Category Archives: Alan Bradley

All My Troubles Seemed So Far Away*

Not long ago, Brad, who blogs at Ah, Sweet Mystery Blog, did a very interesting post on the way the past catches up with fictional characters. His focus was Agatha Christie’s work, and he gave some fine examples. G’wan, then, check it out for yourself. And as you’ll be there anyway, do have a look at Brad’s excellent blog. You won’t regret it!

That trope of the past catching up with a person is woven through a lot of crime fiction, and it’s not hard to see why. It can make for a suspenseful story and interesting character development. And in real life, one really can’t run away from the past. So, there’s an element of authenticity, too, in a story that uses that plot point.

As I say, Brad mentioned a few Agatha Christie novels. One that comes to my mind is Appointment With Death. In it, the Boynton family goes on a sightseeing trip through the Middle East.  We soon learn that family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is cruel and malicious, and uses that to keep her family under control. They’re all so cowed that none of them dares defy her. As a part of the trip, the family members visit the ancient city of Petra. On the second day there, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies. At first, her death looks natural enough; she wasn’t in good health, and the trip has been exhausting. But Colonel Carbury isn’t satisfied. Since Hercule Poirot is in the area, Carbury asks him to investigate, and Poirot agrees. He finds that the colonel’s suspicions were entirely justified. And it turns out that this murder has everything to do with the past catching up, if I can put it that way. Go read Brad’s excellent post for more Christie examples.

By no means is Christie the only crime writer who uses that trope, of course. In fact, there are so many fine examples of this plot point in the genre that I’m hard-put to choose just a few, I know you’ll have your own list to share.

In Michael Robotham’s The Suspect, for instance, we are introduced to London psychotherapist Joe O’Loughlin. In this story, he gets involved in the investigation when the body of Catherine McBride is pulled out of the Grand Union Canal. It turns out that she was a former client, so Detective Inspector (DI) Vincent Ruiz is interested in whatever O’Loughlin may know about her. Then, there’s another murder. This one very much implicates O’Loughlin, and now Ruiz begins to actively suspect him. There are soon other deaths, too. If O’Loughlin is going to clear his name, he’s going to have to find out who the killer is, and how it all connects with him. Trite as it sounds, O’Loughlin will have to go back to the past, as it were, and use all of his clinical skills, to stop this murderer.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy is the first in his ‘Department Q’ novels. In it, we meet Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck. He’s recovering from a line-of-duty incident in which he was gravely wounded, and a colleague killed. Another colleague was left with paralysis. Mørck, has always been difficult to work with, and it’s only gotten worse since the shooting. Eventually, his bosses see no choice but to transfer Mørck – they refer to it as a ‘promotion’ – to a new department. ‘Department Q,’ as it’s called has been set up to investigate ‘cases of special interest.’ In part, it’s an attempt to respond to some media and public concerns that the police aren’t doing enough to solve murders. In part, it’s a political move. Mørck gets started in his new job, and soon meets his assistant, Hafez al-Assad. It’s actually Assad who calls Mørck’s attention to the five-year-old disappearance of up-and-coming politician Merete Lynggaard. At the time she went missing, it was assumed that she went overboard and died in a terrible ferry accident. But there are little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. If she is alive, then there may not be much time to rescue her, so Mørck and Assad feel a sense of urgency about this case. And in the end, they find out the truth. It turns out that it’s all connected with a past that didn’t let go.

The past doesn’t let go in Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, either. In that novel, we meet eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce. She lives with her two older sisters and her father in a large old house in the village of Bishops Lacey, in 1950s England. One evening, Flavia’s father gets a visit from a stranger. Flavia doesn’t hear much of what passes between the two men, but she knows that their exchange is acrimonious. The next morning, she finds the body of the strange visitor in the cucumber patch. And it’s not long before word gets to the police about the argument. This puts Flavia’s father at the top of the list of suspects, and he’s soon arrested. Flavia knows her father is no killer, and decides to find out the truth. And, with her unusually strong knowledge of chemistry, she’s in a good position to do so. It turns out that this murder has everything to do with something in the past that has caught up, so to speak.

