There’s Been a Murder: Reading Scottish Crime Novels as an Actual Scottish Person

After talking a lot about the ways in which Scotland, its people and its dizzying array of national stereotypes are utilised to swoonworthy effect in the romance genre, I began to think about how this strange nation of mine is portrayed in other literary genres. There’s a long history of Scotland in fiction, written by Scots and non-Scots alike, delving into a multitude of themes, styles and intents. Anyone who’s browsed the Scottish fiction section of a bookshop or spent time studying here will know the classics — Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, Alasdair Gray, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Jackie Kay if you had a really cool teacher — but every visit I make to my local Waterstones leads me to one section where national pride is at its most visible: Crime.

Scots love crime fiction. Can you blame us? After all, Arthur Conan Doyle was one of our lot, an Edinburgh boy who went to the city’s medical school but found greater satisfaction with the mysteries of the fictional realm (you can find the Conan Doyle statue just across the road from the Edinburgh Playhouse and adjacent gay district. There’s also a fabulous pub called the Conan Doyle I’ve been told does a top notch breakfast). We’re an absolute sucker as a nation for crime novels set in the country too, populated by familiar folks and dour detectives with secrets too shocking to reveal. If Scottish romance novels are for everyone else, Scottish crime is for the Scots.

That’s not to say it’s lacking in popularity outside of our borders. Mainstays of the genre like Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Stuart MacBride have become household names to genre fans across the globe, and Rankin in particular remains an icon to the city of Edinburgh alongside literary masters like Muriel Spark and Irvine Welsh (at least 10% of the reason I chose to attend university in the nation’s capital was due to my adolescent obsession with Rankin’s work). Yet there’s something inimitably local about these works, which Rankin has categorised as «tartan noir». They seldom show Scotland at its best and brightest, but that’s probably why we like them so much.

The origins of the genre lie in some of the most beloved fiction of the country. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde may be set in London but its theming and inspirations are decidedly local. Originally, Stevenson, born and raised in the city, had intended to write a play about Deacon William Brodie, a city councillor and respected tradesman who lived a secret double life as a burglar. Make your way up the Royal Mile and Brodie’s mark on the city is clear, from the pub that bears his name to the lovely cafe located in the eponymous close. He was eventually caught and hanged on the Old Tolbooth, and it’s easy to see how a man like Stevenson, raised in a strict Presbyterian household, would find such fascination of the concept of duelling personalities and the perpetual fight of good versus bad.

Deacon Brodies Tavern sign.jpg

But before Jekyll and Hyde, there was Robert Colwan, the unfortunate protagonist of James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Colwan, the son of a fervent Calvinist, is so convinced that he is one of the Lord’s chosen people, predestined to enter Heaven from birth, that he chooses to lead a life of deviance and debauchery, as influenced by an enigmatic stranger named Gil-Martin, who may or may not be the devil. The first half of the novel is narrated by an editor, recounting what he believes to be the facts of the tale; the second is Robert’s own account, which, as you can imagine, doesn’t end well. This was a major influence for Stevenson and casts a major shadow over Scottish fiction. From the earliest point, Scottish fiction revelled in the conflicts of national pride: How does a country with a love of booze, partying and inspiring shenanigans cope with the Calvinist guilt and fear of eternal damnation?

The work we would now come to recognise under the tartan noir banner was pioneered in its modern form by William McIlvanney and his 1977 novel Laidlaw. The tale of the sardonic Glaswegian police chief investigating the murder of a teenager was considered a departure for the author, but it’s hard to imagine Scottish crime fiction without this as its foundations. The noir-tinted kitchen-sink drama is unflinching in its brutality and moodiness, and it doesn’t apologise for its Scottishness. Even today, there’s a freshness to the prose that defies its age. Alan Massie put it best: «Hemingway used to say that all American literature came out of Huckleberry Finn; all Scottish crime writing — ‘tartan noir’ — comes out of Laidlaw

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We love a moody bastard in Scotland, but we also love them to have a heart. Inspector Rebus is more compassionate than he lets on; Lindsay Gordon is arrogant and cynical to a fault but fiercely loyal when called to task; DS Logan McRae’s sense of humour borders on upsetting but his sense of justice is firm. Heroes don’t do much for Scots; give us an anti-hero.

