Category Archives: Arthur Upfield

Stranded on an Island Alone*

As this is posted, it’s 299 years since the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Among other things, this novel explores the relationship between humans and nature as Crusoe works to find shelter, food, and so on after he is stranded. It’s also, of course, his personal reflection.

And being stranded can be very scary, even if you have some survival skills. After all, lots of different things can happen, and plenty of them are not good. That’s part of why that plot point can add a lot to a crime story. There’s an extra layer of tension that can be very powerful. And the physical setting can add interest to the story, too. There are lots of novels that include that element of being stranded, or close to it. Here are just a few; I know you’ll think of others.

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the story of ten people who accept invitations to visit Indian Island, off the Devon coast. They all arrive and settle in, and at first, all seems well enough. Then, that night, each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Then, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, there’s another death. Soon, a storm comes up that cuts off access to the island, so these people are stranded. And, now that it’s clear that one of them is a killer, no-one feels safe trusting anyone else. These characters don’t really have to make shelter or forage outside for food. But they are trapped, and they don’t trust each other enough to work well together. Against that backdrop, the survivors are going to have to find out who the killer is if they’re going to stay alive.

Dick Francis’ Second Wind features BBC meteorologist Perry Stuart. In one plot thread, he crashes in the Caribbean after flying a plane through the eye of a hurricane. He thinks he’s about to drown, but instead, washes up on an uninhabited island. He manages to survive, and uses the resources he can find for shelter, food, and so on. Then, he is found by four visitors to the island. At first, it seems that they want to kill him for intruding. Instead, they return him to Grand Cayman. He’s blindfolded, so he doesn’t know where the island he discovered is. But apparently, someone thinks he knows too much for safety. Once he returns to England, Stuart becomes the target of some dangerous people whose plot he slowly uncovers.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River is the story of London-born William Thornhill, his wife, Sal, and their children. In 1806, Thornhill is sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing a load of wood. He and his family arrive in Sydney and have to start all over. On the one hand, they are not stranded in the sense of there being no-one else there. On the other, they have to make do as best they can for a lot of things. Still, they slowly start to build a life. Thornhill finds work with a man named Alexander King, who wants him to transport casks of liquor to nearby coves, where they won’t be seen by customs inspectors. Sal puts together a makeshift pub. It’s all rudimentary, but it’s a start. Then, Thornhill gets a job delivering goods on the Hawkesbury River. That’s where he discovers the perfect piece of land that he’s been wanting. But, of course, there have been people in this area for many thousands of years. So, there are bound to be clashes between them and the newcomers. And soon enough, that’s exactly what happens. Thornhill wants no part of the bloodshed and crimes that ensue. He soon learns, though, that if he wants to hold on to his land, he’ll have to get his hands dirty. As the Thornhills get settled on their land, we see how they have to learn to use creatively the things they find there.

Fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series will know that, in more than one novel, Longmire ends up more or less stranded in the mountains. He’s the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, and that means his jurisdiction includes some very rough terrain. He knows the land, and he knows how to make do. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy for him to stay warm, find food, and take shelter. It’s a good reminder not to take the elements for granted.

And that’s a lesson that Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte knows very well. He’s a Queensland Police Inspector, who is also half white/half Aborigine. He is thoroughly familiar with, as he calls it, the Book of the Bush. And that helps him to survive when he’s out in the ‘back of beyond.’ He knows what’s safe to eat and what isn’t, what sorts of places will offer safe shelter, how to find potable water, and how to spot an oncoming storm.

All of those skills are useful, especially if one ends up as Robinson Crusoe did. That plot line – where characters who are isolated have to make what they can from what’s available – can add suspense to a novel. And it’s interesting to explore the dynamic between people and their surroundings in those situations. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Junior Senior.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Craig Johnson, Daniel Defoe, Dick Francis, Kate Grenville

At the Gate Are All the Horses Waiting For the Cue to Fly Away*

Have you ever ridden horses? Even if your family never owned a horse, you might have taken riding lessons. Horses have a long history with people, for farm work, for racing, and as forms of transportation. And that’s to say nothing of the way they’ve been bred for showing.

The horse business is a very lucrative one, and it’s got its own culture and language. Because it’s a small world, so to speak, and because of the money involved, the world of horses is an interesting context for a crime story. There are a lot of them out there; here are just a few.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson travel to Dartmoor to investigate the disappearance of a famous racehorse, Silver Blaze. The horse has been abducted, and his trainer, John Straker, has been murdered. Some of the evidence points to a London bookmaker, Fitzroy Simpson. In fact, Inspector Tobias Gregson has already arrested him for murder. But, for all of his faults, Gregson doesn’t want an innocent man to be convicted. So, he asks Holmes to investigate. Of course, Holmes and Watson want to know who Straker’s killer is, too. But there’s also the intriguing question of what happened to Silver Blaze. It’s not easy to hide a horse. But Holmes works out where Silver Blaze is.

