Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

I’m Not the Same Person*

Most of us grow and change over time. That’s usually a positive thing, since it means we’re getting more mature. That process of changing and evolving can be a challenge, though, especially when others insist on thinking of us in the ‘same old ways.’ If you’ve ever returned to your home town, for instance, where people knew you as you used to be, you may know that feeling of frustration (e.g. ‘I’m not that person now! I’ve changed!).

In fiction, including crime fiction, changes in characters can certainly add to the story. And it can make for suspense, even conflict, when others don’t seem to want to accept those changes. There are plenty of examples in the genre. Here are just a few.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, we are introduced to Hilton Cubitt. He’s concerned about his wife, Elsie. Before they married, Elsie warned him that she’d had some ‘unpleasant associations’ in her life, although she herself hasn’t done anything wrong. Because of this, she made her husband promise that he wouldn’t ask about her past, and he agreed. But now, it seems the past has caught up with her. She’s been getting cryptic letters written in code. They’re clearly upsetting to her, but she won’t confide in Hilton. So, he brings the case to Sherlock Holmes, who agrees to look into it. Then, messages are scrawled on one of the window sills of the Cubitt house. Now, Elsie seems terrified, but still won’t tell her husband why. Then a tragedy occurs, and Hilton is shot. Holmes works out the code, and discovers that someone has refused to let Elsie change, grow, and, if you will, reinvent herself.

Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger features brother and sister Jerry and Joanna Burton. Originally from London, they’ve taken a home in the village of Lymstock, so that Jerry can recover from a plane crash injury. They’re just settling in when they receive a vicious anonymous letter that claims they’re lovers, not siblings. Soon enough, they find out that they’re not the only victims of these ‘poison pen’ letters. Someone in town is sending out anonymous letters to several other people. Then, there’s a murder. And another murder. Miss Marple gets involved in the investigation, and discovers the truth behind both the letters and the murders. One of the villagers is 20-year-old Megan Hunter. When we first meet her, she’s awkward and frumpy, and most people dismiss her. Jerry gets to know her, though, and finds himself falling for her. He takes her on a trip to London, where he pays for her to have a makeover and new clothes. When they return, Megan looks and learns to act more sophisticated and mature. But it’s a bit awkward at first, as not everyone is ready to forget the dowdy, clumsy Megan they knew.

In Ian Vasquez’ Lonesome Point, we meet brothers Leo and Patrick Varela. They grew up in Belize, but moved to Miami. Now, Patrick has a very promising career in local law and politics. He’s even being spoken of as a very good choice for the next mayor of Miami, with all sorts of possibilities after that. Leo is a poet, who also works at Jefferson Memorial, a mental hospital. He doesn’t travel in his brother’s circles, but they do have their past in common. And it comes back to haunt them. One day, Leo gets a visit from Freddy Robinson, whom he knew in Belize. Freddy’s now working for some ‘associates’ who want Leo to release one of the patients, Herman Massani. It seems that Massani has some information on voter fraud in the Miami-Dade County area. If that information is accurate, it implicates Patrick. At first, Leo doesn’t want anything to do with Freddy, who’s become a convicted felon. But Freddy insists, and reminds Leo that he knows about some dark things that happened in the Varela brothers’ past. Leo’s tried his best to move beyond Belize, but now, it seems that Freddy won’t let that happen. When Leo contacts his brother, Patrick wants to wait and see what will happen. But things soon begin to spin out of control for both brothers, and it’s clear that they won’t be easily allowed to get past what happened when they were younger.

In Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night, social worker Simran Singh returns to her home town of Jullundur, in the state of Punjab. She’s been living and working in Delhi, which suits her. But, when an old university friend asks for her help in a case, she finds it impossible to refuse. It seems that a horrible tragedy has occurred at the home of the wealthy Atwals. Thirteen members of the family have been poisoned, and some stabbed. What’s more, someone set fire to the house. The only survivor is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal. The evidence isn’t clear on whether she was responsible for what happened, or was a victim who managed to survive. Durga herself has said nearly nothing about that night, so the police don’t know how to proceed with her (or the investigation). It’s hoped that if Simran works with the girl, she can get her to open up and talk about what happened. In one of the sub-plots of the novel, Simran faces the challenge of people who want to see her only as the girl she was, and not as the skilled, educated professional she is now. That proves to be a real stumbling block for her, although she does find out the truth about the Atwal case.

