Help Wanted: Mystery Fail

Mystery was my first genre love (I had an early reader crush on Encyclopedia Brown), but I’ve read much less in the past few years. And I’ve burned out on some favorite series–they may still be going strong, but after 12 or 15 books, I’ve had enough.

I’d like a new series or two to love, but recent attempts at finding one by library browsing were not effective. When I mentioned this on Twitter, I started getting recommendations, but they are hard to track there. Hence, this post, in which I will describe my recent DNFs, list some favorites to give you a sense of my taste, and ask for your help finding good stuff!

Anna Loan-WilseyA Lack of Temperance (DNF at about 50%)

Great concept: 1890s US; female secretary Hattie Davish as the protagonist; set at an Arkansas health resort where people go to drink/bathe from various springs (faddish at the time); an eccentric group of women from a temperance union as victim and suspects. Loan-Wilsey’s research seemed sound, but when I realized that half way in the book hadn’t engaged me, I gave up. The problem was Hattie’s first person point of view: she lacked a strong voice and I never felt I understood her or what motivated her, despite a lot of italicized interior monologue. I just did not care what happened to her. I still might try the next, which is set in Galena, Illinois, where I went on a well-remembered elementary school trip.

Anne CleelandMurder in Thrall (DNF at 10-15%, plus I skimmed a bit later)

Um. OK. Obviously I did not read the whole book. And there are people who gave it 5 stars. But I quit early because it was an utter fail for me. Basically this is a Fifty Shades rip-off romance (there’s no graphic sex, I think, but one review I read said there is a D/s vibe) grafted on to a police procedural. These two things do not mix well. Obsessive stalker-alpha hero/hapless virgin is a fantasy, and though police procedurals don’t always get it right, the bedrock of the genre is meant to be the day-to-day realism of police work. You really can’t do both satisfactorily in the same book, I think. Here, neither worked for me.

The stalkery rich hero is DCI Acton (He’s also a Lord. Because billionaire copper would be too implausible?). The hapless, ordinary virgin who enthralls him is newly-minted DC Doyle, whom he plucks from obscurity because she’s gifted with some kind of second sight that tells her when people are lying (because she’s Irish. Cliché alert!). And because he’s obsessed with her. By hapless I mean she’s such a bad driver that she’s damaged two unmarked cars, and she leaves her phone on vibrate and misses her boss’s calls. At least she didn’t trip in what I read.

Look, I admit I hate this romance trope, but in erotic romance it’s fully developed and given an emotional logic that works for many readers. I don’t think they’d find it satisfying here. Acton tracks Doyle by her phone GPS and enters her apartment without her knowledge. I couldn’t stop thinking about real-life corrupt, sexually harrassing cops. He’s her superior officer. In that context, I could only read this as really, really creepy, not romantic. After they have sex the first time, he cuts off a lock of her hair while she’s sleeping. This struck me as “serial killer trophy” not sweet, especially as I initially thought the Acton-POV paragraphs that open each chapter (there’s an example in the link above) were villain-POV. Also, police procedure up to the point I reached mostly seemed to consist of Acton mooning over Doyle as they staked out a pub. So it didn’t work for me on that level either. I wish I had read this PW review before I tried it. Also (highlight to see spoiler but not for the mystery): at the end they’re married. She offers to quit so he doesn’t have to worry about her safety, but he says no, he just maybe won’t assign her to some dangerous cases. She’s cool with that. WTF? Just no on all counts–no realism about the job, no professionalism, no respect from him or me for the heroine, no no no.

So. Please help me do better! Here are things I like: classic British police procedurals, historicals, non-UK and US settings (though those are fine too), strong female characters, complex relationships (between the detectives and/or romantic, whatever). I’m burned out on Nordic crime, having read tons for a while (starting with Henning Mankell)–too bleak for my current reading taste. I don’t like too much gore and I’m tired of serial killers. 

