Author: Roberta (page 2 of 30)

#amwriting Notes on Writing Mysteries

Writing mysteries isn’t easy, but it can be rewarding.  According to science fiction author David Brin (Writing Excuses podcast 7.10), all new writers should write a murder mystery for their first novel. His reasoning? The techniques you are forced to learn can be applied to any other genre.

 

Where should you start? Before you put fingers to keyboard, here are a few things to think about.

1. Explore the Mystery Genre

Readers expect certain elements when they read a particular genre. For example,  in a romance they expect kissing, in a western they expect a horse or two, etc. In mysteries they are looking for a dead body — or at least some form of foul play. They also expect a sleuth or sleuths to try to figure out who did it and clues to point to the answer. It’s okay to shake up the expectations, but do it from the perspective of knowing the rules and breaking them rather than stumbling because you aren’t aware of the norms.

To see how the publishing industry defines different types of mystery novels, take a look at GoodReads.  Some of the subcategories/subgenres may differ from those found in writing handbooks. For example, where writing guides may lump all mysteries with amateur sleuths into the cozy category, GoodReads lists Amateur Sleuth Mystery as separate from Cozy. This makes sense because although cozies always feature amateur sleuths,  they also have other elements such as they take place in a small town and the level of violence is low to nonexistent. On the other hand, GoodReads combines private detectives and police detectives into Detective mysteries, whereas most writers consider mysteries featuring law enforcement sleuths as “police procedurals” and those with private detective main characters as their own subcategory.

In any case, the lists are wonderful places to find new novels in each genre and subgenre. Reading mystery novels in each category is a good way to learn about them. You can also see which novels are popular (1000s of reviews) and which are not (only a few reviews).

Items 2-4 may be done in any order, but they are tied to one another.

2. Pick a Great Setting

A good mystery answers the questions who (is telling the story), when and where early in the book. Both when and where are the setting.

Answering these questions right at the beginning helps orient the reader and gives information about what to expect. If the setting is a small town in Maine, expect a cozy. The story of a private detective living in New York or Los Angeles will probably be grittier. If the year is 1871, the reader is going to look for a historical mystery with details that fit the times.

If you plan to pen a series, consider how many dead bodies the citizens of your setting will realistically generate. For example, the Lewis series on PBS was set in Oxford, England with a population of about 150,000. The show portrayed numerous murders per episode over eight seasons, giving Oxford an abnormally high murder rate. Note:  If you’re going to feature a particularly gruesome serial killer, tourism boards everywhere will thank you for creating a fictional city or town for your setting.

The setting will also influence who you choose as your sleuth, which is another reason to consider it early.  J. A. Jance’s J. P. Beaumont series is about a homicide detective working in Seattle. Her Joanna Brady series, in contrast, is set in the small town of Bisbee, Arizona. In that setting, it is more appropriate for her main character to be a sheriff.

Consider choosing somewhere new and fresh. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who has picked up a mystery novel simply because of the unique setting. The Shetland Island Mysteries by Ann Cleeves, and Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee series spring to mind.

grand canyon arizona

3. Pick a Sleuth

The plot and tone of your novel will depend on the who you choose to investigate the crime. Now that you understand genre, the sleuth may be a hard-boiled private investigator, a grizzled cop, or a spunky bookstore owner.

Make sure the sleuth has a strong reason to pursue the villain. I recently read a novel where the sleuth played cards with his friends and took his goddaughter to the zoo rather than investigating. His lack of focus and motivation might have been realistic, but it was maddening for the reader.

You also need to decide who will narrate. The story doesn’t always have to be told from the sleuth’s point of view. It can be told from the point of view of a sidekick (like Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe mysteries) or from multiple points of view, like Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series.

4. Pick a Villain and Suspects

You will need a good villain (or villains), too. For the conflict to draw the reader in, the villain should have his or her own compelling story. The more conflicted and complicated the villain is the better, even if he or she doesn’t end up having much time on the page.

You’ll also need realistic suspects. The suspects may be completely innocent or can be villains of another story who just happened not to carry out this particular crime.

