Category Archives: Daphne du Maurier

Hey Ho Let’s Go*

As this is posted, it’s the birthday of Stephen King. Even if you don’t care for his work, it’s hard to deny the impact it’s had. Even his debut novel, Carrie, is still very popular 44 years after its first publication (Did you know he threw that work into the trash originally? Goes to show the value of perseverance.) King has also done much to support other writers and the writing craft/process itself.

One of the factors that sets King’s work apart is arguably that he taps into our own deepest fears. Yes, there’s violence in his work, some of it brutal. But the real source of tension and suspense in the stories he writes is more psychological than anything else. And that can have a way of keeping a reader engaged in a story. Many of King’s stories are about ordinary people – people readers can identify with – who are drawn into horrifying circumstances.

King’s a master of that sort of context. Other authors, too, have used the premise of an ordinary sort of person who’s drawn into horror. We see it all through the crime fiction genre, and it’s interesting to see how it plays out.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, for instance, we are introduced to ten people, all of whom have been invited to stay at a house on Indian Island. None of these people is perfect – by any means – but they are all what’d you’d call ‘normal’ people (if there is such a thing). After dinner on the night of their arrival, each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Not long afterwards, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, there’s another death. Then another. Now, the other guests see that they’ve been lured to the island by someone who is not as ‘normal’ as it seems. That someone is trying to kill them all, and they’ll have to work to find out who that person is if they’re going to stay alive. In this novel, it’s the growing psychological horror as much as anything else that really builds the tension and invites the reader to stay engaged.

Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone is a bit like that, too. In it, we meet Eunice Parchman, who’s hired as a professional housekeeper by George and Jacqueline Coverdale. The Coverdales are well-off and well-educated; they’re ‘normal’ upper-middle class people. At first, the arrangement works well enough. But what the Coverdales don’t know is that Eunice Parchman has a secret – one she’s determined they won’t discover. Then, one day, she’s accidentally found out. That seals the fate of the entire family, and leads to tragedy. The tension in the novel starts building right away, as we’re told exactly what happens and why. Rendell continues to build the suspense as the Coverdales get closer and closer to disaster without really being aware of it.

Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit takes place in rural New England mostly on a property called Cabrioun, and the lodge associated with it. It used to be owned by French émigré Grimaud Désanat, but he died during a hunting trip some years earlier. Now, his widow, Irene, owns the property, together with her new husband, Frank Ogden. Along with family friend Luke Latham, the Ogdens own a business making specialty wood products. The kind of wood they need, though, is hard to find, and currently only available in a place called Onawa. That property was owned by Désanat, who didn’t want the place logged for twenty years. The business can’t wait that long, so the Ogdens and Latham have decided to hold a séance to contact the dead man and ask his permission to open the land to logging. The séance is duly held, and is creepy as it is. But the suspense builds even more when Irene is later murdered. There’s a real growing sense of horror as it appears that the death either has a supernatural cause, or the murderer is one of the people who attended the séance.

Pascal Garnier has also written several stories in which ordinary, ‘normal’ people have been drawn into situations that ended in horror. There’s the aimless young man who becomes a driver for a hit man in How’s the Pain?, and the widower who becomes obsessed with the widow of his dead wife’s lover in The Front Seat Passenger. There are other examples, too, in Garnier’s work. Although there is certainly violence in these stories, the real suspense, and even horror, comes from psychological tension, rather than the ‘shock value’ of violence.

That buildup of psychological tension, and tapping into very human fears is characteristic of several other authors, such as Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier. It’s also quite present in the film work of Alfred Hitchcock, among others. In their work, we also see the case of the ‘ordinary’ person inexorably caught up in a web of horror. Those premises and plot points can make for stories that really resonate with readers, in part because we can often identify with the characters. They’re frighteningly close to who we are, if I may put it that way.

