and vice in Cambodia

I got some good monkey shots outside Phnom Penh today. In the human-being department, I looked up "China white" after my tuk tuk driver offered to get me some. He also offered "Girl, anything. Cambodia has lots to make happy-happy."

Had he offered to hook me up with some good loc lac or sticky rice with mango, he might have had a customer As it was, I declined with thanks.

And now, the monkeys, with a guest appearance by a human from the Russian Market.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Monk's cell, Phnom Penh

(Photo by Peter Rozovsky)
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Photos from Phnom Penh

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Detectives Beyond Borders on stage in Bangkok

Good fun at Sunday evening's noir fiction event at Check Inn 99 in Bangkok. I took no pictures of the evening's featured interview because I was its subject, talking about noir, crime fiction, Southeast Asia, noir and crime fiction in Southeast Asia, crime conventions, and other interesting topics. Many thanks to my interlocutor (and my host in Bangkok), Christopher G. Moore, and to the crowd of writers and publishers of crime fiction in this part of the world. You'll be reading about some of them in the coming weeks at Detectives Beyond Borders.

Check Inn 99 has quite a past. Suffice it to say that while my interview and its follow-up audience questions were a blast, they were not the most exciting happenings in this site's history.

Tom Vater
Soi Cowboy (Photos by Peter Rozovsky)
One nice touch: Among the attendees was Tom Vater, who writes crime fiction, is one of the folks behind the Hong Kong-based Crime Wave Press, and also wrote the guidebook I am using for the Cambodia legs of my trip.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, November 14, 2015

The path to a higher state, then and now.

Not from the museum. This is on site at the Banteay Srei temple,
whose ensemble of stone carving has to be among the greatest
and most breathtaking on the planet.
Weirdest experience so far in Cambodia has been the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap, whose layout, like those of the country's celebrated Buddhist/Hindu temples, leads the visitor on a path that symbolizes a larger journey. In this case, that journey's successive steps are marked by swelling music, heavy on strings with occasional minor-key passages to signify that this is serious stuff, and other passages that sound like Zamfir's pan flute.   Oh, yeah: there are some good pieces of Khmer sculpture, too,

The museum is run by a private company in conjunction with Cambodia's Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, and it reminds me of the trend in some American museums of turning, likely because of declining government support, to blockbuster exhibits and multimedia presentations that appeal to a limited attention span.  In science museums, this takes the form of lots of stuff about dinosaurs and Star Wars. At art museums, it means lots and lots of exhibitions of the Impressionsts. One guidebook calls the museum "edutainment," and that seems about right to me.

In the temples from which the museum's sculpture is taken, the journeys replicate a path through life and attainment of a higher state. Here, the journey ends in the souvenir shop.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015


Thursday, November 12, 2015

Some photos from Cambodia

I haven't forgotten about you or about crime fiction; I've just been busy shooting. All photos by your humble blogkeeper.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, November 07, 2015

Rick Ollerman captures the spirit of paperback originals without copying it

Shallow Secrets, a novel by Rick Ollerman published in 2014, captures the feeling of paperback original crime novels published 50 or more years earlier without, however, resorting to showy nostalgia.

How does it accomplish this? On the one hand, its narrative is more leisurely than, say, Harry Whittington's. On the other, Ollerman uses the Whittingtonian technique of giving his protagonist, a cop named named James Robinson, a recurring physical ailment to which he can resort when he needs an ultra-econmical description of the character's physical and mental state.

On the one hand, the old device of using newspaper headlines and stories to mark significant events in the novel; on the other, the recent dates of those headlines and stories: 1989 and after.  And the novel's narrative arc, about which I'll say no more in order to avoid spoilers, reminded me of one that occasionally turns up in paperback originals of the Gold Medal era.

If you like Whittingon or Dan J. Marlowe or Charles Williams, you might like Shallow Secrets. Ollerman likes them, too, I'd bet, but without aping or idolatry.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Friday, November 06, 2015

Pierre Lemaitre's The Great Swindle

A jacket blurb on Pierre Lemaitre's novel The Great Swindle says something like "just as he does in his crime fiction, Lemaitre ... "  The Great Swindle tells of two epic-scale swindles in post-World War I France sparked by two especially odious murders, so why is it something other than crime fiction?

Perhaps because is at least as much a social novel about post-World War I France, about class fissures and political and business corruption, as it is about crime.  Perhaps because the build-up to the central swindles is so leisurely (and so beautifully done and so thoroughly explores the lives of its two central characters and a host of minor ones).  Perhaps because of its ending, which is atypical of crime fiction. Or perhaps because Lemaitre, a two-time winner of the International Dagger Award for translated crime fiction from the Crime Writers Association in the UK, won France's Prix Goncourt for The Great Swindle (Au revoir là-haut in its original French).