And then there’s Peter May’s Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod, who makes his entrance in The Blackhouse. He’s originally from the Isle of Lewis, but left there several years ago. Now, he’s a police detective, living and working in Edinburgh. Then, there’s a murder on the Isle of Lewis that closely resembles an Edinburgh case MacLeod’s working. He’s seconded to the island, the idea being that if the two murders were committed by the same person, the two police forces should work together. For MacLeod, though, this isn’t a happy homecoming. He had good reasons for leaving in the first place, and had no real desire to go back. He does, though, and meets up again with the people he grew up with, several of whom never left the island. His interactions with them add some interesting tension to the novel. Over the years, he’s grown up, become a skilled detective, and made a new life for himself. But plenty of people on the island still see him as the boy he once was.

And that’s a big challenge when we try to grow up and remake ourselves. We sometimes have to deal with the fact that not everyone sees the ‘new us.’ That can make for real-life tension, and interesting conflict and character development in a novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Bettye Crutch, Allen Jones, and Booker T. Jones.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Vasquez, Kishwar Desai, Peter May

I Took a Little Risk*

As this is posted, it’s 158 years since the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. As you know, it was a groundbreaking book that still has implications. It contributed to major changes in our thinking about our species, our history, and a lot more.

It was a risky gamble for Darwin, and for the John Murray Company, the book’s publisher. Darwin is, of course, not the only author to take risks with his writing. Plenty of crime fiction authors have, too. Whenever an author breaks new ground with a book, she or her runs the risk of a complete failure, both critically and commercially. But sometimes, those gambles pay off.

Consider, for instance, Arthur Conan Doyle. His Sherlock Holmes was arguably the first fictional detective who used the scientific method and scientific processes to solve mysteries. It was a major shift in detection, and there was no guarantee that it would pay off. But it did. Holmes remains one of the most popular characters in fiction history. In fact, fans loved Holmes so much that there was a major public outcry when Doyle tried to end the Holmes stories with The Final Problem. He was more or less forced by public opinion (and the publisher) to bring Holmes back in The Adventure of the Empty House.

Agatha Christie also took major risks with her writing. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance, we are introduced to retired magnate Roger Ackroyd and his household. When he is stabbed one night in his study, the most likely suspect seems to be his stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, believes that he is innocent; so, she asks for help from Hercule Poirot, who’s recently retired (or so he thinks) to the same village. Poirot looks closely at other possibilities for the murderer, and finds that virtually every other character is hiding something. In the end, he finds out who the killer is. The solution to this mystery turned many of the detective story conventions on their heads, so to speak. In fact, Christie got quite a lot of criticism for not ‘playing fair.’ And yet, this novel remains one of her most popular releases. And, if you read the story carefully, you see that all of the clues are there.

Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me was also quite risky. In it, we are introduced to Lou Ford, Deputy Sheriff of Central City, Texas. He’s well-enough liked in town, if considered a little dull. Certainly, he’s not the kind of person who draws a lot of attention. Then, a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland is brutally beaten. After that, there’s a murder. Now, everything’s changed, and we learn that Ford is hiding something – something he calls ‘the sickness.’ This is arguably one of the first novels in which we really get to know a serial killer, and get ‘inside that person’s head.’ It was a major gamble for Thompson; in fact, Stephen King has commented on Thompson’s bravery in letting himself see everything and write it down. The novel may not be for everyone, but it broke crime-fictional ground, and changed many people’s thinking about what a crime story could be.

Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest was also a gamble. It’s often (‘though not always) regarded as the first ‘hardboiled’ PI novel. Even today, people often associate Hammett with that sub-genre. Until that time, most crime novels avoided a lot of violence, and didn’t really look at the seamy side of life. Hammett introduced a different sort of protagonist, and a different sort of perspective, and there was resistance to it. There was also no guarantee that people would take to this sort of story. But, of course, they did. Today, the ‘hardboiled’ story is among the more popular of sub-genres.

Many people argue that Robert B. Parker also changed our thinking about the private-detective story. His Spenser series doesn’t just focus on clues, whodunit, and ‘red herrings.’ Rather, it explores relationships and character development, too, in a way that innovated that sub-genre. And plenty of more recent PIs have been inspired by that innovation to create a new kind of protagonist.

These are by no means the only authors who have taken risks by changing our thinking about what a crime novel could be. I’m sure that you could think of many more than I could. And, if you think about, every author takes a risk. What if people don’t like the direction the novel takes? What if an author who’s had success with one series tries something completely different – and it fails? Fiction writing, like scientific writing, takes a certain amount of courage no matter what one’s topic. And writing that takes our thinking in new directions requires even more courage. Just consider what we might have missed had Darwin not taken the risks he took.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Warren Zevon’s Lawyers, Guns and Money.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, Robert B. Parker

And Though She’s Not Really Ill, There’s a Little Yellow Pill*

Most of us would probably agree that what have sometimes been called ‘street drugs’ (heroin, for instance) are dangerous and just as well illegal. Certainly, they’ve wreaked havoc on innumerable families. And, of course, crime fiction is full of references to those sorts of drugs and the trade in them.