I’ve only mentioned a few examples of this sort of story. I know you can think of many more than I can, anyway. Happy Birthday, Mr. King, and may you keep scaring the wits out of us for many more years.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop. King fans will know why I chose this one…

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Hake Talbot, Pascal Garnier, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Stephen King

I Didn’t Catch Your Name*

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, one of the most basic facts we learn about people, including fictional characters, is their names. Certainly, it’s one of the first things we find out when we meet someone new. A name is an important identifier, and in a novel, it’s an important way in which authors make characters distinctive.

And yet, there plenty of crime-fictional characters, even main characters, who aren’t given names. And it’s interesting to see how authors give those characters roles in a story without naming them. Here are just a few examples; I’m sure you’ll think of others.

Fredric Brown’s short story Don’t Look Behind You is addressed to the reader. The unnamed narrator tells the story of a printer named Justin Dean, and a suave man named Harley.  They meet when Harley goes to the printing shop where Justin works to have some business cards made. Then, they get into a business of their own. Trouble begins when they get involved with some ruthless people, and that leads to real ugliness. The story has a lot of impact because it’s addressed to the reader, and told in the first person, much as someone might tell you about an event. And that adds power to a twist at the end of the story.

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca isn’t usually thought of as a crime novel, but if you’ve read it, you know that it involves crime. As fans can tell you, the story is told in first person from the point of view of the second wife of Maxim ‘Max’ de Winter. When she and her new husband move in together at his home, Manderley, she tries to settle in and enjoy her new life. But she’s soon made to feel very unwelcome. In particular, the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, resents her presence. It comes out that Mrs. Danvers was especially devoted to Max’s first wife, Rebecca. And she misses no opportunity to make it clear that the second Mrs. de Winter is a poor substitute at best. Rebecca’s presence seems to haunt everyone, and the new Mrs. de Winter isn’t even sure her husband actually loves her. As the story goes on, we learn more about what Rebecca was really like. And the truth changes everything. Interestingly, we never learn the name of the narrator. And, in a way, that fact underscores the powerful role Rebecca’s memory plays at Manderley.

In Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs, we meet an art restorer, who’s visiting a monastery in the Swiss Alps. He’s interested in some frescoes in the monastery’s chapel, and considering restoring them. During his visit, he meets an old man who offers to tell him a story – ‘a good one’ – if that story can be recorded. The art restorer agrees and buys some cassettes (this part of the story takes place in the 1970s). Then, the old man tells his story. It begins with the arrival of Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco and his family to New York in the early 20th Century. Immigrants from Italy, they try to make their way in their new home, and they do well. Then, disaster happens. Franco gets into a bar fight, and ends up killing his opponent, a man named Luigi Lupo. The victim happens to be the son of underworld boss Tonio Lupo, who curses the Franco family for the loss of his son. In fact, he promises that all three of Ben Franco’s sons will die at the age of forty-two, the age Luigi was when he was murdered. The old man then goes on to tell what happened to those sons. We never learn the name of the art restorer. And for much of the novel, we don’t know who the old man is, either. This keeps the focus of the story on the Franco family, rather than the narrator or the old man.

Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Page 3 Murders takes place mostly at the posh Mumbai home of Dr. Hilla Driver. She decides to have a special ‘foodie’ weekend at her home, both as a sort of housewarming and as a celebration for her niece’s upcoming eighteenth birthday. Hilla’s chef, Tarok Ghosh, wants to put the house on the culinary map, as the saying goes, so he plans extra-special meals, with the culminating event to be an elaborate seven-course dinner. One of the guests is Hilla’s good friend, a retired police detective named Lalli, who’s accompanied by her niece. Several members of Mumbai’s glitterati are also invited, and the weekend begins. On the night of the dinner, Ghosh makes a custom-made appetizer for each guest. It’s soon clear from those appetizers that each guest is hiding something, and that Ghosh knows their secrets. By the end of the night, he’s been murdered. Later, another murder is discovered. Together, Lalli and her niece discover who the killer is, and what the actual motive was for both murders. This novel is told from the point of view (first person) of Lalli’s niece. Interestingly enough, she is not named, although she plays an important role in the novel. The focus is really on the other guests.

