Category Archives: Colin Dexter

But You Were Just Too Clever By Half*

Too CleverIf you read enough crime fiction, you learn a few lessons. One of them is that there is danger in being very clever and observant. Characters who notice things and put the proverbial two and two together tend to come upon truths that aren’t safe for them to know. And that tends to make fictional characters very vulnerable.

Of course, a certain amount of cleverness is important; otherwise fictional sleuths couldn’t easily find out the truth about a murder. But how often does a character become a victim because s/he found out a secret the killer was keeping? Or because s/he knows about another murder? It happens a lot in the genre.

Agatha Christie used this plot point in several of her novels and stories. For example, in Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of Lord Edgware. His wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect. She wanted to divorce him so that she could marry someone else – a divorce he would not grant. And what’s more, she even threatened his life publicly. To make matters worse, the butler and Edgware’s secretary both say that someone who looked like her, and gave her name, came to the house just before the killing. But she has a solid alibi. Twelve people are prepared to testify that on the night of the murder, she was at a dinner party in another part of London, so she couldn’t possibly have been the killer. Poirot, Hastings, and Chief Inspector Japp are trying to reconcile the two sets of evidence when there’s another death. And another. One of the other victims is up-and-coming actor Donald Ross. As it turns out, he’d noticed one small thing, which got him to wondering too much and coming too close to the truth.

In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, we are introduced to Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of the Oxford Foreign Exams Syndicate. This group is responsible for administering and managing exams given in other countries that follow the British educational system. One afternoon, Quinn dies of what turns out to be poison. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis look into the case, and soon learn that the members of the Syndicate all had things to hide. One by one, each member’s secret comes out, and Morse and Lewis have to work out which of those secrets was deadly for Quinn. It turns out that he found out more about the Syndicate and the lives of its members than it was safe for him to know, and paid a very high price for it.

One of the most chilling examples of being too clever is Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. The wealthy and well-educated Coverdale family is in need of a new housekeeper. So Jacqueline Coverdale goes in search of a suitable person. She soon hires Eunice Parchman for the job, and at first, things are all right. But Eunice has a secret that she’s determined will not come out. One day, and quite by accident, one of the Coverdales finds out Eunice’s secret. That unwitting discovery ends up in tragedy.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly introduces readers to Giorgio Tassini, who works as a night watchman at one of Venice’s glass-blowing factories. He is convinced that the factories are illegally disposing of toxic waste, and poisoning Venice’ water. In fact, he blames them for the fact that his daughter was born with special needs. One morning, Tassini is discovered dead at the factory where he works. Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate, and at first, it seems this death was a terrible accident. But it’s not long before murder is suspected. So the detectives look into the allegations that Tassini had made, to see whether they might have led to his murder. As it turns out, Tassini had learned more than was safe for him to know. And that cleverness, if you want to call it that, cost him his life.

We see that sort of consequence in Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. In that novel, which takes place in 17th Century Banff, Seaton is undermaster at a local grammar school. One morning, the body of local apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davison, is discovered in Seaton’s classroom. He’s died of poison, and soon enough, music master Charles Thom is arrested and imprisoned for the crime. Thom says he’s innocent, and asks his friend Seaton to help. Seaton reluctantly agrees, and begins to ask questions. One possibility is that Davidson was murdered because of his political leanings. Banff is staunchly Protestant, and there was talk Davidson might have been a spy for Catholic King Philip of Spain. But there are other possibilities, too. And in the end, Seaton finds that Davidson had innocently observed something that gave him more information than was safe for him to have. That knowledge cost him his life.

Many whodunits, cosy and otherwise, include (at least) a second death, where the victim’s killed because of finding out too much about the first murder in the novel. That’s the case in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, the first in her Myrtle Clover series. Myrtle is a retired English teacher who’s not yet ready to be put out to pasture, as the saying goes. Her son Red, who’s the local Chief of Police, sees things otherwise, and ‘volunteers’ his mother to work at the local church. When Myrtle goes to the church, she discovers the body of Parke Stockard. Determined to prove that she’s not ready to be put aside yet, Myrtle decides to investigate. And there are plenty of suspects, too. The victim was both malicious and scheming, and had made enemies all over the small North Carolina town where she’d recently moved. Then there’s another death. One of the members of the church, Kitty Kirk, is killed. As it turns out, she had noticed something about the murderer that would have made it too easy for her to work out what happened to Parke Stockard.