In Ellery Queen’s short story, Long Shot, Queen is under contract to Hollywood’s Magna Studios. They’ve tapped him to do a crime film that takes place in the horse racing world, but he knows nothing about horses, or racing. His love interest, gossip columnist Paula Paris, takes him to meet with well-known breeder John Scott. Queen gets some useful information, but he also gets drawn into a difficult mystery. It seems that Scott is being threatened by a man who wants to buy up his whole stable. If Scott doesn’t acquiesce, his best horse, Danger, is at real risk. And, on the day of an important race at Santa Anita, tragedy strikes. Danger is badly wounded, and Scott’s daughter, Kathryn, is abducted. But, as Queen discovers, this isn’t as straightforward a mystery as it seems…

Fans of Dick Francis’ work will know that many of them feature the horse breeding and racing world. For example, one of his series features former jockey Sid Halley. His racing career has ended in injury, and Halley now works as a racetrack investigator. And there are all sorts of nefarious things that can go on in that world, There’s a lot of money in racing, so there’s quite a lot at stake. And that means that some people will do whatever it takes to sabotage competition and ensure their horses will win. Of course, there are watchdog groups to make sure that races are run fairly. But, as Halley learns throughout the novels, there are plenty of insidious ways to ‘work the system.’

Fans of Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series will know that Irish is a Melbourne-based sometimes-lawyer, who also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found. One of his interests is horse racing, and he and a group of his friends have a sort of betting ‘syndicate.’ In Dead Point, for instance, one of the plot threads follows the syndicate as their horse, Renoir, can’t finish an important race, and has to be put down. Then, one of the group members is mugged, and the group’s winnings from another race are stolen. Now, Irish has very personal reasons for finding out who’s behind it all.

If you’ve ever been to the US state of Virginia, you know that horses and horse breeding are integral to the culture. There are some horse bloodlines that go back many generations, and races, shows, sales, and even fox hunts, are important social events. Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen series takes place against this backdrop. As the series begins, she is the postmistress for tiny Crozet, Virginia. Later she steps away from that position and does other things, such as winemaking and concentrating on her farm. Throughout the series, readers get a strong sense of the local culture, and that includes horses. In more than one novel, Harry investigates mysteries that have to do with horse breeding, racing, and so on. Fans can tell you, too, that her ex-husband, Pharamond ‘Fair’ Haristeen (who later returns to her life), is a much-in-demand veterinarian whose specialty is horses.

Horses also play important roles on ranches. Good horses are an essential to a successful operation. We see that in work like Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte series. He is a police investigator for the Queensland Police. His work takes him to some far-flung places, and to more than one ranch. In works such as The Bone is Pointed and The Bushman Who Came Back, we see how a ranch relies on its horses. We see that in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, too, as well as several others.

As you can see (but you knew this), horses and people have a long and varied sort of relationship. Whether it’s racing, farm work, transportation, or something else, horses have been integrated into our lives for millennia. So, it’s really little wonder at all that we also see them in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples. Your turn.

 

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? That’s a ‘photo of my daughter taking her first pony ride.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Ascot Gavotte.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Craig Johnson, Dick Francis, Ellery Queen, Peter Temple, Rita Mae Brown

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

Getting to Know What to Say*

Not long ago, I read a very interesting post from Marina Sofia, who blogs at Finding Time to Write. She made some very strong arguments for learning at least one other language, even if one doesn’t become thoroughly fluent in that language. I won’t go over the points that she made; she did a better job than I ever could. Read the post yourself and you’ll see.

