Category Archives: Christopher Fowler

Stars on TV Screens*

You see them on TV all the time. You may even feel that you know them, they’re that familiar. Yes, I’m talking about TV presenters. They may host a quiz or celebrity show, or they may host some other sort of show. Either way, they’re a part of our lives.

They may seem to live charmed lives, but TV presenters are humans, as we all are. And they work in what can be very highly-charged, tense atmosphere. So, it’s not surprising that they also show up in crime fiction. After all, where would we be without those shows and their hosts?

In Julian Symons’ A Three-Pipe Problem, we are introduced to television star Sheridan ‘Sher’ Haynes. He is the lead in a popular Sherlock Holmes series, with Basil Wainwright as his Watson. Although Haynes is a popular television personality, the show has been slipping in ratings. What’s more, Haynes has his share of problems with the show. He is a dedicated fan of the Holmes stories, and isn’t happy at all with the changes that the show’s creators have made to the stories and some of the major characters. Then, Haynes gets an idea to save the series and show that his more purist view of the show will prevail. There’s been a series of bizarre murders, called the ‘Karate Killings.’  The police haven’t made much progress, but Haynes thinks that if he uses Holmes’ method, he can find out who the killer is. It’s a strange idea, and plenty of people in Haynes’ life are not happy about it. But he persists and starts to ask questions. He gets into his share of trouble, but in the end, he finds out the truth.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are, we meet TV presenter Frank Allcroft. As the novel begins, he’s at rather a crossroads in his life. He’s doing well at his show, he’s happy with his wife, and a proud father. But he doesn’t feel settled. He’s also dealing with the death of his predecessor, friend, and colleague, Phil Smedway. It seems that Smedway was jogging one morning when he was killed in a hit-and-run incident. In his restlessness, Allcroft is drawn to the scene of Smedway’s death. He notices some things that make him wonder. For one thing, the road is straight and clear. For another, the weather on the day of Smedway’s death was dry. There’s no reason a driver wouldn’t have been able to swerve to avoid hitting Smedway. Now, Allcroft begins to wonder what really happened. Among other things, the novel gives real insight into what it’s like to be a TV presenter.

Christopher Fowler’s Ten Second Staircase features London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). Arthur Bryant and John May and the rest of the PCU investigate a bizarre set of murders. It seems that someone is targeting minor celebrities and seems to be doing it to become a star himself. One of those the killer targets is Danny Martell, the host of a popular ITV teen lifestyle show. He’s in the gym one day, trying to work off some stress and lose a bit of weight when he’s mysteriously electrocuted. It’s a strange set of crimes, and the PCU team has its hands full as it tries to make sense of the only clear clue: an eyewitness who says the killer was wearing a cape and a tricorner hat.

Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder is the first of her novels to feature Verity Long. She is research assistant to famous crime novelist Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. Mostly, her job is to research old crime cases that Davenport can use as the basis for her work. Long gets involved in her own murder case when she decides to look for a new home. A house agent is showing her a place when she discovers the body of celebrity TV presenter Jaynee ‘JayJay’ Johnson. Since Long found the body, she’s of interest to the police, and she gets involved in finding out who killed the victim. And it turns out that there are several suspects. The behind-the-scenes atmosphere wasn’t at all pleasant, since Johnson wasn’t exactly beloved among her colleagues.

And then there’s Hannah Dennison’s Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford. She was a successful TV presenter who hosted a show called Fakes & Treasures. But she got ‘burned out’ from the stress of being in the media limelight. Her plan had been to open an antiques business with her mother, but everything changes in Murder at Honeychurch Hall. In that novel, Stanford discovers that her mother has abruptly moved to the Devon village of Little Dipperton. Shocked at her mother’s choice, Stanford rushes there, only to find that her mother’s been injured in a minor car accident. She stays on to help while her mother heals up and gets drawn into a murder mystery.

Television presenters may seem to lead magical lives, but things don’t always go very smoothly. Those conflicts and stresses can make things difficult for the presenter, but they can add much to a crime novel. These are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Catherine O'Flynn, Christopher Fowler, Hannah Dennison, Julian Symons, Lynda Wilcox

So Much Has Happened, But Nothing Has Changed*

Buildings often have a lot of history to them, especially if they are older buildings. And it’s interesting to see how they change over time, and how our perceptions of them change as we get older. If you’ve ever returned to a home you knew as a child, you know the feeling, I’m sure.

A building with history can add much to a story, including, of course, a crime story. It can add atmosphere, tension, character development, and a lot more. There are a lot of them in the genre; here are just a few. I know you’ll think of more.

