Category Archives: Gail Bowen

I Don’t Have the Power Now*

Most of us like to think we have some control over our lives. Even though we may know intellectually that we can’t always control what happens, we want to feel that we can. That’s part of why it can be so unsettling when we decide to share our lives with someone. In doing that, we give up some of the control we’ve had over our what we do.

Feeling as though you’re losing control (or no longer have it) can be scary, and in a story, it can cause tension and suspense. So, it’s no surprise that it happens as often as it does in crime fiction. It can add a lot to a story.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), for instance, Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow is comfortably married, with two children. His wife, Gerda, looks up to him and is completely devoted to him. In many ways, he likes it that way, because he likes to feel in control. But in other ways, it makes him restless. Things are different with his mistress, Henrietta Savernake. She’s a successful sculptor who has her own independent life, and is not at all under Christow’s thumb. He likes the intellectual give-and-take with her, but he doesn’t like feeling that he has little control over what she thinks. One weekend, the Christows are invited to visit the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. The Angkatells have also invited a group of relatives (including Henrietta, who’s a cousin). On the Sunday, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot is invited for lunch that day and arrives just after the murder. At first, the case seems clear-cut. But things don’t turn out to be as simple as it seems on the surface…

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity introduces readers to insurance agent Warren Huff. One day, he happens to be in Hollywoodland, not far from the home of one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger. He stops by, hoping to get a policy renewal. Nirdlinger isn’t hime, but his wife, Phyllis, is. She and Huff strike up a conversation, and it’s not long before Huff is smitten. Phyllis does nothing to discourage him, either, and they soon begin an affair. She tells Huff that she wants to kill her husband, and that she has a plan to profit by his death. By this time, Huff is so besotted that he goes along with her plan, even writing the double-indemnity insurance policy that Phyllis wants. The murder is duly carried out, but Huff soon becomes aware of how very little control he has over what’s happened, and what happens next. That recognition is extremely unsettling, and as things continue to spin out of control for Huff, it adds to the tension.

That sense of losing control can also happen when we feel our bodies are beginning to betray us, and it can be frightening. For instance, Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances introduces readers to political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn. The main plot of the story is the murder of her friend, Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. As a way of coping with her grief, Joanne decides to write a biography of Andy’s life. In the process of getting the information she needs to do that, she gets closer and closer to the truth about his death. In the meantime, something troubling is happening. Joanne seems to be getting ill and losing weight for no apparent reason. As the novel goes on, things continue to get worse, and the doctors can’t tell her exactly what’s wrong. It’s not spoiling the story to say that we find out what’s going on in the end; but until we do, it’s quite unnerving.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind also explores that feeling of loss of control. Dr. Jennifer White is a successful Chicago-based orthopaedic surgeon. She is diagnosed with early-onset dementia, so she has to leave her position at the age of sixty-five. As the novel opens, she lives with a caregiver, Magdalena. She still functions well on some days, but she is slowly losing control over her mind. It’s truly scary for her, as you can imagine. On some days, she’s simply a retired surgeon. On others, she doesn’t know who that person is in her house, or who it is (her children) who visit her, and that unsettles her. Then, the woman who lives next door is murdered. The two have known each other for years, so Detective Luton, who’s investigating the murder, suspects that Jennifer may know more than she can say about the killing. There’s other evidence, too, that implicates her. But Luton isn’t going to have much time to try to get to the truth before her witness mentally slips away completely.

Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney is a Bangkok-based PI. She runs her own business and is very independent. When we first meet her, in Behind the Night Bazaar, she doesn’t have a partner, as she would rather live life on her own terms and make her own decisions about the business. She likes having that control. So, when she meets Rajiv Patel, in The Half-Child, she’s fully prepared to keep him at the same distance as she’s kept other men in her life. But she finds herself getting closer to him than she’d planned. In the end, they become intimate partners as well as business partners. On the one hand, Patel is smart, and has much to contribute to the business. And the two care deeply about each other. On the other, it’s very unsettling for Keeney at times. She doesn’t get to make all of the decisions any more, and she doesn’t have control that she used to have. For her, being involved with Patel is worth the uneasiness, but that doesn’t mean she never feels it.

And that’s not surprising. Most people don’t like to feel that sense of loss of control Little wonder that it can add so much to a crime story.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Angela Savage, Gail Bowen, James M. Cain

Could’ve Been Me*

Readers often get drawn into a story by identifying with particular characters or situations. That feeling of ‘That could be me!’ can add suspense to the reading experience. It can also help readers understand characters and their motivations. And plenty of authors use this approach.

