Category Archives: Jussi Adler-Olsen

What Took You So Long?*

If you watch enough crime-fictional television and films, you might get the impression that crimes can be solved, and investigations finished, in a very short time. And, of course, there are some cases where that happens. Much of the time, though, investigations take more time – sometimes a great deal more time – in real life than they do on television and in films.

So, what takes the police so long to solve a murder? Most police detectives are dedicated to their work, and they want crimes solved. So, in the vast majority of cases, it’s not because the police either don’t care or are incompetent. And detectives know that the first 24-48 hours after a crime like murder is reported are critical, so there’s a lot of pressure to get answers quickly. There are any number of reasons that pressure doesn’t always yield an answer, and crime fiction covers many of them. Space only permits a few here, but you’ll get the idea.

Sometimes, there are questions the police don’t think to ask, and directions they don’t think to take. For instance, in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes), Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad, re-investigate the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. At the time, the theory was that she had gone overboard in a tragic ferry accident. There was no reason to believe otherwise, and no evidence from the ferry that anything else happened. So, the police didn’t carefully follow up. But now, there are little pieces of evidence to suggest that she may still be alive. If that’s the case, then there may not be much time left to find her. In one scene in the novel, Mørck gets very angry at the detective who first investigated, and it’s understandable why he does. But at the same time, the police have limited resources. They can’t look into every single possibility and use all personnel to do so. That scene reflects the delicate balance between following up on leads with due diligence, and acknowledging the reality of limited time and staff.

There’s a similar sort of dilemma in Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine. When financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed in his home, it looks very much like a tragic accident. The victim’s body was found by one of the medieval war machines he collected, and it seems that the machine malfunctioned. But Brinkley’s friend, Benny Frayle, doesn’t think so. She goes to visit Inspector Tom Barnaby to ask him to look into the matter again. He duly goes through the reports from the investigating officers, and does a bit of follow-up, but everything shows that they were careful and painstaking, and did their jobs effectively. So, he sees no reason to invest resources to go over the case again. Then, there’s another death. This time, the victim is a self-styled medium who actually described things about the murder scene that she couldn’t have known beforehand. Now, Barnaby sees that there’s more to Brinkman’s death than it seems, and he does re-open that case. It turns out that these two murders are just as closely linked as they seem.

When the police investigate a murder, they often have to rely on experts such as medical examiners and forensics teams. Those people (unlike what’s on the television), almost always have plenty of cases on their hands. So, there is sometimes a delay in getting results. Fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series, for instance, know that Brunetti relies on the expertise of medical examiner Dr. Ettore Rizzardi. And his trust is not misplaced. But Rizzardi’s a busy person. He doesn’t just deal with Brunetti’s cases. There are plenty of deaths that aren’t necessarily murders, but that Rizzardi needs to look into as part of his work. And it’s interesting to see how the two men have to find a balance between Bunetti’s desire for quick answers, and the realities of Rizzardi’s work.

There’s also the fact that smaller and less affluent police departments may not have access to a state-of-the-art forensics laboratory. That means samples need to be sent out, tested, and so on. And that process can take weeks or more. There’s an interesting look at how that can work in P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness. That novel’s focus is Hoggett’s Laboratory, in East Anglia. The lab provides forensics and other specialty testing in cases of un-natural death. So, when there is a murder, both the police and defending counsel rely on the lab. It’s a busy, high-stress work environment. For one thing, there are a lot of cases, and results are expected quickly. For another, evidence has to be handled in very specific ways. Tests can take days or longer, depending on how busy the lab is and what the tests are. Commander Adam Dalgleish and Detective Inspector (DI) John Massingham explore the inner workings of the lab when Dr. Edwin Lorrimer, one of the senior staff, is murdered. Admittedly, this novel was first published in 1977. Testing, technology, and much more have changed dramatically since then. But there’s still forensic testing, it still takes time, and it’s still conducted at busy labs that can’t devote themselves to one case at a time.

There are also plenty of cases where there’s not much evidence. So, it’s hard to find clear clues that point to the killer. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. A series of murders keeps Hercule Poirot, Chief Inspector Japp, and several local police departments busy for an entire summer. They don’t catch the killer after the first murder, or the second, or the third. And it’s not because there’s not a team trying to solve the case. But, the killer is very careful. There aren’t fingerprints, and the only clue left at each scene is an ABC railway guide – the kind you can buy in hundreds of places. So, there’s no way to trace them. The other clue – cryptic warnings sent to Poirot – isn’t helpful at first, either. The paper isn’t remarkable, there aren’t unique stamps, and the writer typed the notes, so there’s no handwriting clue. It’s a difficult case, and even though Poirot solves it, it’s not hard to see why it takes so long.

