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Fallen angels: the Columbo victims that break the heart

Sympathetic victims header

I penned an article just a few weeks ago for this very blog about those Columbo victims we love to hate – you, know the Edna Browns, Frances Galeskos and Tony Goodlands of the Columbo universe; the sort the world isn’t likely to miss much. In fact, the type you’re probably secretly whooping when they’re bumped off.

The article was well received (you guys…), so it was as natural as a Robert Culp rage, or a Jack Cassidy dimpled grin, to put the glove on the other hand and write about the victims who really didn’t deserve it. These guys and gals had either no idea that their lives were in danger at all, or their misdemeanors hardly deserved the punishments meted out (i.e. grisly murder).

So, here are 10 of the least deserving Columbo victims of all. As usual with articles of this type, this list is in no particular order apart from the top 3, which I must admit sadden me every time. So get your hankies at the ready, and if you’re feeling stout-hearted, read on…

“These guys and gals had either no idea that their lives were in danger at all, or their misdemeanors hardly deserved the punishments meted out.”

Alan Mallory – Publish or Perish (1974)

Alan Mallory

Likable writer Alan Mallory (played by actual writer Mickey Spillane – good casting!) has been penning best-selling filth for sleazy publisher Riley Greenleaf for years. Now he’s determined to switch publishers ahead of releasing a new novel about the Vietnam War, leaving Greenleaf in the lurch.

Knowing the book will sell squillions of copies, Greenleaf ain’t having any of it. Mallory has made him a rich man, so he hires weirdo ‘Nam veteran Eddie Kane to slay the writer as he completes work on the novel. Mallory’s stunned expression of fear (pictured here) as the trigger is pulled wrenches the heart.

Jean Davis – Requiem for a Falling Star (1973)

Jean DavisThe over-worked Secretary to fading film star Nora Chandler, unfortunate Jean becomes a mere pawn in Chandler’s silly games with gossip writer Jerry Parks (Jean’s new lover) to keep her reputation unsullied – and her dark secrets under wraps.

Because Jean knew too much about Chandler’s shady past (and possibly even her murdering her former husband), Nora can’t allow her and Jerry to remain an item. Jean might let some good gossip slip, after all. So she firebombs Jerry’s car knowing full well Jean is the one driving it. After 18 years’ faithful service at Nora’s side, that’s a pretty rough way for Jean to check out.

Lisa Chambers – Double Shock (1973)

Lisa Chambers victimAlright, she might have been a bit hyper and flighty, and she might have needlessly turned the cold shoulder to Lieutenant Columbo for no good reason half way through this entertaining episode, but Lisa Chambers died horribly – flung off her high-rise balcony to a grisly demise on hard concrete below.

Even though this crime happened off screen, there’s no disguising that this was a terrifying way to go for a good-hearted and spiritual young woman, who was very much more of a lover than a fighter, and who had done nothing wrong except stand in the way of the inheritance of two men she barely knew, who had already killed her fiance.

Jim Ferris – Murder by the Book (1971)

Jim Ferris victimLike Mickey Spillane as Alan Mallory above, Martin Milner exudes a natural warmth and every man charm as Jim Ferris making it impossible not to feel gutted for him when iceman Ken Franklin bumps him off.

A happy, sensitive family guy who loved his wife and had a passion for his work, it still leaves a lump in the throat when Jim meets his untimely end.

As a writer, having ambitions of doing your own ‘serious work’ seems to be a dangerous thing in the Columbo universe, if Ferris’ and Mallory’s experiences are anything to go by…

Roger White – Double Exposure (1973)

Roger WhiteThe big, lovable boob from the projection room, Roger seems to be one of the genuine good guys. A friendly, helpful chap, quite willing to share ice tea with a thirsty lieutenant, he doesn’t appear to have a bad bone in his body. Heck – even knowing that he was trying to blackmail a murderer left him wracked with guilt.

Roger was smart enough to figure out Dr Keppell’s subliminal cut murder method, but not smart enough to get the $50,000 cash he wanted to keep his mouth shut. Instead he received a much more predictable donation from the dastardly Dr: a one-way ticket to the morgue.

Lily La Sanka – Murder by the Book (1971)

Lily La Sanka victimPoor Lily La Sanka. She was playing with more than fire when she tried to first flirt, then blackmail her way into Ken Franklin’s heart. She was playing with the Devil himself!