And then there’s Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses, which begins in the modern day, when police receive an anonymous letter. In it, the writer takes responsibility for the murder of a vagrant whose body was found on the tracks of an underground station. The story behind the letter starts in 1966, in London’s East End. It’s a time of Mods, Rockers, and experimentation of every kind. And teenage sisters Madeline ‘Midge’ and Bridget ‘Bridie’ Dolan want to be a part of it. They’re from a working-class home, and have been brought up to be ‘nice young ladies,’ so they’re quite sheltered. But they want a little freedom. So, they cajole their mother into letting them go out one Friday night to the Palais Royale. The one condition is that their cousin Jimmy must take them and bring them back. That’s not a problem for the girls, who consider Jimmy to be ‘cool.’ The big night arrives, and Bridie and Midge go to the dance. What starts out as an exciting evening ends up tragically, and changes everyone’s life. And, as it turns out, that evening is behind the murder that takes place some fifty years later.

And that’s the thing about the past. Even many years or decades later, it doesn’t necessarily go away. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Yesterday – also Brad’s idea.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Robotham, Steph Avery

We Took Paper, Ink and Type*

In Agatha Christie’s Postern of Fate, Tuppence Beresford makes an interesting comment about reading:
 

‘‘We could all read. Me and Martin next door and Jennifer down the road and Cyril and Winifred. All of us. I don’t mean we could all spell very well but we could read anything we wanted to.’’
 

I’d imagine that’s probably true for a lot of people. There is still, unfortunately, plenty of illiteracy in the world. But, according to one study I read, just over 84% of the world’s population has at least some functional literacy.

If you’re literate, and you weren’t born into great wealth and privilege, you arguably owe at least some of that to Johannes Gutenberg. As you’ll know, he’s credited with inventing the movable-type printing press. That invention had far-reaching effects. For one thing, it made books and, therefore, written ideas, accessible to people who weren’t necessarily very wealthy. For another, it arguably contributed to the rise of the middle class. And that’s to say nothing of the printing press’ impact on the sharing of information, the development of newspapers, and so on.

And certainly, the ideas in books play an important role in crime fiction. In Postern of Fate, for instance, an important clue to a long-ago murder is found in a novel. When Tommy and Tuppence Beresford move into a new home, they find quite a collection of books. Tuppence is going through them when she notices that one of the books has been marked in an unusual way, with some words underlined. The book belonged to a boy named Alexander Parkinson, who later died. The clue,
 

‘Mary Jordan did not die naturally’
 

refers to the death of a woman during the World War I era. As the Beresfords start to look into the case, they learn that it still resonates decades later.

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce may be a pre-teenager, but she’s already developed into a knowledgeable chemist. She’s an avid reader, too, who often finds useful information in the books she chooses. For instance, in A Red Herring Without Mustard, Flavia meets a Gypsy fortune-teller at a church fête. The experience goes very badly, and Flavia feels responsible. So, she invites the Gypsy to stay on the property of Buckshaw, where she lives with her father and two older sisters. When the Gypsy is later murdered, Flavia takes a personal interest in the case. She finds out that more than one person might have been responsible. Interestingly, it’s actually a book of history that gives Flavia a major clue to the killer.

Donna Leon’s About Face introduces readers to Franca Marinello. One night, she and her husband, Maruizio Cataldo, are invited to dinner at the home of Conte Orazio Falier and his wife, Donatella. Falier is contemplating doing business with Cataldo, and he wants to get to know the man. Also invited that evening are Falier’s daughter, Paola, and her husband, Commissario Guido Brunetti. During the meal, Brunetti finds that he and Franca Marinello have a common interest in Cicero. That interest forms a thread through the novel, and actually plays a role when Brunetti and his team investigate the murder of Stefano Ranzato, who owned a trucking company. The key to this murder, and to another murder that occurs in the novel, is Franca Marinello. And Brunetti gets some real insight from his knowledge of Cicero.