For example, the real action in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!) begins as Elspeth McGillicuddy is on board a train on the way to visit her friend, Miss Marple. She gets comfortable and drowses just a bit, as anyone might do. She happens to wake when another train passes her train, going in the same direction. As the train goes by, Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to glance into the windows of the other train. That’s when she sees a man strangling a woman. We’ve all been in situations where we were on trains, buses or planes, half-asleep and not paying much attention. So, it’s easy to relate to Mrs. McGillicuddy’s shock when she sees the murder. She tries to get the conductor and police to believe her, but no-one has been reported missing, and there’s been no report of a body on any train. The only person who really does believe Mrs. McGilicuddy is Miss Marple. She does her own experimentation to find out where the body might be, and soon enough, it’s discovered.

Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Soul Murders starts when Bowen’s sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, gets a call from her daughter, Mieka. It seems Mieka was getting rid of some dirty rags that had gotten soiled from cleaning up at the catering business she owns. That’s how she found the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin in a nearby trash dumpster. Kilbourn goes to help her daughter and ends up getting involved in a case of multiple murders that has its roots in the past. We’ve all taken trash out, probably without thinking much about it. It’s one of those ordinary things that can make a reader think, ‘That could’ve been me.’

Peter Robinson’s Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks series begins with Gallows View. In the novel, Banks has recently moved with his family from London to the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. He’s not there long before he finds himself confronted with several cases. One of them is the case of a voyeur who’s making the lives of Estvale women miserable. In a couple of scenes related to that sub-plot, a character is changing clothes, and gets a creepy sense of being watched. It’s easy for readers to identify with that feeling. If you’ve ever started to change your clothes, and then suddenly checked to be sure the curtains or shades were drawn, you know that feeling. Readers can identify with hat eeriness, and it draws them in.

C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye isn’t part of his Joe Pickett series; it’s a standalone. In it, we meet Jack McGuane, a Travel Development Specialist for the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. His wife, Melissa, works at a local hotel. They are also loving parents to eighteen-month-old Angelina. Then, one day, their world is shattered. They get a call from the agency through which they adopted Angelina, and it’s very bad news. It seems that the baby’s biological father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, never waived his parental rights. Now, he’s decided to exercise them, and he wants Angelina back. At first, it seems like a terrible mix-up. But then, the McGuanes’ adoption lawyer refuses to get involved, saying there’s nothing much that can be done. It’s clear now that there’s something more here than a change of mind. To make matters worse, Garrett’s father is powerful judge John Moreland, and he intends to do whatever it takes to support his son. In fact, the McGuanes receive a court order to surrender Angelina within twenty-one days. This they refuse to do. And before he knows it, McGuane finds himself doing things he never would have imagined. And it’s not hard for readers, especially readers who are parents, to identify with what it might be like to have your child taken from you. That connection adds to the suspense of the novel.

If you’ve ever taken a baby or a very small child on a plane trip, you can understand how Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson feel at the beginning of Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. They’re on the way from Scotland to Robertson’s native Victoria, a trip of some 24 hours or sometimes much more, depending on stopovers. With them is their nine-week old son, Noah. Even under the best of circumstances, Noah isn’t an ‘easy’ baby. And a long airline trip is not the best of circumstances. Any parent who’s been on a long flight like this will likely identify with the parents’ exhaustion and frustration as the baby refuses to stay settled and sleep. Several of the other passengers lose their tempers, and it’s an awfully difficult experience for everyone. The tension doesn’t ease up when the plane lands, either. On the drive from the airport in Melbourne to their destination, the couple faces every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of their son. There’s a massive search, and a lot of help and sympathy, too. Then, there start to be whispers (and then gossip, and then full-on accusations) that the parents, especially Joanna, might have been involved in this case. Matters get worse and worse, but in the end, we find out the truth about Noah.

These are only a few examples of the way authors can use events to draw readers into a story. When readers can connect with the characters (i.e. ‘That might have happened to me!’), they’re more likely to stay engaged in the story. And that’s what any author wants.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Gail Bowen, Helen Fitzgerald, Peter Robinson

Let’s Throw a Twilight Cookout*

Community parties, picnics, and barbecues can be a lot of fun. They’re especially popular when the weather is warm, and people can get outdoors. Sometimes they’re sponsored by a school, and sometimes by a religious or political group. They can even be spontaneous. Lots of times they’re very enjoyable, and they give people a chance to connect. But they’re not always safe – well, at least not in crime fiction.