And, true to form, the Devil won out, bashing her brain out with a champagne bottle before ditching her body in the lake. All for the sake of $15,000 – a figure Franklin cavalierly admits he considers a beggarly sum.

Sure, Lily was stupidly trusting, not to mention borderline crazy, but as a desperately lonely country widow, who was a little star-struck and looking for love, she deserves our pity.

Nadia Donner – A Deadly State of Mind (1975)

Nadia Donner victimShe was complicit in betraying her husband and having a fling with debonair doctor Mark Collier, but in truth, poor Nadia was one of the most ill-treated of all Columbo victims. Pumped full of mind-altering drugs by the ‘good Doctor’ to further his own professional ambitions, her ultimate fate is an absolute shocker – albeit a far-fetched one: death by hypnosis.

While in a drug-induced trance, Dr Collier plants the suggestion to Nadia than when she receives a phone call and hears a code word, she’ll have a desperate need to swim. So when the call comes in, she flings off every stitch and plunges off her balcony in an attempt to hit the distant apartment complex swimming pool below. She fails. A sad end to a very vulnerable character, who was totally out of her depth getting tangled up with a worm like Collier.

And the top three…

3. Bertie Hastings – The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case (1976)

Bertie Hastings blogWhere to start with poor Bertie? By the sounds of it he’s been belittled, bullied and humiliated for years by supposed ‘friend’ and business partner Oliver Brandt. Oliver even takes delight in tickling Bertie in public, eliciting from him a girlish laugh that others scorn. We also learn that he has no one else in his life, which suggests cute Bertie’s really a lonely, sad little man.

To top it all off, honest Bertie discovers that Oliver has been embezzling cash from clients to (presumably) fund his trophy wife’s spending habits. When he threatens to expose his partner, he’s slain. “I really did love you, Bertie,” Oliver laments, as he stands looking down at the corpse. He had a very funny way of showing it…

2. Tomlin Dudek – The Most Dangerous Match (1973)

Tomlin Dudek ColumboA chap so friendly that you just want to bebble his chubby cheeks and chuck him playfully on the chin, Tomlin Dudek made Ruskies palatable, even to the Cold War-weary US TV viewership of the 1970s.

After thrashing arch-rival Emmet Clayton in an ad-hoc rehearsal match to their world title chess clash, Tomlin takes pity on Emmet when the latter appears to have a breakdown, knowing he can’t beat the Russian Grand Master. Tomlin even offers to postpone the match, but his honorable intentions are wasted on Clayton, who shoves him into a trash compactor and later diddles his dosages in hospital to snuff him out for good. Game over, man! Game over!

1. Harry Alexander – A Stitch in Crime (1973)

Harry Alexander 2

Has any Columbo killing been as senseless and cruel as this one?

Get this: Harry’s a reformed drug addict (who, reading between the lines was also a troubled Vietnam veteran) who has struggled to get his life back together and now works in a child’s petting zoo. He had a short-term fling with nurse Sharon Martin (Dr Mayfield’s first victim), which ended in case he became too dependent on her. This bummed him out, but he was at least dealing with it as best he could.

The very last thing Harry needed  was to be jumped on and chloroformed in his own apartment by the fiendish Dr Mayfield. But that’s what he got! The party didn’t end there, though. Oh no! Mayfield then delivered a fatal dose of morphine to Harry, which caused his life to tragically end in a narcotic, psychedelic haze as he tumbled down his apartment steps.

I feel so bad for Harry – who simply has no concept of who is out to get him, or why he’s become a cropper – that it saddens me to even write about it.

“The very last thing Harry needed  was to be jumped on and chloroformed in his own apartment by the fiendish Dr Mayfield. But that’s what he got.”

So there we are. I end this article with a heavy heart, thankful that this is just great TV we’re discussing, not real life crimes. Are there any victims whose fate rends your own heart in two? If so, holler below and we’ll get some quality chit-chat going on.

I recognise there are strong claims to include old Henry Willis from Forgotten Lady, plus the disgracefully treated Hector Rangel from Matter of Honor, but my personal heart doesn’t go out to them quite as much.

