Category Archives: Kerry Greenwood

Must Have Been the Right Month*

januaryA lot of people see January as the time to start anew. It’s the beginning of the year, it’s a chance to ‘do it right this time,’ and it’s a time when many people set positive goals for themselves. You’d think it’d be an optimistic time of year, right?

Not exactly. For one thing, there’s the weather. In some places, it’s the dead of winter, with freezing temperatures, bad weather and little light. In others, it’s mid-summer, with intolerable heat and the onset of wildfire season. And there are plenty of crime novels that take place in January, too.

For example, Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train begins in January. In one plot thread, we are introduced to Katherine Grey, who has served as paid companion to wealthy Mrs. Harfield for ten years. When Mrs. Harfield dies, Katherine unexpectedly inherits a large fortune. One of her decisions, now that she has money, is to do what many other people with money do at that time of year: escape the January winter weather and head for a warmer climate. She decides to accept an invitation from a distant relative, Lady Rose Tamplin, to stay with her in Nice for a while. Katherine arranges to take the famous Blue Train to Nice, and that turns out to be a fateful decision. On the way, she gets drawn into a case of theft and murder. Hercule Poirot is also on the train, and Katherine works with him to help find out who the murderer is.

One focus of Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill is a case from 1978. One January day, Sophie Jenkins and Rachel Jones walked to school together. Only Rachel returned. A massive search was undertaken, but no trace of Sophie was ever found. Now, years later, there’s another death, this time of Yvonne Jenkins. At first it looks like a tragic, but straightforward case of suicide. But DI Francis Sadler suspects it might be more than that when a discovery is made that links this death to the 1978 case. With help from Superintendent Llewellyn, who investigated the original case, Sadler and his team look into the 1978 disappearance again, and discover how it is related to the present death.

Bitter January weather sets the scene for the end of a difficult case for Martin Beck and his team in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna. One summer day, the body of a young woman is dredged from Lake Vättern. At first, the police find it hard to identify her, since she wasn’t Swedish. But in time, they learn that she was twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, an American who was on a cruise tour of Sweden when she was killed. Little by little, and after several false starts, Beck and his team trace the victim’s last days and weeks, and they find out who was on board the cruise ship when she died. It takes months of hard work, and some lucky breaks, but they finally narrow down the list of suspects, and discover who was responsible for the murder. Then, they set up a ‘sting’ operation to catch that person. The operation takes place during bitterly cold January weather, which adds to the atmosphere. In the end, the team solves the crime, but it takes a lot of time and effort.

In some places in the world, January is the middle of summer. But that doesn’t make things any safer. For instance, Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood takes place in January. In that novel, Tasmania Police Sergeant John White goes to the scene of a home invasion. With him is Probationer Lucy Howard. She’s at the front of the house, and White goes to the back, where he’s stabbed to death. The suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in trouble with the law before. The police are more than eager to avenge the murder of one of their own, but they’ll have to tread lightly. For one thing, the suspect is a juvenile. For another, he may be able to claim Aboriginal identity. If he and his lawyer choose to do that, then the media will put everything the police do under very close scrutiny. It isn’t usually particularly hot in Hobart in January, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of tension in this novel…

There is in Geoffrey McGeachin’s St. Kilda Blues, too. That novel takes place in January, 1967 – the ‘Summer of Love.’ Melbourne police detective Charlie Berlin has been shunted aside, so to speak, in the police hierarchy because he doesn’t ‘play politics.’ But he’s pulled into action when fifteen-year-old Gudrun Scheiner goes missing. Her father is a wealthy and well-connected developer, and is desperate to get his daughter back if possible. So, the police are motivated to get to a solution quickly. As Berlin soon comes to believe, this isn’t an isolated case. Gudrun is one of nine girls who’ve disappeared, and it could be that Melbourne is up against a serial killer. With summer in full swing, and young people not in school, it’s even more difficult to track people’s whereabouts, but Berlin and his partner/former protégé Rob Roberts search for the truth. And the truth turns out to be very unexpected…