Barbecues and other community social gatherings bring together a lot of different people. They may live or work together, but that doesn’t mean they like one another. And it’s hard to keep track of what everyone’s doing. That makes the context tailor-made for the crime writer. Little wonder we see community events like that in crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, for instance, there’s a community fête planned at Nasse House, the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. One of the events planned for the fête is Murder Hunt, a bit like a Scavenger Hunt, where participants find clues and try to find out who murdered the ‘victim.’ The hunt itself is designed by detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver. Tragedy strikes on the day of the fête, when Marlene Tucker, who’s playing the part of the victim, is actually killed. Mrs. Oliver has invited Hercule Poirot to Nasse House to give the prizes for the Murder Hunt, so he is on hand when the body is discovered. And it turns out that more than one person might have had a reason for wanting to kill Marlene. She had a way of finding out much more about people’s secrets than it was safe for her to know.

Ruth Rendell’s To Fear a Painted Devil is the story of Tamsin and Patrick Selby, who live in a sort of cliquish, suburban community called Linchester. They decide to celebrate Tamsin’s twenty-seventh birthday by hosting an outdoor party. They invite several of their friends, and other people who live in the community. Everything goes well enough, until some wasps start annoying the guests. Patrick climbs a ladder to get rid of the wasps’ nest, but he is badly stung in the process. He becomes very ill and unexpectedly dies a few days later. On the surface of it, it seems that he succumbed to an allergy to the wasps. But Dr. Max Greenleaf, who’s been taking care of him, begins to suspect otherwise. He doesn’t want to think that someone he may know is a murderer, but he finally starts asking questions. And it turns out that there are several secrets that the people in Linchester are keeping.

Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances begins at a community barbecue/picnic. The event is going to give up-and-coming politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk an opportunity to make a very important speech. He’s got a promising future, and people want to hear what he has to say. Just after he begins speaking, he collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. His friend, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, is grief-stricken at his loss. So, she decides to cope by writing Boychuk’s biography. As she does so, she gets closer and closer to the truth about why and how he died. In the end, we learn that Boychuk’s death is related to his past.

In Robert Crais’ L.A. Requiem, Joe Pike’s former lover, Karen Garcia, goes missing, and he wants his partner, Elvis Cole, to help find her. Then, tragically, she turns up dead. Now, her father, who is both wealthy and well-connected, wants to be sure that the police catch the person responsible. So, he hires Pike and Cole to follow along with the LAPD police to be sure they’re not glossing over anything. But Pike has a history with the department. He used to be a cop, and there are still plenty of police officers in the department who don’t like him. In the novel, there’s a telling ‘flashback’ scene that takes place at the (LAPD) Rampart Division’s Family Day picnic. Pike and Karen attend the picnic, but it doesn’t turn out to be the lovely ‘introduce the girlfriend to the workmates’ event it’s supposed to be.

In one of the sub-plots of M.C. Beaton’s Love, Lies and Liquor, private investigator Agatha Raisin’s ex-husband, James Lacey, takes the house next door to hers. On the one hand, she does think of getting back together with him. On the other, she had very good reasons for leaving, and she feels herself well rid of him. One day, he invites her to a barbecue being hosted by friends of his. It turns out that the whole event is a disaster. James treats her horribly, and her hosts and several of the other guests are rude, too. As a gesture to try to make it up to her, James decides to invite her for a getaway weekend at the Paradise Hotel at Snoth-on-Sea. He has fond memories of the place from childhood, but the place has become dilapidated and the town is no longer popular. As if that’s not enough, Agatha gets involved in an argument with another guest – and is later accused of murder when that guest is found dead.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, which begins with a school picnic on Lake Wanaka. The members of the Anderson family attend, and all starts out well enough. Then, tragedy strikes. Four-year-old Gemma Anderson goes missing. There’s a massive search for her, but no trace of her is found – not even a body. The police don’t even have any leads as to who, exactly, might have abducted her, since there were so many people there. The family is devastated and left permanently scarred by Gemma’s loss. Seventeen years later, Gemma’s older sister, Stephanie, is finishing up her psychiatry program in Dunedin. When she hears about a similar abduction from a patient, she decides to lay her ghosts to rest, and find out who wrought so much havoc on both families. So, she returns to her home town to get some answers.

See what I mean? Community events like picnics and barbecues can be a lot of fun. But, if you get an invitation to one, please do be careful. You never know what can happen…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chuck Berry’s You Two.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, M.C. Beaton, Paddy Richardson, Robert Crais, Ruth Rendell

Big News!*

As this is posted, it’s 44 years since the publication of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men. As you’ll know, these journalists were instrumental in uncovering the Watergate scandal that ended up bringing down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Woodward and Bernstein’s exposé was one of the more famous in journalism, but it’s hardly been the only one. Journalists and other writers have been doing exposés for a long time, both before and since All the President’s Men was published. Fictional characters have done that sort of writing, too. Whether such characters are sleuths, victims, or play another role, they’re woven into the crime fiction. And it’s interesting to see how those exposés and the people who work on them are depicted in the genre.