5. Write front to back or back to front?

Plotting a mystery is complicated because the clues have to be laid out in the text so the reader can solve the main puzzle by the end of the book. On the other hand, to provide an enjoyable reading experience, the clues should not be obvious. Multiple solutions should be suggested, some of which are red herrings (clues that mislead the reader). How does a writer do this?

Because the crime is generally revealed in the first few pages, it is often easiest to start there. Develop an intriguing crime.

Front to Back (ending)

If you are a pantser and generally write from beginning to end, you might give yourself multiple scenarios of how it happened and who did it, and whittle them down to one at the end.

Back to Front

If you are a plotter, decide who did it and why (the ending).  Construct a chain of clues to get you to that ending.

After laying out the main clues, build subplots around the trail of clues to obscure it. Point the reader in other directions. Leave out some clues and add others.

As you can see, both approaches lead to a similar structured mystery.  Which works better for you will depend on how you organize your thoughts. Just don’t forget to maintain the suspense and have plenty of mini-cliffhangers at the end of each scene to keep the reader turning pages.

Note:  Be sure to reveal all the suspects near the beginning of the story, if possible. Readers will toss your novel away in frustration if you bring the villain in on page 260.

How you physically record the plot details is up to you. Some people use index cards, some can’t live without software and spreadsheets, and others plan with sticky notes on a bulletin board. I personally use Scrivener because of the virtual index cards and outlining features.

The best method is what works for you.

Good luck!

Any questions? Let us know.

John Sandford’s Golden Prey

Let’s take a look at Golden Prey, one of the latest in the Prey Series by John Sandford (link to author post).

Golden Prey by John Sandford

I had read that Golden Prey might be a good starting place if you hadn’t seen this series before and were reluctant to start at the first.  I agree with that assessment because this novel breaks many of the ties of the past books. Lucas Davenport has taken a new job with the U. S. Marshals and he’s out of his depth. He knows his home state of Minnesota and has numerous connections there. Now his beat is the entire country. He’s gone from a small pond to a huge one. Will he be able to keep up with the big fish or will he get swallowed up?

Genre:  Thriller

Once again, this novel follows the thriller road map. We learn what the bad guys are up to early on and the question becomes will Lucas be able to catch them. Also, the ending isn’t tied up completely in a nice neat bow, which makes reading more suspenseful.  You never know who is going to get away with what. Sometimes the bad guys are victims.

Setting:

The U.S. Marshals have wide ranging jurisdiction, so Lucas is free to follow the criminals wherever they go. He’s no longer stuck in Minnesota. Sandford takes full advantage of this, sending him to Tennessee and Texas for much of the book.

Theme:

If readers missed it, Sandford isn’t shy about letting us know that an overarching theme is how dependent we are on cell phones and how they make us vulnerable to being spied on.

“They’re  so great, these little machines are, that we all agree to be spied on for the privilege of carrying them.”

I like how he shows that the criminals are fully as able to track cell phones as law enforcement is.

Conclusion:

Although it must be difficult to maintain momentum without becoming stale, Sandford throws his main character into new situations to keep the stories fresh. As with others in the series, Golden Prey was impossible to put down until the very end.

 

#BookBeginnings A Season to Lie by Emily Littlejohn

A Season to Lie by Emily Littlejohn caught my eye at the library this week for Book Beginnings on Fridays.

Book Beginnings is a fun meme hosted by Rose City Reader blog. To participate, share the first sentence or so of a novel you are reading and your thoughts about it. When you are finished, add your URL to the Book Beginnings page linked above. Hope to see you there!

 

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A Season to Lie by Emily Littlejohn

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:   Gemma Monroe has just returned to her job as a police officer after twelve weeks of maternity leave. For her first case, she heads out into a blizzard on what should be a routine check for a prowler at a local school. Instead she discovers a dead body and launches into an investigation that proves to be far from routine.

First Sentence of Prologue:

On a cold and bitter night in February, twelve weeks after giving birth, I returned to what I know best:  death.

First Sentence Chapter One:

I stepped into the central squad room of the Cedar Valley Police Department and then stood still for a moment, taking in the familiar sights and smells.