It all did get me to thinking, though, of the way this all plays out in crime fiction. There are plenty of fictional characters who negotiate more than one cultural world because they speak more than one language. That’s a major advantage for a character, as it allows better communication, a wider network, and a lot more.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is, by birth and background, Belgian. His first language is Belgian French, and that’s his culture. He went to England as a refugee because of World War I, and has learned to adapt to a very different language and culture. He’s kept his own culture in many ways, but he knows that he’ll be able relate better to the English people he meets if he uses their language. So, he’s learned fluent English (he’s actually more fluent than he sometimes lets on). With that language has also come some important cultural knowledge (e.g. shaking hands as a greeting, rather than embracing). Poirot is still culturally Belgian, but he’s also able to negotiate the English culture.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation. He is also a member of the Navajo Tribal Police (now called the Navajo Nation Police). By birth and home culture, he is Navajo, and follows his people’s traditions. He speaks Navajo, and keeps many of the Navajo cultural ways. But he’s also fluent in English, and understands American cultural ways, too. This allows him to interact effectively, whether it’s with members of his own cultural group or not. He’s also useful when people from off the Reservation have business there. In more than one of Hillerman’s novels, Chee accompanies a white police or FBI official on an investigation; many of them don’t know any Navajo, or any Navajo cultural ways. Without that knowledge, or Chee’s assistance, they won’t get the information they need to solve cases. It sometimes makes for tension in a story, but it also shows how important and valuable another language, and another ‘window on the world,’ can be.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, we are introduced to Andrea Curtin. She and her husband lived for several years in Botswana, and she learned some of the local language, as well as the local cultural ways. Their son, Michael, loved the place so much that, when Andrea and her husband returned to their native US, Michael decided to stay in Botswana. He joined an eco-community, and prepared to live there permanently. Then, tragically, he died. The official police report is that he likely strayed too far from the group’s camp, and was killed by a wild animal. But his mother wants closure. So, she visits Mma Precious Reamotswe to ask for her help. Mma Ramotswe has a lot of sympathy for her new client, and agrees to investigate Michael Curtin’s death. Part of what influences her is that Andrea understands the Botswana culture:
 

‘The woman took her hand, correctly, Mma Ramotswe noticed, in the proper Botswana way, placing her left hand on her right forearm as a mark of respect. Most white people shook hands very rudely, snatching just one hand and leaving the other hand free to perform all sorts of mischief. This woman had at least learned something about how to behave.’
 

Andrea’s cultural awareness puts Mma Ramotswe at her ease, and makes their communication that much more productive.

Anya Lipska’s Detective Constable (DC) Natalie Kershaw is a skilled police officer. But she’s not really fluent in other languages or cultures, although she’s respectful of them. So, in Where the Devil Can’t Go, for instance, she’s at a disadvantage when a murder investigation takes her into London’s Polish community. As a part of that investigation, she meets Janusz Kiszka, an émigré from Poland, and an unofficial ‘fixer’ in the Polish community. He’s actually more trusted than the police are. Kiszka is thoroughly Polish by culture. But he speaks relatively fluent English, and he understands the English culture better than Kershaw understands the Polish culture. Together, they make a solid team as they look into cases.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney. By birth and culture, she’s Australian (originally from Melbourne). After some ‘globe-trotting,’ she’s settled in Thailand, where she’s learned the language and the culture. She speaks fluent Thai, and understands many of the nuances of Thai culture. This allows her to interact with Thai people in much more productive ways than would be possible if she were ignorant of the language and culture. It also gets her out of trouble more than once. She doesn’t know every single detail of the culture, and she makes mistakes, as we all do. There are also times when, even though she understands an aspect of the culture, she doesn’t agree with it, or see a situation in the same way. But it helps her to know the language and have a sense of the culture.

There are plenty of other fictional sleuths who’ve found that understanding other cultures and languages is useful (right, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte?). Being able to negotiate more than one language and culture gives the sleuth quite a lot of flexibility. And that can be extremely useful.

And that’s true, really, for all of us. Of course, it’s critical to understand history, the sciences, and something about mathematics. They shape our world and explain it. But culture and language shape our thinking about that world, and about each other. Speaking at least some of another language lets us understand others’ ways of thinking. It gives us another perspective for looking at the world. And that can do much to teach us, and help us learn from others.

Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration! Now, folks, do give yourselves a treat and visit Finding Time to Write. Fine reviews, evocative poetry, and lovely ‘photos await you!
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ernest Lehman and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Getting to Know You.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Anya Lipska, Arthur Upfield, Tony Hillerman

And It’ll be All Right in the Heat of the Night*

As this is posted, it’s fifty years since the release of Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (an adaptation of John Ball’s 1955 novel). As you’ll know, its focus is Virgil Tibbs, a black Philadelphia police detective who ends up getting involved in investigating a murder in Sparta, Mississippi. Among other things, the film explores the issue of the integration of police forces.