This new face of Scottish fiction came at a time when homegrown talents were making their name in film and TV with urban dramas that shunned Hollywood mandated stereotypes. Peter McDougall, one of Scotland’s greats, made his name in the 70s on BBC Scotland with TV dramas that tackled Sectarianism, like Just Another Saturday and Just Your Luck. Topics like the Orange Parade marches and the Protestant-Catholic divide in Glasgow remain contentious to this day; tackling them in 1975 was nervy beyond belief. McDougall’s 1981 work, A Sense of Freedom, tackled one of Glasgow’s most infamous criminals, Jimmy Boyle. Even by today’s standards, it’s brutal viewing and refuses to look away from how violence takes effect. You can’t talk Scottish crime and TV without getting into Taggart, the long-running series that basically every Scottish actor appeared in at least once (except for David Tennant, and he’s really annoyed about that).

If romance novels are the fantasy, crime is the reality, and for a lot of Scots, it ain’t pretty. Our crime fiction is heavy on social commentary, noting massive discrepancies between rich and poor in our biggest cities and the perpetual cycle of poverty that traps many in lives of illegal activity. Low-quality housing, unemployment, lack of government investment, gang culture, bad weather, and lower life-expectancy; Trainspotting contains the infamous line, «It’s shite being Scottish», but it’s the crime fiction that delves into the why of it all.

Of course, if grit isn’t your thing, Scotland’s got plenty of rolling hills and cosy murder to make your evening complete. M.C. Beaton’s long-running Hamish Macbeth series brings a lighter touch to the genre, with its postcard perfect Northern Scotland setting and town of quaint but devious suspects. Imagine Agatha Christie with a gentle humour (this makes the TV series made from the books all the funnier for Scots when you remember the other role Robert Carlyle is best known for playing). Alexander McCall Smith, a highly prolific author and generally super nice guy, has the Isabel Dalhousie series, his contribution to the Edinburgh crime world. Isabel’s Edinburgh is the one of delightful frivolities, even with the occasional murder. It’s the version of the city where you’d be happy to bring your tourist friends to the crime scene. Pure fantasy, but it goes down so easily.

While our crime fiction isn’t as explicitly catered to a non-Scottish audience as something like romance, it’s not free from the inevitabilities of patriotic branding. Many critics have argued against the label of «tartan noir», finding it both inaccurate and condescending: How do you encapsulate the array of layers the category has with such a twee label? Slapping a tartan sheen over the front page arouses suspicion in many Scots, who are all too used to seeing the markers of our culture decorated like a shortbread tin. Scottish crime fiction is defined by its full-throated depictions of the worst the country has to offer, so there’s something kind of hilarious about it being packaged as adorable to unsuspecting readers simply because they see Scotland as the sacred homeland of kilted lairds and haggis throwing.

I can’t say that I enjoy crime fiction more or less than romance because I’m an omnivorous reader who seldom discriminates. It is easier on the cringe-reflex to visit Scotland through crime, simply because it tends to be Scottish writers creating those worlds and they’ll forever feel more familiar to me than the heather-tinted alternative. Some work can delve a tad too giddily into unnecessary misery for my tastes, but the best crime reminds the reader that Scots are funny as fuck, and the true geniuses of the creative swear. If you want a good place to start off, go with Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus novel, Stuart MacBride’s Aberdeen set Cold Granite, or The Distant Echo by Val McDermid. The marketing may play a quainter tune, but the books are for us, and we’re not likely to forget that any time soon.


Open Post: Hosted By The Cast Of “American Crime Story’s” Versace Season 


If you’ve been following the making of Ryan Murphy’s latest bewigged dramatic extravaganza, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, then you’ve probably already seen Darren Criss (Andrew Cunan), Edgar Ramirez (Gianni Versace), Penelope Cruz (Donatella Versace) and Ricky Martin (Gianni’s partner Antonio D’Amico) in character. But Entertainment Weekly got the first official picture of all of them together. That cover is a tacky, opulent 90s fever dream of Day-Glo messiness, and yes I’m going to force my family to recreate it for our 2017 Christmas card, and we don’t even do family Christmas cards! And yes, hair will be pulled and faces will be scratched as we fight over who gets to be the “Donatella.”