 

Discussion:

I like police procedural mysteries, and the snowy Colorado setting caught my attention. So far it hasn’t completely lived up to expectations, but it is pleasant enough.

I believe someone else featured this novel recently for Book Beginnings, but I couldn’t find the post. I’d love to hear what you thought of it if you’ve already read it.

What do you think? Have you read any novels in the Gemma Monroe series?

#BookBeginnings The Old Man and the Gun by David Grann

With the recent release of the movie starring Robert Redford, today we’re featuring The Old Man and the Gun: And Other Tales of True Crime by David Grann for Book Beginnings on Fridays.

Book Beginnings is a fun meme hosted by Rose City Reader blog. To participate, share the first sentence or so of a novel you are reading and your thoughts about it. When you are finished, add your URL to the Book Beginnings page linked above. Hope to see you there!

 

book-beginnings-button-hurwitz

The Old Man and the Gun: And Other Tales of True Crime* by David Grann

 

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:  This small volume is a collection of three articles previously published in The New Yorker between 2003 and 2008. The first, “The Old Man and the Gun” is about a man who keeps up a crime spree well into his seventies. “True Crime” describes the investigation of a novelist who might have revealed the details of a real murder in his fiction. In the third, The Chameleon,” a Frenchman pretends to be a missing boy from Texas all grown up, but soon finds out he might not be the only one who is being less than truthful.

First Sentence of “The Old Man and the Gun:”

Just before Forrest Tucker turned seventy-nine, he went to work for the last time.

Discussion:

What possibly go wrong when your “work” is robbing banks?

David Grann is the author of Killers of the Flower Moon, which was on a lot of must-read lists last year.

What do you think? Would you keep reading? Are you going to see the movie?

Author Post: Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves is a prolific English author who has written four separate mystery series. Her first featured amateur sleuths and bird watchers,  George and Molly Palmer-Jones (started 1986). The second series featured Inspector Ramsay and was set in the English county of Northumberland (started 1990). The Vera Stanhope series (started in 1999) and The Shetland Island Mysteries (started in 2006) have been turned into television shows, Vera and Shetland on BBCFirst (see trailer below), respectively.

Vera Stanhope series by Ann Cleeves

Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope is not the typical heroine.  She is middle aged, she works all the time, and she doesn’t make friends easily. On the other hand, she is good at her job.

  • The Crow Trap (1999)
  • Telling Tales (2005)
  • Hidden Depths (2007)
  • Silent Voices (2011)
  • The Glass Room (2012)
  • Harbour Street (2014)
  • The Moth Catcher (2015)
  • The Seagull (2017)

Shetland Island Mysteries by Ann Cleeves

These novels feature Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez.

Raven Black (2006) -reviewed here
White Nights (2008)
Red Bones (2009)
Blue Lightning (2010)
Dead Water (2013)
Thin Air (2014)
Too Good To Be True (2016, novella)
Cold Earth (2016)
Wild Fire (2018) -last in the series according to the author

Raven Black* by Ann Cleeves


(*Amazon Affiliate links)

The first in the Shetland Island Mysteries series, Raven Black won the coveted Dagger Award.

Although this novel says “A Thriller” on the cover, it really falls neatly into the mystery category (for reasons I can’t give away without spoilers).

Characters

One thing I really like about the book is how Cleeves builds her characters. She gives little in the way of physical description, but instead we get to know them in small increments through thoughts, actions, and even reactions from others. She reveals her characters as if by painting, by laying down a few strokes of color at a time. Using this technique, she builds the picture slowly and with a deft touch.

For example, we meet Magnus first. We begin to suspect he is elderly because his feet are stiff and achy and because he dozes while waiting.  A short time later we learn more, that people laugh at him and call him slow. When two young girls arrive, we see from their mix of fear and giddiness that he’s  ostracized and lonely.

When we meet main character Inspector Perez, his physical description is distorted because the observer is in a vehicle.

She saw the face of a man, the impressionist image of a face, blurred by the mist and muck on the glass, wild black hair and a strong hooked nose, black eyebrows.

