In The Spotlight: Zoë Sharp’s Killer Instinct

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The ‘hardboiled’ detective has a long history in crime fiction. And in recent decades, the sub-genre has broadened to include all sorts of sleuths, including women. Let’s take a look at one of them today, and turn the spotlight on Zoë Sharp’s Killer Instinct, the first in her Charlie Fox series.

Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox is a former member of Her Majesty’s Special Forces, who now lives near Lancaster. Here’s how she describes what she does:
 

‘I teach women’s self-defence. Have done for four years now. I use gymnasiums in local schools, indoor badminton courts in leisure centres, and even the converted ballroom of a country house that’s now a women’s refuge.’
 

That women’s refuge is housed at Shelseley Lodge, which is owned by Trstram Shelseley, a professional masseuse who also has a business in essential oils and aromatherapy. His wife, Ailsa, runs the shelter.

One night, Fox’s friend Clare persuades her to go along for moral support to a karaoke competition at the New Adelphi Club. Fox knows the club, as she used to use one of the floors for her classes. But it’s recently been taken over by new management. She’s not much the ‘clubbing type,’ but Clare finally convinces her.

The competition gets underway, and Clare wins. That’s when Susie Hollins, who’s won the last few competitions, tries to attack Clare. Fox steps in, and Susie ends up on the floor and, soon afterwards, ejected from the club. When the club’s owner, Marc Quinn, finds out about Fox’s intervention, he is persuaded to hire her as part of the club’s security team.

Later the next day, Fox finds out that Susie Hollins has been raped and murdered. Since Susie spent some time at Shelseley Lodge, several of its residents are worried that they’re in danger. And, although Fox tries to reassure them, she can’t promise that they’re wrong.

In the meantime, Fox has taken up her duties at the club, and it’s not long before she suspects that more is going on there than it seems. Little by little, she begins to get clues as to what the club is hiding, and as she does, she finds that someone very ruthless is just as determined that she won’t find out.

Then, there’s another brutal rape and murder, again of a resident of Shelseley Lodge. And it’s clear that Fox herself is targeted as the next victim. If she’s going to stay alive, she’ll have to find out who’s targeting the lodge. In the end, she gets that answer, and finds out how it connects with the Adelphi.

This is a hardboiled story and that fact is an important element. There is plenty of violence, and some of it is ugly. And, while Sharp doesn’t provide each gory detail, readers who dislike violence in their crime fiction will notice that it’s certainly present here. Like many other hardboiled novels, this one doesn’t have a happy ending, where everything is all right again at the end of the story. It isn’t. The lodge, the club, and Fox herself aren’t going to be the same. That said, though, the story isn’t entirely bleak. Fox has a wry sort of wit that comes out from time to time. Here, for instance, two police officers have come by Fox’s home to get her account of what went on between her and Susie Hollins:
 

‘I’m always wary of the police. You ride a motorcycle and it tends to colour your view of the boys in blue. Still, I suppose it was a nice change to be greeted by a uniform whose opening gambit wasn’t, ‘Are you aware of the national speed limit, madam?’’
 

As this snippet also shows, the story is told from Fox’s point of view (first person, past tense). So, we do learn a lot about her. She is the daughter of wealthy parents from whom she is estranged. She had intended to stay with Special Forces, but a traumatic experience caused her to leave. In fact, it’s had a tremendous impact on her in other ways, too. That said, though, Fox is not one of those all-too-common dysfunctional sleuths who drown themselves in drink and cannot maintain friendships. She’s well aware of her fragility, and determined to empower herself.

She is also determined to empower others, which is why she teaches the classes she does, and why she has a special interest in the residents of Shelseley Lodge. In the course of the novel, readers learn about some of the techniques she teaches, and some ways to defend oneself. Chief among them is, if at all possible, to de-escalate a situation, so that defending oneself isn’t necessary:
 

‘I view self-defence like wearing an expensive watch. You don’t keep flashing it about trying to impress people. Instead, you keep it up your sleeve, but in the back of your mind you have the confidence of knowing you have the exact time whenever you need it.’
 