Interestingly enough, Agatha Christie uses such buildings in a few of her stories. One is Styles Court, in Styles St. Mary. This old family home makes its debut in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (incidentally, Hercule Poirot makes his first appearance in the same novel). In the story, Captain Hastings visits an old friend, John Cavendish, who now lives at Styles Court with his wife, Mary, his brother, Lawrence, and his stepmother, Emily Inglethorp. Also living there is Mrs. Inglethorp’s husband, Alfred, her protégée, Cynthia Murdoch, and her good friend, Evelyn ‘Evie’ Howard. When Mrs. Inglethorp is murdered, all of the other residents are suspects. Poirot feels a debt to the victim, since she sponsored him as a refugee. So, he investigates her murder. Years later, Styles Court features again in Curtain, the last Hercule Poirot novel. It’s now a Guest House, and an aged and ailing Hercule Poirot is staying there. He wants Captain Hastings to be his ‘eyes and ears,’ and help him catch a killer known only as X. According to Poirot, X has killed before, and he wants the murderer stopped. Then, there’s a murder at the Guest House, and it looks very much as though X has struck again. It’s a complicated puzzle, and it’s interesting to see the changes to Styles Court between these two novels.

Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House introduces his sleuths, Arthur Bryant and John May, both of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). As the novel begins, Bryant’s writing his memoirs, including the story of the first PCU case. Then, a bomb blast goes off at the PCU offices, taking Bryant with it. A grieving May wants to find out who is responsible, and decides to go back through that old first case to try to get some answers. He returns to the scene, London’s Palace Theatre. In that 1940 investigation, Bryant and May looked into some bizarre deaths and a disappearance, all connected with the theatre’s upcoming production of Orpheus. As the modern-day May re-examines the case, we learn that an important part of it was never solved. So, May picks up that piece and searches again for the truth. At the same time, we go back to 1940, and follow along as Bryant and May investigate. Both timelines feature the Palace Theatre. In 1940, it’s a vibrant place with plenty of innovation, new shows, and so on. The building still stands in the modern-day timeline, but of course, it’s much older. It may not have changed dramatically, since it’s not a private residence or a more typical business. But it’s got more ‘ghosts,’ including the people involved in the 1940 case. As May goes back to the past, as you might say, we see how much the Palace has and hasn’t changed.

Peter May’s Lewis trilogy features Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod. As the first novel begins, he’s an Edinburgh police detective who’s investigating a bizarre murder. When another, very similar, murder occurs on the Isle of Lewis, MacLeod is seconded there. The idea is that if these two crimes were committed by the same person, it makes sense to join forces. If not, nothing’s been lost. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up on the island. But it’s not a joyful reunion with friends and family. MacLeod has his own past history, and some very good reasons for having left in the first place. As the trilogy goes on, we see several places on the island both as they were years earlier, and as they are now. And, we see how MacLeod’s perspective has changed, now that he’s an adult. It’s an interesting and distinctive use of the setting.

A great deal of Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels takes place in a small Welsh village. In one timeline, it’s 1962, and we follow the fortunes of four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards. They don’t have much in common, but there aren’t many children in the village, so they spend their share of time together. And that fateful summer, they unearth several dark secrets that some people have been keeping. The other timeline is contemporary. In it, retired police detective Will Sloane returns to the village after several years in Spain. There’s one case he hasn’t solved yet – a missing child – and he wants some resolution before he dies. As Sloane returns to the village and interacts with people, we see how much (and how little) everything has changed. There are some new shops and businesses (and residents), and some old buildings that have fallen into disuse. There are other changes, too. At the same time, the rhythm of the village is much the same. It’s an interesting look at the pace of village life.

And then there’s Hannah Dennison’s Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford series. These novels are set in the small Devon village of Little Dipperton. The main estate there is Honeychurch Hall, which has been owned by the same family for many, many generations. Today, it’s lived in by Lady Edith Honeychurch, her son, Rupert, his wife, Lavinia, and their son, Harry. The roots of the house and the village are very deep, and they include Stanford’s mother, Iris. In fact, in Murder at Honeychurch Hall, the first in this series, Iris has abruptly left London and taken a small house on the Honeychurch property. Her daughter goes to Little Dipperton to see what’s behind her mother’s sudden decision, and ends up staying. As the series goes on, we see the hall and the village as they are now. But we also see them as they once were, especially during the 1950s, when Iris was there as a teenager and young woman. It’s especially interesting to see how things have (but haven’t, really) changed.