The dialogue is sparse, except the times when Perez interviews someone. Even then there are breaks in the conversation filled with descriptions and observations. The low key dialogue helps create an atmosphere of silence and adds to the austere feeling.

Setting

The setting is well done and it is interesting to learn about the people or the Shetland Islands and their culture. None of it seems extraneous. For example, Cleeves uses a community festival held every year in Lerwick, Shetland called Up Helly Aa to help move along the plot.

Conclusion

Raven Black is beautifully written. Because the author combines realistic characters with a novel setting and a compelling plot, the reader is riveted right to the end. I definitely want to read more of this series and more novels by Ann Cleeves.

Trailer for Shetland

 

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About Author Posts:

Because I read a lot of mysteries, I’ve been trying to come up with a better system to keep track of which novels I’ve finished. I thought blogging would help, which it does, but I don’t always review everything I read. To get more organized, I’ve decided to create a series of author posts with lists of novels and links to my reviews. I plan to edit these pages as needed.

#BookBeginnings Wild Fire by Ann Cleeves

Wild Fire: A Shetland Island Mystery (Shetland Island Mysteries) by Ann Cleeves for Book Beginnings on Fridays.

Book Beginnings is a fun meme hosted by Rose City Reader blog. To participate, share the first sentence or so of a novel you are reading and your thoughts about it. When you are finished, add your URL to the Book Beginnings page linked above. Hope to see you there!

 

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Wild Fire: A Shetland Island Mystery  by Ann Cleeves


(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:  In the final installment of the Shetland Island Mysteries, an English family moves to the remote Shetland Islands to give their autistic son chance for a better life. When a young nanny’s body is found hanging in the barn beside their home,  suspicion falls on the father who might have been having an affair with her. Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez must investigate while dealing with both his complicated relationship with his boss and the burning resentment of locals towards the newcomers.

The novels are also the basis of a popular television series.

First Sentences of Wild Fire:

Emma sat on the shingle bank and watched the kids on the beach below build a bonfire. They’d dragged pieces of driftwood into a pile: it was something to do to relieve their boredom. Nothing much happened in Delaness.

Discussion:

Did you notice the alliteration in the first line? Five words start with ‘b’ and the punchline in the next line also starts with ‘b’: boredom. Do you think that was intentional?

What do you think? Are you a fan of the Shetland Island Mysteries? Have you seen the TV show?

Author Post: Dorothy Gilman

Dorothy Gilman (1923-2012) wrote children’s books under her married name, Dorothy Gilman Butters, for a number of years before starting the popular Mrs. Pollifax series.  Gilman traveled extensively and used her experiences to send her protagonist to exotic locations throughout the world.

The Mrs. Pollifax Series by Dorothy Gilman

Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax of New Brunswick, New Jersey, is a widow with grown children and an unremarkable life. She is tired of attending her Garden Club meetings and frankly, is more than a little depressed. She wants to do something good for her country, so she begins to volunteer as a CIA agent.

(Red = Have read the book)

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (1966)
The Amazing Mrs. Pollifax (1970)
The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax (1971)
A Palm for Mrs. Pollifax (1973)
Mrs. Pollifax on Safari (1977)
Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station (1983)
Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha (1985)
Mrs. Pollifax and the Golden Triangle (1988)
Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish (1990)
Mrs. Pollifax and the Second Thief (1993)
Mrs. Pollifax Pursued (1995)
Mrs. Pollifax and the Lion Killer (1996)
Mrs. Pollifax, Innocent Tourist (1997)
Mrs. Pollifax Unveiled (2000)

 

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax*by Dorothy Gilman

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

This is a delightful series with so much going for it:

  1. The protagonist, Mrs. Pollifax,  is smart and personable. You want to be friends with her or, better yet, have her as your grandmother.
  2. The mysteries are not predictable because Gilman has a talent for surprising the reader.
  3. The stories are still fresh and relevant, which is amazing given the first one was written over 50 years ago.
  4. Being a CIA agent allows Mrs. Pollifax to travel throughout the world and you get to travel with her.
  5. The novels are quick and easy to read (which is a bit of a negative because sometimes it might feel like you’ve finished too soon.)