And then there’s Wendy James The Lost Girls. This story’s focus is in part the murder of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. It’s January, 1978, and Angela’s been given (reluctant) permission to spend the summer with her aunt and uncle, Barbara and Doug Griffin. There isn’t much to do, so Angela, her cousin Mick, and Mick’s friends spend plenty of time at the local drugstore, playing pinball. Then, one horrible day, Angela goes missing. She’s later found dead, with a scarf around her head. At first, the police concentrate on family and friends, as is only logical. But they don’t have enough evidence to charge anyone. Then, a few months later, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is also found dead, also with a scarf around her head. Now, it looks as though the same person committed both crimes, and the press begin to dub this killer, ‘The Sydney Strangler.’ The case is never solved, and it leaves the family with lasting scars. Years later, documentary filmmaker Erin Fury decides to do a film on families who’ve survived the murder of one of their members. She wants to include the Griffin family, and interviews the various members. Little by little, and partly through these interviews, we learn the truth about Angela’s fate, and about Kelly’s.

See what I mean? January is not really a safe month. Perhaps it’d be best to follow the lead of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman and shut up shop for the month, as she does in Cooking the Books

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s January.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Geoffrey McGeachin, Kerry Greenwood, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Wendy James, Y.A. Erskine

Bus Driver…Ambulance Man…Ticket Inspector*

occupationIt’s easy enough to imagine scenarios where fictional police detectives and PIs get involved in investigating crimes. So, a series that features a police officer or a PI makes sense and can be quite credible. It’s harder when the protagonist of a crime fiction series is an amateur detective.

Some professions do lend themselves to the role a bit more than others. For instance, there are lots of fictional academics who are amateur detectives. And it’s not hard to imagine scenarios where the sleuth is an academic (ahem – at least I hope it’s not…). The same might be said of fictional members of the clergy or their spouses/partners. Those people hear and see quite a bit, so it makes sense that they’d be involved in fictional investigations. There are also lots of fictional psychologists, medical professionals, attorneys and journalists who are also amateur sleuths. Again, it’s fairly credible that such people would be in a position to encounter and investigate a crime.

But there are some fictional amateur sleuths out there who have more unusual occupations. In those cases, the author has the challenge of creating a believable context for the sleuth. It’s not always easy to do, but some authors have achieved it.

One such sleuth is Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Harristeen. When this series begins, Harry is the postmistress for the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. She also runs a small farm. Later in the series, she steps aside as postmistress, and takes up cultivating a vineyard. This scenario – with Harry as postmistress, and also sleuth – works (at least for me) because it makes sense that, in a small town, people would gather at the post office, pick up their mail, and talk. This puts Harry in a very good position to know a lot about what’s going on. We also learn that her family has been in the area for generations. So, she’s ‘plugged in.’ There are some aspects of the series that aren’t as credible. But a postmistress as sleuth makes sense.

You wouldn’t expect a ticket-taker to be in a position to do sleuthing – at least not credibly – but that’s what happens in Denise Mina’s Garnethill, the first in her Garnethill trilogy. Maureen ‘Marui’ O’Donnell works in a low-paid job as a ticket-taker. She’s emotionally fragile (in fact, she spent some time in a mental health hospital). Still, she’s trying to get her life together. She even has a relationship with Douglas Brodie. He happens to be married, but she’s working on figuring out what she’s going to do. One morning, after a night of drinking, Mauri wakes to find Brodie’s body in her living room. As you can imagine, the police are not satisfied that she isn’t responsible. So, Mauri decides to clear her own name. And that’s the approach Mina takes to making Mauri a believable sleuth, although she’s neither a copper nor a PI.