And, in several scenes in the novel, Fox tries to talk her way out of situations without having to use what she knows. It doesn’t always work.

Killer Instinct takes a look at the underside of a trendy nightclub. It goes behind the scenes of security work, and shows what really happens while everyone’s busy dancing. It’s also the story of a women’s refuge, and the people who depend on that service. It features a tough, flawed, protagonist who’s trying to move on in her life, and trying to help others do the same. But what’s your view? Have you read Killer Instinct? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 29 January/Tuesday, 30 January – Sold – Blair Denholm

Monday, 5 February/Tuesday, 6 February – Laura – Vera Caspary

Monday, 12 February/Tuesday 13 Febuary – The Anderson Tapes – Lawrence Sanders

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Filed under Killer Instinct, Zoë Sharp

Stay By My Side, Guide Me*

As this is posted, it would have been Grigori Rasputin’s 149th birthday (by the Gregorian calendar). Whatever else he was, Rasputin was certainly an influential person at the Romanov court. And that influence had real consequences, as you’ll know.

It’s all got me thinking about crime-fictional characters who may be (at least at first) behind the scenes, but who still wield considerable influence. Those characters can be at least as interesting as the more prominent characters. Sometimes, they turn out to be far more powerful than it seems on the surface.

For example, In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we are introduced to Evelyn ‘Evie’ Howard. She serves as companion/factotum/but mostly friend to wealthy Emily Inglethorp. She wields considerable influence in the household, although she generally keeps a low profile. Also living at the Inglethorp home, Styles Court, are Mrs. Inglethorp’s husband, Alfred; her two stepsons, John and Lawrence Cavendish, and John’s wife, Mary; and Mrs. Inglethorp’s ward, Cynthia Murdoch.  John Cavendish invites his old friend, Captain Hastings, for a visit, so Hastings is on hand when Mrs. Inglethorpe is poisoned one night. All of the members of the family are possible suspects, since the victim had a fortune to leave. When Hastings learns that his old friend, Hercule Poirot, is staying in the nearby village, he asks for Poirot’s help investigating, since the family doesn’t want a scandal. As Poirot and Hastings get to know the different members of the family, we learn about their relationships and some of the tensions among them. And it turns out that those relationships have a lot to do with the murder.

Ellery Queen’s Origin of Evil sees Queen staying in the Hollywood Hills, so that he can get some writing done. His plan changes when Laurel Hill asks for his help. Her father, Leander, recently died of a heart attack, but she is sure it was deliberately induced. It seems that both he and his business partner, Roger Priam, were receiving macabre ‘gifts’ that seemed meaningless on the surface, but frightened both men. Laurel claims that the packages scared her father to death. At first, Queen’s reluctant to take the case, but he is eventually persuaded. Oddly enough, Priam has no interest in finding out what or who is behind the events, but Queen persists. In the end, he finds that the mystery has its roots in both men’s pasts. He also learns that someone has been wielding quite a lot of influence, even though it’s not obvious on the surface.

In Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s A Window in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro Police Inspector Espinosa and his team are faced with a troubling case. Three other police officers have been killed, all in quick succession. At first, it looks as though this is a case of someone who has a vendetta against the police. But then, the mistress of one of the victims is murdered. Then another falls, or is pushed, from the window of her apartment. And another disappears. It’s now clear that someone was deliberately targeting this group of people, and it may be because they were involved in corruption, all too common among the police. But if so, why would the victims’ mistresses also be targeted? As Espinosa and his team investigate, we learn that someone has had a major influence on the victims and on the case. That influence plays an important role in what happens.

