Category Archives: Ian Rankin

Show Me Don’t Tell Me*

Depicting MurdersOne of the questions I’m facing as I work on my new manuscript is whether or not to depict the murder featured in the story. On the one hand, including the murder, especially at the beginning of a story, can be a powerful way to draw the reader in. It really can be a solid ‘hook.’ Showing the murder can also give a novel a solid core around which a plot can be built, and it doesn’t require a gory description.

On the other hand, depicting the murder can be tricky. It requires thought to do it without identifying the murderer. For the whodunit author, for instance, that requires finesse. And even authors who write different kinds of crime fiction (i.e. not whodunits) need to handle the depiction carefully. Otherwise, the writer runs the risk of being melodramatic.

There are really arguments on both sides of this question. And of course, there are plenty of crime novels that are examples of each approach. And as I think you’ll see, it can work either way.

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn is attending a community picnic where her friend, Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is scheduled to make a speech. He’s an up-and-coming politician who’s just been selected to lead Saskatchewan’s Official Opposition party, so this is an important speech for him. He’s just gotten started when he suddenly collapses on stage and quickly dies of what turns out to be poison. Bowen doesn’t provide all of the details of his death, but the murder is depicted. As a way of coping with her grief at the loss of her friend, Kilbourn decides to write a biography of Boychuk. As she learns more about him, she also learns that his life was more complicated than she’d thought. And the closer she gets to an understanding of that life, the closer she gets to the truth about the murder.

In one of the main plot threads of Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue, Aberdeen-based oil worker Allan Mitchison is having some drinks with some companions. Mitchison’s drinking buddies take him back to their place, where they murder him. This killing is portrayed clearly. At first, there doesn’t seem to be a motive for the murder. Mitchison didn’t have obvious enemies, and he wasn’t important enough, if I can put it that way, to make a difference. As Inspector John Rebus discovers, though, he’d found out some secrets that it wasn’t safe for him to know.

Martin Edward’s The Cipher Garden begins with the murder of landscaper Warren Howe. He’s on the job one afternoon when he is murdered with his own scythe. This murder isn’t depicted in all of its detail. But readers are witnesses to what happens. At the time of the murder, everyone thinks Howe’s wife Tina is guilty, and she has plenty of motive. Howe is an abusive, unfaithful husband, and those are his good qualities. But the police can’t find enough evidence to pursue the case. Ten years later, anonymous tips suggest that Tina really was guilty. So DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team, decides to re-open the case. When she and her team do so, they find that this case is more complicated, and has deeper roots, than it seems. At the same time, Oxford historian Daniel Kind is working on a mystery of his own. He’s recently taken a cottage with an unusual garden, laid out in a cryptic shape. It turns out that the mystery of the garden is connected to the mystery of who killed Warren Howe, and why.

In all of these novels, the authors show the murders, but they do so in ways that don’t reveal the killers’ identities. What’s more, none of the authors revels in a gore-fest. So the murders aren’t depicted for ‘shock value.’

Still, there are plenty of authors who choose not to depict the murders at the core of their novels. And many readers prefer this style of mystery, as they don’t care much for a lot of violence. For those authors and readers, the ‘hook’ may be the discovery of a body. Or it may be something else.

For instance, in Colin Cotterill’s The Coroner’s Lunch, Dr. Siri Paiboun and his team face a strange case. Comrade Nitnoy, the wife of Senior Comrade Kham, suddenly collapsed and died during an important luncheon. This is 1970s Laos, where the Party is firmly in control, and where everyone knows better than to go against the wishes of a highly-placed Party member. In fact, Party instructions are the reason for which Dr. Siri has become Laos’ medical examiner in the first place. So when he is told that Comrade Nitnoy died of accidental poisoning by parasites in some raw food, he is expected to go along with that explanation, submit a cursory report and be done with the matter. But a few pieces of evidence suggest that something else caused the victim’s death. Now, Dr. Siri has to decide whether and how much to go against his superiors’ wishes to find out what actually happened. In this case, readers don’t see the murder committed. Rather, we learn about the death when Comrade Nitnoy’s body is wheeled into the mortuary. Readers find out more of the details as Dr. Siri talks to people who were at the luncheon, and as he does his own tests to find out how Comrade Nitnoy died.

Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom introduces Toronto PI Sasha Jackson. In that novel, she’s recently opened for business, and is eager to build a clientele. So when she gets a visit from Christine Arvisais, she’s hoping she’ll be able to help this new client. As Arvisais tells the story, she had been planning to marry Gordon Hanes. Their engagement ended, though, and Arvisais claimed she’d moved on. Hanes was shot on the day that was supposed to have been their wedding day, and plenty of people blame his ex-fiancée.  Arvisais is spoiled, rude, and malicious. But she claims to be innocent, and a fee is a fee, so Jackson takes the case. As she starts to look into the matter, she finds that more than one person could have had a good motive for murder. The murder of Gordon Hanes isn’t depicted. Rather, Jackson learns what happened as she asks questions and does research.

There are many authors who choose to have a character discover a body, rather than show the murder. That’s what happens in Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic. Cambridge academic Cassandra James goes to the home of Margaret Joplin, who heads the English Literature Department at James’ college. She’s stopped by the house to collect some exam paper. Instead, she finds her boss’ body in the pool, and the papers scattered everywhere. At first, the death looks like a terrible accident. But soon enough, little clues suggest otherwise. As James looks into the death, she finds that the victim had a more complicated life than it seemed.

What do you think? Do you have a preference when it comes to the way authors present murders in the crime fiction you read? If you’re a writer, do you depict the murder, or allude to it? Why?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Show Don’t Tell.

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Filed under Christine Poulson, Colin Cotterill, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Jill Edmondson, Martin Edwards

Don’t You Forget About Me*

GoodbyeThere’s a bond that often develops between people when they share an experience, especially an intense experience. That bond can make it difficult to say ‘good bye’ when it’s time. I’m not referring here to romantic breakups; that’s worth a blog post on its own. There are other kinds of partings, though, that can be quite emotionally charged.

Certainly there are such ‘good byes’ in crime fiction. They can run the risk of getting maudlin; but, when they’re done well, partings can add depths to characters. They can also add a point of tension to a story.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, the King of Bohemia hires Sherlock Holmes to take on a difficult case. He is planning to marry, and wants to make sure that the wedding takes place with no problems. The problem is that he was previously involved in a love affair with famous actress Irene Adler, and there’s a compromising photograph of the two of them. The king wants Holmes to get that photograph to ensure that there won’t be a scandal. Holmes agrees and begins to trace Irene Adler. It turns out, though, that she is more than a match for him, and the case doesn’t end the way he planned. She says ‘good bye’ to Holmes in a most unexpected way, and in the end, Holmes knows he’s been bested.

Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds introduces readers to London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey. When she wins a sweepstakes, she decides to use her prize money for a trip to Le Pinet. On the way back, she takes a flight from Paris to London. That’s how she gets involved in the murder of a fellow passenger, Marie Morisot, also known as Madame Giselle. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, and works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who killed the victim, how, and why. It’s a difficult investigation, and for Jane, it’s an intense experience. She shares part of it with Poirot, so that when the story ends, they’ve developed a sort of bond. Their ‘good bye’ on the final page reflects that, too.

Fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus will know that over the course of the series, Rebus works closely with Sergeant Siobhan Clarke. They become friends as well as colleagues, and they work several extremely difficult cases together. So, in Exit Music, as Rebus’ retirement comes ever closer, both have to prepare for a difficult ‘good bye.’ Neither is given to gushing, but parting will be hard for them. We see both the strength of their bond, and the restraint they both show, at Rebus’ retirement party. Clarke’s gift to him – an iPod loaded with the ‘oldie’ groups he loves – says more than a long speech would. And they have a nearly silent, but none the less affecting for that, ‘good bye’ a bit later. It’s an example of the way in which understatement can make an intense scene all the more powerful.

In Donna Leon’s About Face, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate the murder of Stefano Ranzano, who owned a trucking company. One of Brunetti’s colleagues suspects that the death may be related to the illegal transportation of toxic materials. So, as well as looking into Ranzano’s personal relationships and connections, the team also investigates those allegations. They find out that more than one person could have wanted the victim dead. As it turns out, the key to this case lies with a woman named Franca Marinello, whom Brunetti met at the home of his parents-in-law. She and Brunetti bond, if you will, over the classics of Greek and Roman writing. It’s not spoiling the story to say that he and Franca do not have an affair; they don’t even ‘officially’ flirt. But he has a soft spot for her, and they interact quite a lot over the course of the investigation. At the end, they have a final conversation in a coffee shop. It turns out to be quite intense, although neither gushes. As they do, we get answers to some of the questions raised in the story.