Here are some series I have enjoyed (and you might too). I’ve marked the ones with strong romantic elements with a ♥

British-Set/Style Procedurals:

Historicals (mostly 19th-century or post-WWI):

Other (mostly with “different” settings):

Tried one, maybe you can persuade me to go further:

  • Louise Penny
  • C. S. Harris
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66 Responses to Help Wanted: Mystery Fail

  1. Miss Bates says:

    Hmm, great list: I read a lot of mystery novels once upon a time and don’t have much to contribute as it looks like we liked and read the same series!

    However, in historical mystery, I did quite enjoy Boris Akunin’s Fandorin, but especially Sister Pelagia series. An Russian Orthodox nun detective, who’s also a teacher, pretty cool! 😉

    Also, in contemporary, I liked Donna Leon’s Venice-set Commissario Brunetti series.
    And, for something really interesting, any mystery by the Italian writer, Andrea Camilleri.

  2. Teresa says:

    How about Laurie King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series? Russell is a great, strong character, and her relationship with Holmes is fun to watch. (I read the series having hardly read any Holmes stories, but I know a lot of Holmes fans love them.) The early ones are UK-based, but the later books move all over the world.

    Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books are good, too. They’re a little more grim, but Atkinson has a sense of humor that cuts through the seriousness. These are contemporary, set in Scotland, and feature lots of great women characters and a rather hapless male detective.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Another one left off! King’s series is one I burned out on. She has some really interesting contemporaries (with a lesbian detective whose partner is disabled) too. They have religious themes–one involves a cult.

      I listened to the first couple of Atkinson books on audio, because I read them ages ago and really enjoyed them. I meant to go on and catch up with the series, so thanks for the nudge.

  3. Allison says:

    MR Hall-brit
    Tom Harper-byzantine
    Michael Harvey-US
    Peter James-brit
    Philip Kerr-WWII Germany
    Bernard Knight-coroner series-med brit
    Lynda LaPlante-brit
    Owen Laukkanen-US
    Rose Melikan-victorian
    Deon Meyer-South africa
    Stella Rimington-brit spy
    Robert Rotenberg-Canada

  4. Fun post!

    My mystery reading has been limited, though I do really enjoy them from time to time. I’d actually love there to be a Canadian-set series that appealed to me, but that hasn’t happened yet. (Though I’ll admit to now being hooked on mumblemumblemurdochmysteriesmumble.)

    I had Kate Ross as a rec till I reached the end of your post. The other historical mystery that I did love was The Vanished Child by Sarah Smith. It’s part of a three-book series, though I didn’t get into book 2, I would like to reread book 1 because I was so taken by it, and try book 2 a second time. All that said, I just realized—again—that this is not out in ebook (yet?) and your best bet would be the library, so perhaps an annoying recommendation.

    I liked An Instance of the Fingerpost a lot. I wonder if I’d like Pears’s mystery series as well.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The mystery series is very, very different. Light/cozy (and short). I read a whack of them several years ago. Jonathan is an art historian, I think (been a while) and Flavia works for the police art squad. So it’s art-related crimes. Lots of fun.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Oh, and I meant to say, library recommendations are welcome. They are pretty good for mysteries. I read one of the Murdoch books. It was pretty good.

      • Oh, I was mumbling because I was talking about the kinda hokey if sometimes clever (I think) CBC show. I forgot it’s based on books though. I will have to try them!

      • Allison says:

        Yes! I loved that series. When I got back to mysteries in the early 2000s, devoured it.

      • Ros says:

        Oh, that reminds me. The Sweetness in the Bottom of the Pie and the rest of the Flavia de Luce series. Maybe. Try one from the library and see. Also Alexander McCall Smith?

  5. Barb in Maryland says:

    Okay, I am going way out here. Maybe you need a really big change,
    I am really fond of Donis Casey’s pre-WWI Oklahoma frontier books featuring Alafair Tucker. I guess I love them because the setting is pretty much my grandparents grew up in. “The Old Buzzard Had it Coming” is the first.

    Also a big favorite here are Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series–modern North Carolina. “Bootlegger’s Daughter” is the first.

    I love the CS Harris series–very twisty. Also love Phryne Fisher (though I will admit that she’s not to everyone’s taste).