And that’s the thing about those old buildings. They have a lot of history. On the one hand, they change, as everything does. On the other, in many ways, they may not. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Glenn Frey’s You Belong to the City.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Babs Horton, Christopher Fowler, Hannah Dennison, Peter May

Just the Few of Us*

There are only so many ‘regular’ characters an author can weave into a series without confusing readers. That’s why, even in crime fiction series that are set in large cities, there’s a relatively small group of ‘focus characters.’ That’s just as true of police procedurals as it is of other sorts of series.

It’s easy enough when a series takes place in a small town. Such places may only have one police station with a relatively small number of people who work there. It’s a bit trickier for series that take places in larger cities. Readers couldn’t, for instance, keep track of every fictional police officer in Sydney, Toronto, London, Los Angeles or Moscow. So, how do authors face this challenge?

Some focus on one geographic area. For example, Ed McBain’s long-running police procedural series mostly features the police who serve in the 87th Precinct of Isola, a thinly-disguised New York City. That precinct has a limited number of officers, and serves a limited geographic area. Fans of the series know that there are occasional forays into other parts of the city. But, because the 87th is a finite group, it’s easier to keep track of Steve Carella and the rest of his team. The reader isn’t faced with the challenge of trying to remember the thousands of fictional police officers who might actually serve in such a large city.

Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series also has a geographic focus: New York City’s Chinatown. Yu was born and raised in that part of the city, and in Chinatown Beat, he’s stationed there. The series does see him temporarily assigned to other places, but he basically stays in Chinatown. This allows readers to get to know the area, as well as the various characters with whom Yu usually interacts. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Jean-Baptsite Adamsberg will know that that series, too, focuses on one small geographic part of Paris.

That’s certainly not the only way to address the challenge, though. Some authors focus on just one department (such as Robbery, Homicide, etc.). That’s what Michael Connelly does with his Harry Bosch novels. Fans of this series will know that Bosch has been a member of several L.A.P.D. departments. He’s been a part of Robbery/Homicide, Open/Unsolved, and Homicide Special, among others. This choice has given Connelly (and his readers) some real advantages. One is that, as Bosch works with one team (say, Open/Unsolved), readers get to know that team, and don’t have to try to remember the many other members of other teams. As the series has gone on, and Bosch has been with other departments, it’s kept the series from being restricted to only one small group. This has allowed for different sorts of plots and characters.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss also works with a departmental team. She is a member of the Göteborg/Gothenberg Police‘s Violent Crimes Unit. It’s a relatively small unit, with a focus just on murder and other violent crimes. This choice has allowed Tursten to develop her characters over time, as different members of the department evolve. It’s also allowed (as happens naturally) for members to leave and join.

The same thing’s true of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad. That team, has a small number of members. So, we get to know them. And different members of the squad ‘star’ in the different novels of the series. So, as members leave, join, and so on, we get to see how the team operates in the real world of a large city like Dublin.

Sometimes, police teams are gathered for a specific purpose. For example, at one point, P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh heads up a squad set up specifically for investigations that are likely to attract a lot of media attention. That’s the case in A Taste For Death, when Crown Minister Paul Berowne is murdered. He’s well known and ‘well-born,’ so of course the media take note when he’s killed. The squad, which consists of Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham, and DI Kate Miskin is assigned to the case. They slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together, and find that this is as much about the victim’s private life as it is about his public life.

There’s also Jussi Adler-Olsen’s ‘Department Q.’ Part of the Copenhagen police force, Department Q is tasked with cases ‘of special interest.’ It was set up in part to appease the government’s (and the public’s) demand that the police show they’re looking into all cases, even those that have ‘gone cold.’ This group is headed by Carl Mørck, a homicide detective who has a reputation of being difficult. In fact, he’s so hard to work with that that’s the reason he was given the department in the first place – to keep him off others’ teams. Mørck is crusty and sometimes truculent. And the department has few resources and only a very few members. But the team gets the job done.

And then there’s Christopher Fowler’s London-based Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). That group, led by Arthur Bryant and John May, is tasked with solving strange crimes that the regular police homicide units haven’t been able to solve. It’s a very small group, but that makes it easier for readers to follow the team and get to know the members well.

These small units, whether they’re based on geography, on department, or on special assignment, allow the author to develop characters. And they make it much easier for readers to follow along and keep track of those characters. I’ve only mentioned a few; which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s It Takes Two.