It’s sometimes not as clear-cut with other sorts of drugs, though. For instance, people with certain mental and emotional illnesses benefit greatly from certain drugs. There are other people, too, such as people with certain learning and attention disabilities, who can benefit from certain medications. It’s not always an easy question what role those drugs should play, and people have very different opinions on the topic.

That question comes up in crime fiction, and it’s interesting to see how the answer to it has changed over time as public and professional views on the topic change. And even today, there isn’t consensus. There rarely is with complex issues that don’t have easy answers.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that he is a user of both morphine and cocaine. He doesn’t use drugs for fun, and he doesn’t deal in them. Rather, his drug use reflects the views of his generation. More than one easily-available medication of that time contained cocaine or heroin, and people saw those drugs as perfectly legitimate. Dr. Watson disapproves of Holmes’ use of those drugs, but he doesn’t make much headway in getting his friend to stop.

There’s an interesting discussion of barbiturate use in Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies. In one plot thread, we are introduced to American actress Carlotta Adams. She’s quite the sensation of the day, with a one-person impersonation show. She’s quite gifted, too, and popular. One night, she apparently takes an overdose of Veronal and is found dead the next morning. At first, it’s put down to a tragic accident. At the time, plenty of people take sleeping medicine (it’s actually mentioned in more than one of Christie’s stories). So, no-one thinks much of it. And yet, the dead woman’s maid swears she wasn’t a regular drug user. And it turns out that this overdose was far from accidental. Hercule Poirot connects this murder to the stabbing murder of wealthy, unpleasant Lord Edgware, and finds the surprising link between them. On the one hand, a local doctor expresses his strong disapproval of drug use:
 

‘‘Why these girls must have drugs, I can’t think.’’
 

On the other hand, it’s not an unusual thing to use powerful barbiturates.

In Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) The Minotaur, we meet Kerstin Kvist, a Swedish nurse who’d decided to move to England to be closer to her lover, Mark Douglas. She accepts a job with the Cosway family, where her duty will be to look after thirty-nine-year-old John Cosway, who’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia. On the surface, the job looks like exactly the right choice for Kerstin. But all too soon, she begins to suspect that all is not what it seems. For one thing, the family still seems to be living in the Victorian Era, which is odd in itself. Also, family matriarch Mrs. Cosway has given strict instructions that her son is to be kept heavily medicated. Kerstin doesn’t think he needs that much medication; so, bit by bit, she reduces his dosages without telling anyone. Her decision has tragic consequences, which she documents in a diary that she keeps.

One of the ongoing debates in the world of education, especially special education, is how much (if any) medication children should be given when they are diagnosed with attention and other learning disorders. It’s not an easy question. It’s addressed a bit in Jonathan Kellerman’s When the Bough Breaks, in which we first meet child psychologist Alex Delaware. One day, he gets a visit from his friend, LAPD detective Milo Sturgis. It seems that a psychiatrist named Morton Handler and his lover, Elena Gutierrez, have been brutally murdered. The only witness is seven-year-old Melody Quinn. Getting any information from her is going to be difficult, though. For one thing, she’s a child, with a child’s perspective. For another, she’s on heavy medication for ADHD and other learning issues. Sturgis is hoping that Delaware will be able to communicate with the child and find out whatever information she has. Delaware is reluctant to take on this task, but he agrees. He soon finds, though, that it’s all but impossible to have any meaningful conversation with Melody. The child’s doctor, Dr. Lionel Towle, refuses to reduce her medication, so Delaware convinces her mother to let him reduce it. At first, it seems that Melody might open up and trust Delaware. Very soon, though, she begins to have severe nightmares. That’s enough for her mother and doctor to bar Delaware from seeing her again. By this time, though, Delaware is curious about the case, so he works with Sturgis to find out the truth.

Several medical thrillers, such as those by Robin Cook, also explore questions around the ethics of medication. In Acceptable Risk, for instance, a new line of psychotropic drugs is being developed, and the result turns out to be disastrous. One of the issues Cook raises is how much pressure pharmaceutical companies should put on researchers to develop new medications. Another is what the limits of such research should be, especially if the result could potentially be helpful to millions of people.