    I admit I didn’t get any farther with the Cleeland that you did–gack! so many ethical problems with that one.
    How have you fared with Deborah Crobie and Martha Grimes? They both have long-running series. I have kept up with Crombie, ditched Grimes years ago–but she does have loyal fans.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thank you! Great ideas. I only ever read a couple of Martha Grimes, but I was addicted to Crombie until a few books back. I think what happens with long-running series is I start to lose track of what’s going on in the overall relationship and other arcs, and it feels like to much work to get back in. Or I just want something new. I’d never make an In Death reader!

      I think I have heard of Alafair Tucker but confused it with the author Alafair Burke. That sounds really different. And I know I’ve seen Maron’s name before. My library is going to be getting a workout.

  6. Ruth says:

    Have you read the series by Rebecca Cantrell that starts with A Trace of Smoke?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I was going to say I’d never heard of her, but realize I’ve read a couple of very positive reviews. Thanks–great idea.

  7. For British police procedurals, I would highly recommend PD James. I really like Elizabeth George’s early books, too. I found them getting progressively darker in the late 2000s, so I stopped. I also like Ruth Rendell and Sayers. Sayers is almost historical by now.

    For historical, I can’t recommend CS Harris highly enough.

  8. Rohan says:

    I knew you’d get a ton of suggestions – I’m making notes too! One I don’t think I’ve seen mentioned and that I was surprised to like a lot was Ariana Franklin’s “Mistress of the Art of Death.” I can’t think why I haven’t read more in this series! And I started on the Elly Griffiths series about the archeologist and it seemed very promising. Alex at ‘Thinking in Fragments’ often writes about mysteries I haven’t heard of that she makes sound enticing — in case you need even more ideas.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I don’t love the Elly Griffiths but I’ve read or listened to several. Ruth is quite a different character and I like the archeology parts. I think my problem with Ariana Franklin was that at the time I read it I was very, very tired of the type of crime involved. I did think the history and writing were great.

  9. pamela1740 says:

    Hmm, I was going to mention Laurie R. King too, but I see you’ve done the Mary Russell series — funny, I burned out on it too, and don’t think I read past Justice Hall. I think the romantic tension of the first books in the series is what really appealed to me. I did like her other San Francisco-set series, but I haven’t read much mystery since then, other than Deanna Raybourn, who’s also on your list.

    I can’t rec these because I haven’t read them, but I have the first book in Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series on my TBR shelf. She took the pen name for her mystery series but also wrote a wonderful 18thc-set romantic historical series under her own name, which was Diana Norman (the Makepeace Burke trilogy). I really loved those books. Anyway, her mystery series is also historical – the protagonist is a female forensics expert in medieval Cambridge (England). Now I’m all fired up to read this… Thanks for your fun post!

  10. Janine Ballard says:

    I believe I’ve recommended it to you before, but it bears repeating: A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot is an excellent mystery, as well as a love story, as well as an epistolary novel. I think you would really like it. My copies keep disappearing on me (I’ve lost two) or I would mail it to you!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I didn’t realize that was a mystery. Definitely will check it out.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        Yes, it definitely is. Mystery was Japrisot’s genre of choice. This one is from what I understand his most unconventional mystery but the process of putting clues together to solve the mystery at the center of the novel is integral to the storyline and to its resolution.

        I need to read more of his books, but alas, none of the English translations are available in e, and A Very Long Engagement is the only one that’s still in print in North America.

  11. merriank says:

    The Point of Dreams, Point of Knives, Point of Hopes books by Melissa Scott & Lisa Barnett have now been released as ebooks. There is a new book out in May 2014 – Fair’s Point. They are fantasy books that have lovely world building with a police procedural story arc for each book and emerging romance between two guys. The city of Astreiant is a character in the story. http://www.tor.com/blogs/2009/06/clocks-and-stars-and-magic-melissa-scott-and-lisa-a-barnetts-point-of-hopes

    I would recommend any book by Melissa Scott I loved her SFF Empress of Earth series and there was a stand alone whodunnit set largely on a space station. Scott’s books have complex cultures and people and are multicultural and queer.