Philip Margolin’s Executive Privilege has two major plot threads. In one, former-cop-turned-PI Dana Cutler gets a new assignment. Wealthy and influential Washington D.C. attorney Dale Perry wants Cutler to follow nineteen-year-old Charlotte Walsh, and report where she goes, whom she sees, and what she does. At first, very little happens. Then, one night, Walsh parks her car at a local shopping mall. Then, she’s picked up by another car and driven to a remote safe house. To Cutler’s surprise, the person Walsh meets is US President Christopher Farrington. It’s clear now that this is a much bigger case than it seems on the surface, and Walsh calls her employer to back out of it. That proves impossible, though, when Walsh is found murdered the next morning. This death turns out to be linked to another murder a few years earlier, and both are related to a common experience in the victims’ pasts. Throughout this novel, someone is wielding a lot of influence behind the scenes, and it’s interesting to see how that plays out in the story.

And then there’s Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing. In that novel, Singapore police detective Inspector Singh is sent to Beijing on a very delicate matter. Susan Tan is First Secretary at the Singapore Embassy in China. Recently, her son, Justin, was killed in an older, run-down part of Beijing. At first, it looks like a mugging gone wrong. But Tan believes her son was deliberately murdered, despite what the official police report says. She wants Singh to look into the matter. He’s reluctant, but he’s not in a position to refuse. When he gets to Beijing, he starts to work with former Beijing police officer Li Jun to find out the truth. It’s a challenging case, and it leads to some high places. And when we learn the truth, we also learn that someone has been behind the scenes, wielding quite a lot of power. And that person has every interest in keeping that power.

And that’s the thing about people who have a lot of influence, the way Rasputin did. They sometimes work very much behind the scenes, and they often have more power than it can seem on the surface. This can make them very interesting – and very dangerous – people.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber, Charles Hart, and Richard Stilgoe’s Little Lotte/The Mirror.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Phillip Margolin, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Shamini Flint

You Don’t Have to Go to a Private School Not to Pick Up a Penny Near a Stubborn Mule*

There are several different kinds of knowing and understanding. Some of that knowledge, of course, comes from what we learn formally. That’s why people with a lot of education are often thought of as especially ‘smart.’

The fact is, though, that there’s plenty of wisdom that has little to do with schooling.  It’s not that people with such ‘down home’ wisdom disparage formal education; rather, their knowledge comes observation, experience, and the reflection. That ‘down home’ sort of wisdom can be extremely valuable. And in crime fiction, it can make for a very interesting sort of character.

For instance, Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s sleuth is Asa ‘Asey’ Mayo. Known sometimes as the ‘codfish Sherlock,’ Mayo is a former sailor who’s settled in Cape Cod. He’s a general assistant at Porter Motors, and there’s not much he’s not able to fix. He doesn’t have a lot of formal education, but he’s got quite a lot of his own kind of wisdom. He knows the area very, very well, and he knows the people, too. He’s shrewd and quick-thinking, and he has a lot of what people call common sense. He may not speak with an educated accent, but people underestimate him at their peril.

They do Gil North’s Caleb Cluff, too. Cluff is a police inspector who lives and works in the fictional town of Gunnershaw, on the Yorkshire moors. He doesn’t have a lot of formal education, but he does have a lot of ‘down home’ sort of common sense wisdom. He knows the people of the area, their histories, and the way they’re likely to behave. And he knows the moors as well as anyone could. It’s that sort of wisdom that helps him put the pieces together.

Eleanor Kuhns’ Will and Lydia Rees have that same sort of ‘down home’ common-sense wisdom. This historical series takes place at the very end of the 18th Century. Rees is an iterant weaver who’s settled in Maine. In the course of the series, he meets and marries Lydia Farrell, and develops a bit more of a ‘home base.’  But he still does plenty of ‘wandering.’ For instance, in Death in Salem, Rees travels to Salem, to look for a gift for Lydia, who’s expecting a child. He wants to get a few yards of well-made cloth, so she can have something special to wear. As it happens, he sees a funeral procession for Mrs. Antiss Boothe, wife of a very prominent shipping magnate. The next day, Boothe himself is found dead, and it’s clear that he was murdered. Rees’ old friend, Twig, is worried because the woman he loves is very much under suspicion. So, he asks Rees to find out the truth. Rees isn’t educated, but he has his own sort of wisdom, and so does Lydia. Even with a group of wealthy and prominent suspects, he finds out who the murderer is, and what the motive is.