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Filed under Christopher Fowler, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, Henry Chang, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Connelly, P.D. James, Tana French

Smokin’ Cigarettes and Writing Something Nasty on the Wall*

When most of us think of crimes, especially those featured in crime novels, we think of murder, rape, and other serious wrongdoing. And those are horrible things. But there are other crimes, too; and, although they’re usually considered less serious, they can be annoying at the least, and frightening at worst. One of those crimes is vandalism. If you’ve ever had your home or car spray-painted, you know what I mean. There are other forms of vandalism, too, that I’m sure you’ve seen, even if they haven’t happened to you.

Vandalism plays a role in crime fiction, too. Sometimes it’s meant to serve as a warning to the sleuth (or a victim). Other times, it’s separate, but related to the overall premise of a book. Either way, it can add tension (and sometimes clues) to a story.

For instance, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, mystery novelist Harriet Vane returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford, at the request of the dean. It seems there’ve been some disturbing incidents of vandalism at the school, among other events. The school administrators don’t want to call in the police, but they do want the person responsible to be stopped. So, Vane agrees to see what she can do, and goes to the university under the pretext of doing research for a new novel. What she finds is that someone has a serious grudge, and is determined to commit sabotage. With help from Lord Peter Wimsey, Vane discovers who the person is, and how these incidents are connected to the past.

Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring features her sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn. At the time this novel takes place, she’s an academician and political scientist. In one plot thread of the novel, someone has spray-painted anti-gay slogans and slurs on part of the campus of her university. Those areas have to be closed off so that they can be cleaned and repaired. And that means that some of the faculty members have to take up temporary residence elsewhere. So, Kilbourn agrees to share her office with her colleague Ed Mariani for the time being. That makes some real tension when both get caught up in the mystery surrounding the murder of another colleague, Reed Gallagher.

In Tony Hillerman’s The Dark Wind, Navajo Tribal Police officer Delbert Nez has been trying to catch the person responsible for a spate of spray-painting. He thinks he has his perpetrator one day and goes on the hunt. While he’s out on the road, he’s shot, and his car is burned. The most likely suspect is Ashie Pinto, who’s found nearby with the murder weapon and a bottle of alcohol (presumably used in the burning). Sergeant Jim Chee, who was a friend of Nez’, is determined to catch his killer, and sees no reason not to arrest Pinto. And in fact, Pinto does nothing to defend himself. But, he does have the right to a fair hearing, and Janet Pete, of the Navajo People’s Legal Service (Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii (DNA)) is sent to be sure that’s what happens. As it turns out, there’s much more going on here than it seems on the surface. Fans of Hillerman’s novels will know that The Dark Wind also includes some episodes of vandalism that end up being linked to a case that involves smuggling and murder.

In Christopher Fowler’s Seventy-Seven Clocks, a strange man dressed in Edwardian clothes visits London’s National Gallery. While he’s there, he throws acid on John William Waterhouse’s The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius.  It seems to be a deliberate choice of painting, too. To make matters worse, the damaged art was on loan from the Australian government, so the very tricky matter of international relations is also involved. It’s certainly a strange crime, so it’s handed to the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) run by Arthur Bryant and John May. And it turns out to be connected to an equally strange murder they’re investigating.

In one plot thread of Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, Brighton and Hove Superintendent Roy Grace learns that a man named Amis Smallbone is about to be released from prison. He’s not too happy about it, because Smallbone is,
 

‘…the nastiest and most malevolent piece of vermin he had ever dealt with.’
 

But there’s not much he can do. Then, Grace’s partner, Cleo Morey, finds that her car has been sabotaged, and a taunting sign left on it. Grace assumes that Smallbone’s responsible, and he acts on that. But is he right?

Meg Gardiner introduces science fiction author and legal researcher Evan Delaney in China Lake. In that novel, Delaney goes up against a fanatic religious group called the Remnant. She’s shocked to learn that her former sister-in-law, Tabitha, is now a member of the group. She left Delaney’s brother, Brian, and their six-year-old son, Luke, and the loss was devastating for the whole family. Now, she’s back, and she wants Luke. And the Remnant is prepared to do whatever it takes to help her get the boy. The group tries to intimidate the Delaneys with threats and vandalism. When that’s not successful, they get more dangerous. And Delaney soon learns that they have plans that go far beyond taking Luke away from his father.

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s Model For Murder. Blake Heatherington has retired from his London millinery shop to the village of Tuesbury, where he still makes the occasional special-order hat. One of the sources of pride in town is a model village that depicts the various businesses and other buildings. One day, newsagent Harold Salter is killed, and his body found in a local wood. Strangely enough, there’s a cross marked on the model newsagent’s, and figure that represents Salter goes missing. Then, there’s another murder, also of a local business owner. Again, the model business is marked with a cross, and the figure goes missing. It seems that these murders might be connected with the Vodou beliefs of many people from Haiti and Jamaica. But Heatherington learns that the killings have nothing to do with religion or spirituality. Instead, they’re linked to a past event.