And of course, I couldn’t discuss nameless crime-fictional characters without mentioning Bill Pronzini’s San Francisco PI. In fact, that series is often called the Nameless series, because for much of it, Pronzini doesn’t tell us what his sleuth’s name is. The stories are told in first person, past tense, so it’s not especially awkward.

Still, in most cases, it really can be a challenge to create a main character who doesn’t have a name. Authors can make it work by having that character narrate the story, or by keeping the focus of the story elsewhere. But it’s not easy to accomplish.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ I Will.

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Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Bill Pronzini, Daphne du Maurier, Frederic Brown, Kalpana Swaminathan

Living in Michigan With Uncle Ray*

‘Family’ often consists of a lot more than just parents, siblings, or spouses/partners and children. In many cultures, the concept is a lot more extensive, and may include aunts, uncles, distant cousins, great-grandparents, and more. Even in cultures with a more nuclear concept of family, the belief is often that ‘blood is thicker.’

Because of this, there are a lot of cases of people staying with aunts, uncles or cousins, either for a certain period of time, or even permanently. Those situations can certainly be awkward, but they’re interesting. And we see them a lot in crime fiction.

Agatha Christie used that plot point in several of her stories. For instance, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot investigates the killing of retired magnate Roger Ackroyd, who is stabbed in his study one night. The prime suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. And it doesn’t help matters that Paton has disappeared. But his fiancée, Flora, doesn’t believe he’s guilty; it’s she who asks Poirot to look into the matter. As the investigation goes on, we learn about the Ackroyd household. Living with the victim are Flora and her mother, Ackroyd’s widowed sister-in-law. They are what used to be called ‘poor relations,’ and both are very much in need of money. So, they certainly become ‘persons of interest’ as the story goes on.

In John Bude’s Death on the Riviera, DI William Meredith and Sergeant Freddy Strang are sent to the French Riviera to follow up on an investigation into a counterfeiting scheme. It’s believed that an Englishman named Tommy ‘Chalky’ Cobbett is behind the operation, so the French authorities want support from their English counterparts as they go after Cobbett. The trail leads to a place called the Villa Paloma, which is owned by Nesta Hedderwick. Staying with her is a motley crew of people, including her niece, Dilys Westmacott. Dilys’ parents were killed in a WW II air raid; and, since that time, her aunt has been her guardian. Now that she’s done with finishing school, she’s moved in to the Villa Paloma. Meredith and Strang begin to get to know the people at the villa, and they discover that just about everyone, including Dilys, is keeping secrets. Then, murder strikes…

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of the Blackwood family. Constance Blackwood and her younger sister, Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ live with their Uncle Julian. We soon learn that they are isolated from the small community in which they live, so they really only have each other. We also learn that, six years earlier, there was a tragedy in which three other members of the family were killed. No-one was convicted, but it’s clear that that villagers believe that one of the Blackwoods was responsible. Still, Constance, Merricat and their uncle have made a life for themselves. Everything changes, though, when a cousin, Charles Blackwood, comes to stay. His unexpected arrival touches off a chain of events that ends in disaster.

Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn begins as twenty-year-old Mary Yellan travels from her home in Helford to a place called Jamaica Inn, which is owned by Mary’s Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss Merlyn. In making this trip, Mary is fulfilling a deathbed promise to her mother, Aunt Patience’s sister. When she arrives, Mary is dismayed to find that the place is dilapidated and forbidding. Things get even worse when she meets her relatives. Uncle Joss is unpleasant and abusive, and Aunt Patience is frightened and completely submissive. Still, Mary tries to settle in. Little by little, she begins to suspect that something is going on at the inn, and it turns out she’s right. Mary ends up being drawn into a web of crime that includes murder.