Craig Johnson’s series features Sheriff Walt Longmire, who lives and works in Durant, Wyoming. As sheriff of Absaroka County, he’s learned quite a lot about the local area and the people. And he has a lot of common sense. That ‘down home’ understanding and wisdom help Longmire make sense of his investigations. For example, in The Cold Dish, the body of Cody Pritchard is discovered not far from town. Longmire knows the victim’s history, and has a good sense of the sort of person he was. A few years earlier, Pritchard and three other young men gang-raped Melissa Little Bird, who was sixteen at the time. Longmire doesn’t need a lot of formal education and scientific deduction to guess at the motive for this murder. There are aspects of the case that aren’t clear at first, and the solution isn’t the one that it seems to be on the surface. But throughout the novel, we see how Longmire uses his every wisdom and common sense to solve the case. Fans of this series can tell you that Longmire’s good friend, Henry Standing Bear, has a similar sort of ‘everyday wisdom’ about things.

And then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. She’s smart, and did well in school, but she doesn’t have a lot of formal education. What she does have, though, is a great deal of wisdom. She learned some of it from her beloved father, Obed Ramotswe. She’s also a natural observer, so she’s learned to watch and make sense of what she sees. It’s interesting, too, to see how Mma Ramotswe’s common sense and ‘folk wisdom’ sometimes contrasts with more ‘book learning’ approach of her assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi, especially at the beginning of the series. Mma Makutsi is very proud of having graduated the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills with a 97% average, and she is good at the clerical skills she was taught. But it takes her a little time to develop a bit of the sort of ‘down home’ wisdom that her boss has.

There are plenty of other characters, too, who have that sort of common-sense, ‘down home’ wisdom that doesn’t come from books or classes (right, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon Bonaparte?). These sleuths may not have university degrees, but they have a great deal of understanding of how the world and the people in it work. And that can be extremely helpful when solving a case. Which common-sense sleuths have stayed with you?

ps. Oh, the photo? Dogs may not have an education, but they have the wisdom to find the sunniest spot for a warm, cuddly afternoon nap when they’re sleepy.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Irving Berlin’s Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Upfield, Craig Johnson, Eleanor Kuhns, Gil North, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

Let Me Ride Through the Wide Open Country That I Love*

There’s something about frontiers. I’m not talking here of actual borders between countries. Some of those are urban areas with strong infrastructures. Rather, I’m talking of another meaning of the word: the limits of settlement beyond which is wilderness. Those outposts really do have a different sort of culture. There’s usually not much infrastructure, so people have to make do. And they often have to depend on each other if they’re going to survive.

Living on a frontier takes an awful lot of hard work. At the same time, though, there are often fewer social conformities expected. So, it can seem as though there are limitless possibilities for what a person can do. And, with more traditional law enforcement often at a great distance, crime and the handling of it can be very different to what it is in more settled areas. People feel they have to handle things in their own way.

All of this, plus the physical dangers, can make for a very effective context for a crime novel. So, it’s little wonder that unsettled frontiers play such a role in the genre. They’re certainly not places for ‘drawing room’ murders, but they have their own kind of appeal.

Part of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet takes place in the American west, in what is now Utah. It’s 1847, and John Ferrier and a small child named Lucy are the only survivors of a group of pioneers heading west. They’re on the point of dying of dehydration and exposure when they are rescued by a group of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). The group takes them in on condition that they adopt the LDS faith, and, with little choice, Ferrier agrees. For several years afterwards, all goes well enough. Everything changes when Lucy grows up. It all leads to a tragedy, and, ultimately, to two murders. Joseph Stangerson and Enoch Drebber have gone to London, and are staying at a boarding-house there. When Drebber is killed, Stangerson is suspected. But then, he himself is killed. Scotland Yard’s Tobias Gregson asks for Sherlock Holmes’ interpretation of some of the clues, and Holmes finds out who killed both men, and how it connects with John Ferrier and with Lucy.