Vandalism can take many different forms, and it’s distressing, no matter what sort it is. But in crime fiction, vandalism can add an interesting ‘wrinkle’ to a story. And it can serve as a clue or ‘red herring.’

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Wonder’s I Wish.

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Filed under Christopher Fowler, D.S. Nelson, Gail Bowen, Meg Gardiner, Peter James, Tony Hillerman

I’m Almost Through My Memoirs*

As this is posted, it’s 70 years since the very first publication of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl in Amsterdam. As you’ll know, it’s the story of the Frank family, especially their years of hiding from the Nazis. It’s had a powerful impact on generations of readers; and is required reading in many schools. If you haven’t yet visited the Anne Frank Huis/Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, may I strongly encourage you to do so. It’s a memorable, very moving, experience.

Diaries and memoirs are fascinating ways to learn about a lifestyle, a time period, and a particular person. Even though they almost always have biases (they are written from one person’s perspective), they’re often quite informative. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of many more examples of powerful diaries and memoirs than I could. I know, fans of Agatha Christie’s autobiography.

And this form of writing certainly finds its way into crime fiction. After all, not everyone may be eager to have certain things about them published in a diary. And sometimes, diaries and memoirs are effective ways to tell a story (right, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories?).

Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is, by and large, a memoir told from the point of view of Dr. James Sheppard, who lives in the small village of Kings Abbot. The small town is rocked when retired manufacturing titan Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study one night. The most likely suspect is the victim’s stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. But Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, insists that he’s innocent. She asks Hercule Poirot, who’s taken the house next to Sheppard’s, to clear Paton’s name, and he agrees. Christie also used the ‘memoir’ form of storytelling in Murder in Mesopotamia, which is told from the point of view of a nurse, Amy Leatheran. She’s hired by an expedition team that’s working a few hours from Baghdad, so she’s on the scene when Louise Leidner, who’s married to the team’s leader, is murdered. Poirot is in the area, and is persuaded to investigate. In both of those cases, we get an interesting perspective on the crimes, victims, and perpetrators.

In Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, famous novelist Gerald Chandliss dies of a heart attack. His grief-stricken daughter, Sarah, decides to cope with her loss by writing a biography of her father, combined with a memoir of what it was like to grow up with him. The more she probes into his life, though, the more Sarah sees that he wasn’t at all the man she thought he was. His name, as it turns out, wasn’t even Gerald Chandliss. It turns out that Sarah’s planned memoir uncovers all sorts of dark secrets that she never imagined were there.

As Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House begins, Arthur Bryant, of the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) is working on his memoirs. He’s been a part of the PCU since 1940, when it was established, and certainly has plenty of stories to tell. As he’s looking through the materials he has on the PCU’s first case, Bryant makes a shocking discovery, and decides to investigate it. Shortly after Bryant starts asking questions, a bomb blast destroys the PCU offices, taking him with it. Bryant’s grieving police partner, John May, decides to find out who set the bomb. To do that, May goes back to the 1940 Palace Phantom case that Bryant was investigating when the PCU offices were destroyed. At the time, there were several bizarre accidents and deaths connected with London’s Palace Theatre and its production of Orpheus. Someone wanted very badly to shut down the production, and took several drastic measures to do just that. As May looks into the case again, he slowly picks up on the trail Bryant was following, and makes the discovery that Bryant made. And that solves the present case, as well as answering some important questions about the 1940 case.

And then there’s Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors. In that novel, Alec Dennet, who was a member of Gough Whitlam’s 1972-75 Australian government, has decided to write his memoirs. He and his editor, Lorraine Starke, are visiting Uriarra, a writer’s retreat near Canberra, so that they can focus on the work. One night, they’re both murdered. Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen is reluctantly persuaded to return from a leave of absence and investigate the murders. Chen is interested anyway, since his Ph.D. work has to do with Australia’s political history. Soon, he and his team discover that the manuscript that Dennet and Starke were working on has disappeared. This opens up several possibilities when it comes to suspects. For one thing, there are still several people in high places who might be embarrassed or worse if some truths about them come out in the memoirs. For another, there are several foreign governments who are also interested in the content of that manuscript.

And that’s the thing about diaries and memoirs. They can shed fascinating light on a person, an era, or an event. And, in fiction, they can be an interesting way to tell a story. But they can also be dangerous, especially when their contents might put someone at risk.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s  I’m Still Here.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Christopher Fowler, Kel Robertson, Ruth Rendell