These aren’t easy questions. Nor are other questions about pharmaceuticals and medications. Attitudes towards them have changed as time has gone by, and we see both that complexity and those changes in crime fiction. These are just a few examples. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Jonathan Kellerman, Robin Cook

The Way She Brushed Her Hair From Her Forehead*

Not very long ago, I had an author portrait taken. I don’t usually care much for ‘photos of myself – at all. But part of getting the word out about one’s writing is….an author portrait (am I right, fellow crime writers?). I asked my daughter fashion and image expert which of several shots to choose, and she mentioned that I looked angry in one. I asked her what made her think that. After a second’s pause she said, ‘It’s your upper lip.’ Turns out I have a certain facial mannerism I didn’t even know about that gives away irritation.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised. We all have unique mannerisms that are part of our equally unique identities. Sometimes they are very subtle. Other times they’re more obvious. Either way, they help to define us. And they can be really useful to the crime writer. Mannerisms help to make characters distinctive. Readers might not necessarily remember a character’s name, but they might remember, ‘Oh, yeah, the one who tilts her head back to look at you.’

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a very distinctive character. His pipe, his violin, and so on have served to make him familiar to millions. But he also has some physical mannerisms that distinguish him from others. Here’s what Dr. Watson says about it in A Study in Scarlet:
 

‘Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him; but now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night.’
 

As time goes by, Watson learns to ‘read’ Holmes’ mannerisms to determine when he’s feeling sociable, when he’s deep in thought, and so on.

Agatha Christie used mannerisms in more than one of her stories. In at least two novels that I can think of (Sorry – no titles. I don’t want to give away spoilers), characters’ distinctive physical mannerisms help the sleuth identify the criminal. Sometimes, Christie used mannerisms to lead readers down the proverbial garden path, too. And of course, her sleuths have mannerisms of their own. Any fan of Hercule Poirot, for instance, can tell you that he has plenty of physical quirks. He absently straightens anything that’s not in perfect alignment. He smooths his moustache unconsciously, too. And those are only two examples.

Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe will know that he has several physical mannerisms. One of them is that, when he’s deep in thought, his lips show it. Here’s a description from Champagne For One:
 

‘…his lips started to work. They pushed out and went back in, out and in, out and in…’
 

Wolfe may not always be consciously aware that he’s doing that, but Archie Goodwin knows to leave him alone when he does. It means he’s pondering a case, and will not take it kindly if he’s interrupted.

Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios / A Coffin For Dimitrios introduces us to mystery novelist Charles Latimer. When he hears about a notorious character named Dimitrios Makropoulos, he gets interested. And when he finds out the man has been found dead, Latimer gets even more interested. He decides to trace Makropoulos’ history, and find out how and why he committed the crimes that he did, and how he met his end. It’s a very dangerous undertaking, but Latimer is too curious to stop. Slowly, he gets drawn into the dead man’s story. Along the way, he meets a mysterious man who calls himself Mr. Peters. Peters has the mannerism of smiling – a lot. His smiles change, depending on the circumstances, but he smiles quite often. Latimer finds the smile disconcerting, and it’s interesting to see how that adds to the suspense in the story.

Anne Zouroudi’s Hermes Diaktoros is a somewhat enigmatic sleuth. When he’s on a case, he tells people that he’s been sent ‘from Athens’ to help investigate. But it’s never clear exactly where he’s from or what his actual job is (although he is a sort of private detective). In appearance, he’s not overly distinctive. But he does have the distinctive mannerism of keeping the white tennis shoes he habitually wears pristine.

James W. Fuerst’s Huge is the story of Eugene ‘Huge’ Smalls. It takes place in a small 1980’s New Jersey town, where twelve-year-old Huge lives with his mother and his sister, Eunice ‘Neecey.’ Huge has his problems in school, but he’s highly intelligent, and dreams of being a private detective, just like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He gets his chance when his grandmother hires him to find out who defaced the sign at the elder care facility where she lives. Huge goes to work on the case; and in the process of finding out who the guilty person is, he learns a lot about himself. The story takes place, as I say, in the 1980s, and Fuerst places the reader in that time period in some interesting ways. For instance, Neecey has a habit she’s probably not even aware of, of wrapping the family’s extra-long telephone cord around her waist when she’s having a ‘phone conversation. It’s an unconscious mannerism, and it adds a layer of character and of setting (remember those super-long cords?).

There are lots of other examples of crime-fictional characters who have distinctive physical mannerisms (right, fans of Andy Breckman’s Adrian Monk?). Those mannerisms can add layers of character development, and make it easier to distinguish among characters. If they’re overdone, they can take away from a story, but when they’re written well, they can be interesting.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Graceland. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andy Breckman, Anne Zouroudi, Arthur Conan Doyle, Eric Ambler, James W. Fuerst, Rex Stout

Any Fish Bite if You Got Good Bait*

Criminals don’t always leave a lot of evidence behind. So, in order to collar them, the police have to catch them in the act, so to speak. And that sometimes means that the police have to use ‘bait.’