There’s an interesting instance of going to stay with relatives in Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness. There’s been a horrible set of murders in the small village of Highfield. Colonel Charles Fletcher, his wife, Lucy, their maid, Sally Pepper, and the nanny, Alice Crookes, have all been killed. The only survivor is the Fletchers’ daughter, Sophy. She’s a very young child, so she isn’t in a position to help the police at the moment. So, the local physician, Dr. Helen Blackwell, wants Sophy to be sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Scotland. At first, DI John Madden, who’s sent from Scotland Yard to investigate, wants Sophy to remain in Highfield. But Blackwell insists that the child has been through far too much to stay, at least for the present time. Finally, Madden agrees. And in the end, as Sophy begins to accept what has happened, she provides some useful information.

There’s also Rob Pierce’s Uncle Dust, which features a bank robber named Dustin ‘Dusty.’ Dusty isn’t exactly cut out for domesticity, but it’s not a bad thing for him to have a sort of ‘cover story’ family. And Theresa, the woman he’s sleeping with, fits the bill, since she has a ten-year-old son named Jeremy. To Jeremy, Dusty is ‘Uncle Dust,’ and he develops a kind of friendship with his ‘sort of uncle.’ I’ll admit, I’ve not (yet) read this one, but it’s an interesting look at how the relative-moving-in dynamic can happen. I was alerted to it by Col, who blogs at Col’s Criminal Library. I look forward to your review, Col! In the meantime, folks, do pay a visit to Col’s fine blog. Lots of well-written, honest reviews await you there!

There are all sorts of possibilities when a relative (or a ‘might as well be a relative’) moves in. Sometimes, it all goes beautifully. But not always….

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Josh Rouse’s Michigan.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, John Bude, Rennie Airth, Rob Pierce, Shirley Jackson

You’ll Feel Your Mind Slipping Away*

poe-horror-and-crimeAs this is posted, it would have been Edgar Allan Poe’s 208th birthday. Whether you’re a fan of Poe’s writing or not, it’s hard to deny his impact on literature and culture. Personally, I like it that the Baltimore (US) professional football team is called the Ravens.

Certainly, Poe had a tremendous influence on crime fiction. In fact, he is often regarded as the creator of modern detective fiction. His C. Auguste Dupin stories featured a detective in ways that hadn’t been done before. And fans can tell you that that he also created memorable horror stories.

What’s interesting about those horror stories is that they rely much more on psychological suspense and tension than on gore and violence. And, for many people, that psychological approach can build more tension, and is more frightening, than outright violence is.

Poe is by no means the only author to create stories with that element of psychological suspense, even horror. We see it quite a lot in crime fiction. For instance, Marie Belloc Lowndes The Lodger is the story of Ellen and Robert Bunting, who have retired from domestic service and opened their home to lodgers. They’re quite particular about the people they accept, so they haven’t had many lodgers. But one day, a stranger comes to ask about a room, and seems to be exactly the sort of lodger they want. Calling himself Mr. Sleuth, this new roomer pays his rent fully and promptly. He has quiet habits, too, and ‘speaks like a gentleman.’ The Buntings need the money, so they agree quickly to an arrangement. In the meantime, London is caught up in the news of a series of murders of young women, committed by a man who calls himself The Avenger. Robert Bunting, in particular, is as taken with this news as anyone is, and follows the details with interest. At first, his wife doesn’t want anything to do with stories of the murders. But slowly, and with growing horror, she begins to suspect that her new lodger may actually be the murderer. That creeping fear, and the hints (rather than actual scenes) of violence add a great deal of suspense to this story.

Shirley Jackson was noted for her ability to create eerie, frightening stories without gore. Fans can tell you that The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are both quite creepy novels. And then there’s her short story, The Lottery, which you can read right here. Do these stories count as crime fiction? Perhaps The Haunting of Hill House would be counted more as horror than as crime fiction. But We Have Always Lived in the Castle features arsenic poisoning and its consequences. And The Lottery….  I don’t want to spoil it in case you’ve not read it. But as far as I’m concerned, it includes a crime.

