Category Archives: Ed McBain

Everything Old is New Again*

Have you ever read a novel written, perhaps, decades ago, or even longer, and still found that it felt contemporary? Me, too. I got to thinking about this after yesterday’s post about Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios/A Coffin For Dimitrios. Someone who was kind enough to read the post mentioned that the book still feels quite contemporary.

And there are aspects of it we do still face today. The novel is set against a backdrop of unsettling international tension. In that case it’s the tension that was building just before World War II. But international tension is nothing new, and we’re still feeling it today. One of the plot threads has to do with drugs smuggling, and with how smugglers get their contraband across borders. That still goes on today, too. And we’re still asking ourselves some of the larger questions that are raised in the book (e.g. Do the ends ever justify the means? Are we really in control of our own choices?).

Whether you agree about that particular novel feeling contemporary or not, there are certainly plenty of novels, sometimes from a long time ago, that arguably have that feel. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, for example, was originally given a title that most of us would consider offensive today. But the story itself still resonates. A group of people are invited to house on Indian Island. For various reasons, they all accept. On the night of their arrival, each one is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. Soon afterwards, one of the guests dies of poison. Late that night, there’s another death. Before long, it’s clear that someone has targeted all of the guests. The survivors are now going to have to find out who the killer is, and stay alive themselves. Some of the larger questions of guilt, of what ‘counts’ as a crime, and of how people justify what they do are still raised today. And the context – a group of people trying to survive in a dangerous situation, also resonates.

Another reason that even older books can feel contemporary is arguably that they address challenges that we still face today. For example, Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die has as one of its central figures a detective novelist named Frank Cairnes, who writes under the name Felix Lane. When his son, Martin ‘Martie,’ is killed by a hit-and-run driver, Cairnes decides to find the culprit. That’s, in fact, the first sentence of the novel:
 

‘I am going to kill a man.’
 

Those feelings of grief and rage resonate today. The loss of a child is the sort of human experience that isn’t limited, unfortunately, to one era.

Neither is a heat wave, which is the backdrop of Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, the first of his 87th Precinct series. The fictional city of Isola (a thinly disguised New York City) is stricken by a persistent heat wave, which makes everyone miserable. With this in the background, Steve Carella and his teammates at the precinct investigate the murders of two police officers. At first, it looks as though the killer is someone with a grudge against the police. But it’s both easier and more complicated than that. It’s true that this book (published in 1956) doesn’t include modern amenities such as air conditioning, computers, and so on. But even today, we all know what it’s like to go through a heat wave, and how hard that can be on the nerves. And many of the procedures used in the novel (talking to witnesses, checking information on weapons, and so on) are still done.

Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts was originally published in 1938. In it, Ellery Queen is working on a film script for Magna Studios. The project is a biopic about screen legends John Royle and Blythe Stuart. They had a very public, stormy romance and an equally public breakup, and went their separate ways. Each married someone else, and now has a grown child. The studio executives think that the public would pay for a film about their love story, so the pair is approached about it. To everyone’s shock, they not only agree, but they also rekindle their romance. In fact, they decide to marry. Unwilling to let go of the profits from the film, the studio Powers That Be decide to make the most of this new romance. They plan a Hollywood-style wedding, right on the tarmac of a local airport. Then, the couple and their children will take off in a private plane for the honeymoon. The wedding goes off as planned, and the plane leaves. When it lands, though, the newlyweds are dead from what turns out to be poison. Queen investigates to find out who the killer is and what the motive is. Without spoiling the story, I can say that the motive isn’t ‘dated.’ Neither is the backdrop of Hollywood glitz and gossip, very public love affairs, and fascination with celebrity.

And that seems to be one of the keys to a novel that feels contemporary, even though it was written many decades ago. A contemporary ‘feel’ is even more likely if the emphasis in the novel is on the characters and overall plot, rather than in details of an era that can ‘date’ a book. What about you? Are there books that feel quite timely and contemporary to you, although they were published a long time ago? Which ones?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Peter Allen and Carol Bayer Sager.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, Eric Ambler, Nicholas Blake

With Ev’ry Kind o’ Comfort Ev’ry House is All Complete*

One of the major changes in society within the last hundred or so years has been the number of what we call modern conveniences. They were meant to save time and effort, and there are several that I’ll bet you couldn’t imagine living without at this point. Dishwashers, laundry machines, and so on have become integrated into modern homes. But of course, it wasn’t always that way. And it’s interesting to see how they’ve changed the way we do things. There are plenty of examples of these changes in crime fiction, too, and they give us a ‘window’ on a different way of life.