Eleanor Kuhns’ historical (end of the 18th Century) series features Will Rees. He’s an itinerant weaver, who also has a small piece of property. On the surface of it, weaving isn’t the sort of occupation that would likely put someone in contact with murder. But in A Simple Murder, the first of this series, Kuhns sets up a credible context. In that novel, we learn that Rees is despondent over his first wife’s death. He puts his son, David, in the care of his sister, and goes off, working as a weaver where and when he can. Then, he finds out that David has been sent to a Shaker sect establishment, where he’s being mistreated. Rees rushes to do what he can for his son, only to be on the scene when there’s a murder. And, since the Shakers are a small and tightly-knit community, Rees can’t help but be drawn into the mystery as he tries to re-establish contact with his son. Slowly, as the series goes on, word gets around that Will Rees can find answers. So, he begins to build a reputation.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a Melbourne accountant-turned-baker, who lives and works in a large, Roman-style building called Insula. When the series begins (with Earthly Delights), Chapman has no desire to be a sleuth or to solve mysteries. But she gets drawn into investigating a series of heroin overdoses that might not be as accidental as they seem. It all starts when one overdose happens right outside Chapmen’s own bakery. Then, someone starts targeting the people who live in Insula. Chapman wants to find out who that person is, and her new lover, Daniel Cohen (he volunteers for a mobile soup kitchen), wants to find out what’s behind the overdoses. So, they agree to help one another.

There’s also D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heathington. He’s a retired milliner, who’s moved to the village of Tuesbury. You might not think that a milliner would likely come across a lot of bodies. But Heatherinton has a keen eye for his clients, and a good sense of what makes them ‘tick.’ So, in Hats Off to Murder, he becomes more than curious when two of his clients die. There’s no obvious evidence that they were murdered, but some things just don’t add up. Then, a new client, Delilah Delibes, asks for his help tracking down her mother, Flora, who’s gone missing. Heatherington is not a professional sleuth, and doesn’t pretend to have investigative skills. But he is compassionate. And he’s curious. So, he works with Delilah to find out what happened to her mother. And, in the process, he finds out how and why his clients died.

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte, who is a genealogist. His specialty is tracing people’s ancestry, not finding killers. But sometimes, secrets from the past have a way of haunting modern families. So Tayte runs into more than one murder as he searches for his clients’ roots.

For authors who create amateur sleuths, it can be a challenge to create a credible context for those sleuths to ask questions and investigate. When it’s done well, though, it can work. And there really are some interesting occupations out there in crime-fiction land.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Clash’s Career Opportunities.

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Filed under D.S. Nelson, Denise Mina, Eleanor Kuhns, Kerry Greenwood, Rita Mae Brown, Steve Robinson

Don’t You Feel Like Trying Something New?*

trying-a-new-seriesNot long ago, I asked you to share your thoughts about authors who write more than one series. I wondered whether you actively look for other series by an author whose work you love. Many thanks to those of you who responded!

 

Now, let’s take a look at what you told me:

 

trying-an-authors-new-series

 

As you can see, of the 25 of you who responded, 10 of you (40%) told me you’re eager to try another series by an author whose work you really love.  That in itself isn’t an overwhelming majority. So, on the surface, it might seem that attachment to a particular author doesn’t make you rush out and try that person’s new series.

But then, I noticed something interesting. Of those who responded, 11 of you (44%) said that you actively look for a top author’s other series if that series is the sort of crime novel you like. What that suggests to me is that sub-genre (or style) of crime novel is at least as important (perhaps a bit more) as the fact that it’s an author you love. If you think about it, this means that 21 of you (84%) actively seek out a new series by an author you love. Admittedly, for many of you, that depends partly on the sort of series it is. Still, that’s a hint of some loyalty to your top authors.

But you’re not blindly loyal. You also think about what sort of book you want. What does this all mean? To me, it shows there are several factors that impact your decision of which series to read. One important factor is your feelings about the author. Another is your taste in crime fiction. In other words, it’s not just one thing that guides your decision making, even if that thing is your love for a particular author’s work. And that makes sense. Someone who really likes pitch-black noir might think twice before picking up a light, fun, ‘frothy’ cosy mystery, even if both books were by the same author.

And, consistent with that, 2 of you (8%), said that you actively seek out a new series by an author you love if it’s a similar sort of series (e.g. both PI series). This tells me that sub-genre also impacts what you’ll read.