And then there’s Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs. That novel begins in 1974, when an unnamed art restorer visits a monastery in the Swiss Alps. He’s there to look at some of the monastery’s frescoes, with an eye towards restoring them if he can. There’s also a care home for the aged on the premises; so, in the course of his work, the art restorer meets one of its residents. The old man has a story to tell, and wants his new acquaintance to record it. The art restorer acquiesces, and the anziano begins his tale. It’s the story of Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco and his family who immigrated to New York City from Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. The old man details Franco’s life, a tragic bar fight in which he killed a man, and the consequences of that murder. Then, the old man goes on to share the stories of Franco’s three sons, Alessandro ‘Al’, Niccola ‘Nick’, and Leonardo ‘Leo.’ Their lives turn out to be profoundly impacted by what their father did, and the art restorer hears the whole saga. It’s a very intense experience, as the old man is passionate about making sure the story is told. For the art restorer, it’s a very personal window into other people’s lives. At the end, they share what seems to be a straightforward ‘good night.’ But there’s more to come, as the old man has one further long communication with his interviewer. Certainly that experience, and their parting, impacts the art restorer.

When people do share intense experiences, they often feel a connection that’s quite different to acquaintanceship, or even friendship. So when they say, ‘good bye,’ it can be a very meaningful moment. Those moments certainly happen in real life. And when they’re done well, they can add to a crime novel, too.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simple Minds’ Don’t You (Forget About Me).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Leon, Ian Rankin

Do You, Do You Wanna Be My Sidekick, Sidekick*

The Evolution of the SidekickOne of the interesting developments we’ve seen in crime fiction over the past decades has been in the role of the ‘second in command,’ or sidekick. This character plays a very important role in a novel or series. Authors use assistants/sidekicks to give a different perspective on the sleuth, to provide plot twists, and sometimes, to find out information. And these characters can be very interesting in their own right.

In many (certainly not all!) classic and Golden Age novels, the assistant may find clues and so on; and sometimes, the sleuth is both aware of and grateful for the assistant’s input. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson and Agatha Christie’s Captain Hastings are arguably examples of this. Both of these characters are intelligent, educated people, and not unusually foolish or gullible. They provide perspectives that help Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, respectively, and they certainly don’t sit idly by, gaping in admiring awe. At the same time, in both cases, it’s the sleuth who solves the case. The sleuth puts the pieces of the puzzle together, and makes the vital connections.

In some cases, the sidekick has even been a detriment to the sleuth (I’m thinking, for instance, of Catherine Aird’s Inspector Sloan/Constable Crosby series. Fans of this series know that Crosby is not exactly what you’d call an original, insightful thinker. Of course, not all assistants have been incompetent, but we certainly see them.

As we look at more modern crime fiction, though, we see assistants coming into their own, if I may put it this way. Many of today’s fictional assistants solve cases, carry their own sub-plots, and more. And lots of crime fiction fans like it that way.

Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel/Peter Pascoe series is an example of this development (although I grant it’s not a new series). Fans of this series will know that Peter Pascoe is at least the intellectual equal of his boss. He looks at life differently, and of course, Dalziel is still the boss. But Pascoe more than carries his proverbial weight. In several of the novels in this series (I’m thinking, for instance of Pictures of Perfection), it’s really Pascoe who does a lot of the investigating. His character is, at the very least, as well developed as that of Dalziel.

The same might be said of Sergeant Siobhan Clarke, who ‘co-stars’ in Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series. Rebus is Clarke’s boss, but she contributes a great deal to their investigations. She has skills that Rebus doesn’t have; and, in novels such as Resurrection Men, she more than proves that she can handle cases. As the series goes on, it becomes clear that Rebus respects her, too, and depends on her, and not just for admiration. In fact, in novels such as Exit Music, Clarke takes on her share of interviews (even difficult ones) and other police work.

There’s a very interesting sleuth/assistant relationship in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Carl Mørck series. When the series begins (Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes)), Mørck is assigned to head the newly-formed ‘Department Q,’ which is tasked with looking into cases of ‘special interest.’ This basically amounts to cold cases that, for political reasons, are getting new attention (mostly to show that the police are doing their jobs). Mørck insists on having an assistant, and is provided one in the form of Hafez al Assad, who’s originally hired to clean. But Assad very soon proves to be much more than just a floor-sweeper and teapot-washer. He has a somewhat mysterious past, which we learn in bits as the series goes on. And he has surprising skills that his boss doesn’t even know about, at least at first. And he has a way of getting Mørck to do things and think about things that he otherwise wouldn’t. He’s most definitely his own person.

There are certainly plenty of modern assistants (e.g. Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Rachel Getty) who have things to learn, and who look to their bosses for guidance. But those assistants are also skilled and intelligent in their own right. They have their own histories, personalities and perspectives. Their bosses know this, and many value and depend on their assistants for that reason.