For example, many people today, especially in developed nations, have indoor bathrooms. Some people don’t think of them as ‘conveniences,’ but as essentials. But there are still plenty of places where outdoor toilets are common. And they were in regular use, even in cosmopolitan places, for a long time. One timeline of Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels, for instance, begins in late 1962, in a small Welsh village. In this plot thread, we meet four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards. One of the other residents of the village, a man named Dai Full Pelt, is a malicious bully. When he does something especially terrible, the children decide to get their revenge. They watch him closely, noting the places he goes and the times. They decide that he’ll be most vulnerable while he’s in his outdoor toilet, so that’s where they strike. Their plan works, and it is quite the case of ‘just deserts.’ But it’s not the sort of thing that one could pull off in a modern indoor bathroom.

Refrigerators are also modern conveniences that plenty of people take for granted now, but are relatively recent developments. For example, Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery was published in 1931. In it, Prudence Whitsby and her niece, Betsey, are spending the summer in at their cottage on Cape Cod. The cabin next door has been taken by a famous writer, Dale Sanborn. One night, he’s murdered. It turns out that there are several suspects, but one of the most likely is Bill Porter, who’s a friend of the Whitsby family. Local sheriff Slough Sullivan soon settles on Porter as the guilty man and arrests him. But Porter’s cook and ‘man of all work,’ Asey Mayo, doesn’t think his employer is guilty. So, he starts to ask questions. Between them, he and Prudence Whitsby find out who the real killer is. The story is told from Whitsby’s point of view, and here’s what she has to say about the summer cottage:
 

‘That refrigerator had been another added attraction to the cottage. Until this summer, we had carried our ice like the rest of the summer people from freight cars at the station whenever a load of ice happened to come in. Now we stood by and watched with an evil gleam of joy in our eyes as people raced cars home with their hunks of ice dismally dripping from a running board.’
 

It certainly makes one appreciate the modern refrigerator.

Sarah Waters touches on this, too, in The Paying Guests. In that novel, which takes place in 1922, Emily Wray and her daughter, Frances, have been left in a precarious financial situation. They decide that their only choice is to open their home to lodgers – ‘paying guests’ is the euphemism they use. After a short time, Leonard and Lilian Barber respond to their discreet advertisement. Terms are arranged, and the Barbers move in. It’s awkward, as you might expect. But everything goes reasonably well at first. Then, things slowly spiral out of control until there’s a tragedy. This novel takes place in the days before modern refrigeration. So, the Wrays use a meat-safe to store their perishables. You can read about what a meat-safe is, and how it works, right here. Meat-safes couldn’t keep things fresh for long, but they worked in a society where people bought meat, vegetables and the like every day.

There’s an interesting look at modern conveniences in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In it, Miss Marple and her friend, Dolly Bantry, solve the murder of Heather Badcock, who lived with her husband, Arthur, in the then-new council housing in the village. It’s not a major part of the plot, but there’s a discussion at the beginning of the novel about the way the village of St. Mary Mead has changed. And one of those changes is in the form of modern conveniences:
 

‘There were new people in most of the other old houses…the people who had bought them had done so because they liked what the house agent called “old world charm.” They just added another bathroom, and spent a good deal of money on plumbing, electric cookers, and dishwashers.’
 

In this case, ‘old world charm’ is only attractive to a point. Now that electric kitchen appliances and updated bathrooms are available, people want them.

Lots of homes now have air conditioning, whether it’s central air conditioning, or takes the form of room units. Before that, people who could afford to do so would go to a summer place in the mountains, by the sea, or somewhere else that was cooler. Those who couldn’t afford to travel opened their homes as much as they could so that breezes could cool things off, at least a little. But that wasn’t always enough when there was a heat wave. And that’s what we see in Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, the first of his 87th Precinct series. In it, a serious heat wave has struck Isola (a thinly-disguised New York City). Everyone’s miserable, including Steve Carella and the other people who work at the precinct. The main plot line concerns the murders of two police officers. But, in a small ‘aside’ plot line, we see how far the heat can drive people when there’s no relief. Among other things, the police are expected to attend lineups for major crimes, so that they can become familiar with local criminals. One of these cases concerns Virginia Pritchett, who’s charged with murdering her husband with a hatchet. She doesn’t deny the allegation. Instead, she tries to explain what she’s done:
 

‘‘The heat. It’s…it was very hot in the apartment. Right from the morning. You…you lose your temper very quickly in the heat.”
 

And that, she says, is what led to the murder.

We may take modern conveniences for granted. But they haven’t always been around, and it’s interesting to see what a difference they make in people’s lives. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Kansas City.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Babs Horton, Ed McBain, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Sarah Waters

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

Suddenly I Don’t Remember the Rules Any More*

crime-fiction-rulesThrough the years, there’ve been several sets of rules for detective fiction, among them S.S. Van Dine’s 20 rules, and Ronald Knox’s 10 rules. In some ways, it can be very helpful for the crime writer to have some guidance for creating a well-written story. This might be especially true for the first-time crime writer.