What conclusions does this suggest? One conclusion that I’ve drawn is that your choices of what to read are affected by several factors. It’s not only a matter of whether or not you love a given author’s work. It’s more multidimensional than that. That said, though, it seems that your feelings about a given author do impact your reading choices. If you’ll notice, only 2 of you (8%) told me that your feelings for an author don’t influence your choice of what to read. What this means to me is that the impression an author leaves on you does matter. If that’s true, then I’ll bet you probably avoid a series by an author whose work you’ve really disliked. I don’t have the data to support that conclusion (yet), but that sort of finding wouldn’t be surprising, given what you told me about authors whose work you do like.

What might this mean for authors? If all of this reflects the way readers really make their choices (and remember, this is a very, very limited set of data), then it might suggest something about the sort of branching-out authors consider. Some authors, such as Elly Griffiths and Timothy Hallinan, have been quite successful writing two different sorts of series. The same is true for J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith, Kerry Greenwood, and others. But it is a risk. When two series are very different, readers might not be eager to make the move to the new series, even if they’re fans of that particular author. That’s not to say it’s impossible to have two very successful, but very different, series. Several authors have done so. But it takes planning, strong writing (of course!) and some luck.

What do you folks have to say about this? I’d really like your reactions. If you’re a writer, I’d really like to hear your thoughts on branching out to another series.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Jackson’s Breaking Us In Two.

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Filed under Elly Griffiths, Kerry Greenwood, Robert Galbraith, Timothy Hallinan

I’m Your Social Worker*

social-workersThey’re often on the front lines in domestic situations. And they’re the ones who are called in when children may be at risk. I’m talking, of course, of social workers. They have a thankless and sometimes dangerous job, but the vast majority of them do their very best. There’s a high turnover rate among social workers, as you can imagine. The pay isn’t good, they often have a very much heavier caseload than anyone can reasonably be expected to handle, and they’re not always welcome at homes where they pay visits.

Yet, their work is vital, and can save lives. We do hear occasional horror stories of social workers who are incompetent or worse. But, as I say, the vast majority are hardworking, conscientious individuals who care.

As you can imagine, there are plenty of social workers who make appearances in crime fiction. It’s a natural fit, if you think about it. And they can add an interesting perspective to a crime story.

For example, in one plot thread of Jonathan Kellerman’s Blood Test, we learn of five-year-old Heywood ‘Woody’ Swopes. He has a treatable form of leukemia, but his parents refuse treatment. Instead, they want to choose holistic and other non-medical treatments. This could be fatal for Woody, so his doctor, Raoul Melendez-Lynch, asks a former colleague, child psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware, for help. Delaware agrees, and  Melendez-Lynch puts him in contact with Beverly Lucas, a social worker attached to the hospital. She’s worked with the Swopes family, and Delaware is hoping that, together, they’ll be able to make some progress. Instead, Woody’s parents remove him from the hospital. Then, he disappears. Now, Delaware and Lucas must find the boy while he still has a chance to stay alive. Then, his parents are found dead. The only link to the family is Woody’s twenty-year-old sister, Nona, who has her own serious problems. In this novel, Lucas shows how important social workers can be when families have medical crises.