In Gail Bowen’s The Endless Knot, we are introduced to Canadian journalist Kathryn Morrissey. She has written a controversial exposé on the way that several wealthy and celebrated Canadians treat their children. In doing so, she strips away the ‘nice, perfect’ lives these people seem to have. And, she upsets a lot of people. In fact, one of them, Sam Parker, is so incensed by the book that he shoots at, and wounds, Morrissey. He’s arrested, and hires prominent attorney Zack Shreve to defend him. It’s not going to be an easy case; after all, there’s no question that Parker shot Morrissey. But Shreve is a gifted lawyer. Among other things, the novel raises interesting questions about journalism, exposés, and the limits of what’s published.

Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors begins as Australian Federal Police (AFP) detective Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen is lured back to police work after some time away. Alec Dennet, a member of Gough Whitlam’s 1972-1975 government, has been found murdered. He was visiting a writer’s retreat, Uriarra, located near Canberra, to work on his memoirs. Also there was his editor, Lorraine Starke, who’s also been killed. The police soon discover that Dennet’s manuscript is missing. This leads Chen and his team to suspect that something in the manuscript triggered the murders, and that’s not out of the question. It was said that Dennet’s book was to be, among other things, an exposé that might very well embarrass some highly-placed people. It was also said that the manuscript was going to reveal the truth about the alleged conspiracy that brought down the Whitlam government. Chen and his team reason that, if they can find out who took the manuscript, they might find out who the killer is. As it turns out, the case is more complicated than that. As the AFP team look into the matter, we get an interesting look at the impact that exposés can have.

Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers features Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne. She’s been working very hard on an exposé of dubious land developer Denny Graham. He’s got both money and influence, so it’s not easy to find people who are willing to talk to her about him. Even people who aren’t intimidated by Graham’s status don’t exactly want it to be public knowledge that they’ve been swindled. Thorne has finally gotten a few people who are willing to be interviewed when her boss sends her on a different course. It’s soon to be the 30th anniversary of the 1981 Springboks (South Africa’s rugby team) tour of New Zealand. Often simply called ‘The Tour,’ this event was controversial. At the time, South Africa still had a strict policy of apartheid, and plenty of New Zealanders didn’t want the team to visit for that reason. Others wanted to watch the rugby. And the police simply wanted to keep order. There were clashes and confrontations, and Thorne’s boss wants her to do a piece on the tour. Thorne isn’t interested, mostly because she doesn’t see any new angle on the story. She also doesn’t want to lose her tenuous hold on the people willing to talk about Denny Graham. Then, she finds a unique angle on the tour story, and ends up looking into a 30-year-old murder.

Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning introduces his protagonist, Jack Parlabane. As the novel begins, Parlabane’s just returned to his native Edinburgh from Los Angeles. He wakes up one morning to the sound of a loud commotion. Wondering what’s going on, he leaves his flat and goes down the stairs to the one below. Then, he remembers that he’s closed his door, locking himself out of his home. His plan is to go into the downstairs flat, go through a window there, and re-enter his own flat through the corresponding window in it. When he goes into the downstairs flat, though, he finds the body of a man who’s obviously been murdered. Parlabane’s an investigative journalist, so he is curious. But he’s also smart enough to know that he doesn’t want to be caught at the scene of a crime. He’s making his way towards the window when the police, in the form of Detective Constable (DC) Jenny Dalziel find him. Partly to clear himself, and partly because of his curiosity, Parlabane gets involved in the investigation – and ends up doing an exposé that involves health care, politics, and government.

And then there’s Claire McGowan’s The Lost, which introduces her protagonist, forensic psychologist Paula Maguire. In the novel, Maguire travels from London back to her hometown of Ballyterrin, Northern Ireland. She’s to be part of a new Cold Case team that’s finally been funded. Their first case involves some girls who have gone missing, and the team gets right to work. The trail leads to some secrets that some well-respected people would much rather keep quiet. Along the way, Maguire meets up again with her old flame, Aidan O’Hara, who edits the local paper. He’s used to doing very safe ‘fluff’ stories, but he gets his chance at an exposé with this case.

Exposés can be interesting. When they’re accurately done, they can shed important light on things that are happening, too – things people should know. And writers who do exposés can make for interesting fictional characters.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jason Robert Brown.