As the librarian for the Tumdrum and District Mobile Library, Ian Sansom’s Israel Armstrong loves books, and once dreamed of being a librarian at a major university, or even with the British Library. As we learn in The Case of the Missing Books, though, that’s not how things have turned out. Instead, Armstrong is hired to drive the mobile library bus, so that patrons in remote areas can access books. It’s not at all the sort of job he’d had in mind, but he’s left without much choice. So, he resolves to get started. When he tries to get the mobile library bus ready, though, he discovers that all fifteen thousand of the library’s books are missing. When Armstrong reports this to Linda Wei, who actually hired him, and who is the Deputy Head of Entertainment, Leisure and Community Services, she tells him that it’s his responsibility to find the books. After all, she points out, he is the librarian. So, Armstrong has to turn sleuth and find the books. Among other things, this series shows how important access to books is to a lot of people.

And then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. As fans will know, Mma Ramotswe has a much-beloved copy of Clovis Anderson’s Principles of Detection. She consults it frequently, and depends on the book for all sorts of advice. For instance, in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, Mma Ramotswe’s second cousin, Tati Monyena, is facing real trouble at the hospital where he works. It seems that there’ve been three deaths at the hospital recently. All three occurred on the same day of the week (‘though during different weeks), and all three patients were in the same bed in the Intensive Care ward when they died. It’s already been established that there were no pathogens involved, so Rra Monyena doesn’t know what might have been responsible. If the hospital’s reputation comes into question, though, this could be catastrophic. So, Mma Ramotswe agrees to look into the matter. When she goes to the hospital, she brings along Mr. Polopetsi, her newest assistant. And it turns out that that was a wise choice, since he is very familiar with the area and the people who live there. According to Clovis Anderson,
 

‘Local knowledge is like gold.’
 

It’s that sort of wisdom that Mma Ramotswe seeks, and sometimes finds, in the book.

You see? Books themselves play an important role in crime fiction. If you think about it, we likely wouldn’t even have the genre if we didn’t have easy access to books. So, perhaps it’s fair to say that we owe the genre in part to Gutenberg…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s The Printer’s Trade.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Alexander McCall Smith, Donna Leon, Ian Sansom

‘Cause I Ain’t Quite as Dumb as I Seem*

As this is posted, it would have been Andy Griffith’s 91st birthday. In one of his more famous roles, he portrayed Atlanta attorney Benjamin ‘Ben’ Matlock. Matlock’s courtroom persona was the ‘I’m just a dumb hick lawyer’ type, and he used it to great advantage as he defended clients. If you’ve seen the show, though, you know that Matlock was much sharper than he seemed.

Griffith was well-known (at least in the US) for that sort of character, but he’s hardly the only fictional character to ‘play dumb.’ There are plenty of other fictional lawyers, for instance, who use the same strategy. There are other characters, too (right, fans of Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo?).

For instance, more than once, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple pretends to be ‘just a fluttery old lady.’ But any fan can tell you that Miss Marple is much more intelligent and observant than she seems on the surface. She uses that persona to put people off their guards, but they soon learn that they underestimate Miss Marple at their peril. There are times when Christie’s Hercule Poirot does a similar thing. Poirot is not exactly modest when it comes to his opinion of his detecting ability. But he also knows that it’s sometimes expedient to ‘play dumb,’ and he can do that quite well (I see you, fans of After the Funeral).

Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is a bright, educated detective with the Queensland Police. He’s intelligent and shrewd, and a solid judge of character. But he knows that it doesn’t always serve his purpose to ‘show his hand’ as the saying goes. So, he sometimes adopts an ‘I’m just a dumb Aborigine – what do I know?’ persona (he’s half white/half Aborigine). He’s also been known to adopt the non-threatening persona of an itinerant stockman, a ranch hand, and more. This non-threatening exterior allows Bony to get people to talk to him in ways they might not otherwise do. And it gives him the chance to observe people when they’re not aware of it.

In Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, we are introduced to Central City, Texas Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. Most people in town think of him as a bit dull, perhaps not the brightest bulb in the proverbial chandelier. But he’s nice enough – certainly not threatening. Then, a local prostitute, Joyce Lakeland, is brutally beaten. Then, there’s a murder. As the story goes on, we learn that these events are connected, and that Ford’s ‘I’m just a dumb hick cop’ is hiding something else – something he himself refers to as ‘the sickness.’ It’s an interesting case of a murderer ‘playing dumb’ – and there are plenty of those.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover may be retired (she’s a former teacher), but there’s nothing ‘over the hill’ about her thinking skills. She’s bright, shrewd, and observant. Still, she knows that it sometimes pays to be as non-threatening as possible. That’s especially true since she’s not a member of a police force, and since she lives in a small town, where everyone knows everyone. So, she sometimes deliberately cultivates the ‘I’m just a gossipy old lady with nothing better to do’ image. This tends to put people more at ease than they would be if they knew what she was actually thinking. And it gets her information that she might not otherwise get.

And then there’s Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce. As the series begins, she’s eleven years old. She gets around her 1950s English village on her bicycle, Gladys. She fights with her two older sisters, and in other ways, she acts like a typical child of her age (if there is such a thing). But Flavia is not typical. She’s a brilliant chemist with a passion for poisons. And she’s curious enough to want to find out the truth about the murders that feature in this series. So, she uses her youth to her advantage. More than once, she adopts the ‘I’m just a dumb kid, don’t mind me’ persona so that she can eavesdrop, find clues, and so on.

There are many more examples of fictional characters who ‘play dumb’ so that they can get an advantage. Sometimes, they’re sleuths. Sometimes they’re killers. Other times, they’re hiding other things. Creating such a character can be tricky. There has to be a plausible reason for which other characters can’t see how bright/shrewd/well-informed the character really is. Otherwise there’s too much suspension of disbelief required of the reader. And ‘playing dumb’ too often can become tiresome. But when it’s done well, that sort of persona can add depth to a character – and interest to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Carrack’s How Long. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Arthur Upfield, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Jim Thompson

What Shall I Call You?*

If you’re kind enough to read this blog occasionally, you’ll know that right now, I’m working on revising my fourth Joel Williams novel. Revising can be a difficult process, especially if some fundamental things about a story need to be changed. But most authors have to make at least some revisions to their drafts.

One of the things I’ve discovered about this particular novel as I’ve been revising is that, of all things, the title I’d chosen no longer works. The plot has changed, and that means that the title doesn’t reflect it very well any more. So, I have to choose a new title.

Titles are interesting things, too. In some way, they have to catch the reader’s attention. Some authors do that by selecting unusual titles. For instance, the titles of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels are certainly inventive. There’s A Red Herring With Mustard, and I Am Half Sick of Shadows, just to name two. And Bradley’s by no means the only author to opt for such unusual titles.

Other authors, such as Sue Grafton and the ‘Nicci French’ team use titles to link the novels in their series. Fans can tell you that Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is sometimes called ‘the alphabet series,’ because each book begins with a letter of the English alphabet (e.g. A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc..). And the Nicci French Frieda Klein novels all have days of the week in their titles (e.g. Blue Monday).

Whatever title an author chooses, most people agree that it needs to be short enough to be remembered fairly easily. Too many words and it’s clumsy. That’s why there are so many crime titles that are one or two words (e.g. Elmore Lenoard’s Get Shorty, or Ruth Rendell’s The Vault). There are exceptions to this, of course. However, titles that are ‘crisp’ and not overblown generally seem to be more successful.