In Kate Ellis’ The Merchant’s House, DS (later DI) Wesley Peterson takes up his new duties at Tradmouth CID, in Devon. He’s no sooner settling in when word comes that the body of a young woman has been discovered at Little Tradmouth Head. The CID team begins the work of identifying her and trying to trace her killer. The trail leads to a local caravan of travellers and young man named Chris Manners, who may have some information. When it’s discovered that he has a little boy, Daniel, living with him, Social Services gets involved in the form of Lynne Wychwood. Among other things, she has to assess whether the boy is safe and living in an appropriate environment. And, if possible, she has to do that without alienating Chris; it’s going to be much easier if he sees her as an ally rather than The Enemy. Lynne doesn’t solve the case. But her work with Chris and Daniel proves very helpful, and it’s interesting to see how social workers try to be flexible and do what’s best for the child when they can.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy features Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell. In Exile, the second in the series, Mauri is working at a Glasgow shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. When one of the residents, Ann Harris, goes missing, not much concern is raised at first. Residents are free to come and go as they wish. But when Ann doesn’t return, Mauri begins to get concerned. Then, Ann’s body is found in the Thames a few weeks later. At first, Mauri is convinced that Ann’s husband, Jimmy, is responsible. But his cousin, who runs the shelter, insists that he’s innocent. So, Mauri tries to trace Ann’s last days and weeks. The trail leads to a London solicitor’s office where Mauri meets social worker Kilty Goldfarb, who’s also Scottish. The two strike up a friendship, and Kilty turns out to be helpful in this case. She returns in Resolution, the last of the trilogy, and her experience in social work turns out to be useful in that novel as well.

Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night introduces readers to Delhi social worker Simran Singh. At the request of a former university friend (who’s now Inspector General for Punjab), Singh returns to her home town of Jullundur. She’s there to work with the police on a very difficult case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal has been arrested for murdering thirteen members of her family, and then burning the family home. There is evidence against her, but there is also the possibility that she, too, was a victim who managed to stay alive. The police can’t determine Durga’s role in the tragedy, because she hasn’t spoken about it. The hope is that Singh will be able to get the girl to open up and talk about what happened. At first, Durga is unwilling to say much of anything. But, bit by bit, she begins to trust Singh, and starts to talk about her family. Little by little, we learn what happened that night, and the dark secrets that led to the deaths. Among other things, this novel shows how social workers sometimes have to be creative when it comes to doing their best for the children they are charged with protecting.

Social workers take on a wide variety of roles. For instance, In Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series, we learn that Chapman (who is a baker) works with the Soup Run, a Melbourne group that provides food, (non-alcoholic) drinks, blankets, and sometimes medicine to Melbourne’s street people. One of the other people involved with the Soup Run is Jen, a local social worker, who
 

‘…can wedge a client into a lodging house with pure force of character.’
 

Admittedly, Jen is not a main character who helps solve mysteries. But she shows the dedication that most social workers have to doing their best for those in need.

There’s also J.M. Green’s Good Money, which introduces Melbourne social worker Stella Hardy. When one of her clients, an émigré from Africa, is found murdered, and then a neighbour disappears, Stella starts looking for answers. And she finds that the truth is a lot more dangerous than she thought. I admit, I haven’t (yet) read this one. It was just too good an example not to mention. Want to know more? You can read terrific reviews here and here on Fair Dinkum Crime, the source for Australian crime fiction.

There are a lot of other social workers who appear in crime fiction. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Glasvegas’ Geraldine.

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Filed under Denise Mina, J.M. Green, Jonathan Kellerman, Kate Ellis, Kerry Greenwood, Kishwar Desai

The Other Side of You*

multipleseriesMany crime fiction authors write more than one series. There are a lot of reasons for doing that, too. For instance, the author may want to ‘start fresh’ if a series has gone on for a while. Or, the author may want to experiment and try something new. Sometimes, if an author’s first series has done well, a publisher may request that the author start another series. Whatever the reason, the choice to have more than one series raises a question: how to generate interest in what may be a lesser-known series.

In some cases, both (or, at times, all three) of an author’s series are well-known. For instance, one of Elly Griffith’s series features Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist who teaches at North Norfolk University. Her expertise is frequently tapped by the police, mostly in the form of Harry Nelson. Griffiths fans will know that she also has another series, the Max Mephisto novels. These novels are set in the 1950’s, and feature Mephisto, who is a magician by profession. Both series are highly regarded. In this case, you might argue that Griffiths’ success with the Ruth Galloway series meant that there was an audience likely to be interested in the Max Mephisto series.