And that’s the thing. Police cases can take a lot longer than people want them to take. The police don’t generally like that any more than other people do. Admittedly, it’s not easy to acknowledge those very realistic delays in a crime novel, and still keep it interesting. But it’s a fact of police life.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Phil Collins’ I Missed Again.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Donna Leon, Jussi Adler-Olsen, P.D. James

I Keep Hoping You’ll Come Back to Me*

For families and other loved ones, one of the major differences between a missing person case and a murdercase is the possibility that the missing person will return. Sometimes, people nurse that hope for years. That’s part of the reason, for instance, that many families won’t move from their homes if a loved one goes missing, so that that person will be able to find them. And there are stories of people who’ve been missing for years, who do return.

It doesn’t happen often, but the fact that it happens at all gives people hope. And sometimes, people sustain that hope, even when it’s clear to just about everyone else that the missing person isn’t coming back. We see that happen in crime fiction, and it can add a solid layer of both character development and suspense. After all, the person who’s disappeared could come back…

In Pascal Garnier’s Boxes, for instance, we meet book illustrator Brice Casadamant. In the main plot thread, he and his wife, Emma, have bought a house in the countryside, and are ready to make the move. Emma’s gone on a trip, though, so Brice has deal with the frustrations and aggravations of the move by himself. He gets to the new house and waits for Emmy to return. In fact, he’s so confident she’ll be back soon that he doesn’t even unpack the moving boxes, as he might not put things where Emmy wants them. But, as time goes by, it becomes more and more clear that Emmy is not coming back. And we slowly learn why. Brice won’t accept that, though, and lives among his unpacked boxes, rummaging through them when he needs something. Gradually, Brice sinks deeper and deeper into depression, and comes close to a complete mental break with reality. He can’t bring himself to work on his latest illustration commission, he won’t unpack, and he doesn’t have many social contacts. Among other things, this story shows how strong the need can be to believe that a loved one will return.

In Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes), Copenhagen police detective Carl Mørck is assigned to head a new department – Department Q – dedicated to looking into cases ‘of special interest.’ These are ‘cold’ cases that the police department has been under pressure to solve. Mørck and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad, begin with the five-year-old disappearance of up-and-coming politician Merete Lynggaard. According to reports, she was on a ferry ride with her younger brother, Uffe, when she went missing. The explanation at the time was that she went overboard in a terrible accident. But there are pieces of evidence that suggest that she may still be alive. If she is, then Mørck and Assad might not have very much time to find her. As you might imagine, Mørck pays a visit to Uffe to get his perspective on what happened. But Uffe has communication problems and some mental health problems. So, he isn’t able to be of much help. Still, we learn that, in his way, Uffe thinks his sister may be alive, too. And, in the end, we find out the truth about what happened to her.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind is the story of Stephanie Anderson. When she is fourteen, her younger sister, Gemma, goes missing during a community picnic at Lake Wanaka. Despite a thorough search and police investigation, Gemma is never found. For a long time, though, the family hopes that she will return. Seventeen years later, Stephanie is beginning her career as a psychiatrist in Dunedin. She gets a new patient who tells her a story that’s eerily similar to her own. This patient’s younger sister also went missing and was also never found. After so much time, Stephanie is sure that Gemma isn’t going to return, but she does want to lay her ghosts to rest. And she wants to find out who is responsible for the devastation wrought on her family, and that of her patient. So, she returns to her home town of Wanaka, and starts to look for answers. And, in the end, she gets them. Among other things, this story shows the terrible toll that waiting and hoping takes on families.

In one plot thread of Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, Mitch and Pauline Fisher go to Market Day with their young son, Nathan, when he goes missing. There’s no trace of him, not even after a thorough search. And it’s not spoiling the story to say that the Fishers never give up hope that Nathan will return. Their story is connected to another story, this one of fourteen-year-old Adam Vander. One day, he finally gets up the courage he needs to run away from his abusive father, Joe. Adam’s been kept under lock and key, so he knows almost nothing of the world. This makes him, of course, very vulnerable. But he finds an ally in a young man named Billy Benson, who visits the house just as Adam is leaving. In the week that follows, Billy uses his streetwise knowledge to take care of both of them, and as the week goes by, they get mixed up in real danger.

And then there’s Jane Woodham’s Twister. Dunedin’s had to deal with five straight days of hard rain. Then, a twister comes through, and the police have to deal with a series of problems. Against this backdrop, the body of Tracey Wenlock, who went missing two weeks earlier, is discovered in Ross Creek. Detective Senior Sergeant Leo Judd is given the case, and it won’t be easy for him. Nine years earlier, his own daughter, Beth, went missing and never returned. Judd and his wife, Kate, are still coping with that awful loss. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have been asked to do this sort of case, but a ‘flu epidemic has left the police department with a serious shortage of people. So, there is no choice but Judd. As Judd and his team work to find out the truth about Tracey’s death, we also see how he and his wife have gotten through the last years, and how a part of both of them still hopes that Beth will come home.