Stark Holborn’s Nunslinger series also takes place in the American west, beginning in 1864. There are twelve books in this series, each of them more novella-length than novel-length. The follow Sister Thomas Josephine as she travels from her convent in St. Louis to a new life in Sacramento. At the time, the journey is full of dangers, only some of which come from geography, weather or wildlife. These stories do contain crimes, but they are as much adventure stories as they are anything else. And they show how difficult it could be to make such a journey at a time when there is little infrastructure or security.

There are plenty of other examples, too, of crime fiction that takes place in the American west, but that’s hardly been the only frontier. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, for instance, takes place mostly in the area surrounding today’s Sydney, during its early days. London bargeman William Thornhill is arrested for stealing a load of wood. He’s due to be executed, but the authorities are persuaded to sentence him to transportation instead. So, in 1806, Thornhill, his wife, Sal, and their children board a boat for Sydney. When they arrive, they find there’s very little settlement there. Still, they do their best to start their lives. Thornhill finds work making deliveries up and down the nearby rivers, and Sal opens a makeshift pub. Life is a hard scrabble for them, but they begin to settle in. Soon enough, Thornhill learns of some of the brutal ugliness that’s gone on between the settlers and the Aboriginal people who’ve been there for many thousands of years. He wants no part of that violence. But then, he discovers the perfect piece of land on which he wants to build a home. And he learns that, if he’s going to hold on to that land, he’ll have to get his hands dirty, too. This novel isn’t, strictly speaking, a crime novel, although there are certainly crimes in it. But it provides a look at life in that part of Australia when Sydney was a frontier town.

There’s also Seán Haldane’s The Devil’s Making, which takes place in 1868 and 1869. Chad Hobbes has recently completed his degree in Jurisprudence from Oxford, and wants to travel for a while before settling down. So, armed with a letter of introduction, he travels to the then-frontier town of Vancouver. The introduction to the Governor is enough to get him a job as a constable, which mostly means he has guard duty, helps settles drunken quarrels, and occasionally helps remove the local prostitutes. Then, a group of Tsimshian Indians, who’ve been in the area to sell their homemade goods, brings terrible news to the town. They’ve discovered the mutilated body of Richard McCrory. At first, it looks like a clear-cut case. The dead man had been involved with a Tsimshian woman named Lukswaas. Her partner, Wiladzap, is one of the leaders of the Tsimshians, and it’s believed he killed McCrory. But, he denies committing the crime, and the local law enforcement has to show that they’re actually investigating. So, Hobbes is assigned to ask a few perfunctory questions. He soon learns, though, that Wiladzap is by no means the only person with a motive. As he gets closer to the truth, we learn about what life was like in that part of Canada during its ‘frontier’ days.

Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries take place during China’s Tang Dynasty (618-806 CE). At that time, the district of Lan-Fang, on China’s northwestern border, is a frontier area. As Magistrate, Judge Dee represents Chinese authority. But he often has to make decisions for himself, since communication with the central government takes a long time. There are shops, homes and so on in Lan-Fang, but it’s hardly an urbane, sophisticated place. And it’s always at risk from outside invaders. What’s more, the people are accustomed to rule by local tyrants and thugs. It takes some time for Judge Dee to establish the rule of law there.

There’ve been frontiers in a lot of places in the world. And you could argue that there still places that are ‘frontierish,’ where there’s little settlement and lots of wilderness. Frontiers do offer lots of opportunities to those who take the risk. But they’re also dangerous. Little wonder there’s crime fiction that takes place in that setting.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cole Porter and Robert Fletcher’s Don’t Fence Me In.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Kate Grenville, Robert Van Gulik, Seán Haldane, Stark Holborn

Join Our Club*

Humans are social by our very nature. Of course, some of us are much more socially inclined than others, and some of us aren’t really ‘joiners’ at all. But to an extent, we all need social connections.