Until next time, adieu. And thanks, as always, for taking the time to read, comment and share, and generally do your bit in keeping Columbo‘s legacy alive.

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71 thoughts on “Fallen angels: the Columbo victims that break the heart

  1. I won’t hesitate to add Paul Williams
    from Ransom for a Dead Man.

    Also the scientist from Mind Over Mayhem, who is
    murdered by the institute’s head for knowing that his
    son stole the work for which he was credited.

  2. Great list! And the comments section has so many great suggestions that I can’t add much more…just one more thing, in fact: Charles Clay (Robert Vaughn) in the dreaded “Last Salute to the Commodore.” Even he’s not a perfectly sympathetic victim—he doesn’t break your heart—but he did try to cover for his wife Joanna, and Commodore Swanson himself is so unpleasant that you don’t really care that Charles ran the company in a way Swanson didn’t approve of. At least he’s turning a profit, unlike Harold van Wick! 🙂

  3. I agree with all on your list. I think Roger White was a close second behind Harry Alexander. Harry is number one easily. He has zero interaction with Dr. Mayfield, that I recall. Mayfield basically shows up and kills him and Harry dies never knowing who it was, or why. Roger sneaks to the second spot because of his conversation with Keppel. He says he wants to get into real estate for additional money because his mother has been sick. I remember after Keppel shoots him, wondering, just for a brief second, “What’s his sick mother going to do now?” Since Roger is presented the way he is in the episode, we’re given no reason to suspect that Roger isn’t being honest when he says his mother is sick.

    • I feel sorry for White too, and was wondering the same thing about his sick mother. You can understand, if not condone, Kepple killing Norris, since if he hadn’t, Norris would definitely have exposed him, and that would be the end of his career and freedom. But he could have just paid White and he would have been safe.

      I think the problem was a mismatch between two types of minds. White, despite the blackmail, is basically a good, conscientious person. He’s grateful to Kepple for giving him a job, he needs money for his sick mother, and he possesses a sense of shame. (He’s also nice to Columbo.) Kepple, on the other hand, has no scruples. He blackmailed multiple clients, maybe even framing some of them if they wouldn’t cheat on their wives. He does not feel a sense of moral obligation, and so was not at all grateful to White for not telling the police what he knew.

      Even though White’s murder is treated as secondary to the plot, and Kepple puts less effort into it than he does into Norris’s, it’s White’s murder that tells you what a poor excuse for a human being Kepple is.

  4. Harry Alexander was definitely the worst murder of a “good guy/gal”. A veteran with substance problems who had turned his life around. Brutal. And the lovely Anne Francis as Sharon Martin, both murdered in the same episode. Nimoy’s character deserved to hang for those.

    Freddie, Uncle Leon’s (Rip Torn) nephew was another one who didn’t deserve it. Nice guy, loved his Uncle, who was cheating with his former wife. The only negative of that episode were those Bohemian beatniks and gypsies that Freddie surrounded himself with, singing commie songs and hanging out with a chimpanzee. That was a strange twist to the plot.

    Leslie Williams’ (Lee Grant) husband was another sympathetic character. The Marine that General Hollister (Eddie Arnold) shot was against the Corps standards. Dale Kingston’s (Ross Martin) Uncle was also needless.

    It’s probably easier for me to list those who did deserve everything they got, and them some. Those include:

    Lilly LaSanka, Jennifer Welles, Tanner (the butler in Dagger of the Mind), Roger White, Edna Brown (but not MaryAnn), Eddie Kane, Frances Galesko, (multiple times) William Haynes, Rosanna Wells, Jesse Jerome, Milton Shaeffer, Edmund Galvin, Vincent Pauley, David Kincaid, Budd Clarke, Marcy Edwards, Harold McCain, Nick Franco, Gerry Winters, Geraldine Ferguson, Verity Chandler, plus Tony Galper and Linwood Cohen, just for being in the dreadful series finale “Columbo Likes the Nightlife”.

    I’m obviously not a fan of blackmailers and extortionists.

    • One person I felt really bad for was the (unseen) Robbie Stafford. At the age of 18/19 his father was murdered and his mother tried to kill herself.