And that’s what can be so hard about a missing person case. There isn’t the closure that comes from knowing a person has died. So, it’s not surprising that some people whose loved ones go missing still have hope – even after a long time – that their loved ones will return.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s Sleepless Nights.

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Filed under Honey Brown, Jane Woodham, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Paddy Richardson, Pascal Garnier

Unknown Enemy*

There are a number of ways to build tension and suspense in a crime novel. And that suspense is an important part of keeping the novel engaging for readers. One of the approaches crime writers sometimes use is to include what you might call an unknown enemy.

I’m not talking here of the evil villain out to take over the world. Rather, I mean situations where a character is targeted by an unknown person. If you think about it, that is an eerie feeling. Most of have a fairly good sense of who might be gunning for us. But what if you had no idea who was targeting you? That anxiety, and the wondering whom to trust, would likely add to your unease.

We see that in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, we are introduced to Jerry Burton and his sister, Joanna. They’ve recently moved to the village of Lymstock, so that Jerry can continue his recovery from a wartime injury. They’ve not been there long when they receive a vicious anonymous letter that suggests they are not siblings, but lovers. Soon, the Burtons learn that they’re not the only victims. Other people in town are also receiving such ‘poison pen’ letters, and it’s got everyone upset. Then, a letter to a local solicitor’s wife leads to a suicide. And then there’s a murder. Miss Marple takes an interest in the case when the local vicar’s wife, who knows her, suggests she might be able to help. Part of the tension of the novel comes from the fact that people don’t know who this unknown enemy is, and why that person might be targeting them.

There’s a similar plot point in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. Amsterdam Inspector Piet Van der Valk is sent to the small town of Zwinderen to help with an unusual problem. Several people in town have received ugly anonymous letters. This is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone, so one’s local reputation matters a lot. The tension caused by the letters is so high that the result has been two suicides and a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t made much progress, so it’s hoped that Van der Valk will be able to help. And in the end, he and his wife, Arlette, find out who wrote the letters and why. One important cause of unease in the novel is that the local residents don’t know who their enemy is, if I may put it that way.

In Michael Robotham’s The Suspect, we are introduced to London psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. He gets involved in a murder case when the body of a former client, Catherine McBride, is pulled from Grand Union Canal. Detective Inspector (DI) Vincent Ruiz wants whatever insights O’Loughlin may have about this case, so he persuades a very reluctant O’Loughlin to help out. Then, there’s another murder – one that very much implicates O’Loughlin. Now, Ruiz actively wonders whether his consultant may know more about the case than he’s letting on. What’s more, the leads that O’Loughlin has given Ruiz don’t seem to pan out. Before long, it’s clear that someone has set O’Loughlin up, and is framing him for multiple murders. The problem is, O’Loughlin doesn’t know who would deliberately target him. He’ll have to go back to his own past, and go after a very dangerous killer, if he’s going to clear his name. And part of the suspense as he does so comes from the fact that he doesn’t know who’s after him.

Neither does Merete Lynnggard, who is featured in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). In the novel, Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck is assigned to head up a new police initiative, ‘Department Q.’ This new department will be devoted to cases ‘of special interest’ (i.e. cold cases), and is at least in part designed as a way to demonstrate that the police take all of their investigations seriously. Shortly after Mørck and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad take up their duties, they begin to look into the five-year-old disappearance of Lynnggard, who was a promising politician. Everyone thought that she went overboard in a tragic ferry accident. But new evidence suggests that she may still be alive. If so, Mørck and Assad may not have much time to find her. I can say without spoiling the story that part of its tension comes from the fact that Lynnggard didn’t even know who was targeting her.

And then there’s Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder, the first of her series featuring research assistant Verity Long. She works for famous crime novelist Kathleen ‘K.D.’ Davenport, who uses old cases as inspiration for her novels. When Long goes house-hunting, she discovers the body of well-known TV presenter Jaynee ‘JayJay’ Johnson. Badly shaken up by the experience, she’s happy on one level to let the police handle the investigation. At the same time, though, she found the body, so like it or not, she is involved. And she’s both curious and skilled as a researcher. So, she starts to ask questions. And it’s not long before she runs into serious danger. More than once in the story, it’s clear that someone is targeting her. And part of the suspense comes from the fact that she doesn’t know her enemy.