That said, though, we could also ask whether these rules really are relevant, especially for today’s crime fiction. Is it possible to write an excellent crime novel without each of those rules being followed?

Here’s one example. Both Van Dine and Knox wrote that the solution to a mystery should not be supernatural or otherworldly. They claimed that, to be credible, a mystery has to have a prosaic solution. Most readers seem to agree with this. In fact, one of the major ‘pet peeves’ that I’ve read is when a book lacks credibility, especially if there’s some sort of ghostly or paranormal solution. Some authors (Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, to name just two) have played with this rule. They’ve included characters who believe in the supernatural, for instance, or written stories where the culprit makes the murder look as though it has a supernatural explanation. But there’s nothing otherworldly about the real solution.

Closely related to this, both Van Dine and Knox claim that fictional detectives should not solve crimes through accident, intuition, or other means (Van Dine included unmotivated confession) besides logical deduction. And that was Arthur Conan Doyle’s main argument in creating Sherlock Holmes. He wanted a detective who solved crimes through logical, scientific means, not intuition. Crime fiction fans want their stories credible. That includes the means by which the sleuth gets to the truth. Too much coincidence takes away from that credibility. Seemingly magic intuition does, too. In real life, detectives solve crimes by making sense of evidence and putting the pieces together logically. That doesn’t mean they can’t have creative ideas. Great detectives do. But I think most of us would agree what we don’t want crimes to be solved through a series of happy accidents.

Another rule that both Van Dine and Knox mention is that the detective should not also be the killer. This, to these writers, is not ‘playing fair’ with the reader. What’s interesting about this rule is that there’ve been several novels (I won’t mention them because of spoilers) where the protagonist is, indeed, the killer. And some of those novels have gone on to great success and acclaim. Does this mean this rule isn’t relevant? What do you think? Have you read excellent crime novels where a detective is also the killer?

One rule that really is relevant (at least from my perspective – yours may differ) is that in whodunits, all of the clues have to be there for the reader to find. That is to say, both Van Dine and Knox refer to the need to give the reader the same opportunity as the detective has to solve the murder. I’m sure you can think of at least one novel you’ve read where you thought, ‘Well of course I’d have known who the killer was if I’d known that!’ I think most of us would agree that we want the author of a crime novel to ‘play fair’ and show us all the clues. In fact, the ‘Queen Team’ included asides to the reader in some of the Ellery Queen novels, to the effect that all of the clues are now in the reader’s possession. In a well-written whodunit, the clues may not be glaringly obvious, but they are there for the reader to find.

Van Dine has an interesting rule to the effect that there must be no love interest in a crime novel. He saw a romance angle as ‘cluttering up’ the intellectual exercise of solving a crime. On the one hand, I think most crime fiction fans would agree that too much emphasis on a romance can be a distraction. And, of course, every reader is different with respect to how much romance is ‘too much.’ That said, though, I can think of several highly-regarded crime novels that do include romances. One, for instance, is Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Fans of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series will know that his romance with detective novelist Harriet Vane is a story arc that ends with their wedding just before Busman’s Honeymoon. Romances are woven into some of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels, too. And those are by no means the only examples. What do you folks think? Was Van Dine right that romance should not figure into crime novels?

One of the other rules that Van Dine (but not Knox) proposed was that there should only be one detective – one main character. This one arguably hasn’t held up. If you look at series such as Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, or Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, or Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series (to name only three), you see how successful fictional partnerships can be. And a quick look at Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, or Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series, is all you need to see how well ‘ensemble’ series can work.

What about some of Van Dine’s and Knox’s other rules? Knox for instance, claimed that there shouldn’t be twins involved, unless the reader has been prepared for that. Van Dine said that there absolutely must be a corpse:
 

‘Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder.’
 

He also said that all crimes must have a personal motive, among other things.

What do you think of these rules? If they don’t apply, should there be other rules? If you’re a writer, do you follow ‘rules’ as you write your crime fiction?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s This Night.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Dorothy Sayers, Ed McBain, Elly Griffiths, Fred Vargas, Reginald Hill, Ronald Knox, S.S. Van Dine, Tony Hillerman

Don’t Push Me Too Far*

pressureMost of us learn that we can only push people so far before they push back. Everyone has a different limit, but we all have one. Crime writers know this, and sometimes use it to real advantage in their novels.