  5. Just saw “Bye Bye Sky High I.Q. Murder Case” this morning. Poor Bertie! He really was a sweet little guy who just got tired of being kicked around. Always a huge mistake to say to someone, “I’m going to tell everybody what you did!!” right to their face. Anyway, love this article! I can agree with almost all of your choices, though Lily does seem kind of “iffy” to me. (Still, she didn’t deserve what she got.)

  6. Great post as always. I’ve said elsewhere on the site that chess master Tomlin Dudek indulged in too many head games to be sympathetic. Jim Ferris is for me too warm and cuddly to be truly sympathetic, and this from a writer of murder mysteries. Alvin Deschler is similarly too trusting, the man had been in prison for extortion so should know better.
    Lisa Chambers, Jean Davis, Roger White and Harry Alexander are all great candidates. I disagree with you on Tony Goodland, I think he is a much more sympathetic victim than several on your list. In similar vein I’d throw in Eric Wagner, lost soul millionaire playboy that he is.
    Quick plea: Come on folks, attempted blackmail (amateurishly done; not asking for a lot of money) isn’t that big a strike to hold against someone.

    • No? Blackmail is a crime. My sympathy for Lily pretty much disappeared when she attempted it.

  7. This list is weird. Perhaps that was the intention, to ignite discussion. But how in the world can a slimy blackmailer like Roger White be considered sympathetic–an accessory after the fact to murder–while someone like Nurse Sharon Martin, who is only trying to protect a friend and patient, and who has helped Harry Alexander through his drug crisis, only to end up being brutally murdered for her efforts, is nowhere on this list. I would put her first or second.
    Lily is pathetic, but she is also an accessory after the fact to murder.

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  9. What about that innocent bird and it’s owner: young, beautiful, brilliant, piano-playing Jennifer Welles in “Etude in Black?”

    • Yes I agree , poor Freddie wins the jackpot after years of living in a little studio working for a living , Mr lemmar was most selfish killer of the 90s run killing his own nephew , then claiming his winnings fraudulently and to creme it all off has an affair with Freddie ex wife which makes it great to see columbo take him down at the end
      Death hits the jackpot is one of my favourite new episodes and overall

  10. Nope. Sorry, but Roger White and Lily La Sanka deserved everything they got. Blackmail’s bad enough. Blackmail remorseless murderers and you might as well get ‘KILL ME NOW’ tattooed on your forehead. Gormless idiots both. Agree with the rest of your list though. Great site BTW.

    • I was going to mention the two blackmailers. I wouldn’t say that they got what they deserved but trying to blackmail a murderer rather than going to the police is a hazardous occupation.

    • & let’s not forget poor Alvin Deschler from Negative Reaction – a tragic pawn of Paul Galesko (Dick Van Dyke knew how to play it evil!) & a misled man trying to get his life together. So many of these were achingly poignant…

      • Alvin appeared to be a reasonably lovable chap when interacting with Galesko, but some things said by other characters make me wonder. The guy in the camera shop said he was trying to stiff Galesko on the price of the camera, suggesting he wasn’t perhaps as honest a fella as he was trying to make out.

      • I dont think Edmund deserved to be suffocated to death in the safe in Try and catch me , he seemed a genuine chap and it was never proven that he murdered Phillips but thats the beauty of try and catch me its my overall favourite.

  11. Gene Stafford in Exercise in Fatality. He was uncovering financial misdeeds. His fatal mistake was telegraphing his punches to Milo Janus. Stupid approach, but not deserving his fate.

  12. One who would be in my list was Professor Howard Nicholson. He was a gentle old duffer who only wanted to give Neil the chance to gracefully admit what he did wrong rather than have Nicholson expose him.

    • Good addition! His last moments with his wife before she left for work were so loveable.

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  17. How about Richard Kiley’s wife in A Friend Indeed – she was brutally drowned in bathtub and seemed like a very good person.

    • Exactly. She was a philanthropis–with her own money–and he killed her solely for his own greed.

  18. I’ve always felt sorry for Alvin Deshler in Negative Reaction. He’s done some bad things, but he’s trying to get himself straight and he becomes a pawn in Paul Gelesko’s “monstrous scheme.” Gelesko had nothing against him, but killed him without a second thought just to make the plan work. And he was a very good driver.