Nonetheless, The Great Swindle may remind crime readers of Dominique Manotti in its examination of corruption in France or of Daniel Pennac or Fred Vargas in its portrayal of eccentric households. And it generally avoids the twin dangers of sentimentality and whimsy when it does the latter.The villain of the piece is a weaker character than he could be, too villainous at times, a bit too thoroughly black when a bit of gray might have been called for.  The rest of the characters, even when engaged in outlandish actions, nonetheless--or perhaps because of those actions--combine to present convincing and moving picture of the messiness and the social gaps and broken promises of postwar life.

The translation's English prose is elegant and unobtrusive, a credit to translator Frank Wynne, who is not, a proclamation on his Web site notwithstanding, a terribleman.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Thursday, November 05, 2015

Who, what, when, where, and wai: Detectives Beyond Borders to talk crime fiction in Bangkok

Bangkok Noir Authors - International Crime Meetup
If you happen to be in Bangkok on Nov. 15, I'll be appearing at a pretty special event there that evening.  The handbill for the event (above/right), to be held at Check Inn 99, says Christopher G. Moore will interview me, but I'll probably ask more questions than I'll answer.

Sunday 15 Nov 6-9pm. A special inaugural meetup hosted by Christopher G. Moore featuring Peter Rozovsky the man behind Detective Beyond Borders. Peter is a well known Crime Fiction Critic whose blog is read internationally.

A relaxed and informal atmosphere to hear about trends in international Noir hardboiled mystery novels and how the community of writers in South East Asia fit into this genre. This will be a chance to join others who share similar interests and to meet locally based Crime and Fiction Authors, ask questions and otherwise enjoy yourselves. This will follow on from the popular Sunday afternoon Jazz Jam at Checkinn99. Entertainment after from Music of the Heart Band. More details on https://www.facebook.com/bangkoknoirauthors.

If you're in the area, Check Inn 99 is at 97 Sukhumvit Road, right across from the Landmark Hotel. See you there.  

Read about the Bangkok Noir short story collection at http://www.heavenlakepress.com/books/BangkokNoir.htm

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Detectives Beyond Borders talks movies on The Projection Booth

I'm a guest on Episode 243 of Mike White and Rob St. Mary's Projection Booth podcast, discussing Jean-Pierre Melville's splendid and seminal 1967 gangster movie Le Samouraï, starring Alain Delon, and Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai.

The show is just as much fun as Mystery Science Theater 3000 but with more insight and fewer robots, and you can download it or listen to is at the Projection Booth website. When you're done, go back and listen to earlier episodes. I especially like Mike and Rob's discussion of The Limey.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Friday, October 30, 2015

On writing crime fiction in Southeast Asia

The last time I took a break from crime fiction to read Fernand Braudel, the first Detectives Beyond Borders interview resulted. (I interviewed the late, great French historian's English translator, who also translates Fred Vargas.) This time I'm reading Braudel's A History of Civilizations and, while the crime connection is less direct, one section called to mind a number of crime writers I've discussed here:
"Since the development of Greek thought, however, the tendency of Western civilization has been towards rationalism and hence away from religious life. ... With very few exceptions ... no such marked turning away from religion is to be found in the history of the world outside the West. Almost all civilizations are pervaded or submerged by religion, by the supernatural, and by magic: they have always been steeped in it, and they draw from it the most powerful motives in their particular psychology."
Each of the crime writers this reminded me of is of European descent. Each has lived among and writes with respect about a non-European culture, sometimes about spiritual matters not normally accessible to persons of the mental framework Braudel discussed.

The writers are Colin Cotterill and his series about Dr. Siri Paiboun of Vientiane, Laos; Christopher G. Moore and his "cultural detective," Vincent Calvino of Bangkok; and Adrian Hyland and his half-Aboriginal, half-white, half-amateur sleuth Emily Tempest.

A passage in Cotterill's The Curse of the Pogo Stick, I wrote:
"nicely captures the simultaneous irreverence and respect with which Cotterill portrays the worlds of the supernatural and of those who believe in it. Dr. Siri is both a scientist – the chief and only coroner in post-Communist-revolution Laos – and a shaman, an unwilling conduit to the spirit world. Does he believe in the spirits with which he comes into contact and which sometimes help him solve mysteries? He has no choice."
Moore says Vincent Calvino "sifts through the evidence in a way that makes sense of the location and people living in Southeast Asia." Hyland said of his first novel, Diamond Dove (Moonlight Downs in the U.S.), that "I suspect one could do more for Aboriginal people by portraying them as a living, loveable people, rather than as a broken museum display which is going to have us all running for the confessional."

And Hyland's second novel, Gunshot Road, opens with a beautiful version of an Aboriginal initiation rite.

In each case the author is an outsider, not pretending to be anything else, keeping an open mind and an open eye. Do that well, and you give the readers one of the special joys of reading international crime fiction. What crime writers do it for you? Who does a good job portraying a culture other than his or her own?

(I'll start you off with an honorable mention for Timothy Hallinan, whose protagonist, Bangkok-based Poke Rafferty, is constantly amazed that his Thai girlfriend loves Nescafe.)

P.S. Here's Hallinan on Rafferty from my interview with the author in 2008:
"(H)e suddenly found himself in a culture to which he actually wanted to belong.

"But the important thing, from a writing standpoint, was that he didn't belong, and because he didn't belong, he didn't have to understand everything; he could make mistakes about the people and the lives they live. And he spoke only elementary Thai. Those things were very liberating for me. I'd been nervous about writing about Thailand because I knew there was so much I didn't understand. Suddenly, I didn't have to be the guy who could write the Wikipedia entry on Thailand. My character was just another clown trying to find his way in. He was going to get things wrong from time to time."
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Monday, October 26, 2015

Cambodia, crime, and history

Andrew Nette (right) with your humble blogkeeper
at Philadelphia's Noircon convention in 2014
I've been so immersed in such a welter of Cambodian history and crime fiction that I can't remember just which book is the basis for each of the following observations.

First, the books on which the observations are based:
1) Phnom Penh Noir, edited by Christopher G. Moore
2) A History of Cambodia, by David Chandler
3)  Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, by Philip Short
4) Ghost Money, by Andrew Nette
5) The Pol Pot Regime, by Ben Kiernan

For one, at least two of the stories appear to include allusions, conscious or otherwise, to Casablanca. This makes sense; Casablanca was a refuge or a last stop for dubious sorts with agendas of their own from all over the world. So was Phnom Penh after Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Among the dubious sorts in Phnom Penh, living high amid the local squalor, were workers from non-governmental aid organizations. This is the heart of the first story in Phnom Penh Noir, by Roland Joffé. who directed The Killing Fields.

Second, orientation by landmark is less frequent than I expected in the stories set in Cambodia and written by foreigners, but it is nonetheless present. Without descending into travelogism, the stories will situate places in the story by their relation to major landmarks in a way I suspect native writers would not.

Third, the mutual enmity of Cambodians and Vietnamese, whose best-known manifestation in recent decades is probably Vietnam's 1979 invasion, may have its roots in conflict of countries that fell under the sway of Asia's two great ancient civilizations of India (Cambodia) and China (Vietnam).

Finally, to scramble the notions of native and foreigner, came "Broken Chains," a selection of rap poetry interspersed with biographical snippets in Phnom Penh Noir by Kosal Khiev, born in a Thai refugee camp, migrated to the United States as an infant, convicted of attempted murder, jailed for 14 years, then deported to Cambodia. Where does he belong?

While you ponder that question, here's Andrew Nette on Phnom Penh Noir and writing noir in Asia

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Friday, October 23, 2015


I'm off to Cambodia in a few weeks, so first a shout-out to crime writers who live in Southeast Asia, set their novels there, or both: Christopher G. Moore, Tim Hallinan, John Burdett, Colin Cotterill, and others. Those are the writers I know; I hope to meet more when I take a short side trip to Bangkok.

My guidebook to Cambodia includes a list of suggested reading, and two of the fiction titles are or include crime stories. This raises once again that question of why authors find crime fiction a window through which to view a country other than their own.
And how is an author to approach a country that has known such terror as Cambodia so recently has? As soon as I booked my trip, I visited my native informant — a Cambodian-born, French-trained baker and pastry maker in South Philadelphia.  Yes, he talked about Khmer Rouge torture techniques, but he also offered acerbic comments on the technological backwardness that opened his native country to exploitation and on the superiority of the British to the French as colonizers. And there was an element of shocked humor to his discussion of Pol Pot, who spoke impeccable French, yet was responsible for the deaths of untold numbers of foreigners as head of the Khmer Rouge. (A Wikipedia article on Pol Pot says he was forced to return to Cambodia after failing his exams three years in a row. So yes, while hallucinogenic, nightmare horror is appropriate to the story of Cambodia after World War II. there's a place for grim comedy, too. How is a writer to handle this?)

And then there's the woman in the bakery — I'm unsure if she was a worker or a customer — who said matter-of-factly that she had lost three relatives to the Khmer Rouge, but also that she wanted to take her children to Cambodia one day so they could see their ancestral country.  How is an author to portray this complexity of attitudes and reactions?  I'll tell you next month.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, October 19, 2015

Bouchercon, Part IV: My first panel

Laura Lippman
I moderated one panel and one special-event discussion at Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, N.C.,  which seems long ago but from which I only returned on Tuesday. Here's the first part of what it was like.