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Filed under Christopher Brookmyre, Claire McGowan, Gail Bowen, Kel Robertson, Paddy Richardson

So Much We Take For Granted*

I’ll bet you’ve had this experience. You walk into a room, flick the light switch, and… nothing happens. Or you click to get online, only to get the message that there is no Internet connection. It’s a bit of a jolt when that sort of thing happens. Part of the reason is, of course, that you’re annoyed when the electricity, or the hot water, or the Internet, or…. isn’t available. But another part of it is that we take a lot of those things for granted. When something we take for granted suddenly isn’t there, this can be quite a jolt.

That jolt’s irritating at best in real life. But it can add interesting tension and even suspense to a crime novel. And the way in which characters cope with those jolts can add character depth.

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Death, we are introduced to a group of young people who live in a hostel for students. Everyone begins to get unsettled when a strange series of petty thefts begin to occur. As one example, one of the residents, Sally Finch, is planning to go out to a party. Her outfit includes a new pair of evening shoes. But, when she gets ready for the party, she finds that one of the shoes is missing. There’s quite a search, but it’s not found. Sally took for granted that the shoes were both in her closet, but she was wrong. There are other jolts like that as well which add to the atmosphere and tension in the story. The manager, Mrs. Hubbard, tells her sister, Felicity Lemon, what’s happened. Miss Lemon tells her employer, Hercule Poirot, who agrees to look into the matter. When one of the other residents, Celia Austin, confesses to some of the pilfering, everyone thinks the matter is settled. Then, Celia is murdered two nights later, and it’s clear that something much more is going on.

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is attending a community barbecue, at which the main speaker is to be Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. He’s an up-and-coming politician, and his speech is an important one. During his remarks, he suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Boychuk was a friend of Kilbourn’s, so she grieves his loss. In part to cope with that, she decides to write a biography of his life. And that’s how she begins to find out the truth about his death. In the meantime, something mysterious is happening. Kilbourn begins to show signs of illness. She’s losing weight rapidly, and there are other symptoms, too. As her health, which she’s always taken for granted, starts to fail, Kilbourn gets more and more anxious. And that sub-plot adds a layer of suspense to the story.

Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight tell the story of the Sutherland family. Andy Sutherland, his wife, Jenny, and their two children are caught in the global upheaval that results when the world’s supply of oil is deliberately cut off. Now, millions of things that people have taken for granted are no longer available. Of course, that includes most forms of transportation. As it happens, the members of the family are in four different places when the oil supply is stopped, so a major part of the plot in Last Light is their attempts to reunite, and to find ways to make do without the oil they’ve always taken for granted. Afterlight takes up the story ten years after the events of Last Light. At this point, Jenny Sutherland is the leader of a small group of people who’ve made a home on an abandoned North Sea oil rig. One of the main plot threads here is the story of what happens when the group hears that another group, housed in London’s Millennium Dome, may have access to oil. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at how frantically people try to get back what they’ve taken for granted (ever kept flicking a light switch, even after you know the power’s off?).

In both A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife and Perri O’Shaughnessy’s Breach of Promise, there’s an important plot point of long-time couples ending their common-law marriages. In both cases, the couples never legally married, and that adds a real complication. Both couples lived together for many for many years, and that led to certain assumptions. When the relationships end, this puts the women (Jodi Brett in The Silent Wife and Lindy Markov in Breach of Promise) in jeopardy. For instance, they’ve taken their homes for granted for years, until the day that they are served with formal notices of eviction. And, since the US states they live in don’t have protection for common-law spouses, neither woman has much legal recourse. It all adds a great deal of tension to both novels, and it’s interesting to see how these characters react to suddenly not having the home they’ve taken for granted.

And then there’s Zoran Drvenkar’s You. In one plot thread of this novel, a 1995 snowstorm blocks the road between Bad Hersfeld and Eisenach. Suddenly, people who’d taken for granted a clear road and just over 35 minutes of driving time find everything changed. Many cars are stranded on the road, and even emergency vehicles can’t get through. People have to do what they can to stay warm and safe, and even finding food won’t be easy. A man named the Traveler takes advantage of this situation, and works his way among the stranded cars, killing twenty-six people. He then makes his getaway without being caught. His story later merges with other important plot points, and we learn more about him, and what he does after these murders.

It’s always a jolt when something you’ve taken for granted simply isn’t there. And it takes adjustment – sometimes a lot of adjustment. That tension can add much to a crime story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dave Matthews’ One Sweet World.

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Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Alex Scarrow, Gail Bowen, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Zoran Drvenkar