Category Archives: Lawrence Block

So Similar and Estranged*

Estrangement in families can happen for any number of reasons, really. Sometimes they happen for specific reasons, and sometimes it’s more a matter of drifting apart. Sometimes, the people involved simply go on to live very separate lives, with no real rancor.

But when circumstances bring together estranged family members, all of the emotion can also come up to the surface. And that can add tension to a reunion. It can add quite a bit of tension to a crime novel, too. And it raises the question: is blood thicker, as the saying goes? Can people who’ve been estranged work together? It makes for an interesting and sometimes suspenseful sub-plot or thread through a story.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday For Murder) bring together the various members of the Lee family. Patriarch Simeon Lee has always been both malicious and tyrannical, but he is also very wealthy. And, when he decides to gather his family at the family home for Christmas, no-one dares refuse the invitation. So, his sons, David and George, together with their wives, Hilda and Magdalene, make the trip. Another son, Alfred, already lives at the family home with his wife, Lydia. And Lee’s son Harry, who’s been estranged from the family for years, is also invited. There’ve been several estrangements in the family, actually. For one, David has always blamed his father for his mother’s poor health and eventual death. For another, Alfred sees Harry as a selfish cadger who’s never taken his share of responsibility for the family business. Harry sees Alfred as a ‘stick in the mud’ who’s far too quick to toady to their father. All of this bad feeling comes to the fore when the various family members get together. And, when Simeon Lee is murdered on Christmas Eve, matters get even worse. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area with a friend, and he works to find out who killed the victim. As he gets to know the various family members, we see how this estrangement plays its role in the way the different family members interact.

John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler introduces readers to Classics professor Arnold Wechsler, who works at a small Massachusetts school, Hewes College. The novel was published in 1971, a time of great change and, sometimes, student unrest, at many US colleges and universities. Hewes College is no different in that respect. Wechsler is aware of what’s going on, but he tries his best to stay out of it all, and simply do the best he can. That all changes when he is summoned to a meeting with Winthrop Dohrn, the college’s president. Dohrn is concerned because of Wechsler’s younger brother, David. It seems that David was a Hewes student until he dropped out of sight after joining a radical movement. Now he’s returned to campus, and Dohrn wants to know whether David is or will be involved in subversive activities. Wechsler is loath to spy on his brother. For one thing, they’re quite different, and they’ve been estranged for some time. They really don’t have much to say to each other. For another thing, Weschler really does want to stay out of politics. But he can’t really refuse the college president. So, reluctantly, he contacts his brother. The two are very awkward with each other, and that estrangement makes for quite a lot of tension. It’s ramped up when there’s a bombing, a kidnapping, and a theft. Is David involved? If he’s not, can his brother trust him to help find out who is?

Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Father is the first novel to feature his PI sleuth, Matthew Scudder. At this point, Scudder isn’t a formally licensed PI. Rather, he informally looks into things when friends and acquaintances need his help. One day, he gets a visit from successful executive Cale Hanniford, who has an unusual sort of request. Hanniford’s twenty-four-year-old daughter, Wendy, has recently been murdered. The police have arrested her twenty-one-year-old roommate, Richard Vanderpoel, for the crime, and there’s plenty of evidence against him. What’s interesting is that Hanniford doesn’t want Scudder to solve the murder. He believes that Vanderpoel is the killer. Rather, he wants Scudder to find out what sort of person Wendy had become, and what led to her death. It turns out that he’d been estranged from his daughter for years. It’s too late now for a reconcilement, but he’s hoping to at least learn more about her. Scudder’s not sure how much help he can be, but he agrees to at least ask some questions. He arranges to interview Vanderpoel in prison, but the young man is too dazed, or drugged, to be very informative. Then, not long afterwards, Vanderpoel commits suicide. Now it’s clear that this case is more complicated than Scudder thought, and he’s no longer sure the police got their man in the first place.

Former journalist Robert Dell, whom we meet in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils, has a wife and two children whom he loves, and a life that seems to be going well. It all changes one terrible day when he and his family are taking a drive just outside of Cape Town. His car is ambushed and goes over an embankment, and Dell is the only survivor. As if that’s not devastating enough, the police soon accuse him of engineering the accident, and he’s thrown into prison for murder. In fact, it’s very likely he’ll be executed after a ‘kangaroo court’ hearing. It’s clear that he’s being framed, but he doesn’t know why or by whom. Unbeknownst to Dell, his father, Bobby Goodbread, has found out what’s going on. He and his son have been estranged for a long time, mostly because of their diametrically opposed viewpoints on apartheid. It hasn’t helped matters that Dell married a woman who wasn’t white, and that Goodbread has been linked with several reactionary pro-apartheid groups. Nonetheless, Goodbread engineers his son’s escape from prison, and the two go into hiding. For different reasons, they’re each going after the man who killed Dell’s family. The rift between them makes for a lot of tension and awkwardness, but they manage to work together as they head towards the village where the killer lives.