Kevin Burton Smith
"Beyond Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, and Macdonald" was a reprise of last year's similarly titled panel in which authors, editors, and other crime fiction experts talked about their favorite lesser-known crime writers of the past.  This year's panelists included Laura Lippman (above right) on the YA author Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Kevin Burton "Thrilling Detective Web Site" Smith (left) on Norbert Davis, Sarah Weinman (below right) on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, and Jordan Foster, who scarpered before I could snap her picture, on Ted Lewis.

Sarah Weinman
All four panelists were eloquent, illuminating, and entertaining, and, more to the point, they chose their subjects well. Lippman taught the gratifyingly packed room that an author who wrote fantasy for children could fill her stories with hard-boiled and even noir tropes.   Smith opened audience eyes to an author who proved that superb writing and hard-boiled toughness are compatible with slapstick comedy.

Weinman talked about Holding, writer of superbly tuned domestic suspense (and, I would argue, noir), and one of the best of the mid-twentieth-century female crime writers Weinman is doing so much to bring back into circulation. And Foster? She spoke comprehensively about Lewis, known for the novel now called Get Carter, but author of at least two other crime fiction classics, and one of the toughest of all crime writers, who combined sharp observational humor with Jim Thompson-like nightmare intensity.

I like to think the panel expanded the audience's idea of what crime fiction can accomplish as much as it expanded mine, because that's exactly what I set out to do.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

A first look at The Second Girl by David Swinson

David Swinson
My first post-Bouchercon reading, David Swinson's The Second Girl, takes every cop-turned-P.I. trope you can think of and turns it on its head.

Swinson's protagonist is a former Washington, D.C., cop named Frank Marr, but Marr does not bristle with hatred for the FBI officers with whom he must work.  He drinks too much and indulges to excess in a range of drugs, but he does not not wallow in self-pity over this. He commits other crimes and misdeeds, but Swinson portrays these neither as adventures not as self-laceratng hell trips; they're just what Marr does.

Swinson doesn't get in the reader's face with his character's damaged quirkiness, either.  His revelations of plot and character are gradual until, not so many chapters in, the reader is apt to be hooked without knowing it.

He does something similar with the narrative. The second girl of the title is a young woman whose parents hire Marr after their daughter falls in with drug-dealing lowlifes. There's also a first girl, Marr's recovery of whom is a bracingly rapid surprise that kicks the larger narrative into gear.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015


Thursday, October 15, 2015

Bouchercon, Part III: Guilty white liberals

John Farrow
I learned at Bouchercon 2015 that Canada has identity-mongering guilty white liberals, just as the United States does. Saturday's panel on Canadian crime writing at Bouchercon 2015, included a complaint from Trevor Ferguson, a.k..a, John Farrow, about people who say that he, a white man, should not write about members of ethnic groups other than his own.

He grew up in Montreal's Park Extension neighborhood, he said, in the only non-immigrant family on the street, so "Who else am I going to write about?" if not members of other cultures.

And I neglected to include in Tuesday's post on Bouchercon bar conversations a number 7: Stuart Neville on crime fiction festivals and the possibility thereof in Northern Ireland.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Bouchercon, Part II

I ate five meals here.
I'll organize this year's Bouchercon 2015 posts thematically, beginning with out-of-panel conversations, mostly from the bars at the Marriott and Sheraton hotels. The interlocutors and their subjects included:
Megan Abbott, Lawrence Block
Megan Abbott
Michael Sears, one half
of the team that writes
as Michael Stanley
1) Hillary Davidson on digestive syndromes and international travel
2) Her husband, Dan, on New York bagels and where to find them
3) My second-generation homie Alexandra Sokoloff on Jewish migration from everywhere
4) Sam Wiebe on books and authors, though I can't remember which ones
5) Wallace Stroby on Dashiell Hammett
6) Suzanne Solomon on Israel and writers named Roth 
And thanks to Eryk Pruitt for staging an entertaining and atmospheric Noir at the Bar in Raleigh and for posting the following. And yes, I know that probably should be "bill" rather than "beak," but I don't edit the past:
Noir at the Bar MC
Tracey Coppedge

Eryk Pruitt
Eryk Pruitt:@reverenderyk 14m 14 minutes ago Many great quotes at ‪#Bcon2015. Among them: "Daffy Duck is like David Goodis, but with a beak."--@DBeyondBorders (Peter Rozovsky)

Bill Crider
John McFetridge
Eryk is a good sort, and he was gracious enough to give me a shout-out for inventing Noir at the Bar and staging the first ones. So Detectives Beyond Borders likes him.
Annamaria Alfieri, Terrence McCauley, Rita Ramirez McCauley, Dana King 
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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