Daphne du Maurier also combined elements of horror and crime in her work, and much of the tension is psychological, rather than dependent on violence. In Jamaica Inn, for instance, Mary Yellan goes to live with her Uncle Joss and Aunt Patience Merlyn. Their home is a lonely inn on the moor in Cornwall, and it’s far from a warm, friendly place. The inn itself is eerie enough, and the more Mary finds out about the inn and some of its secrets, the eerier the story gets. There’s a real sense of horror as Mary discovers the truth about the inn. And there is some violence. But du Maurier relies much more on psychological suspense to build the tension and move the plot along.

Many people regard Stephen King as one of the masters of the modern horror story. But he has also used his skill at building eeriness and horror in the crime stories he writes. For instance, Delores Claiborne and Mr. Mercedes are certainly crime novels. But they also have elements of the horror story in them, too. There’s arguably an eerie sort of atmosphere, and the tension that builds is as much psychological as it is anything else. The same might be said of Misery. In all of those stories (and others King has written), there is violence – more than there is in some of the other examples I’ve mentioned here. But the violence isn’t the focus of the stories. Rather, it’s the psychological tension.

And I don’t think I could discuss that mix of crime and horror in fiction without mentioning Alfred Hitchcock’s film work. Several of his films are based on crime fiction, but even those that aren’t have that element of psychological suspense that really carries the plot along. And in some of those films, there really is very little violence. But they’re still suspenseful and eerie.

There are a lot of other authors (right, fans of, Hake Talbot, Patricia Highsmith and Pascal Garnier?) who have combined elements of horror with elements of the crime story to create eerie stories. It’s not easy to do that, especially if one doesn’t focus on gory violence. But when it’s done well, a dose of horror can add genuine suspense and creepiness to a crime story.

So, if you think about it, Poe didn’t just leave a legacy in terms of detective fiction (although he certainly did do that). He didn’t just leave a legacy of horror stories, either (although, of course, he did that, too). He showed how one might write a truly frightening, eerie story with a solid plot, but without resorting to a lot of gore.

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Don’t tell me it never rains in Southern California.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Alan Parsons Project’s The Cask of Amontillado. This track comes from their release Tales of Mystery and Imagination. All of the songs are Poe titles, and the songs themselves inspired by Poe’s stories.

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Filed under Alfred Hitchcock, Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe, Hake Talbot, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Pascal Garnier, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King

Boy, You’ll Be My Foil*

foilsOne interesting way to show what a character is like is by using a foil. Fictional foils contrast with other characters, so their personalities are more sharply defined. As with anything in crime fiction, foils have to be handled carefully. Otherwise, they can become too cartoonish. But when they’re well-crafted characters in their own right, foils can bring out other characters, and can add a layer of interest to a story. There are plenty of examples of foils in crime fiction; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas), we are introduced to the Lee family. Family patriarch Simeon Lee decides that he wants his relatives to gather at the family home, Gorston Hall, for Christmas. No-one in the family wants to make the trip; Lee is a malicious, unpleasant old man who takes pleasure in others’ discomfort. But no-one dares to refuse the invitation. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby, and works with the police to find out who the killer is. In this novel, there’s an interesting contrast between two of Simeon Lee’s sons: Alfred and Harry. Alfred’s always been ‘the good son,’ who went into the family business (which he never wanted to do), and who has stayed at the family home to help care for his father. Harry is the wild adventurer, who’s been all over the world, and in trouble more than once. Where Alfred is more reserved and cautious, Harry is extroverted, and he can be witty. Their father knows all too well that Alfred and Harry’s differences will likely lead to conflict; that’s a big part of the reason he invited Harry. And it’s interesting to see how these two serve as foils for each other. You’re absolutely right, fans of Five Little Pigs. There’s an interesting contrast between brothers there, too.