Before I prepared the list, I thought I had read all the books in the series. Now I see I have missed two novels. Time to hunt them down!

A special thank you to Karen for introducing me to these books and supplying most of the copies.

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About Author Posts:

Because I read a lot of mysteries, I’ve been trying to come up with a better system to keep track of which novels I’ve finished. I thought blogging would help, which it does, but I don’t always review everything I read. To get more organized, I’ve decided to create a series of author posts with lists of novels and links to my reviews. I plan to edit these pages as needed.

#BookBeginnings The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman

Today I have an old favorite, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman for Book Beginnings on Fridays.

Book Beginnings is a fun meme hosted by Rose City Reader blog. To participate, share the first sentence or so of a novel you are reading and your thoughts about it. When you are finished, add your URL to the Book Beginnings page linked above. Hope to see you there!

 

book-beginnings-button-hurwitz

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax*by Dorothy Gilman

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:  Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax of New Brunswick, New Jersey, is a widow with grown children and an unremarkable life. She is tired of attending her Garden Club meetings and frankly, is more than a little depressed. She wants to do something good for her country, so she becomes a CIA agent.

This is first in an enjoyable series.

First Sentence of The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax:

The nurse walked out of the room, closing the door behind her, and Mrs. Pollifax looked at the doctor and he looked at her. He was a very nice young man, with black hair, very white teeth and horn-rimmed glasses that he removed now, placing the stem of the earpiece between his teeth. “Well, Mrs. Pollifax,” he said pleasantly, “I don’t know how you manage it, but for a woman of your age, you’re in fantastically good health. I congratulate you.”

Discussion:

What I love about this beginning — and it is perfect because it gives a taste of what is to come in the rest of the novel — is the surprising twist, the defying of expectations. The reader starts out expecting that the doctor is going to give Mrs. Pollifax bad news about her health, but he doesn’t. She is perfectly healthy.  In the next bit there’s another twist when we find out Mrs. Pollifax is actually disappointed her health is good. Dorothy Gilman is a master of setting up expectations and then breaking them in fun and interesting ways.

What do you think? Would you continue? Have you read any of the Mrs. Pollifax mysteries?

Author Post: John Sandford

John Sandford (real name John Roswell Camp) started out as a journalist. After a distinguished career, including winning a Pulitzer, he decided that he could make more money writing novels. It turned out to be a good choice.

You can find out why he chose to write under a pseudonym for the Prey series and more at his website.

 

The Prey series featuring Lucas Davenport:

For the earlier novels, Lucas Davenport works for various law enforcement agencies in the city of Minneapolis. In the later novels, he goes to work for the U.S. Marshals Service and travels throughout the U.S.

1. Rules of Prey (1989)
2. Shadow Prey (1990)
3. Eyes of Prey (1991)
4. Silent Prey (1992)
5. Winter Prey (1993)
6. Night Prey (1994)
7. Mind Prey (1995)
8. Sudden Prey (1996)
9. Secret Prey (1998)
10. Certain Prey (1999)
11. Easy Prey (2000) –Reviewed
12. Chosen Prey (2001)
13. Mortal Prey (2002)
14. Naked Prey (2003)
15. Hidden Prey (2004)
16. Broken Prey (2005)
17. Invisible Prey (2007)
18. Phantom Prey (2008)
19. Wicked Prey (2009)
20. Storm Prey (2010)
21. Buried Prey (2011)
22. Stolen Prey (2012)
23. Silken Prey (2013) -reviewed below
24. Field of Prey (2014) -shelf
25. Gathering Prey (2015) -shelf
26. Extreme Prey (2016)
27. Golden Prey (April 25, 2017) – Reviewed
28. Twisted Prey (April 24, 2018)
29. Neon Prey (April 23, 2019)

He also has a series featuring Virgil Flowers (as John Sandford) and the Kidd series, originally published under the name John Camp (some more recent editions name John Sandford instead).