ACS’ Versace season, which doesn’t start airing on FX until early next year, is based on the book Vulgar Favors by Maureen Orth. I read Vulgar Favors and Maureen barely writes about Donatella, so I’m not totally sure why she’s a huge character in ACS, but I’m not going to complain. I really want to start off 2018 but taking in the sight and sounds of Penelope Cruz throwing a glass of champagne at a minion while cursing at them in Italian with a Spanish accent. I still don’t even care that the popped pimple on my right nip looks more like Donatella than Penelope does. She looks more like a pissed off and miniaturized Holly Madison.

And well, even if the second season of ACS turns out to be a mess, at least there will be a scene where a Versayce speedo-wearing Ricky Martin rubs his nipples all over Edgar Ramirez. I hope there is. Ryan Murphy, don’t let me (or my loins) down!

Pics: Alexei Hay/Entertainment Weekly


Police Say Violent Death of Muslim Teen Will Be Investigated as Road Rage Incident, Not Hate Crime

In an announcement Monday, Fairfax County Police stated that the death of Nabra Hassanen—the teen who was violently beaten by a driver as she and her friends were walking early Sunday morning—will be investigated as a road rage incident and not a hate crime.

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The Keepers Deconstructs the True Crime Genre to Focus on Women’s Lives 

The Keepers isn’t much of a true crime documentary, at least in the traditional sense of the genre. And that’s to its immense credit. Netflix’s seven-part docudrama flirts with the genre but resists its pitfalls; this series is no whodunit, no he-said-she-said narrative that concludes with neat resolution. Instead,…

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The «War Crime» of Reviewing: On David Edelstein and Women in Criticism

I’ve been writing on the internet for fun for over seven years now, but it’s only been in the past few months that my work has turned professional. Since January, I have become a person who gets paid to have opinions online. While I still struggle to allot myself the title of «critic», I take great pride in my occupation as a pop culture features writer and find immense rewards in the work that I do. Things have definitely changed since I started doing this for money: I notice how much more open people are to listening to my thoughts; I’m sharply aware of how amplified my voice has become and see the consequences of that, both positive and negative; and, now more than ever as a woman on the internet, I am conscious of how few our numbers are in the professional realm. I’ve talked about this before, and the ways in which the white-male dominant circles of film criticism can lead to discomfort and unchallenged narratives. With the most visible and anticipated woman-led film of the year, and possibly century, now in cinemas, I quietly hoped that the critical response would avoid the dishearteningly expected pitfalls of sexism.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. David Edelstein, a critic for Vulture, who has written some wonderful pieces over the years, published his review of Wonder Woman, and the results were unsurprising but still disappointing. The review is primarily focused on the physical attributes of star Gal Gadot, whom Edelstein calls «the perfect blend of superbabe-in-the-woods innocence and mouthiness.» He laments that «fans might be disappointed that there’s no trace of the comic’s well-documented S&M kinkiness», but is happy to report he «didn’t miss Lynda Carter’s buxom, apple-cheeked pinup». There are several other moments that stick to discussing Gadot’s appearance and how happy it made Edelstein, and while the review itself is pretty negative, one cannot help but notice the tone he takes when gushing over the film’s star. None of this is new to readers, or even to Edelstein, who has made various discomfiting comments throughout his years of writing (including an infamous one regarding then-11 year old Emma Watson in the first Harry Potter movie).

The response to Edelstein’s review was a mixture of mockery and unease. Twitter jokes were shared, outrage was expressed, and many of us discussed how often we encountered this kind of thing in criticism. There’s something about this field, so dominated by men as it is, that unleashes the inner pervert with no care for consequence.

I was reminded of men like theatre critic John Simon, who reveled in viciously tearing down the physical appearances of actors, including saying that Barbra Streisand’s nose «cleaves the giant screen from east to west, bisects it from north to south. It zigzags across our horizon like a bolt of fleshy lightning», and that Liza Minnelli looked like a beagle. I thought of the infamous Jeff Wells, who had the gall to directly contact director James Mangold to commend him for having actress Vinessa Shaw go nude, then asked for some stills of the scene. I remembered the shock I felt reading Rex Reed’s nasty attack on Melissa McCarthy, where he called her «tractor-sized,» a «screeching, humongous creep» and a «female hippo» (thankfully, Reed was recently let go from the Observer, but it took long enough).