I don’t have the data to support this, but I see a connection between this evolution of the assistant/sidekick and the evolution of crime fiction fans’ interest in rich character development. As crime fiction fans continue to want better developed characters, it makes a lot of sense that that would include assistants and sidekicks. And most readers are not satisfied with the assistant whose only purpose is to bask in the sleuth’s glory, so to speak.

What do you think about this? Have you noticed that sidekicks and assistants are getting more deeply developed and capable as characters? If you have, why do you think this is? If you’re a writer who’s created an assistant, how do you think about this?

ps. You may notice that I didn’t include Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin here. I often wonder whether he’s really a sidekick, even if he is officially an employee.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Walk the Moon’s Sidekick.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Catherine Aird, Ian Rankin, Reginald Hill

‘Cause When It’s All For One, It’s One For All*

Individualist and Collectivist CulturesCrime fiction arguably says a lot about the culture from which it comes. This is a very large topic, so I’ll just focus on one aspect of culture. One of the important ways in which cultures differ is in the extent to which they’re collectivist or individualist. Of course, very few cultures are what you’d call entirely collectivist or entirely individualist. But most cultures lean towards one or the other.

Individualistic cultures tend to value individual achievement and efforts. In those cultures, one’s identity comes from individual experiences, choices and the like. In collectivist cultures, on the other hand, individuals’ identities come from their memberships in the larger group. Group goals and achievements have priority over individual goals, and members of the group rely on each other for child and elder care, financial support and the like. The point here isn’t to argue the merits of one type of culture or the other. Rather, it’s to point out that individualism or collectivism really does impact cultures.

We certainly see it in real life, and we see it in crime fiction, too. For example, one aspect of individualistic cultures is an emphasis on individual effort. And that’s arguably reflected in the kinds of sleuths and stories that come from US authors (the dominant US culture is considered highly individualistic). If we look at characters such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Bill Pronzini’s Nameless, or Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, we see examples of sleuths who generally work alone, and certainly don’t get their sense of identity from membership in a particular group. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have friends, don’t value what they learn from others, and so on. But their individual efforts are really the main point of the stories that feature them.

Another characteristic of a lot of individualistic cultures is what’s often called low power distance. In just about every culture, some people have more power than others. Power distance refers to individuals’ willingness to accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. So, lower-ranking individuals from low power distance cultures are less likely to be comfortable with the unequal distribution of power. To see how this plays out, we can take a look at David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, the first of his Superintendent Frank Swann novels. These take place in 1970’s Perth, in a culture that’s generally considered to be quite individualistic. In Line of Sight, Swann investigates the murder of a former friend, brothel owner Ruby Devine. To get to the truth, he has to go up against a very powerful group of top police brass known as the ‘purple circle.’ The novel shows, among other things, the view that titles and power don’t necessarily equal the respect of others. Certainly they don’t guarantee obedience from others. And that’s not surprising, considering that this is an individualistic culture.

Fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels will probably find that perspective familiar, and that’s not surprising, either. These stories take place mostly in Scotland, which is also considered an individualistic culture. The cultural values of low power distance and an emphasis on individual effort and achievement come through very clearly in the series.

These aren’t the only examples of individualistic cultures and the novels that come from them, of course. There are many, many more. And as we look at novels from individualistic cultures, we see how those perspectives and cultural values come through.

That’s also arguably true of collectivist cultures and the novels that depict them. For example, we can take a look at power distance from the point of view of Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen series. Chen lives and works in late 1990’s Shanghai, a culture that’s considered very collectivist. High power distance (or, the acceptance and expectation of unequal distribution of power) is an important aspect of that culture. And we see that reflected in this series. It is expected that those of higher rank – those considered more important – have more power and make the rules that they see fit to make. That’s not generally questioned very much. You might argue that, in his way, Qiu does question that power structure, since the murders Chen investigates often lead to very high places. But at the same time, there is an acknowledgement of that characteristic of this society.

Another collectivist characteristic that we see in Qiu’s novels is the emphasis on group, rather than individual, goals. One important political goal is social harmony (that’s a main plot point of Enigma of China). The greater good, so the belief goes, is served when nothing disrupts the order and harmony of the group. Fans of this series will undoubtedly be able to think of examples of how this plays out in the novels.

Because collectivist cultures place a high value on group membership, members are responsible for the welfare of other members. Group effort is therefore a very high priority. This is reflected in Swati Kaushal’s Niki Marwah series, which takes place in northern India. There are, of course, many different cultures in India; it’s a large and diverse country. But in general, it’s considered collectivist. Marwah is Superintendent of Police in Shimla, and as such, makes the final decisions. But she’s not really out for personal gain and achievement. And she knows very well that without the efforts of her team members, crimes won’t be solved. Each team member has something to contribute, and each team member is responsible to the others.