    Rhys Bowen’s cosy mysteries set in the early 1930’s with a young and penniless Duke’s daughter (Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, daughter to the Duke of Atholt and Rannoch) who becomes something of a fixer for Queen Mary and the royal family. There are 6 or 7 books now and they are sweet fun (if you like Phryne Fisher or those Agatha Christie TV episodes from the 1980s with Francesca Annis as Tuppence). There is a subtle romance arc in that Georgie has met the guy we know she will end up with who is a fixer for the Intelligence Services. http://rhysbowen.com/books/royal-spyness-series/

    Rhys Bowen has another series set in New York at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. Heroine Molly is a housemaid and her beloved is an Irish police officer. I haven’t read these. http://rhysbowen.com/books/molly-murphy-mysteries/

    Emma Jameson’s Blue Murder, Ice Blue, Something Blue in the Lord and Lady Hetheridge series has a cross class May/December romance between the senior officer and the sergeant. I think these are self pub and I don’t remember anything egregious about them. If you like the Inspector Lynley Mysteries I think these are of that ilk. http://emmajamesonbooks.com/category/emma-jameson/

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Wow, thanks! Many of these I have never heard of. I have listened to a couple of Rhys Bowen’s Royal series–they are great on audio.

  12. Allison says:

    List more:
    Jennie Bentley-cozy
    Giles Blunt
    Rhys Bowen-cozy series
    Linda Castillo-amish
    Ann Cleeves- 2 series
    Deborah Coates- pnr mystery
    Sheila connolly-orchard cozy
    Ruth Downie-roman brit
    Zoe Ferraris-saudi arabia
    Ann Granger -3 series

  13. Lucy Warriner says:

    Delurking to recommend Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series, which was written between the 1930s and the 1970s and set during that time period. There’s no romance element to the novels, and you could try the television series starring Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin. For historical mysteries with a romance element, I’m quite fond of Teresa Grant’s Rannoch/Fraser series, which presently covers the period from 1812 to 1819 or 1820. You can start with the novella His Spanish Bride or with the novel Vienna Waltz. Grant doesn’t write the books following the internal chronology of the series, but those two works take place the earliest in the series. Thanks for many months of fun reading your blog.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thank you, and welcome! I have heard so many great things about the Teresa Grant books. And Rex Stout is one of the Golden Era writers I have never read. Great suggestions.

  14. Allison says:

    Last list!
    Howard Shrier-Canada
    Victoria Thompson-vic cozy-got played out
    Inger Ash Wolfe-Canada
    Felicity Young-edwardian
    Stuart Macbride-brit

  15. sonomalass says:

    Anne Perry, the first dozen Thomas Pitt novels and the first six William Monk novels. Also her WW I series, which begins with No Graves as Yet. Unless you’ve moral objections to reading her work; I know some folks feel that way.

    I second the early Elizabeth George books, but advise not to read past A Traitor to Memory or perhaps A Place of Hiding unless you know what you’re getting into.

    I O.D.ed on the first few C.S. Harris books, but I intend to go back someday.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I did read some of both Anne Perry series ages ago–that’s one of the places I fulfilled my romance cravings before I started reading genre romance. I should try her WWI series (I get the objections, but don’t share them).

  16. Kathryn says:

    I also liked the Deborah Knox series by Margaret Maron — she also has a second shorter series featuring Sigrid Harald (a NYC police office who has family in N. Carolina). I used to really enjoy reading female PI mysteries, most started in the 80s and were female takes on Sam Spade ideal — the most famous (but least interesting series in my view) was the one by Sue Grafton featuring Kinsey Milhone (“A is for Alibi,” “B is Burglar,” etc.). Other series in this vein are by Marcia Muller (Sharon McCone – set in San Francisco), Sara Paretsky (V. I. Warshowski – set in Chicago), and Linda Barnes (Carlotta Carlye – set in Boston). For other possible authors that write contemporary mysteries — have you tried Minette Walters (British), Tana French (Irish) and Fred Vargas (French)?

    For historical mysteries — I too didn’t have much luck with Ariana Franklin’s series (although I thought her research was strong), but a couple of other medieval mystery series that I enjoyed and didn’t drive me crazy with anachronisms are those by Candace Robb and Sharan Newman. I especially liked the Sharan Newman series — it features Catherine LeVendeur, who is a novice nun from Eloise’s convent, The Paraclete, and Edgar, a cleric scholar who studies with Abelard. I lost track of series a while back, but now that I’ve remembered, I think I’ll go back and catch up. It really is a lovely series and Newman has a great gasp of 12th century French history.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think I read a Sigrid Harald.