Robert B. Parker first gained a reputation with his Spenser novels, which he wrote between the mid-1970s and 2013. In fact, he may be best known for those novels. But he also wrote other series. Beginning in the late 1990s, he wrote a series featuring Police Chief Jesse Stone, and another featuring PI Sunny Randall. He even took the risk of having Stone and Randall join forces, both personally and professionally. Those series may be less well-known than the Spenser novels, but they are well-regarded.

Beginning in 1970, Reginald Hill became best-known for his series featuring Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant (later DI) Peter Pascoe. As fans can tell you, the series ran for decades, and was successfully adapted for television. Starting in 1993, Hill created another protagonist, small-time PI Joe Sixsmith. He’s quite a different character to Dalziel (and to Pascoe). He’s an unassuming former lathe operator who also sings in a choir. Among other differences, this series isn’t as gritty as the Dalziel/Pascoe series can be. It’s also likely not as well known. But it’s certainly got fans.

That’s also the case for Kerry Greenwood. Her Phryne Fisher series takes place in Melbourne in the late 1920s, and features socialite Phryne Fisher, who becomes a ‘lady detective.’ Phryne is wealthy, elegant, and has access to the highest social circles. She’s quite independent and free-thinking, too. Greenwood’s other series, which began in 2004, is a contemporary series, also based in Melbourne, that features accountant-turned baker Corinna Chapman. Like Phryne, Corinna is independent and intelligent. But this is a very different series. Chapman is very much ‘the rest of us’ in appearance and income. Like most people, she has bills to pay, and doesn’t live in a sumptuous mansion. Both series feature regular casts of characters, and tend to be less violent and gritty than dark, noir novels are.

If you’ve read any of James Lee Burke’s work, my guess is that you probably read from his Dave Robicheaux series. That series features New Iberia, Louisiana police detective Robicheaux, and is one of the best-regarded series in American crime fiction. It’s a long-running series, and has gotten all sorts of acclaim. But it’s not Burke’s only series. He’s also written a series that feature the different members of the Holland family. This series is written as a set of standalone books that feature the different members of the Holland family. For instance, there’s Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland and his cousin Billy Bob Holland (who is a former Texas Ranger and now an attorney). Their grandfather was another lawman, also named Hackberry Holland. There’s also Weldon Avery Holland. He is another of the original Hackberry Holland’s grandsons. Several of the Holland family novels are historical, and are almost as much saga as they are crime novels. In fact, some question whether some of them are crime novels. In that sense, they’re quite different to the Robicheaux stories.

Fans of Ann Cleeves’ work can tell you that she’s done the Jimmy Perez Shetland novels, as well as the Vera Stanhope novels. These series are set in different parts of the UK, and feature different protagonists with different backstories. Both are very well regarded, and both have been adapted for television. But, before either of those series was published, Cleeves wrote another series featuring Inspector Ramsay of the Northumberland Police. She also wrote a series, beginning in the late 1980s, featuring retired Home Office investigator George Palmer-Jones and his wife, Molly.

And then there’s Vicki Delany, who writes the Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith series, a contemporary police procedural series set mostly in British Columbia. She’s also written historical crime fiction featuring saloon and dance hall owner Fiona MacGillivray. That series takes place at the end of the 19th Century, in Dawson, Yukon Territory. Delany has also just started a new series. This one takes place in Rudolph, NY, and is a lighter series featuring shop owner Merry Wilkinson.

There are, of course, other authors, such as Elizabeth Spann Craig, who write multiple series. Sometimes, those series are equally well-known. Other times, one series is much better known than the other.

Now, here’s the question. If you’ve really enjoyed an author’s work in one series, does that prompt you to go back and look for another series by that author? Does it depend on whether the two series are concurrent? Or on whether they’re similar (e.g. both cosy series)? I’d really like your opinion on this. Please vote, if you wish, in the poll below. I’ll let it run for a week, and then we’ll talk about it again.
 

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a title of the song by the Mighty Lemon Drops.

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Filed under Ann Cleeves, Elizabeth Spann Craig, James Lee Burke, Kerry Greenwood, Reginald Hill, Robert B. Parker, Vicki Delany