That may be part of the reason for which there are so many interest clubs. There are book clubs, travel clubs, wine clubs, and sport clubs, to name just a very few. And people join these groups as much for the social interaction as for anything else. After all, you don’t need to belong to a book club to read and enjoy a novel. But many people enjoy the exchange of ideas and different perspectives. There’s also the fact that someone else may notice something about a story that you didn’t. The opportunity to interact with and learn from other people who share an interest is really appealing.

It’s little wonder, then, that we see so many examples of this sort of shared-interest club in crime fiction. In fact, Agatha Christie’s The Thirteen Problems (AKA The Tuesday Club Murders) combines an interest club with murder. It’s a collection of short stories, each detailing a murder. Each story is told by one member of what’s called the Tuesday Club (the group meets each Tuesday). Then, the club discusses the murder and its solution. Miss Marple is a member of this club, so, as you can imagine, her insights prove quite helpful. You’re right, fans of Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case

In Rex Stout’s Gambit, we are introduced to the exclusive Gambit Chess Club. Matthew Blount is a member of the club, so he’s always interested in new opponents. He’s played a few times against magician and party-trickster Paul Jerrin, and decides to have Jerrin match wits against the rest of the club. The plan is that Jerrin will sit in one room, blindfolded, and play twelve simultaneous matches against different club members, who are in other rooms. Moves will be communicated by messenger. All goes well enough at first. But then, Jerrin suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poisoned hot chocolate. Blount’s immediately suspected, since he was the one who brought Jerrin the chocolate. But Blount’s daughter, Sally, is sure that he’s innocent. She hires Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin to find out who’s really guilty.

Tarquin Hall’s The Man Who Died Laughing begins as Dr. Suresh Jha attends a session of the Delhi-based Rajpath Laughing Club. The group meets to use laughter and silliness to relieve the stress of daily life. This morning, though, everything is different. During the group’s meeting, so say witnesses, the goddess Kali appears and stabs Jha. Believers say that she killed him as punishment for his lack of belief, and the story makes a lot of the news headlines. Jha was the founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (D.I.R.E.), which is devoted to debunking superstition, and he’d made his share of enemies. So, when PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri hears about his death, he suspects that this murderer isn’t a goddess at all, but a human. And, since Jha was once a client, Puri decides to find out who’s responsible.

In Jill Edmonson’s The Lies Have It, Toronto PI Sasha Jackson agrees to help her friend, Jessica, tend bar at the Stealth Lounge, which is a private party room in the Pilot Tavern. A fetish club called Bound For Glory has booked the Stealth Lounge for a big party, and some of the staff members aren’t willing to work that event. So, the Stealth needs some extra ‘fill-in’ help. Soon after the party, Ian Dooley, head of the club, is found murdered near Cherry Beach. At first, it looks as though some of the ‘party games’ went too far. But soon enough, it’s clear that Dooley was deliberately murdered. Now, Jackson adds to her case load as she works to find out who the murderer is.

With today’s online capability, there are also plenty of online clubs. And they, too, pose danger – well, at least fictionally. In Cat Connor’s Killerbyte, for instance, we are introduced to FBI special agent Gabrielle ‘Ellie’ Conway. She’s an ex-pat New Zealander who has a special love of poetry. In fact, she co-moderates an online chat room/poetry club called Cobwebs. When one of the members, Carter McClaren, behaves inappropriately, Conway sees no choice but to ban him from the club. He then shows up at her home to ‘pay her back.’  He’s arrested, but is able to pay bail. Then, later, he’s murdered, and his body is found in Conway’s car. With it is a Post-It note with a cryptic piece of poetry written on it. Then, there’s another murder, also of a club/chat room member. Again, a piece of poetry is left near the body. Now, Conway and her fellow moderator/lover Cormac ‘Mac’ Connelly have to find out which of the other club members is the murderer.

Interest clubs can be really enjoyable. And they’re often excellent ways to get new ideas and have some social interaction. But peaceful? Not always…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Saint Etienne.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Cat Connor, Jill Edmondson, Rex Stout, Tarquin Hall