      My mom was a friend of Sara Paretsky’s, and I read that series from the start, though I am a few books behind (a character in the first book is partly based on me–this is my secret claim to fame). But most of these series I have never tried, oddly. I did read Tana French, about whom I had mixed feelings.

      • Allison says:

        Yes re:French. Beautifully written, but I couldn’t connect.
        Loving the suggestions–I need some more mystery in my life.
        Read more when I took subway to work/wandered through big bkstores at lunch.

  17. Hi Rosie,
    I’m sorry you didn’t like Murder in Thrall but I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea (and the stalking aspect makes some readers uneasy) so I’ll try to make it up to you—
    I also write a historical series that may be more to your taste, especially if you like Elizabeth Peters–Daughter of the God-King is a Regency adventure set in Egypt. If you leave your address on my webpage, I’ll send you a copy and you can see what you think. 🙂 http://www.annecleeland.com; @annecleeland

  18. janetruckus says:

    I don’t think I have anything to add. I know Robert Parker had a shortish series with a female investigator (I think) but it wasn’t as good as the Spenser series. I’m hot and cold with cozy mysteries. Maybe I just have to be in the mood. Tomorrow I’m mailing my mother The Royal Box, an Agatha Christie style closed-box mystery by Frances Parkinson Keyes. I re-read it and couldn’t remember who killed whom. I know what you mean about Crombie–some of the plots just got too dense. I’ll definitely read her new one but I wish maybe she had a lighter touch. Did someone mention that mysteries set in Alaska. A team of huskies or something… Haven’t read myself.

  19. Danielle says:

    S.J. Bolton – UK settings, incredibly atmospheric & creepy, strong female protagonists. I prefer her standalone books to her DI Lacey Flint series. Not the most realistic premises, and might be too gory if that’s not your bag.
    Giles Blunt – the John Cardinal series, starting with Forty Words for Sorrow. I live in Canada & he does a stunning job depicting northern Ontario. My favourite is probably The Delicate Storm – best description I’ve ever read of the ice storm of 98.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I thought I had read a Giles Blunt (maybe Blackfly Season) but the description rings no bells. Good thing about getting older! I can re-read mysteries and be surprised.

  20. Ruth says:

    I also really liked the Lydia Chen/Bill Smith series by SJ Rozan.

  21. Suzanne says:

    The Hilary Tamar series by Sarah Caudwell features a group of brilliant (and literary) young barristers. Only four books, but they are wonderful!

  22. willaful says:

    Have you read any Jane Haddam? I remember particularly enjoying Somebody Else’s Music.

  23. helenajust says:

    The ones which I was going to suggest have been listed, but I would add encouragement to read C.S. Harris Sebastian St Cyr series, which I love, and Teresa/Tracy Grant’s series. Her protagonists were originally called Charles and Melanie, but when she changed publishers they became Malcolm and Suzanne. The order in which to read them is difficult, since they are not published in chronological order. See her website!

    I adore Julia Ross too. And Julia Spencer Fleming.

    Since you have Sayers as a given, presumably the same is true of the incomparable Josephine Tey? And Ngaio Marsh. And how about Mary Stewart – romantic suspense, but lots of mystery in that!

    I don’t think the following have been mentioned: they’re historical spy series rather than pure mysteries, but in fact they really involve the solving of mysteries, and all feature good strong women:

    Joanna Bourne, who I think is one of the best writers of historical novels, Spymasters series.
    Nita Abrams the Courier series.
    Lauren Willig, the Pink Carnation series
    Adele Ashworth Winter Garden series

    Then there are some excellent books by Josh Lanyon, which are m/m mystery romances; some contemporary, some historical – great characters and mysteries: Adrien English series; Holmes & Moriarity series; Come Unto These Yellow Sands; Snowball in Hell; Cards on the Table; etc..