Fans of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series will know that there are plenty of foils there. To take the most obvious example, we can look at the characters of Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant (later, Inspector) Peter Pascoe. Where Pascoe is educated, intellectual, and in some ways, highbrow, his boss is the opposite. Dalziel is a brilliant detective, but he doesn’t have a university background or gentrified tastes. They have other differences, too, and Hill used those differences to make them foils for each other. What’s interesting is that Pascoe’s wife, Ellie, also serves as a foil. In her political and social views, she often differs with Dalziel. She resents what she sees as his way of commandeering her husband, too. Part of what makes these characters work as foils is that all of them are well-developed and ‘fleshed out.’ They see one another’s positive traits, too, so their interactions are rich and complex.

Geraldine Evans’ DI Joe Rafferty and DS Dafyd Llewellyn are also police partners who serve as foils for each other. Rafferty has Irish, working-class roots. He’s outgoing, and sometimes tends to jump to conclusions (although he usually isn’t overly rash).  Rafferty sometimes gets drawn into his family’s drama, too. On the other hand, Llewellyn is more intellectual and long-headed, as the saying goes. He’s quiet, and his personal life isn’t complicated in the way that his boss’ is. They’re both smart detectives, and bring complementary strengths to their investigation. And that’s arguably why they make successful foils for each other. They highlight one another’s personalities, and respect each other despite their differences.

And, of course, I don’t think it would be possible to discuss foils in crime fiction without mentioning Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. As fans know, they are, in many ways, a study in contrasts. Wolfe has a rigid routine and a taste for luxury, and can be both arrogant and temperamental. But he is a brilliant detective, and he has a compassionate side in his way. By contrast, Goodwin is energetic, pragmatic and down-to-earth. He does quite a lot of the ‘legwork’ for his boss, and is an accomplished detective in his own right. He sometimes gets himself into trouble by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or by wisecracking when that isn’t the safest choice to make. But he is at heart a person of integrity. Wolfe and Goodwin often spar. But they do respect each other, and their skills are complementary. Again, that’s part of what makes them good foils for each other.

If you think about it, foils really don’t have to be characters. Other sorts of contrasts can work, too. For instance, in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, we are introduced to Mary Yellan. As the story begins, she’s on her way from her home village of Helford to stay with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss at their establishment, Jamaica Inn. Mary’s mother has recently died, and Mary’s fulfilling a last promise to her by going to her relatives. Du Maurier presents Helford as a start contrast – a foil – for Jamaica Inn:

‘How remote now and perhaps hidden for ever were the shining waters of Helford, the green hills and the sloping valleys, the white cluster of cottages at the water’s edge. It was a gentle rain that fell at Helford…

This was a lashing, pitiless rain that stung the coach, and it soaked into a hard and barren ground.’  
 

The contrast between the two places becomes even more pronounced when Mary arrives at Jamaica Inn. It’s eerie, dilapidated, and lonely. It’s out by itself on the moor, and certainly not the welcoming, friendly place that Helford is. And the differences add to the sense of place in the novel, and the sense of foreboding. And if you’ve read the novel, you know just how dangerous and creepy Jamaica Inn turns out to be.

That’s really one of the most important purposes of foils. They serve to highlight aspects of a place or a character, because they provide contrasts with other characters and places. And that can be an effective to show what a character or a place is like without a lot of verbiage. Which fictional foils have you liked best?

 

ps. The ‘photo is of Jim Hutton (L) and John Hillerman (R), who had the roles, respectively, of Ellery Queen and private investigator/radio host Simon Brimmer in the 1975-76 series. Brimmer sees Queen as a rival, and often serves as his foil in this series, and Hillerman played the role quite well, I think.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Driving With Andy’s Sugar, Sugar.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Geraldine Evans, Reginald Hill, Rex Stout