And then there’s Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind. In that novel, archaeologist Chloe Davis, her business partner, Bill, and some of their archaeology students travel to Kaipara Harbour, on New Zealand’s North Island. They’ve been contracted to excavate the remains of religious community that was burned down in the mid-1880s. The excavation is required before the land can be sold for development, so there’s a lot of pressure for the team to do their work quickly. For Davis, there’s a great deal of other pressure, too. For one thing, her cousin Shane is a member of the development consortium, and wants to move as quickly as possible to get the new construction done. For another, her sister Phaedra, from whom she’s been estranged for many years, has title to a house and piece of land that’s critical to the consortium’s plan. And she’s not willing to move. So, as the dig team is uncovering the truth about the religious group, Davis is also having to deal with the tense and difficult reunion with her sister and cousin, as well as with the rift between the branches of her family. And it turns out that what happened to the religious community has repercussions even now.

Estrangements can happen in just about any family. They aren’t always violent, but they’re often very difficult. And they can add a great deal of suspense, to say nothing of character development, to a novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eastmountainsouth’s Father. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Fowler, John Alexander Graham, Lawrence Block, Roger Smith

Always Shouts Out Something Obscene*

An interesting pair of events happened on this day, only five years apart. In 1955, copies of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl were seized as being obscene. Only five years later, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was ruled not obscene. It’s all got me to thinking about our standards for what ‘counts’ as too explicit, too violent, or in some other way too graphic. To an extent, beliefs about what ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be discussed are a product of the times. But there are arguably other factors at play, too.

For instance, like several writers of her generation, Agatha Christie didn’t really write about explicit sex. And certain other topics were also taboo. Yet, she made her meaning clear enough. For instance, in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of his death, he was having an affair with Elsa Greer, who was staying in Crale’s home (she was modeling for a painting he was doing). The fact of that relationship, plus some solid evidence, placed Crale’s wife, Caroline, under suspicion. In fact, she was arrested, tried and convicted, dying in prison a year later. But now, her daughter wants her name cleared, and Poirot agrees to try. Of course, if Caroline Crale was innocent, that means that someone else is guilty. So, part of Poirot’s task is to find out who that someone else might have been. One possibility is family friend Philip Blake. As it turns out, he had strong feelings for Caroline and, in fact, asked her to have an affair with him:
 

‘‘I never liked her, if you understand. But it would have been easy at any moment for me to make love to her…She came to my room. And then, with my arms around her, she told me quite coolly that it was no good! After all, she said, she was a one-man woman.’’
 

In this novel, first published in 1942, there are a few discussions of adultery and illicit affairs. They’re important in the story, but neither is described in detail.

Three years earlier, in 1939, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep was published. In that novel, PI Philip Marlowe is hired by Guy Sternwood to stop an extortionist named Arthur Geiger.  When Marlowe tracks Geiger to his office, he finds that Geiger’s just been killed.  Worse, Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen, is in the room. She’s too drugged or dazed to be of much help, but Marlowe doesn’t want her dragged into the situation any more than necessary. So, he gets her out of the room. With Geiger dead, Marlowe thinks he’s done with the Sternwoods, but the truth turns out to be quite different. At one point, for instance, Carmen turns up in Marlowe’s place (he actually finds her in his bed), and her purpose is obviously to seduce him:
 

‘Then she took her left hand from under her head and took hold of the covers, paused dramatically, and swept them aside. She was undressed all right.’
 

There’s more, but this should be enough to show that, even though this novel was published a few years before Five Little Pigs, it’s more explicit. Most people classify the Philip Marlowe novels as noir, which tends to be more graphic than is the work of more traditional Golden Age authors such as Christie. So, part of what ‘counts’ as too much explicitness could very well be a matter of sub-genre. For instance, cosy mysteries are, in part, defined by their lack of explicitness.

Another factor at play here may be context. For example, C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series takes place during the Tudor years. Shardlake is an attorney, which gets him involved in the murder cases he investigates. Throughout the series, there are references, for instance, to affairs. But they’re more oblique references, and aren’t described in detail. It’s not because Sansom is required to avoid explicitness. Rather, that series isn’t the right context for it. It takes place at a time when such things were not discussed (at least publicly) using the ‘blow by blow’ accounts that we sometimes see in today’s novels. So a very graphic description wouldn’t really fit in with the rest of the context.