Silken Prey* by John Sandford


(*Amazon Affiliate Link)

Jacket Blurb:  Dirty politics hits a new low when one of the candidates of a close race, an incumbent U.S. senator, is caught with child porn. The governor entices Lucas Davenport to investigate whether the senator was framed and if so, by whom. When a political fixer disappears, the trail of dirty tricks points to the senator’s opponent, a smart and powerful young woman. Is she the one and will Lucas be able to stop her?

Characters

John Sandford is an absolute master at creating fully-rounded characters. He has a way of introducing each new person vividly and with memorable details, so that it is easy to keep them straight.

Lauren opened the door, a slender woman, not tall, with red hair and high cheekbones and a big smile.

Describing his friend Elle, the nun:

… now wore what Lucas called “the drabs:  brown or gray dresses and long stockings with a little brown coif stuck on top of her head like the vanilla twist on a Dairy Queen cone.

Can’t you see her?  Although, if the coif is brown, perhaps it should have been a chocolate twist?

His villains are also memorable and well-developed, something that isn’t always easy to do. According to his website, Sandford apparently researches criminals (true crime) so that his antagonists are fictionalized versions of real people or events.

Genre

The Lucas Davenport novels are firmly in the thriller camp. Readers learn quite soon who is behind the dirty tricks and also what happened to the guy who disappeared. The readers spends the rest of the time wondering if Davenport will also be able to figure out what is going on and stop the criminals in time. The cool thing is, with the Prey series it isn’t a given that everything will be wrapped up neatly in a bow at the end.  Knowing that ramps up the tension.

Conclusion

John Sandford is a frequent guest at Poisoned Pen Bookstore. You can get to know him better in this video of his book signing for Extreme Prey.

As Douglas Preston notes, John Sandford’s works seem prescient at times. He has a special talent to be able to keep his novels relevant years after they were first published.

An aspiring writer would do well to study John Sandford’s techniques.

 

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About Author Posts:

Because I read a lot of mysteries, I’ve been trying to come up with a better system to keep track of which novels I’ve finished. I thought blogging would help, which it does, but I don’t always review everything I read. To get more organized, I’ve decided to create a series of author posts with lists of novels and links to my reviews. I plan to edit these pages as needed.

#BookBeginnings The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Today we have a historical mystery, The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey, for Book Beginnings on Fridays.

Book Beginnings is a fun meme hosted by Rose City Reader blog. To participate, share the first sentence or so of a novel you are reading and your thoughts about it. When you are finished, add your URL to the Book Beginnings page linked above. Hope to see you there!

 

book-beginnings-button-hurwitz

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

I have read and enjoyed a couple of the novels in Sujata Massey’s Rei Shimura mystery series, which are (initially) set in contemporary Japan. In a noticeable departure, this novel is set in Bombay in the 1920s.

Summary:  Perveen Mistry has just joined her father’s law practice, making her one of the first female lawyers in India.  When she notices that the three wives of a deceased wealthy businessman have all relinquished their inheritance, Perveen decides to find out why. Someone is trying to hide the truth, however, and that person is willing to resort to murder. Perveen must figure out what is going on before anyone else is harmed.

First Sentence:

A Stranger’s Gaze
Bombay, February 1921

On the morning Perveen saw the stranger, they’d almost collided.
Perveen had come upon him half-hidden in the portico entrance to Mistray House. The unshaven, middle-aged man appeared as if he’d slept for several days and nights in his broadcloth shirt and grimy cotton dhoti that hung in a thousand creases from his waist to his ankles, His small, squinting eyes were tired, and he exuded a rank odor of sweat mixed with betal nut.

Discussion:

Does it work for you when the author simply states the “where” and “when” at the beginning of the chapter like Massey does here?

Sometimes authors artfully incorporate that information in the first few sentences, but I like when they simply state it, too. I prefer when the author does give away some information about who, where, and when up front rather than leaving us guessing.

I also like that she includes enough information for the reader to figure out that a dhoti might be similar to pants since it hangs from his waist to ankles.

What do you think? Have you read The Widows of Malabar Hill? Would you like to?

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