Sexism doesn’t happen in a bubble, nor is it ever a one-off incident that can be blamed on one rogue critic. Every time this happens, every single moment I receive an abusive tweet or nasty comment that avoids my words and focuses on my life, I think of the countless other times it’s happened to me, to my colleagues, and to women I’ve never met.

When David Edelstein responded to criticism, ending his weak defence with a line about how his critics couldn’t read, most of us just rolled our eyes, because we truly didn’t expect any lessons to be learned. Why would you take the time to understand the disappointment when your own position is so secure? Indeed, that point was driven home when Stephanie Zacharek of Time Magazine jumped to Edelstein’s defence on Twitter, with some strong words that felt misplaced at best. I understand defending your friends, but I could not fathom how Zacharek went from sticking up for a friend to claiming that «Writing While (Straight) Male has become a war crime». She also claimed responses to Edelstein were a «mischanneling of anger and frustration and could hurt us all in trying to do good work».

I’ve no desire to shit on Zacharek or fellow women in this business — we can’t afford a drop in numbers, frankly — but I cannot hide my frustration with this line of argument, nor can I fully express my exhaustion with once again being told that my anger towards misogyny is misplaced. If writing while straight and male was a war crime, that wouldn’t explain why they remain so dominant in our field. All that accusation does is heighten the already bubbling tensions at play in criticism, especially given how many of us are already accused of being leftist shills by alt-right screeds like Heat Street and Breitbart. This claim simply comes across as conspiratorial, as if there is a coven of female critics waiting in the dark to drag Edelstein from his job and onto the bonfire.

A big issue with being a minority in this field, or any part of society, is that you will always notice certain elements more than others. If the majority of voices at the critical table are white men, and they remain the most amplified opinions when discussing the few stories told by and for women, the bad elements will always be heightened, because we’ve been trained from birth to notice them. I have lost count of the number of Girls reviews I’ve read that couldn’t help but make snide comments about Lena Dunham’s weight, or post-Harry Potter film appearances from Emma Watson that just had to slobber over how «all grown up» she was, or the blatant racism at play regarding any film led by black women.

It’s not just that these voices are tolerated. So often, they’re flat-out rewarded and given bigger platforms to repeat the same shtick, while concerns are shoved to the side as a distraction or something separate from the issue at hand. Before Devin Faraci was exposed as a sexual harasser, he had a long history of treating people like dirt, putting targets on people’s backs for attack, and in one instance, telling a man to go kill himself then goading him over how he’d be a better husband for the man’s wife if he were to die. None of these things were secret, and yet I still saw so many critics, people whose work I love and respect, sharing pieces by him with the weak caveat of «well I don’t always agree with him but this is a good piece». In one staggering instance, a prominent woman film writer proclaimed Faraci to be a much needed voice for women in the field and decried those who «drove him out».

I’ve lost all patience with this willful shuffling around an impossible to ignore truth about this industry, and I’m sick of the same excuses being made to justify defending something that doesn’t need the time or energy spent on it. The most marginalised voices in the conversation are finally getting some air-time, and the big names are dismissing it as an attack on the underdog white men. I cannot imagine how much more frustrating this is for the women of colour in our field. Ultimately, David Edelstein will be fine, that much was never in doubt, but any possibility of him understanding the hurt and confusion caused has been wiped out in favour of strengthening a narrative that positions the under-represented amongst us speaking out as comparable to war crimes.

I don’t expect much to change. Devin Faraci is, I have been informed, still being invited to press events. Jeff Wells still gets to interview major directors. Rex Reed is out of work but it took decades to do so, and he’ll probably land on his feet. The sad truth is that issues like this only become a problem for the majority when they become impossible to ignore, and getting to that point requires more people to be hurt. It requires «worthy sacrifices», and I’ve no patience for that.