See what I mean? All you have to do is look at crime fiction to conclude that maybe it’s best not to be too observant and clever. At the very least you live longer…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Long Blondes’ Too Clever by Half.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Donna Leon, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ruth Rendell, S.G. MacLean, Shona MacLean

So Many Pieces Still Unsolved*

UnsolvedAs I post this, today would have been Amelia Earhart’s 119th birthday. Her life was certainly fascinating, and her career has been an inspiration to many people. But as much as that, it’s her disappearance that’s captured the public’s imagination. In 1937, she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, went missing in the area of Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. There were on a round-the-world flight that was being followed by millions of people when they went off the radar.

There have been many theories about what happened to Earhart and Noonan. Some have held up better than others, but as far as I’m aware, there’s been no indisputable evidence of their fate. And that’s precisely what makes this disappearance so irresistibly interesting to so many people. It’s an unsolved case, and people very often find them fascinating.

There are plenty of other real-life unsolved cases, too. They’re the subject of a lot of speculation and theories. There are crime-fictional cases as well. And they capture people’s interest even when those people have no stake in what really happened. It’s human nature to be curious.

In Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, for instance, Inspector Alan Grant is laid up with a broken leg. As he’s recuperating, he happens to muse on a portrait of King Richard III. His reflection leads him to the question of whether the king was really the murderer he was made out to be. That possibility gets Grant curious about what really happened to Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York. Most people have always thought Richard III had them killed. But Grant begins to wonder if there’s another theory. So he looks into the matter.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse shows a similar sort of curiosity in The Wench is Dead. In that novel, Morse is laid up with an ulcer. During his recovery, he reads a book about the 1859 discovery of the body of Joanna Franks in one of Oxford’s canals. At the time of her murder, two men were arrested, found guilty, and duly hung. But Morse isn’t sure that they really were guilty. So he can resist looking into the case again. Neither he nor Inspector Grant is officially assigned to the case in question. It’s just human nature and the desire to get answers that drives them.

Agatha Christie’s The Thirteen Problems also shows the human tendency to want questions answered and mysteries solved. The Thirteen Problems is a collection of short stories, loosely tied together by an overarching theme. A group of people meet every Tuesday evening. At each meeting, one person describes a murder case. The others try to solve the murder. And it’s interesting to see how the human wish to impose order and have things make sense plays a role. I agree with you, fans of Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) introduces Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck. In the novel, he’s recently returned to work after a line-of-duty shooting that left him injured, one colleague murdered and another with permanent paralysis. Never the easiest person in the world to work with, Mørck has become even more difficult since his return. So, for several reasons, he’s given a new role: head of a new department, Department Q, which is dedicated to looking at ‘cases of special interest’ – cold cases. Mørck’s first instinct is to do as little as possible, since he’s very cynical about both the department and his appointment to it. But then one case captures the interest of his assistant, Hafaz al-Assad. Five years earlier, up-and-coming politician Merete Lynggaard when missing during a ferry trip with her brother, Uffe. The theory at the time was that she went overboard and drowned. But her body has never been found. Assad is curious about the case, since some things don’t quite add up. So he persuades his boss to re-open it and look into it more deeply. And that’s when the two discover that Merete Lynggaard might still be alive. If so, she may have very little time left.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers, the second of her novels to feature Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. The nation is getting ready for the 30th anniversary of the South Africa Springboks’ rugby tour, which was to include matches with the New Zealand All-Blacks. At the time of The Tour, as it’s often called, apartheid was in full force in South Africa, and many people protested the Springboks’ visit. Others simply wanted to see the matches. And, of course, the police were responsible for keeping order and protecting everyone’s safety. The controversial decision to let the visit go ahead led to some real ugliness. Now, Thorne’s bosses want a new angle on the 30th anniversary story. Thorne doesn’t really think there is one at first. And in any case, she’s busy with another story. But then, one small item catches her attention. During the match, two people dressed as lambs went to the games, where they danced, made fun, and entertained the crowds. Then, they stopped attending. Thorne’s curious about what happened to The Lambs. Her curiosity is piqued even more when she learns that one of them was a professional dancer who was killed one night. Now, Thorne can’t resist looking into what really happened.

And that’s the thing about human nature. And it’s part of the reason for which people still want to know what happened to Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. I hope we learn the real truth.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Powderfinger’s Thrilloilogy.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Colin Dexter, Josephine Tey, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Paddy Richardson

He’s In a Quiet Vibration Land*

DeafnessFor many decades now, we’ve continued to better understand deafness, and the needs of those who have it. As a matter of fact, in many countries, there is a distinct Deaf culture, with its own norms for social interaction and its own cultural taboos. Members of that culture don’t see themselves as disabled. Rather, they simply have a different culture and language. Those signed languages vary by country (i.e., for instance, American Sign Language (ASL) is different to Australian Sign Language (Auslan)). But they are all distinct from the spoken languages used in those countries.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that characters with deafness have also made their way into crime fiction. It’s interesting, too, to see how they navigate a largely hearing world. Space only permits a few examples; I know you’ll think of more.