A title also arguably has a real advantage if it reflects something about the book. Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice has as one of its central plot points a dangerous new drug, known as ‘black ice.’ In this case, ‘black ice’ also refers more metaphorically to very dangerous situations that one might not see coming, and are all the more perilous if one’s not prepared. And Rex Stout’s Champagne For One is about the death of Faith Usher, who dies of poison after drinking a glass of champagne at a dinner party.

As you can see, the choice of a title can be a tricky business. It can’t be too long (but it has to be long enough to say something about the book). It can’t be too ‘cookie cutter’ (but not too ‘cutesy’ either). It has to be attention-getting (but not so strange that it’s off-putting). Little wonder that I’m really paying attention to this part of the revision.

But, you see, I have an advantage. I have you. You folks are all readers, and excellent judges of the titles of that get your attention or annoy you (or something in between). So, I’ve decided to ask you to help me and choose the title of my next Joel Williams novel. Below, you’ll see a poll with some possible titles. If you’d like a say, vote for your choice. The poll will be up for about a week, and then we’ll talk about it.

Now, to help you decide, here’s the tentative blurb (there may be some changes, but this is the basic story):
 

Research Can Be Deadly!

Criminal justice professor Joel Williams and two colleagues are studying Second Chances, a Philadelphia alternative school program that’s supposed to keep at-risk students off the streets and out of prison. But it hasn’t kept those young people out of danger. The research team is shocked when their work turns up a tragic death. One of the students, 15-year-old Curtis Templeton, fell from a building near the school, and everyone says it was a horrible accident. But if it was an accident, why isn’t anybody willing to talk about it? And if it wasn’t, who would want to kill Curtis?

To get answers, Williams and the team will step into the world of for-profit alternative schools, and into the lives of the people they’re meant to serve. And they’ll go up against someone who’s willing to do whatever it takes to keep certain secrets hidden.
 

What do you think? Which title says it best?

 


 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Thompson Twins’ Flesh and Blood.

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Filed under Alan Bradley, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, Nicci French, Ruth Rendell, Sue Grafton

Teach Them Well and Let Them Lead the Way*

respecting-childrenAs this is posted, it’s ‘Dr. Seuss Day,’ National Read Across America Day in the US. This annual event not only celebrates Dr. Seuss’ birthday and legacy, but also celebrates the joy of reading together. And that’s as it should be. Dr. Seuss’s work has had a major impact on children’s literature, on reading in general, and on literacy development. Chances are that you’ve had at least some of his work read to you, and/or you’ve read it to your (grand)children.

One of the things that makes Dr. Seuss’ body of work distinctive is the respect it shows for young readers. If you read it closely, it is often whimsical, but doesn’t condescend to children. Rather, Dr. Seuss appreciated young people’s imaginations, and part of the appeal of his work is that it celebrates that creativity.

There’s a lot we can learn from children, too. We certainly see that in life, and we see it in crime fiction. Skilled sleuths know that treating children with respect, and reaching them at their levels, often gets more answers than does either ignoring them or completely dismissing what they have to say.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes knows the value of treating young people with respect, and of listening to them. Fans of these stories will know that, more than once, Holmes gets valuable assistance from a group of young boys called the Baker Street Irregulars. Led by a boy named Wiggins, they serve as Holmes’ ‘eyes and ears.’ They’re mostly street children, and no-one pays very much attention to them. But Holmes does. He knows that they see things, and hear things, that others don’t. Their information is quite useful to Holmes, and he doesn’t make the mistake of being dismissive of it.

Most people probably wouldn’t think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot as particularly fond of children. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t listen to them. In fact, when he does interact with children, Poirot is respectful; he knows that he’ll get more from listening to children than he will from ignoring them. In Dead Man’s Folly, for instance, a conversation with twelve-year-old Marylin Tucker gives Poirot some valuable information about why and by whom her older sister, Marlene, was killed. And in Hallowe’en Party, Poirot investigates the murders of thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds and her younger brother, Leopold. He finds that conversations with another young person turn out to be extremely useful in learning who killed these young people and why. And in both of these cases, Poirot listens, treats the children with respect, and speaks to them in ways they can understand.

Much the same could be said of Arthur Upfield’s Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte. In more than one of his cases, he interacts with children, and he’s found that listening to them, respecting them, and seeing the world the way they do is very helpful. For example, in Death of a Swagman, Bony is in the small town of Merino, looking into the death of itinerant stockman George Kendall. In order to find out everything he can, Bony goes undercover as a stockman, even arranging with Sergeant Marshall of the local police to be locked up for ten days on ‘vagrancy’ charges. During his ‘sentence,’ Bony meets Marshall’s daughter, Florence, who prefers the name Rose Marie. She’s not the reason for Kendall’s murder, but Bony finds that she has useful information. He treats her with respect, and the two form a bond that adds much to the story.

Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware is a psychologist whose specialty is working with children. So, he’s learned the value of listening carefully to what they say, and of interacting with them both respectfully and at a level they can understand. And in more than one case (I’m thinking, for instance, of When the Bough Breaks), he finds out very useful information.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, we meet ten-year-old Kate Meaney. She’s a fledgling detective who’s even opened her own agency, Falcon Investigations. And she’s sure she can spot suspicious activity and solve/prevent crime. At the beginning of the story, she lives with her father, Frank, with whom she has a close relationship. He treats her with respect, and appreciates both her imagination and her creative, distinctive way of thinking. And, in his way, Frank encourages his daughter to follow her own path. But then, tragically he dies. Kate’s grandmother, Ivy, loves her very much, but thinks she’d be better off going away to school. So, she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at Redspoon, an exclusive school. Kate reluctantly goes to the school for the exams, but never returns. Despite an exhaustive search, no trace of her is found. Then, twenty years later, Kurt, a security guard at the mall Kate used to haunt, starts seeing strange images on his cameras. The images look a lot like Kate, and that’s unsettling. One night, Kurt meets Lisa, an assistant manager at the mall. Lisa used to know Kate, and eventually Kurt tells her what he’s seen. Slowly, the two go back to the past, you might say, and we learn what really happened to Kate and why.

Alan Bradley’s sleuth, Flavia de Luce, is eleven years old at the beginning of the series featuring her. She lives with her father and sisters in an old place called Buckshaw. One of the major influences in Flavia’s life is her father’s factotum, Arthur Dogger. Flavia knows that she can trust Dogger, who treats her with respect and listens to her. He takes her questions – and there are many – seriously, too. And, even though he has an adult’s maturity and experience, he’s not dismissive of Flavia’s ideas, even when they’re quite speculative.

And then there’s Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club. It’s 1950s Auckland, and Rita Saunders has established herself both as a hairstylist, and as the owner of a gentlemen’s club, a not-well-disguised brothel. Things are going smoothly for her, but that changes when a ship from England docks. One of the passengers, Fenella Grayson, is escorting three orphaned girls who are to be placed at Brodie House, an orphanage that’s directed by a man named Lindsay Pitcaithly. It’s hoped that good adoptive homes will soon be found for them. Little by little, though, Rita begins to suspect that Brodie House is not all it seems, and that Pitcaithly may be involved in some sinister business. With the help of a recent immigrant, Istvan Ziegler, and another newcomer to Auckland, Judith Curran, Rita gets to the truth about Brodie House. And that involves talking to the three orphaned girls. This takes time and effort, and it requires listening to them, respecting what they say, and reaching them at their level.

And that’s something that Dr. Seuss was quite skilled at doing. He’s no longer with us, but his stories are. And for many millions of readers, that’s a very good thing.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michael Masser and Linda Greed’s The Greatest Love of All.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Catherine O'Flynn, Jen Shieff, Jonathan Kellerman