In the Era of ‘90s True Crime Retellings, We’re Missing One Crucial Story

It seems near-undeniable that we, as a society, are better off for the recent wave of ’90s true crime documentaries and retellings. We’ve gotten O.J. Simpson’s story retold in detail, over multiple platforms. We’ve been made to feel ashamed of the way we all, collectively, reduced Marcia Clark to her haircut. We’ve re-examined JonBenét on Netlix and Tonya Harding on ESPN, with a Margot Robbie big screen version of Harding still to come. Even the Menendez brothers got a documentary. (So what if it was so boring I fell asleep after 20 minutes? It still got made.)

There’s a very important, culturally momentous name missing from that list: Lorena Bobbitt.

When it come to ’90s crime fame, she’s clearly in the top tier of the list. Our fascination with rehashing these stories is a fad ready to be cashed in on, and the Bobbitts’ story is rife with salacious material, ready for a Ryan Murphy anthology entry or a Netflix documentary.

To start, John Bobbitt is still, by all accounts, just the biggest, laziest, unflushable floater shit imaginable. Twenty years after the incident, he took to telling outlets just how good his D still works. The NY Daily News felt it acceptable on the 20th anniversary of the event itself to give him a platform for this gem of a statement:

«Being the most famous man to have his penis chopped off does have its advantages. It definitely has not hurt my love life — in fact it improved it.»


He did porn, and he says he slept with 70+ women since having that D c’d off. Doctors told him he’d never bone again, but he did, like 70 times. What a hero! Somebody throw this guy a fuck parade, pronto, this paragon of paramours.

No. We’ve heard more than enough about John’s junk. The ostensibly all-American John Wayne (his actual name) has a very different place in American history than his Ecuadorian-born ex-wife.

No, the story that’s been left untold for nearly 25 years is that of Lorena Bobbitt, then only 22 years old, who was raped-not for the first time, not even close-by her husband, cut off his penis and threw it out her car window, and was thus turned into a pop-culture punchline.

But in this age of revisiting our past simplifications, maybe it’s finally time to be done with this total misogynistic, inhuman reduction of a woman brave enough to offer herself as a symbol of domestic abuse survival, to mere she-devil penis jokes. Do you have to celebrate a violent outcome? No, of course not. But you do have to realize we’ve spent nearly two and a half decades laughing at a victim of abuse.

In the years since the incident, as John dedicated himself to proving his manhood (70 women, you guys! Wowsers!), Lorena Gallo now runs an organization, Lorena’s Red Wagon, designed to aid victims of domestic abuse and their children, a widespread need that still gets little attention. I can’t help but imagine a world in which Bobbitt’s story was a conversation point rather than a punchline.

But as she told HuffPo recently, that wasn’t the case. «They wanted to talk about his penis, not my story,» she said. «Maybe it looked like a reality show from the outside, but we were not in a cast. It was real life.»

You know how Ryan Murphy shamed an entire country for the way we fixated on Marcia Clark’s hair instead of the case she was fighting?

Imagine if he could do that, but for Gallo’s statement there.

In that profile on Gallo, HuffPo reported that in 1993-the year the Bobbitt’s case exploded in public interest, and a year before both the passage of the Violence Against Women Act and seeing the O.J. Simpson case conflate reality with reality TV-approximately 2,160 women were killed by their romantic partners. They posit that «in an alternate version of history, the sad and horrible story of Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt would have served as the perfect opportunity to start the dialogue.»

And while print and online profiles like that one are a great start, there’s nothing like the wide reach and intimate, personal audience-to-character connection found in a television or film medium. So if Serial, Making a Murderer, The People v. O.J. Simpson, and all the rest are any indication, we now have the potential to be that alternate history. Please, some beautiful Hollywood soul, take on this story and remind us what shits we were in 1993.


Vivian Kane doesn’t get to swear quite as much over at The Mary Sue, but you should still come visit her there, or on Twitter.


Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance Look So Good Together It’s Almost a Crime

Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance are both Hollywood icons in their own right, but we’re equally as obsessed with their romance. The two first met in 1980 and have been making us swoon ever since. They tied the knot in 1997 and welcomed their twins, son Slater and daughter Bronwyn, nine years later. Aside from writing a book together, Friends: A Love Story, they have both starred in hit Ryan Murphy shows — Angela was in the last four seasons of American Horror Story while Courtney gained critical acclaim for his performance in The People v. O.J. Simpson. Honestly, if the famous writer were to create a show about their relationship, it would probably be called American Love Story, because these two know how to keep the flame burning.