But it’s certainly not the only crime story that takes up this topic. Many police departments have had to evolve as qualified non-white officers joined them. In some cases, it has been, and continues to be, a difficult transition. But even in cases where it’s gone relatively smoothly, it can still make for an interesting layer of character development. It’s realistic, too, as more and more police forces diversify.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place in Madras (today’s Chennai) in the early 1920’s – the last years of the British Raj. Le Fanu’s assistant is Sergeant Mohammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah. Habi is the first Indian member of the Madras Crime Unit, which doesn’t please everyone:
 

‘Indianisation was a dirty word, Habi’s appointment an unwanted symbol of change.’
 

But Le Fanu has learned that his sergeant has a good education and is good at his job. He’s got a fine future; and although that upsets plenty of people, it doesn’t Le Fanu. He’s happy to have a man of Habi’s skills on the team. Still, Habi knows that he has to be twice as good to get half as far, as the saying goes.

Fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte will know that he’s half white/half Aborigine. He’s very good at what he does, and he knows the bush very well. So, the fact that he’s not white doesn’t prevent him from having a successful police career. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t raise eyebrows at times, and get the occasional comment. Bony’s accustomed to coping with that sort of thing, though, and finds ways to get people to feel comfortable with him.

Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town takes place in 1974 Atlanta, and features Maggie Lawson and Kate Murphy, two detectives who have a very difficult time fitting in in what is still very much a man’s world. When a fellow officer, Don Wesley, is shot, Lawson and Murphy join the investigation team. Although their contributions are not taken very seriously, they are determined to find out the truth. Sexism in the police force is certainly a main topic in this novel. But it’s also set within the context of the racism that still permeates the police at the time the book takes place. There are black police officers (of both sexes). But they definitely have second-class status at the station. They rarely interact with their white counterparts unless they need to; even changing rooms are not occupied by whites and blacks at the same time.

Times have changed in the last decades, and we see this evolution in the genre. For instance, Kate Ellis’ The Merchant House introduces Detective Sergeant (DS) (later Detective Inspector (DI)) Wesley Peterson. In this novel, he and his wife, Pam, have recently moved from London to Tradmouth, in Devon, where Peterson is to take up his duties with the local CID. He’s no sooner settled in when he and the team get involved in the investigation of the murder of a young woman whose body is found at Little Tradmouth Head. In one plot thread of this novel, the team works to find out who the dead woman was and who would have wanted to kill her. At first, Peterson’s a little concerned about how well he’ll fit in in Tradmouth. For one thing, he’s from London. For another, he’s black, and his colleagues are all white. While it’s true that he does get the odd joke about being from London, his race doesn’t really matter to his colleagues. In fact, he learns that his predecessor was terminated because of racist and sexist comments and actions. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Peterson’s race never figures into the stories. It is a part of his identity. But, for the most part, he’s a good detective who happens to be black, and his white colleagues care much more about the former than about the latter.

The same might be said about Peter James’ Glenn Branson. He serves as second-in-command to Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove Police. It’s made clear throughout the series that Branson is black. But that fact doesn’t matter to Grace and the other team members. The members of the team tease each other, as happens when people work closely together. But there aren’t any racially-charged remarks – even as ‘just a joke.’ He’s a valued colleague who just happens to be black.

That doesn’t mean there are never any challenges faced by non-white police offers. Just ask Jamal Hamad, whom we meet in Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House. He’s lived most of his life in Sweden, but is originally from Lebanon. Now, he’s one of a team of police detectives who work under the supervision of Stockholm Detective Inspector (DI) Conny Sjöberg. In this novel, the team is investigating a set of murders that seem on the surface not to be linked. They are, though, of course, and the team has to put the pieces of the puzzle together to find the event from the past that links them. In the meantime, one of the team members, Petra Westman, is ‘date-raped’ one night, and decides to find out who’s responsible. At one point, she has an interesting conversation with Hamad. Here’s what he has to say about being a non-white person on a white police team:
 

‘‘But it’s ‘Ramadan’ this and ‘Mohammad’ that, one thing after another. Just little things, but it all adds up…’’
 

In this case, it’s not that Hamad’s colleagues refuse to work with him, or sabotage his work because he’s not white. In fact, he says that he knows Westman likes and respects him. And she does. But he’s still made to feel different – ‘other’ – whenever anyone makes a remark.

In The Heat of the Night offers an exploration of what happens when a police force diversifies, and not everyone’s comfortable with that. There are several other crime novels, too, that take up the same topic. These are just a few: your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Quincy Jones, Marilyn Bergman and Alan Bergman’s In the Heat of the Night, with Ray Charles’ unforgettable vocals.

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Filed under Arthur Upfield, Brian Stoddart, Carin Gerhardsen, John Ball, Karin Slaughter, Kate Ellis, Norman Jewison, Peter James