This can be a tricky plot point in a crime novel. For one thing, real-life police aren’t eager to risk the safety of one of their own, so they don’t plan such operations without a lot of thought and care. For another, such operations can be legally chancy, and must avoid entrapment. When they’re not done carefully, these plot points can also become almost melodramatic, and that can take away from a story. But, when it’s done effectively, using a character as ‘bait’ can add suspense to a story, and can be a legitimate way for a fictional sleuth to catch a criminal.

You might say that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes uses himself as ‘bait’ in The Adventure of the Dancing Men. He and Dr. Watson get a visit from Hilton Cubitt, who’s very concerned about his American-born wife, Elsie. When they married, she assured him that she had nothing disgraceful in her own past. But, she’d had some dangerous associations. She made him promise not to ask her about her life in America, and he kept that promise. Now, though, she’s getting cryptic letters that have upset her. The letters take the form of sets of coded characters, so Cubitt doesn’t know what they say. And Elsie won’t tell him. Then, the drawings start appearing on the window ledge of the Cubitt home. Holmes gets to work trying to decrypt the messages, but before he can, Cubitt is shot one night, and his wife is wounded. Holmes sets a trap for the killer with himself as ‘bait;’ he sends a coded message asking the murderer to meet him. Holmes is able to catch the criminal, and we learn what really happened at the Cubitt residence.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series begins with Roseanna. In that novel, the body of an unknown woman is pulled from Lake Vättern. It takes time, but she is eventually identified as twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, an American who was on a tour of Sweden when she was killed. Once the victim has a name, Martin Beck and his team get to work tracing her last days and weeks, and trying to find out who would have wanted to kill her. Finally, after several months, some false starts, and a lot of work, the team learns who the murderer is. But there isn’t much evidence, and the culprit isn’t likely to admit any guilt. So, Martin Beck and his teammates set a trap, if you will, using one of their own, Sonja Hansson. She’s made fully aware of the risks, and decides she wants to help. So, everything’s prepared. In the end, that trap is successful in catching Roseanna McGraw’s killer, but it’s risky and it’s scary for all concerned.

The first of Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan novels, The Burning, sees Met Detective Constable (DC) Kerrigan tracking a murderer the press has called the Burning Man, because he incinerates his victims. The police haven’t gotten very far in finding out who the murderer is, because there’s not much evidence. So, the public and the press are losing patience. Then, there’s a new victim, Rebecca Haworth. On the surface, it looks very much as though the Burning Man has struck again. But there are little differences between this case and the others. Kerrigan wants to stay with the Burning Man team, but she’s assigned to follow up on the Haworth case. After all, the police don’t want to be seen as ignoring a murder. And, if this was, in fact, a Burning Man case, Kerrigan’s helping the team. In the end, we find out who the Burning Man is, and how the Haworth murder fits in, and it’s more complex than it seems at first. In one scene, Kerrigan joins the team as they plan to try to catch the Burning Man. An undercover officer, Katy Mayford, will serve as the ‘bait.’ It’s not spoiling the story to say that this operation turns out to be dangerous.

Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion is the first in her Anna Travis series. In it, Travis has just joined the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. At the time she comes aboard, the team is working on a case of six older prostitutes who were all killed in the same way. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) James Langton is sure the murders were committed by the same person, but the culprit doesn’t leave much at all in the way of evidence. Then, seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens is found dead. Her murder was committed exactly the same way as the others, but she was quite young, and not a prostitute. So, it’s not certain that she’s a victim of the same killer. Langton thinks she is, though, and the team gathers evidence. One possible suspect is a TV actor named Alan Daniels. There is some evidence that he could be guilty, but it’s not conclusive. Besides, he’s beloved, charming, and just about to make it big in films. If he’s not guilty, being dragged into a murder case like this will ruin his career. It could also harm Travis’ career, since she’s found some of the evidence against him. So, the team has to tread lightly.  At one point in the novel, Langton and the team set up an operation with Travis as ‘bait.’ It’s a suspenseful scene, since it’s not clear whether or not Daniels is the killer. There is another solid suspect, and things aren’t always as they seem in such cases. It’s very hard on Travis to serve as ‘bait,’ although she acquits herself well. And it shows just how stressful this sort of operation can be.

And it can. Still, sometimes the best way to catch a criminal is to set and ‘bait’ a trap. When that plot point is well-drawn, it can add a solid dose of suspense, tension and surprise to a novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Henry Thomas’ Fishing Blues.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Casey, Lynda La Plante, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö