Category Archives: G.K. Chesterton

Be One of Us*

cultsAs this is posted, it’s 38 years since the tragic deaths of over 900 members of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple group. Most people agree that that was a dangerous cult, but the line between spiritual group and cult is sometimes quite blurred. Whatever you call those non-conformist spiritual groups, they do attract plenty of people. And there are reasons for that. Some people are searching for a place to be accepted and to belong. Others want to make sense out of life, when it doesn’t always make sense at all. Others have other reasons for joining such a group.

And there’s no shortage of such groups in crime fiction. They can add a real layer of atmosphere, suspense and interest, too. There’s often a charismatic leader, a group of disparate people, plenty of secretiveness, and so on. All of those can combine to make for an effective context for a crime story.

For example, in G.K. Chesterton’s The Eye of Apollo, private investigator Hercule Flambeau gets a new resident in his building. The man calls himself Kalon, and claims he is the new Priest of Apollo. He’s quite charismatic in his way, and gets a following. One tragic day, Pauline Stacey, an heiress who lives two floors down from Kalon, dies from a tragic fall down an elevator shaft. Father Brown happens to be visiting Flambeau at the time, so he gets involved in investigating the death. And it turns out that this death was no accident, but a carefully planned murder.

Agatha Christie’s short story The Flock of Geryon also takes up the topic of cults and cult leaders. In that story, an acquaintance of Hercule Poirot’s, Miss Carnaby, is concerned about a friend of hers, Emmeline Clegg. It seems that Emmeline has gotten involved in new religious group, The Flock of the Shepherd, led by the charismatic and shadowy Dr. Anderson. Miss Carnaby is worried that her friend might be at risk, and Poirot agrees to help her look into the matter. He, Miss Carnaby, and Chief Inspector Japp and his team make a plan for investigating the group. They find that there’s much more at stake than spiritual well-being.

The focus of Ngaio Marsh’s Death in Ecstasy is a religious group called the House of the Sacred Flame. One night, Nigel Bathgate visits the group’s worship place on impulse, and witnesses one of their ceremonies. During the ritual, one of the group members, Cara Quayne, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Bathgate calls in his friend, Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn, and the official investigation begins. In finding out who killed the victim and why, Alleyn and Bathgate look into the inner workings of the group, its leadership, and the interactions of its members. I agree, fans of Spinsters in Jeopardy.

John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee goes undercover in a cult group in The Green Ripper. In that novel, McGee’s girlfriend, Gretel Howard, dies of what looks like a fatal illness. But it turns out that she was murdered, and her death carefully planned. As he searches for answers, McGee finds a connection to a Northern California cult called the Church of the Apocrypha. Under the leadership of the charismatic Brother Persivel, the group is committed to the destruction of everything in society, so that everything can then be re-built. McGee joins the group to find out more information, and he discovers what the group’s plans are, and how they are linked to Gretel’s death.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives takes readers into a sect/cult called Purity, which has a compound straddling the Arizona/Utah border. PI Lena Jones has been hired to help rescue thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from the cult, and that particular goal is accomplished. But then, she discovers that on the same night, the cult’s leader, Solomon Royal, was shot. And there’s evidence against Rebecca’s mother, Esther (who, incidentally, hired Jones in the first place). If she’s going to clear her client’s name, Jones will have to find out who killed the victim. For that, she goes undercover in the group, and finds that there is much more going on than just attention to the spiritual. Some of the things she discovers are frightening and very dangerous.

And then there’s Åsa Larson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm). The novel begins with the murder of Viktor Stråndgard, whose body is found in a Kiruna church called The Church of the Source of All Our Strength. He was one of the leaders of the church, and had developed quite a cult-like following. The police, in the form of Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Eric Stålnacke, investigate the killing. It’s not long before they learn that the victim’s sister, Sanna, is a very likely suspect. She found the body (which could very easily be because she’s the reason it’s there). And there are any number of possible motives. Sanna claims she is innocent, and asks for help from her former friend, Rebecka Martinsson. Rebecka’s reluctant, as she had her own reasons for moving from Kiruna to Stockholm. But she agrees, mostly for the sake of Sanna’s two children. She finds that the solution to this mystery is connected with her own past.

There are plenty of other crime novels that explore life in groups that we might call cults (right, fans of Emma Cline’s The Girls?). They are fascinating, if frightening, and they can form interesting contexts for murder mysteries. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Betty Webb, Emma Cline, G.K. Chesterton, John D. MacDonald, Ngaio Marsh

Instant Karma’s Going to Get You*

Mending KarmaIn Hinduism and Buddhism, it’s called karma – bringing upon oneself the inevitable results of one’s own actions. Good deeds tend to mend one’s karma; bad deeds have the opposite effect. Western spiritual traditions have different concepts, but there’s still the underlying principle that what you do comes back to you, if you will.

Many people believe in karma, or something similar to it. So it’s not surprising that we see a lot of fictional characters who try to redeem themselves, especially if they’ve done things of which they’re particularly ashamed. Self-redemption can make for an interesting layer of character development. And it’s effective as a source of conflict in a story, as well. It’s an appropriate fit for crime fiction, too, if you think about it.

One such character is G.K. Chesterton’s Hercule Flambeau. When we first meet him in The Blue Cross, he is a most accomplished and notorious international thief. In this story, he’s after a silver cross covered in precious blue stones. The cross is the property of Father Brown, who’s taking it to a gathering of priests. As the story goes on, we see how Flambeau is pitted against Father Brown and against Valentin, head of the Paris police. As time goes on, Flambeau decides to quit his life of crime. He becomes instead a private investigator – and maintains a friendship with Father Brown. One can’t say that Flambeau makes the conscious decision to mend his karma; still, it’s clear that he sees a way to redeem himself. And he becomes quite good at what he does, too.

In Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus, we are introduced to Davide Auseri. For the past year, he’s been sunk in a deep depression, and spent most of his time drunk. His father has tried several remedies, including rehabilitation facilities, to help him, but nothing’s worked. Then, Davide’s father meets Dr. Duca Lamberti, who’s recently been released from prison, where he served time for euthanasia. Auseri hires Lamberti to try to help Davide, and Lamberti agrees. In the course of some rather unorthodox therapy, Lamberti learns the reason for Davide’s condition: he believes he’s responsible for the death of Alberta Radelli. A year ago, they met by chance and decided they liked one another’s company. After spending a day in Florence, though, Alberta begged him to take her with him, and not return her to Milan. Davide refused, and Alberta threatened to kill herself. He held firm, though, and she was later found dead of what’s been called a suicide. Lamberti comes to believe that the only way to help Davide is for him to redeem himself, if you will, by learning the truth about what happened to Alberta. So he and Davide look into the case. They find that the victim’s death had nothing to do with Davide. Although he doesn’t speak of it in terms of mending karma, Davide undertakes the investigation as a way to do some good after what he feels he’s done.

Fabio Montale, whom we first meet in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, is a Marseilles police officer. In fact, he patrols the area of Marseilles where he grew up. When Montale was young, he and his best friend Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini, and their friend Manu, caused more than their share of trouble in town. One night, what started out as petty crime turned tragic, and that changed everything for Montale. Although he promised to remain loyal to his friends, he re-thought the course his life was taking. He first joined the army, and then returned to his old haunt as a cop. Now he’s trying to do some good as a sort of way to make things right. Then, Manu is murdered, and Ugo returns to Marseilles to avenge his death. When Ugo himself is killed, Montale feels a real obligation to find out what happened to his friends. It’s an interesting case of a man who knows he cannot take back the past, but wants to do his small part in the future.

Although he’s from a very different culture, John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep has a similar motivation in being a Bangkok police officer. Several years earlier, Sonchai and his friend, Pichai Apiradee, killed a drug dealer. Both were extremely remorseful about taking a life, and spent time at a monastery facing what they’d done. Being devout Buddhists, they wanted to mend their karmas. To do that, both became members of the Royal Thai Police. In this way, they would protect lives instead of taking them. Since the novels in this series are written from Sonchai’s point of view, we learn quite a lot about the Buddhist approach to doing right and mending karma.

And then there’s Maura Cody, a former nun who plays an important role in Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. Mara left the convent for good reasons, and carries a burden of guilt for things that happened in her past. This is an important part of the reason she chooses to get involved when she happens to see something as she’s looking out of one of her windows. At first, she’s not sure she should get involved. But she wants a way to redeem herself – to do some good. So she reports what she sees, and becomes a critical witness to two cases that Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Garda Rose Cheney are investigating. Maura’s role in those cases doesn’t erase the past. But it does give her an opportunity to ‘do it right this time,’ if I may put it that way.

There are plenty of other fictional characters who are motivated by that sort of wish for self-redemption and mending karma. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon’s Instant Karma! (We All Shine On).

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Filed under G.K. Chesterton, Gene Kerrigan, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Jean-Claude Izzo, John Burdett

You Meet Him On The Street And Never Notice Him*

Nondescript PeopleDo you ever really pay attention to the person who waits your table at a restaurant? To the person who washes your car, handles your bank transaction, or stocks the grocery shelves where you shop? Unless you live in a very small town or rural area, where everyone knows everyone, you may not even know anything about those people. And that’s only natural; there are only so many things and people we can pay close attention to at any one time. So unless there’s something distinctive about a person, so that you really notice, you’re not likely to pay that much attention.

That fact actually plays an important role in crime fiction. Being the sort of person no-one really notices can put a fictional murderer in a very advantageous position. Of course, it works for sleuths, too. The sleuth whom nobody pays much attention to can learn quite a lot.

In G.K. Chesterton’s short story The Invisible Man, private investigator Hercule Flambeau and his friend, Father Brown, investigate the strange murder of Isidore Smythe. What’s particularly odd about this case is that Smythe was murdered without anyone seeing a person going in or out of his apartment. The solution turns out to linked to that phenomenon of not really noticing everyone.

Agatha Christie uses this plot point in more than one of her stories (right, fans of The ABC Murders?). In fact, one of her recurring characters is an interesting example. He is Mr. Goby, a sort of private investigator who is very skilled at finding out information. He’s the sort of nondescript person whom nobody really notices. And so are the people he employs. They’re shop assistants, household staff, newspaper delivery people, and all sorts of other ‘nameless, faceless’ people who have access to information. It’s rare that Mr. Goby isn’t able to get answers.

There’s another kind of anonymity: the kind that comes from social structure. We see that, for instance, in Barbara Neely’s Blanche White. She is a professional housekeeper whom we first meet in Blanche on the Lam. Most of her employers are white, while she is black. In this case, really, the social divisions are along two lines: racial and socioeconomic. In many cases, her employers aren’t particularly interested in knowing her as a person. They see her as ‘the help;’ and, even though she’s a human being, she tends to ‘fade into the background.’ That actually proves to be very useful. Nobody pays much attention when to what she does, as long as the meals are on time and tasty, the laundry’s done, and so on. Once she learns the routine of the households in which she works, Blanche can move around without being much noticed.

There’s also Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce. She’s a pre-teen, so most people don’t notice her as they would an adult. And she takes advantage of that. Even though she lives in the kind of village where people do know each other, she can still ride around on her bike without people checking where she’s going. People don’t raise eyebrows when they see her, and so on. In some senses, she’s limited in terms of what she can learn. But that very limit (her youth) also allows her to escape a lot of notice.

In Luiz Aflredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd, we are introduced to Hugo Breno, a teller at Rio de Janeiro’s Caixa Econômica Federal. He’s not the kind of person that you’d pay much attention to; there’s nothing really distinctive about his appearance. And that’s been very helpful to him. He falls under suspicion when one of his regular customers, Dona Laureta Sales Ribeioro, is killed after falling (or being pushed) under a bus. It turns out that she visited the bank on the day she died, and then went to the police station and asked to speak to Inspector Espinosa. He wasn’t able to break free to speak to her, and now, he feels a sense of responsibility. He also suspects (because of her visit) that her death was no accident. So he takes a special interest in this case, and it turns out that this case touches on his past as well as Breno’s.

And then there’s real estate agent William Heming, whom we meet in Phil Hogan’s A Pleasure and a Calling. He’s not the sort of person you notice very much, or remember well. He’s just the house agent. Once the hands are shaken and the keys turned over, nobody really thinks about him at all. And that’s just how he likes it. What people aren’t aware of is that Mr. Heming is a lot more observant of them than they are of him. And he’s kept keys to all of the houses he’s sold. When a body is discovered in one of the town’s backyards, Mr. Heming is as concerned as anyone. If too much comes out, and people start to notice him, the people in the town might learn that he has interests besides selling homes.

See what I mean? There are all sorts of people we encounter whom we don’t even really notice. And sometimes, that turns out to be a mistake…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Nina Mouskouri’s Bill.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Barbara Neely, G.K. Chesterton, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Phil Hogan

There is Good and Bad in Everyone*

DualNatureThere’s an old Cherokee story (you can read it here) in which a grandfather explains human nature to his grandson. He portrays it as a battle between our own good and evil tendencies, and claims that the side that wins is, as he puts it, ‘the one you feed.’

There’s a lot to that perspective if you think about it. We can look at human nature and good and evil from several points of view (philosophical, religious, anthropological, etc.). But, I’m not a philosopher, a member of the clergy, or an anthropologist. And besides, it’s a very large topic, and this is a very small blog. But even keeping the focus on crime fiction, we see plenty of examples of characters who ‘feed’ their ‘better angels’ as well as those who do just the opposite. In both cases, there are consequences.

G.K. Chesterton’s Hercule Flambeau begins as a notorious thief. In fact, in the short story The Blue Cross, we learn that he has gone from France to England, and is on his way to steal a valuable religious artifact. Flambeau has bested many people, including the French police. But Father Brown proves to be more than a match for him. Flambeau then chooses to ‘feed’ the better side of his nature. He gives up his larcenous career and becomes a private investigator. He doesn’t start going to religious services, and he enjoys a good wine as much as the next person. It’s not those outer trappings of what some people think of as ‘morality’ that change. Rather, it’s his decision to nurture the ethical side of his nature.

We see that sort of conversation and struggle in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, too. In that novel, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Among the other hotel guests are famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall; her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall; and Marshall’s teenaged daughter Linda. It’s soon hotel gossip that Arlena is having a not-very-well-hidden affair with another guest, Patrick Redfern. So, when she is found murdered one day, her husband Kenneth comes under suspicion. He has a solid alibi, though, so Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. One of the people they talk to is Linda Marshall. As it turns out, she hated her stepmother, and cannot be ruled out as the killer. At one point, she and Poirot have an interesting conversation about the difference between the urge to kill someone and actually going through with the act. That conversation, and one other one, suggests that, while Poirot is not naïve about the existence of evil, he does believe that people can choose to ‘feed’ their better natures, too. I see you, fans of Death on the Nile.

In Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, we are introduced to fourteen-year-old Adam Vander. He’s finally managed to escape his abusive father, Joe. But Adam has been kept locked away for many years, so he has little knowledge of the world and no good skills to survive in it. Fortunately, he meets Billy Benson, a young man who’s at the house when Adam makes his escape, and who becomes his ally. The two spend the next week together, and Billy provides Adam with a great deal of ‘street knowledge,’ as well as basics like a place to stay, clothes, and food. As they spend time together, the two also become friends, and begin to confide in each other. It turns out that both of them are haunted by the past, and by their connections to the tragic disappearance of a small boy from a crowded market ten years earlier. As the story evolves, both Adam and Billy learn something about ‘feeding one’s better nature,’ and about starting over, if I can put it that way.

Of course, people sometimes ‘feed’ their worse – even evil – side as well. After all, where would crime fiction be if they didn’t? And when they do, the result can be disastrous.

In Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair, we are introduced to Gilbert Hand, who works for a publishing firm. He’s recently moved to a very respectable London hotel, where he’s hoping to start over after the tragic death of his wife. Shortly after his arrival, he makes a bizarre discovery: in the davenport in his room, he finds a long coil of dark hair, wrapped in a scarf. Hand gets curious about the room’s former occupant and soon learns that it was man named Freddie Doyle. Now he’s even more curious, especially when Doyle pays him a visit to ask for the coil of hair (which request Hand refuses). Little by little, Hand becomes obsessed with Doyle, at the same repulsed and fascinated by him. He imagines a sort of ‘chess game’ between them. As his obsession grows, Hand starts to ‘feed’ his darker side, and the result leads to real tragedy.

A similar thing happens in Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down. Mix Cellini takes a flat in a home owned by Gwendolyn Chawcer. They don’t really like each other, but it’s a business arrangement; and on that level, it works. Through his profession (he repairs exercise equipment), Cellini meets supermodel Merissa Nash. He’s immediately smitten, and soon goes beyond that to obsession. At the same time, he learns about the life of notorious killer Richard Christie. The more he reads, the more obsessed Cellini becomes with Christie, too. Little by little, he starts to ‘feed’ his darker side, and the end result, as you’d expect, is disastrous.

It does in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, too. Dr. Everett Seeley has lost his medical license due to his drug problems. He decides to go to Mexico to start over; but until he gets settled, he doesn’t want to bring his wife Marion with him. So he establishes her in a Phoenix apartment, and sets her up with a job as a file clerk in the exclusive Werden Clinic. At first, all goes well enough. Marion even makes two friends: Louise Mercer (a nurse at the clinic) and Louise’s roommate Ginny Hoyt. It’s not long before Marion starts spending more time with them, and getting more and more involved in their edgy, even dangerous, lifestyle of wild parties, drugs and drinking. As time goes on, Marion begins to ‘feed’ her own darker and more dangerous side. The end result is an awful tragedy that impacts everyone involved.

Oh, and speaking of Abbotts, you’ll also want to check out Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel as a really interesting example of making choices between which side of our nature we ‘feed.’ Eve Moran has always nurtured her selfish side, letting nothing – not even someone’s life – get in the way of what she wants. Her daughter Christine’s been brought up with this influence, and has been caught in her mother’s web, so their relationship is truly dysfunctional. But everything changes when Christine sees that her little brother Ryan is at risk. Now she’s going to have to find a way to free herself and her brother from their mother’s influence.

And that’s the thing about human nature. People generally aren’t all good or all bad. The choices we make – the side of our nature that we ‘feed’ – plays a major role in what we do. And those choices can have far-reaching consequences.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s Ebony and Ivory.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charlotte Jay, G.K. Chesterton, Honey Brown, Megan Abbott, Patricia Abbott, Ruth Rendell

But I Can Feel it Coming*

PredictingAt this time of year, a lot of pundits make all sorts of predictions about the coming year. It might be about an election, a sport team or something else; whatever it is, people do like to predict. That’s what betting is all about, if you think about it.

Those predictions don’t come from mystical revelations – well, not credible predictions, as a rule. They come from dozens of sometimes-subtle clues, patterns and so on that we notice. Experience also plays a role, as does certain knowledge. For example, if you’re a chemistry expert, you can probably predict what the outcome will be if two particular chemicals are mixed. A good lawyer finds out as much as possible about the opposing side’s strategies, patterns and so on in order to predict what the other side will do, so as to win a case.

Sleuths and criminals, both real and fictional, depend on those patterns. Police, for instance, sometimes use patterns of known criminals in their investigations. Criminals use patterns, both subtle and obvious, to predict when people are most likely to be vulnerable.

We see both kinds of this kind of prediction in crime fiction. For instance, in G.K. Chesterton’s The Blue Cross, Father Brown is bringing a large silver cross set with sapphires to show to a large gathering of priests. At the same time, a French detective, Valentin, is pursuing a notorious thief named Hercule Flambeau. At one point, Valentin stops at a restaurant and places his order. That’s when he notices that the salt-cellar is full of sugar and the sugar-basin is full of salt. And then there’s the matter of the soup that’s been thrown against the wall. At first, he doesn’t understand the significance of these odd things. But as it turns out, they are important, and they reflect the ability to predict what someone might do, based on all sorts of psychological and other knowledge.

There’s more than one kind of prediction in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington. Elspeth McGillicuddy is on her way by train to visit her friend Jane Marple. When another train passes by, going in the same direction, Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to look up and into the windows of the passing train. That’s when she sees a woman being strangled. She tries to raise the alarm, but at first, nobody believes her. There’s been no report of a missing person, and no dead body has been found. But Miss Marple knows her friend, and takes her seriously. She uses a map and a train trip of her own to predict where the body might have ended up: on the grounds of Rutherford Hall. The property is owned by the Crackenthorpe family, and Miss Marple manipulates the situation so that her friend, professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, gets a position there. Sure enough, the body of a woman is discovered, and Miss Marple works with Lucy and, later, the police, to find out who the woman was and who killed her. In a sub-plot of the novel, Lucy attracts the interest of more than one member of the family, and Miss Marple makes (but doesn’t share) a prediction about which one Lucy will choose.

In Michael Redhill’s/Inger Ash Wolfe’s The Calling, we are introduced to Port Dundas, Ontario police detective Hazel Micallef. She and her team when eighty-one-year-old Delia Chandler is killed. On the surface, there doesn’t seem any motive for murder; the victim was terminally ill, and didn’t have any fortune to leave. So there wouldn’t have been a financial reason to get her out of the way quickly. The team is just looking into this case when there’s another death. Again, it’s a murder that doesn’t seem to have a motive. And in both cases, there is evidence that the killer was admitted to the house and that the victims were willing participants in their own deaths. It’s now clear that this team is up against a killer who’s struck before and is likely to strike again. So they’ll have to find out what the pattern is in order to prevent another killing. It turns out that, in order to predict what the murderer will do next, they have to connect these deaths with some others that have already happened in other parts of Canada.

Kanae Minato’s Confessions introduces readers to middle-school teacher Yūko Moriguchi. As the novel begins, she addresses her class, in part to announce her resignation. But she has another reason to do so. Her four-year-old daughter Manami recently died in what police originally thought was a tragic accident. But she knows it was murder; what’s more, she knows who was responsible: two of her students. She also knows that the Japanese judicial system cannot be trusted to dispense an appropriate punishment, since the criminals are juveniles. So, she has come up with her own plan to get justice. She doesn’t tell her students exactly what she’s planned, but her intent is clear. She duly leaves her position, and a new teacher takes over. At first, it seems that life will get back to something like normal. But it’s not long before things begin to spin out of control for some of the students. And as the novel goes on, we learn exactly what Yūko Moriguchi planned. Without spoiling the story, I can say that her knowledge of the way middle-school students are, and her particular knowledge of these students, help her predict what will happen.

And then there’s Peter May’s The Blackhouse. Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis when the body of Angel Macritchie is discovered. The murder closely resembles a murder that Macleod is investigating, and it’s hoped that he can get some clues to the killer if he works with the Lewis police on this new death. For Macleod, this is a homecoming, since he was brought up on the island; even the victim was someone from his past. So, part of the plot concerns his reunion with some of the people he knew as a boy. As it turns out, the key to this murder involves Macleod facing his own history. It also involves the ability to predict reactions (can’t say more without a spoiler).

You may or may not believe in psychics or psychic predictions. But we all do predict things, even when we’re not aware of it. And sometimes those predictions turn out to be very useful.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REO Speedwagon’s Take it on the Run.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Inger Ash Wolfe, Kanae Minato, Michael Redhill, Peter May