  19. Thank you! Excellent article Columbophile. I agree, the fate of these poor victims wrench my heart every time. One slightly comforting thought for me is that some of them likely never knew what hit them: Harry Alexander, Nadia Donner, and Jean Davis. It’s the one’s who saw it coming and had the most fear that really gets me: Bertie Hastings, Lily La Sanka, Roger White, Jim Ferris, Lisa Chambers, Alan Mallory, as well as Clifford Paris, Edward Lytton, Sharon Martin, Lenore Kennicutt, Beau Williamson, Eric Wagner, Alvin Deschler, and Dr. Charles Hunter.

    • Thanks Jennifer, you make a very good point. Bo Williamson is an interesting one, I think. He allows himself to be frogmarched into the shed, which seems out of character for such a brash man. I don’t think he’d meekly submit the way he does, even at gunpoint. He’d have gone down in flames!

      • yes I agree he surrenders far too meekly given that he was portrayed as a tough no nonsense Texan even showing a fit of rage smashing the model city , also the fact that the gun was pulled on him while in the car there were other stunts he could have pulled , a bit of a negative for the episode but Blueprint is still a very Solid and memorable episode and comfortably makes my top 20 overall even .

  20. My top 3 would be Tomlin Dudek, Roger White and James Sutorius (the professor in Columbo goes to college). I know you are not a bid fan oh the 2nd wafe though …

  21. I remember you mentioning this article earlier and I’ve been looking forward to reading it. I actually began to think about who I would put in my own list so its interesting to see where we agree. Two out of your top three are people I considered immediately. Bertie Hastings was such an unfortunate character and it was pitiful that he got killed by his best friend. Looked like he was having a nervous breakdown because he was getting embezzled and I doubt he ever considered it would cost him his life. Then there is Tomlin Dudek, who is one of the nicest murder victims in the series. Really was a charming man and was even actually trying to help his murderer. He was so charming I was actually hoping against hope that he wouldn’t end up dead!

    Your other character in the top 3, Harry Alexander, I hadn’t actually considered because he wasn’t the primary victim, but I completely agree that his murder was one of the more upsetting. Man getting his life back on track but then framed and murdered is truly tragic. I guess he has similarities to Alvin Deschler, but he was too stupid to have that much sympathy for.

    One of your other nominations, Jean Davis, is another I considered before I read this. Poor woman gave her life for her boss, and as soon as she found a bit of happiness for herself she ended up murdered because of it, quite horribly too. Also feel sad that her fiancé probably had no interest in her anyway.

    I will throw one more character in that you didn’t mention. I know you’re not crazy about the new episodes but I think one of the most innocent and decent of the victims would be Gabriel McEnery in Murder with Too Many Notes. Young talented guy, he is just so sweet and good natured, and even though he snapped a bit I think a sit down conversation and a bit of compromise from Findlay Crawford would have solved all the problems and things would have carried on as normal. Instead the poor young guy is tricked and bumped off in front off an audience who he thought he would be performing to. Tragic.

    Really enjoyed reading the article and I look forward to the next instalment!

  22. Grace Wheelers husband was looking after her best interests, & look where THAT got him….

    Admittedly, Grace had no memory of killing her husband, but surely his murder should have qualified for this list?

    • As I referenced, he was very close to the list but my personal heart didn’t go out to the character in the same way it did for the others. Perhaps we only discover how protective he was being with Grace much later in the episode, making it harder for the viewer to warm to the man himself from what we see of him alive.

  23. So Lily LaSanka wasn’t altogether a scoundrel — but she still was a blackmailer. She tried to extort $15,000 from Ken Franklin knowing he was a murderer. While not the worst Columbo victim, she was hardly a “fallen angel.” [Ironically, another blackmailer, Claire Daley (“Fade In to Murder”), earned a spot on your “devils in disguise” list.]

    In contrast, when Gene Stafford (“An Exercise in Fatality”) possessed evidence of Milo Janus’ thievery, he didn’t try blackmail; he threatened to go to the authorities. He deserves a spot on the “fallen angels” list much more than Lily does.

    • I disagree (clearly, based on my list). Gene Stafford just isn’t likable enough to make this list. Lily is a poor, vulnerable widow, I sense still wracked by the loss of her husband, and despite her blackmailing actions, she’s a tragic and sympathetic figure to me. Roger White tried to extort Dr Keppell, too, for different reasons, in a not dissimilar way to Lily, but it doesn’t make him a bad guy at heart, either. Claire Daley and Lily La Sanka are a million miles apart in character, so no irony at all as I see it. Lily is seeking security for her future, however ill advised her course of action. Claire is all greed. Hard to feel sympathy for her.