    Another great m/m writer is Harper Fox, and several of her books are romance mysteries: Nine Lights Over Edinburgh; Half Moon Chambers; The Salisbury Key; Gideon & Lee series.

    Finally Marie Force is a prolific author of contemporary romances including the Fatal series, which stars a female police officer based in Washington DC.

  24. Ros says:

    I didn’t recommend it on twitter because I assumed you’d have read it, but it’s not on your lists, so just in case you haven’t, I think you would probably enjoy Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series. Although the detective is male, she writes a lot of really great female characters in different roles. One of her most memorable is a prostitute-turned-nun. The setting is fun, in war-torn England of the 11th century, in and around a monastery. And if you do like them, there are a LOT to read!

    • Ros says:

      Oh, also, there are usually some romantic elements but they vary according to how much it is part of the book.

  25. Isobel Carr says:

    I’ll add my vote to C.S. Harris. I adore those books (her voice just really works for me, and unlike Perry, I never know/guess the endings). The only recs I have that I don’t already see here are Sharon Kay Penman’s Justin de Quincy Mysteries and Rita Mae Brown’s “Sister” Jane Arnold books.

  26. susanmpls says:

    I rarely seek mystery as a category (I don’t browse that section of the library much), and yet I read a lot of them. Loved Iain Pear’s series, too, and An Instance of the Fingerpost, which was mentioned above, as well as Maisie Dobbs. And the Peabody/Emerson mysteries, and Donna Leon, and Laurie King….

    Some recommendations:
    –Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries (70s communist Laos) Lots of good humor. The series begins with The Coroner’s Lunch.
    –Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight series featuring midwife Sarah Brandt and Detective Sargent Frank Malloy. I found this series after read Caleb Carr’s old NY book
    –Qiu Xiaolong, Detective Chen series, set in contemporary China. The first is Death of a Red Heroine. (As I mentioned on Twitter…)
    –Cara Black’s Aimee Ludec series. Set in Paris, woman dectective.

    I’m not sure if these count formally as mysteries: I love Arturo Perez-Reverte’s books which all center around a mystery. The Flanders Panel and the Club Dumas are two of my favorites.

    Have you read any of Peter Lovesey’s books? I loved The False Inspector Dew.

  27. I second the rec for Sarah Smith’s trilogy. One warning – it MUST be read in order because of spoilers, so THE VANISHED CHILD is first. In other historicals, I love Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January novels, and also enjoy the ones she wrote with Abigail Adams as a detective, under the name Barbara Hamilton. And have you ever tried Lindsey Davis, 1st-person hardboiled set in ancient Rome (Vespasianic)? I’m burned out on the series for now, but the first few were great, and there’s an ongoing romance element.

  28. Kathryn says:

    Have you read Kate Charles? I didn’t see her on your list and I forgot to mention her before. She writes mysteries that are tied in someway to the Anglican church and lots of discussion about church politics, personal faith, religion, etc. Her first series featured David Middleton-Brown and Lucy Kingsley; he’s a solicitor who has an interest in church architecture, whiles she’s an artist and the daughter of an Anglican cleric. I believe Charles also has a new series featuring a female Anglican priest.

    I’m now going to write down all the authors that I don’t know that people have suggested. Lots of interesting books that I haven’t seen before.

  29. Liz Mc2 says:

    I can’t keep up with the comments, but thanks so much to everyone for all these great suggestions! (Most of the ones I have already read I liked, so you’re on target). And thanks to everyone who tweeted/retweeted the post. I know lots of other people said they were noting down suggestions.

  30. DesLivres says:

    Just wanted to second the rec for Marcia muller. I’ve been enjoying her books for 25 years. She’s been writing them for about 40.

  31. JenniferH says:

    If you like historical mysteries I recommend the series by C J Sansom set in Tudor England. The protagonist is a lawyer. I think all my other recommendations have already been mentioned.

  32. Pat Dunn says:

    Try Roberta Gellis’ Magdelayne le Batarde series. (My spelling of the major character’s name may be incorrect, but that shouldn’t be a problem.) There are only about four or five books in the series, but I think you will like them. I really wish there were more. Pat in New Jersey.

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