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Hunt A Killer Brings True Crime Right to Your Doorstep

Picture if you will a young Righetti lurking around the basement of her two-family home in Queens, red plastic framed glasses sliding down her nose as she peers around the basement steps, holding her place in a yellow hardcover Nancy Drew book with one finger. Quietly she lurks until her target is in sight: Mr. Koenig, her elderly German landlord, who is taking care of the property, pulling weeds from the backyard. But Righetti knows something must be up, he’s a suspicious old man with a secret to solve, just like in her mystery novels.

The thing is my poor landlord wasn’t hiding anything, including his annoyance at being followed by knobby-knee pipsqueak who kept trying (and failing) to unlock doors with bobby pins and solve a mystery. But that love of solving a whodunit has never quite left me, taking up so many forms over the years — from books, to TV show and films and finally, to the True Crime podcasts and series that have proliferated the airwaves in recent years.

Hunt A Killer is a subscription service that taps directly into this cultural zeitgeist. The brainchild of Ryan Hogan, co-founder and CEO and Derrick Smith, co-founder and creative director, Hunt A Killer offers subscribers the chance to solve ongoing, fictional murder mysteries in two ways: a monthly membership box and premium one-time boxes. You’ve probably seen the ads on Facebook, as I did, and unable to resist, I decided to try the monthly service out. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found inside my first two boxes, which were filled with different kinds of clues, physical evidence and case files, codes and ciphers.

Upon signing up for the box, you become part of the Listening Friends of America, a fictional service that connects you with an inmate, who corresponds with you via letters (and some clues) in your box each month. Armed with the clues in the box and some on the internet as well, it’s up to you to play detective and figure out what is hidden in the clues and solve the ongoing mystery being told. And to Hunt a Killer’s credit, you get some pretty cool things in each box, including tools for your research such as a notebook and a black light, as well as some creepy clues like…a tooth.

Having just received my third box, I’m already hooked because as CEO Ryan Hogan succinctly sums it up, Hunt A Killer is a form of entertainment. «Subscription box doesn’t really do our service justice, it’s just the only thing people can relate it to because really we’re episodic entertainment that just happens to be delivered to your doorstep instead of through a TV screen,» Hogan said. Perhaps the beauty and genius of Hunt A Killer is that no matter when you sign up, you start at Box One so you don’t have to worry about missing out on anything or playing catch up, the story begins when you’re ready to start. Though readers beware: while the Facebook group or even Reddit threads are certainly helpful when you’re puzzled over a clue, the ongoing nature of the story means that spoilers are out there.

As Hogan told me, Hunt A Killer was birthed from the desire to create a hands-on interactive experience, akin to escape rooms and interactive theater, which initially resulted in a live Hunt a Killer event. «We came up with a platform that was a 200-acre campground that we turned into a living crime scene and so 600-700 people came out, it was October 1, 2016, and that’s really how Hunt A Killer started.» But knowing that re-creating this experience across the country wouldn’t be sustainable, Hogan and Smith decided to shift to a subscription service, where curated boxes would contain an episode of the story and bring the entire experience to each member’s doorstep.

But if the idea of scouring a fictional crime scene for clues sounds appealing to you (as it definitely does to me), good news! Hunt A Killer will be hosting their second annual Live Hunt this October, a 3-day immersive experience taking place at Camp Ramblewood in Darlington, MD, with live music and entertainment, camping and more. And Hogan explained, this new live hunt will tie directly into the story being told in subscription boxes. «Instead of going out there like ‘here’s a set of murders, go explore the campgrounds and figure it out,’ we are turning Camp Ramblewood into Listening Friends of America and I couldn’t be more excited about this,» Hogan told me. «When people step foot onto the campgrounds, you are going to be in Listening Friends of America, so it’s really going to be this alternate reality game on just a massive scale.»

Check out the trailer for the Live Hunt below:

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a case to solve.



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