      • In my book, blackmail is blackmail. It’s a planned, deliberate act. Cute blackmailers are still blackmailers. Poor blackmailers are still blackmailers. None are “angels.” And you’re right, goofy Roger White was a blackmailer, too. No angel wings for him either.

      • Roger White is just a Far Out Space Nut; he must be excused. He knew a guy named Gilligan offering a timeshare on a private island.
        I too feel sympathy for Lily. You could tell she was wildly attracted to Ken and his smarmy charm from the beginning, and didn’t know his partner from a sack of suds. She didn’t feel the urge to tattle on him; she just thought maybe she would get a little cash….and carry; she felt safe to turn her back on him after she declined the boat ride. But it was weird how she stalked him to the ? opera, theater and interrupted his date. Dare she? Yes and look what happened.
        Kudos to Abi Mitchell and Dabney Coleman for giving in to the blackmailers instead of murdering them.

        • Roger white claims also to have worked very hard at the institute for a number of years and also had a sick mother and wanted to buy a property to live in so he had could be forgiven but given how intelligent he was and ruthless Dr keppell could be he should have thought twice before blackmail so he dosent quite make the list here for me .

        • Agree about abigail, but as for dabney, the lawyer who never lost a case, he was forced to give in to the blackmail, the woman had an insurance, so if he had killed her columbo would’ve got to know about it, this is stated clearly in that episode.

    • I agree that she is devious and not worthy of breaking my heart, even in the hands of the Devil. However, Gordon in Negative Reaction and Harry in A Stitch in Crime do.

    • Spillane, in real life, or Mallory? Mallory seemed like a pleasant guy in the few scenes we got with him. He doesn’t rise to a Dudek level where you’re rooting for him to live even though you know he won’t, but he’s innocent enough. You do wonder why he doesn’t just publish his serious, non-pulp Vietnam novel with Greenleaf, instead of jumping ship. Had he been treated badly by Greenleaf? Was Neal offering more money?

      I know nothing about what Spillane was like in real life. However, FWIW, he seemed good-natured about working with writer Max Allan Collins on the “Mike Hammer” comic books, saying gracious things about Collins, who was a lifelong fan of his, in the foreword.

  24. Great article Columbophile! Roger White is quite the big, lovable boob! I laughed out loud at that description. But you still gotta feel bad for the guy. I agree though that poor Harry Alexander deserves to be number one. I mean even Columbo doesn’t bother to mention him near the end when he angrily slams that, whatever-it-is down on Dr. Mayfield’s desk and says he believes Mayfield killed Sharon Martin and trying to kill Dr. Hiedaman. Aww poor Harry!

      • I was never certain that Harry actually died. Maybe I missed something, but I don’t recall anyone actually confirming that he was dead. Which could explain why Columbo doesn’t mention him when he angrily confronts Dr. Mayfield. (Still one of my all-time favorite scenes!)
        In my heart I hope hope hope that Harry survived!!!

  25. It has been a while since I watched the very first episodes but I remember a very sympathetic diner cook/owner who fed Columbo his favorite chili and crackers. Then the good Detective stopped visiting the joint. The poor cook “died” at the hands of the writers/producers, never to be seen again (unless I forget him resurfacing in later episodes). He seemed like a nice character and a visit once a season would not have been that much to ask for.

      • Tellingly, both episodes have the word “dead” in them. The handwriting was on the wall for the poor guy! 🙂

      • Colonel dutton in Dead weight didn’t do a lot wrong just try to give general hollister a word of advice before flying off to Switzerland , he didnt ask for a penny and didnt deserved to be shot wrapped in sellotape then fed to the sharks in the pacific.

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  27. How about the nurse in A Stitch in Crime? She was murdered trying to prevent the possible murder of her patient.

  28. All wonderful examples of poignant losses in the midst of the clever sleuthing. These characters were all decent, beleaguered souls (well, Nadia Donner was at least beleaguered), & there’s a real sense of sorrow when they get sacrificed in the evil schemes.


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