This series (and Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri series, too, among others) also shows the vital importance of family in many collectivist societies. Marwah may be an independent and successful police inspector. But she’s also a member of her family, and takes her responsibilities seriously. She attends family events, she listens to what the older members of her family say (even if she doesn’t end up taking their advice) and so on.

These are just a few examples of the ways that culture impacts stories and characters. And of course, collectivism/individualism is just one dimension of culture. There are many, many more. But even with this small peek at the topic, it seems clear (at least to me) that we can tell a lot about a culture from its crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bryan Adams’ All For Love.

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Filed under Bill Pronzini, David Whish-Wilson, Ian Rankin, Qiu Xiaolong, Raymond Chandler, Sara Paretsky, Swati Kaushal, Tarquin Hall

I Know Your Deepest, Secret Fear*

Deepest FearsBoth Ian Rankin and Stephen King have made the point (‘though in different ways) that, among other things, writing helps to exorcise those fears and personal demons that plague just about all of us. And certainly writing can be very cathartic. That’s part of why so many people keep journals.

It’s possible that reading crime fiction can be cathartic, too. There are, of course, many reasons people read crime fiction. One of them might be that it lets us face some of our fears and darker thoughts in a very safe way. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if you look at some of the topics and themes in the genre, you certainly see that it addresses some of our deepest fears.

For example, people are social creatures. We need to depend on each other. That’s especially true for people in our ‘inner circles.’ And that’s why we’re perhaps most vulnerable to family members, partners and close friends. Stories that address that fear quite possibly give us a safe outlet for thinking about it. And there are plenty of them.

Novels such as S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife, and even Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives explore this sort of fear. In all of them (and many others, too, that I haven’t mentioned), the plot raises the question of how well we really know even those closest to us. Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt is one example of a film that does the same thing. Such stories touch a raw nerve for a lot of people, and bring that fear out into the open.

Along with that is the fear many people have of being outcasts. Most of us don’t mind having our own little quirks and eccentricities, but we still want to be accepted and included. Plenty of crime fiction novels address that deep-seated need we have to belong.

We see this sort of fear in novels such as Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, and Wendy James’ The Mistake. In all of these stories (and plenty of others), part of the plot involves a character who is made a social pariah. That experience adds tension to the stories. But it also speaks to a deeply human fear of being all alone in the world, and the target of others’ contempt (or worse).

One of the biggest fears people have is the fear that they might be mentally ill – that their sanity is slipping away. When some people say, ‘Am I crazy?’ it’s because they want reassurance that others feel the same way, or saw/heard the same thing, or have the same perception. The alternative – questionable sanity – is so deeply frightening that it’s difficult to really comprehend.

Several crime novels address this fear, too. One of the main characters in Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder, for instance, starts to doubt her sanity when she begins to have a sense of déjà vu – about a house she doesn’t ever remember visiting before. And the protagonist in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is slowly losing a battle with dementia. Since that story is told in first person, readers get a strong sense of what it’s like to feel that one’s losing touch with reality. We also see this sort of fear addressed and explored in Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson novels. Jacobson is in his eighties, and has developed short-term memory problems. So he keeps a notebook in which he records everything that happens, so that he’ll be able to recall it later.

It’s hard to imagine a worse nightmare for a caring parent than the loss of a child. That may be particularly true in cases of abduction, where parents don’t know what happened to their child. That makes it even harder to come to terms with the loss.

I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that, in the last few decades, there’ve been several books in which authors address that awful possibility. Just a few examples are William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, and Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill. There are others, too, of course, many more than I have space for in this one post. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it has been explored quite a lot in recent years. And, like our other deep, dark fears, it’s in part a way to explore that darkness in a safe way – a way that allows us to keep our distance, as it were.

These certainly aren’t the only truly dark fears that people have. And it might be the case that crime fiction allows those demons to be called out and sent off in a way that doesn’t do damage. It certainly lets authors flush them out.

What do you think? Do you find it cathartic to read crime fiction? If you’re a writer, do you think people write to let out the demons? I’d be really interested in your opinions.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ Spy.

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Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Alice LaPlante, Ellery Queen, Garry Disher, Helen Fitzgerald, Ian Rankin, Ira Levin, Mike Befeler, Paddy Richardson, S.J. Watson, Sarah Ward, Stephen King, Wendy James, William McIlvanney