Fans of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series will know that one of its main characters, Steve Carella, is married to a woman with deafness. We first meet Theodora ‘Teddy’ Franklin in Cop Hater, long before she marries Carella. As the series goes on, we see that Teddy isn’t portrayed as ‘disadvantaged’ or disabled. She’s a smart, streetwise, thoughtful and loving person who happens not to hear. She and Carella have worked out their own ways of communicating, and both make adjustments. Rather than Teddy being overly dependent on Carella, avid readers can tell you that he depends on her quite a lot.

In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate a poisoning death. Nicholas Quinn has recently been named to Oxford’s Foreign Exam Syndicate. That group is responsible for overseeing exams that are given in countries that follow the British system of education. So being named to the group is quite an accomplishment. Quinn is the only Deaf member of the Syndicate, and the decision to select him was by no means unanimous. So there’s some bad feeling and resentment about it. When Quinn is murdered one afternoon, Morse and Lewis start with the people who knew him best. Since Quinn was not married and had no children, that turns out to be the members of the Syndicate. And the detectives soon find that there are several motives among that group. Each member is hiding something – something Quinn could have found out. I can say without spoiling the story that Quinn’s deafness plays a role in the story’s outcome.

Elizabeth George’s For the Sake of Elena has Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigating the death of Elena Weaver. Elena is a student at Cambridge, and a member of the Cambridge University Deaf Students Union. When she is killed during her morning run, Lynley and Havers look into her family and other relationships. As they do so, we learn about some of the differing attitudes towards deafness. One the one hand, there are the members of the Deaf Students Union, whose purpose is to promote Deaf solidarity, and raise awareness of deafness as simply a different culture, rather than a disability. Some members are quite strident about this, too. To these students, there’s a difference between being deaf (i.e. having no hearing) and being Deaf (i.e. a member of a particular culture). On the other hand, there are Elena’s parents, who have worked very hard to help her fit into the hearing world. She speech reads, and is integrated into the larger society. Each side, if you will, resents the other, and that plays its role in her murder.

Clarissa Draper’s Sophia Evans is an MI5 analyst, and a gifted codebreaker. So in The Sholes Key, she turns out to be very helpful when DI Theo Blackwell is faced with a bizarre case of missing single mothers. When one of the missing mothers turns up dead, with a strange code on her body, Evans slowly works out what that code means. In The Electrician’s Code, we learn that Evans has an assistant, Crystal Priestly. Priestly is a former hacker who’s been hired by MI5, and she’s a real asset to Evans. She is also Deaf. Evans has learned British Sign Language (BSL) in order to work with her, and their partnership turns out to be quite productive as Evans helps to investigate the murder of a woman she’d been assigned to monitor.

And then there’s Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay. In that novel, we are introduced to Caleb Zelic, who’s been deaf since childhood. He can speech read, and does have hearing aids, but he also uses Auslan when he can. He and his business partner, former copper Frankie Reynolds, run Trust Works, a security firm. One day, he gets an urgent text from an old friend, Senior Constable Gary ‘Gaz’ Marsden. Marsden wants Zelic to go over to his house immediately, and says that someone named Scott is after him. By the time Zelic gets there, though, it’s too late: Marsden’s been brutally murdered. And it’s not long before the police begin to suspect that Zelic himself may have had something to do with it. In order to clear his name, Zelic starts asking questions. But someone is extremely determined that he won’t get close to the truth. As Zelic and Reynolds try to find the killer, we see how a person with deafness negotiates the hearing world. We also see how the people in Zelic’s life understand his deafness as simply a part of his identity, and communicate with him without making a fuss.

One of the many interesting things about crime fiction is the way that it shows us society and different cultures. And that includes the cultures of those with deafness. These are just a few such characters; there are plenty of others.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s Amazing Journey.

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Filed under Clarissa Draper, Colin Dexter, Ed McBain, Elizabeth George, Emma Viskic

Riddles Are Abound Tonight*

Ongoing MysteriesMost well-written crime novels give answers to the main questions in a plot. If it’s a whodunit, then usually the criminal is revealed, even if that person isn’t brought to justice. If it’s a whydunit or a howdunit, we learn the answers to those questions as well. That’s part of creating a good reading experience for the reader.