That pressure, as someone pushes too hard, and someone else nears the breaking point, can add real suspense to a story. And it can serve as a credible motive for murder, at least in the mind of the killer.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we meet the Boyntons, an American family on a sightseeing visit to the Middle East. Matriarch Mrs. Boynton is malicious, vindictive, and tyrannical. She has her family so browbeaten that no-one dares go against her wishes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t resent her. A few of the members have been pushed so far for so long that they are at the proverbial breaking point. So, when Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies on the second day of a trip to Petra, Colonel Carbury decides to look into the matter. The death looks on the surface like heart failure, but the family dynamics make Carbury wonder. So, he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s also in the Middle East, to investigate. As we learn who really killed the victim and why, we see the wisdom in not pushing people past their limits.

Talmage Powell’s short story, To Avoid a Scandal, features a banker named Horace Croyden. He leads a quiet, well-ordered and completely scandal-free life, and he likes it that way. In fact, for quite a while, his life is, for him, perfect. Then he meets his boss’ cousin Althea. At first, she seems demure, with good taste and good manners. And that’s what draws him to her. They court in an utterly respectable way, and then marry. That’s when Horace discovers that his wife isn’t all the person he thought he’d married. She’s more vivacious than he’d prefer, and her habits, in his opinion, aren’t well-ordered at all. She shops without a list, she doesn’t always dress before breakfast, and so on. More and more, she pushes him to the limit. Then comes the day she accidentally destroys some ciphers he’s been working (ciphers are Horace’s passion). That’s when she pushes him too far…

Ed McBain’s Cop Hater is the first in his long-running 87th Precinct series. As the novel begins, the city of Isola (a thinly-disguised New York City) is suffering from a terrible heat wave. This novel was written before air conditioning was a common amenity for homes, so everyone’s sweltering and miserable. That includes Detective Steve Carella and his team, who are investigating the murders of two fellow police officers. They’re also expected to attend lineups of those who’ve been arrested for major crimes, so that they can become familiar with those cases. One of those suspects is Virginia Pritchett, who’s been arrested for killing her husband with a hatchet. She doesn’t deny the allegation. Rather, she explains that the murder was the end result of a buildup of tension between her and her husband that pushed her beyond her breaking point. And the miserable heat didn’t help:
 

‘‘The heat. It’s…it was very hot in the apartment. Right from the morning. You…you lose your temper very quickly in the heat.”
 

In this case, we see what happens when a person is pushed too far by both the heat and a tense domestic situation.

Ruth Rendell’s One Across, Two Down tells the story of Stanley Manning, who works as a fuel attendant. He has a prison record, but he’s trying to stay on the proverbial straight and narrow, and make a life for himself and his wife, Vera. But he’s got a big problem: Vera’s mother, Maude, who hates Stanley. The feeling is mutual, but Stnaley has to put up with her, because he and Vera stand to inherit a fortune when she dies. Still, the pressure of having to tolerate Maude gets worse and worse, until Stanley decides to take matters into his own hands. And as you can guess if you’ve read Rendell’s work, this doesn’t end well.

Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s An Easy Thing addresses another sort of pressure. In that novel, Mexico City PI Héctor Belascoaran Shayne gets three different cases. One of them concerns the death of an engineer named Gaspar Alvarez Cerruli, who was killed in his office at Delex, the company where he worked. The Santa Clara Industrial Council hires Belascoaran Shayne to find out who the killer was, and bring them the proof. This case is complicated by the fact that there’s a great deal of tension between union members and management at Delex. There’s a great deal of agitation for better wages and working conditions, and the union activists have been very busy. As the novel goes on, those tensions reach the boiling point, and this plays its role in this case. What’s more, the tension adds much to the suspense in the story.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place during the last years of the British Raj in Madras (today’s Chennai). In A Madras Miasma, the first of the series, Le Fanu and his assistant, Sergeant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah, are investigating the murder of Jane Carstairs, an English visitor whose body was found in the Buckingham Canal. It’s a difficult case, made more challenging by the fact that the trail leads to some very high places. In the midst of the investigation, there’s a protest. There are many who believe that India should move to Home Rule, and that the Raj should end. These people clash with the local authorities and the police, and the situation turns very, very ugly. Then, there’s a murder. And Le Fanu finds that this death is related to the Carstairs murder, and that the killer has used the protest to ‘disguise’ that connection. Part of the suspense in this novel comes from the simmering resentment against British rule, and the increasing pressure on the government to reform, and on the protesters to be quiet and go away.

If crime fiction shows us nothing else, it shows us that people do have their limits. There’s only so far that most of us can be pushed. If the pushing continues, there are bound to be consequences. And that tension can add a great deal to a crime story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Divinyls’ Back to the Wall.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Ed McBain, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Ruth Rendell, Talmage Powell