There are, of course, a lot of other crime novels in which someone has a secret enemy. That plot point can add suspense, even drama, to a story if it’s done effectively. And it can add to character development.
 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Raisin, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Lynda Wilcox, Michael Robotham, Nicolas Freeling

But the Sailors Threw Him Overboard*

Most killers don’t want to be caught. So, they do whatever they can to hide the evidence. And that means they often have to do something about the body of the person they’ve killed. After all, with today’s technology, bodies often contain evidence that points to the murderer.

One way to deal with this, if you’re a killer (fictional only, of course!) is to commit the murder on board a boat or ship, so the victim, or at least the victim’s body, can go overboard. Of course, a lot of things have to fall into place for that sort of plan to work. But when it does, the murderer has a solid chance to get away with the crime. So, it’s little wonder that we see this in a lot of crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of more than I could.

In Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, we are introduced to Margot Standing, an ingenuous and immature young woman whose very wealthy father, Edward, went overboard and was lost at sea. She now stands to inherit a fortune. But then, it comes out that she may not be eligible to inherit, and that her cousin, Egbert, may be the heir. The papers that would prove Edward Standing’s intent have disappeared, so there’s no easy way to determine who will get the money. Egbert suggests that he and Margot marry, but she refuses. When he insists, she refuses again, and leaves home. Unbeknownst to her, this puts her in danger from a gang led by a man named Grey Mask. They want to get rid of her, so they can get her money. Margot happens to meet Margaret Langton, who’s already mixed up with Grey Mask and his gang (‘though not in the obvious way). Margaret takes pity on the younger woman, and takes her in. And in the end, Margaret and her fiancé, Charles Moray, find a way to thwart Grey Mask.

Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip introduces readers to Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone. He’s a marine scientist (at least nominally) who’s found a way to make water samples seem clear, even if they are tainted. His employer, Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut, finds that very useful; he owns an agri-business that pollutes the water, and has no interest in changing what he does, or in being cited by the authorities. When Chaz begins to suspect that his wife, Joey, has found out what he’s doing, he decides to solve his problem. He takes Joey on what he tells her is an anniversary present: a cruise of the Everglades. While they’re on the water, he throws her overboard. He hasn’t counted on the fact that Joey is a former competitive swimmer, though. Instead of dying, she survives and is saved by former police offer Mick Stranahan. With Mick’s help, Joey plans to make Chaz pay for what he did by ‘haunting’ him. And, as Chaz gets more and more unsettled by the things Joey does, Hammernut gets more and more concerned about their arrangement. And Broward County police detective Karl Rolvaag gets more and more suspicious of Chaz…

Jussi Adler-Olsen introduces his protagonist, Copenhagen police detective Carl Mørck, in Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes. In that novel, Mørck returns to duty after being wounded in a line-of-duty shooting incident. He’s always been difficult to work with, but the trauma of what he’s been through has made dealing with him impossible. So, he is transferred to the newly-created ‘Department Q,’ which is dedicated to ‘cases of special interest’ (cold cases). It’s a move to appease members of the public and the government who believe that the police aren’t doing enough to solve crimes. The first case that Mørck and his new assistant, Hafaz al-Assad take on is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynnggard. At the time she went missing, everyone thought she went overboard in a terrible ferry accident. But Mørck and Assad begin to suspect otherwise. If they’re right, and she is still alive, there may be very little time left to find her. So, the two sleuths are under a great deal of pressure as they try to find out what really happened.

Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective features Edinburgh oceanographer and Ph.D. Candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill. His special interest is wave patterns, and he’s working on them for his thesis. In one plot thread of this novel, he’s also got a project of his own underway. Many years earlier, McGill’s grandfather, Uilliam, was on a fishing trip when he disappeared. The official account was that he went overboard accidentally, and McGill wants to know the truth about what happened. So, he’s using his knowledge of wave patterns to try to find out where his grandfather might have washed up, if he did. The search for the truth leads McGill to some dark truths about the island community where his grandparents lived at the time of the disappearance.

And then there’s Jonothan Cullinane’s Red Herring. It’s 1951 in Auckland, and PI Johnny Molloy is hired to find a man called O’Phelan. He takes the case and begins his search. Soon enough, he discovers that his quarry died in an overboard accident. But something doesn’t seem right about the incident, and Molloy starts to suspect it was a case of murder. What he doesn’t know at first, though, is that this death is related to a web of conspiracy, political intrigue, and ‘backroom deals.’ The closer Molloy gets to the truth about O’Phelan, the more dangerous the case becomes for him.

Seas and oceans can be very convenient places, if I may put it that way, for fictional murderers to hide their crimes. So it’s little wonder we see so many overboard ‘accidents’ in crime fiction. These are only a few. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ryan Shupe and the Rubberband’s Walk the Walk.

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Filed under Carl Hiaasen, Jonothan Cullinane, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Mark Douglas-Home, Patricia Wentworth

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