And yet, there are some questions that go unanswered through most, if not all, of a series. It’s not always easy to dodge those questions and still have an engaging series, but some authors manage it. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll have others to suggest.

One of Agatha Christie’s sleuths (and, so it is said, one of the characters she liked best) is Mr. Harley Quin. He usually works with another Christie character, Mr. Satterthwaite. Satterthwaite is a socialite who is often on the ‘also present’ lists when parties and other social events are written up in newspapers. So he has all sorts of encounters with members of the ‘upper crust.’ People tend to trust him and talk to him, which is often how he gets involved in mysteries. The real mystery, though, is Mr. Quin, who always seems to appear at key points in a story, and then disappear just as unexpectedly. We really know almost nothing about him; in fact, you could debate the question of whether he actually exists. But he certainly has conversations with Satterthwaite. He is a sort of catalyst for his friend, and frequently points him in the right investigative direction. Yet, we never see Mr. Quin interact with others. He’s an intriguing and very enigmatic character whom we never really get to know; still, the mysteries in which he gets involved are solved.

For quite some time, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels presented readers with an ongoing riddle: Morse’s given name. At more than one point, when people ask his given name, Morse says that it’s Inspector. It’s not until the twelfth novel (of thirteen), Death is Now My Neighbour, that Morse’s full name is revealed. For many readers, not knowing Morse’s given name adds to the mystery around him. At the same time, it doesn’t take away from the plots of the different novels. And, since we know Morse’s surname, it was easy enough for Dexter to negotiate the details of writing the stories smoothly.

It’s not so easy to do that when the main character is not given a name at all. Yet, that’s what Bill Pronzini decided to do with his sleuth. Beginning with The Snatch, Pronzini has written more than forty novels featuring the San Francisco detective that most of us think of as Nameless. In fact, ‘though fans now know his name (it’s revealed in Savages, in case you’re interested), I’d guess a lot of people still refer to him as Nameless; I know I do. And, interestingly enough, it took Pronzini more than thirty novels to give readers what you’d think would be a vital piece of information about his sleuth. In part, of course, Pronzini’s been able to do that because of the stories’ focus on the mysteries at hand. But it’s also taken some skillful writing. The novels are written in the first person, from Nameless’ point of view, and that’s made it a bit easier to avoid giving away the name. But there are also some sections written from other characters’ perspectives. And that’s where Pronzini’s writing talent has come in. Most Pronzini fans I know don’t mind not being given the name of the main character for so long. Pronzini has, if you will, written his way around that question very successfully.

Sarah Caudwell created a four-novel series featuring a group of young London lawyers: Timothy Shepherd, Selena Jardine, Michael Cantrip, Desmond Ragwort, and Julia Larwood. Acting as a sort of mentor to these budding attorneys is Shepherd’s Oxford mentor, law professor Hilary Tamar. Each novel features at least one murder and the mystery surrounding it. The cases are solved, and the murderer revealed. But one mystery that is never solved is Hilary Tamar’s sex. Caudwell wrote these novels in first person, from Tamar’s perspective. So in that sense, it was a fairly straightforward matter not to reveal whether Tamar is male or female. But that doesn’t prevent every potential awkwardness in writing. Still, Caudwell managed to keep her writing style smooth, and the focus on the mysteries. So fans will tell you that not knowing Tamar’s sex doesn’t take away from the stories.

And then there’s Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa series, which takes place mostly in the Copacabana section of Rio de Janeiro. Espinosa isn’t what you’d call overly mysterious. The stories are told in part from his point of view, so we learn a bit about his personal life (he’s a divorced father who has very little contact with his children). We know that he’s a book lover with quite a collection and with dreams of owning a bookshop. He’s an essentially good guy who has to operate in an often-corrupt system. But what we never learn about him is his given name. It’s hinted at in A Window in Copacabana, when he has a conversation with a woman he’s trying to protect from a murderer:

 

‘‘When I want to talk to you, I’ll use the name Benedito. Don’t answer calls from anybody else. Remember: I’ll never use the name Espinosa. I’ll only be Benedito.’
‘Is that your first name?’
‘Almost.’’

 

Still, it’s not revealed. Since Gracia-Roza does use Espinosa’s surname, it’s a straightforward matter to tell these stories without any ‘clunkiness.’ But it’s still a bit of a riddle.

What do you think about all of this? Do you find it annoying, for instance, not to know a sleuth’s name (or part of it?). Do you notice those little mysteries within the mysteries you read? If you’re a writer, do you include those sorts of riddles?

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bill Pronzini, Colin Dexter, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Sarah Caudwell

The Wise Old Owl, The Big Black Crow*

Bird WatchingAn interesting comment exchange with Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about birds and bird watching. It’s a delightful pastime, really. It gets you out into nature, it doesn’t have to be expensive, and it can be really interesting. You might think of it as peaceful, too, but if you read crime fiction, you’ll soon see that it isn’t at all. There are plenty of examples of ways in which bird watching can get you into a lot of danger.

The novel Moira and I were discussing was Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage, in which Miss Marple has quite a hand in solving the killing of Colonel Protheroe. Miss Marple isn’t an avid bird watching enthusiast in the sense of belonging to the local Society, or going on lots of bird-watching excursions. But she does find bird watching to be a very handy explanation for the binoculars that she uses to see what some of the other characters are doing. And those binoculars give her useful information.

In Colin Dexter’s The Way Through the Woods, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis ‘inherit’ a cold case. Swedish tourist Karin Eriksson went missing a year ago during a trip to Wales. She was on her way through Wytham Woods when she disappeared, and as you’d expect, a thorough search was conducted there. The only useful discovery was a rucksack belonging to the young woman. In it was a small book called A Birdwatcher’s Guide and a list of birds with some names checked off. Now Morse and Lewis are tasked with tracing her movements and, hopefully, finding her body, so that they can learn the truth about what happened. As they do so, we see just what trouble you can get yourself into by taking an interest in birds…

Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace sees Inspector Richard Jury called to the small town of Littlebourne when a local dog discovers a human finger. Jury’s friend Melrose Plant soon joins him there and, each in a different way, start to investigate. They don’t get very far when another grim discovery is made. Ernestine Craigie is a bird-watching fanatic, who’s happy to get up at all hours in hopes of completing her list. That’s how she discovers the body that belongs to the finger. The victim turns out to be Cora Binns, who worked for a London temporary secretary agency. Jury and Plant eventually find that her death is related to a brutal attack on another Littlebourne resident, as well as to a robbery that occurred in the area about a year earlier.

And then there’s Holger Eriksson, whom we meet in Henning Mankell’s The Fifth Woman. He’s a retired car dealer who’s taken up poetry and bird watching. One night, he goes out to watch some migrating birds, and is brutally murdered. Inspector Kurt Wallander is sick at the moment, and really didn’t need an extra case. But when Eriksson is reported missing, he has to respond. When the victim’s body is discovered, Wallander and his team have to find out who would have wanted to kill a seemingly inoffensive elderly man who just wanted to be left alone with his poetry and his birds. In the end, they discover a connection between this murder and the murder of a local florist. And they learn how those deaths are related to five murders in Africa a year earlier.

Several of Ann Cleeves’ stories feature bird enthusiasts, bird sanctuaries and bird watching. For example, in A Bird in the Hand, we are introduced to Tom Porter, a Norfolk ‘twitcher’ – bird watching fanatic – who works as a vegetable chef/kitchen porter. One morning he keeps a promise to himself to get up early and head for the marsh on a bird watching excursion. He’s found later face-down in a pool on the marsh, with his binoculars still on his neck. George Palmer-Jones is a twitcher himself, and a retired Home Office investigator. So naturally he takes an interest in the case. One thing that he notices immediately is that no-one seems to be especially upset about Porter’s death. And the more Palmer-Jones and his wife Molly look into the case, the more suspects they find. I know, I know, fans of Blue Lightning and The Crow Trap

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s One For the Rook. Blake Heatherington is a milliner who’s getting ready to retire. He’s got his beloved allotment in the village of Tuesbury, and is no longer interested in the increasingly annoying commute to his London shop. Hoping for a peaceful autumn, he’s getting ready for a local harvest festival. Then, he discovers the body of Peter Kürbis in his pumpkin patch, killed, it would seem, by Heatherington’s own prize pumpkin. The police are looking into this murder when another Tuesbury resident is killed. In the meantime, there’s another strange occurrence. A rookery that’s been in the area for some time seems to have disappeared. It’s a traditional sign of bad luck when rooks leave a place, and that’s certainly what happens here. One of the suspects in these murders is Dennis Nyeman, former member of the local caged bird society, and strident (and aggressive) proponent of those who want right of way through all of the local allotments. No, the rooks aren’t the killers here. But there’s certainly interest in birds in this story.

So do be careful, please, if you decide to spend some time contemplating our feathered friends. It’s important to connect with nature. But it’s not always good for the health. Little wonder a group of crows is called a ‘murder…’

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leon René/Jimmie Thomas’ Rockin’ Robin, made famous first by Bobby Day and later by Michael Jackson.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Colin Dexter, D.S. Nelson, Henning Mankell, Martha Grimes