On the other hand, Lawrence Block’s Small Town, published in the same year (2003) as the first Matthew Shardlake novel, is quite different. It features a serial killer nicknamed the Carpenter, and a collection of different New York characters, including a dominatrix and the ex-police commissioner who falls in love with her. There’s plenty of drug use, sex, and other explicitness in this novel. It’s that sort of story. Block doesn’t include those aspects for ‘shock value.’

There’s also, of course, the matter of personal taste. Some readers are bothered by any mention of sex beyond the most oblique reference. Others don’t mind the detail. And, although the focus in this post has mostly been about sex, the same might be said for anything else that could be considered ‘obscene.’

For instance, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet has quite a lot of extremely explicit language. The same goes for Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town. Christopher Brookmyre’s work also can get quite explicit. Many readers prefer to avoid that sort of language; others aren’t so bothered by it. Is it obscene? That’s a difficult question to answer. I would argue (and please feel free to differ with me if you do) that the language in those books is not out of context. That is, it’s not put there for shock value. It’s woven into the stories and helps to give them their ‘feel.’ That said, though, there’s no denying that it’s profanity, and profanity offends some readers (or at least, it’s language they’re rather not read or hear).

This is, perhaps, part of why it’s so difficult to define ‘obscene. What ‘counts’ as obscene varies a great deal based on time, on context, on individual taste, and on other things. So, while there are some things that just about all of us would call obscene, there are others that aren’t at all so clear. What’s your view? What’s your ‘barometer,’ if you have one?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Mean Mr. Mustard.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Allen Ginsberg, C.J. Sansom, Christopher Brookmyre, D.H. Lawrence, James Ellroy, Karin Slaughter, Lawrence Block, Raymond Chandler

I’m Finding it Hard to Be Really As Black As They Paint*

petty-crime-and-murderIf you read enough crime fiction, you learn that, at least fictionally, anyone can be a killer. But are some people more likely to kill than others? For instance, are people who shoplift, or steal cars, or rob homes more likely to kill than are people who don’t commit those crimes? It’s not an easy question to answer, because there are a lot of different factors that play roles in who kills and who doesn’t (or in who embezzles and who doesn’t, or…). The picture isn’t really made any clearer by looking at crime fiction, either.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot speaks often of the psychology of someone who kills. And he differentiates it clearly from the psychology of someone who steals (not that he thinks either is acceptable). I don’t want to say much about specific Christie novels, for fear of spoilers, but I will say this. In many (not all!) cases, Poirot points out that just because a suspect has committed a crime (say theft) doesn’t mean that suspect is, per se, a murderer, too. He even makes this comment about the difference to Katherine Grey in The Mystery of the Blue Train:
 

‘You could, perhaps, love a thief, Mademoiselle, but not a murderer.’
 

That said though, there are cases (again, no spoilers) where someone who’s unmasked as a thief also turns out to be a killer.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, DCI Alan Banks has recently moved from London to the small Yorkshire town of Eastvale. He’s barely had time to settle in when he has deal with some difficult cases. For one thing, a voyeur is making the lives of Eastvale women miserable. There’s a lot of pressure on Banks and his team to catch this person. As if that’s not enough, there’s been a series of home invasions and thefts lately. And then, there’s a murder. Is there a connection between the home invasions and the killing? What about the peeper? The question of whether the same person is responsible for all (or some) of these activities is an important part of the novel.

A similar sort of question comes up in Colin Dexter’s The Remorseful Day. Two years before the events in the novel, Yvonne Harrison was murdered, and her body found in her bedroom. On the one hand, she led a private life that could easily have put her in danger. And her family life was complicated and dysfunctional. On the other, the police never could get sufficient evidence against one person, and the case was allowed to go cold. Now, a man named Harry Repp has been released from prison, where he was serving time for burglary. Anonymous tips have suggested that he killed Yvonne Harrison. Inspector Morse is assigned the case, but he seems quite reluctant to do much about it. So, Sergeant Lewis does most of the investigation. And he’s faced with a difficult question. There’s no doubt that Repp is a thief. Did he escalate to murder? Was he framed? As it turns out, this case isn’t going to be easy for anyone, least of all Morse or Lewis.

Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos introduces readers to a Marseilles police officer, Fabio Montale. He and his two good friends, Manu and Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini grew up in one of Marseilles’ rough districts. And they got into more than their share of trouble as young people. Then came a tragedy that caused Montale to re-think all of his choices. He served in the military, then returned to Marseilles and joined the police. Manu and Ugo, though, got involved in the criminal underworld. As the novel starts, Manu’s been murdered, and Ugo returns to Marseilles to avenge his friend’s death. When he, too, is killed, Montale feels a sense of obligation to find out what happened to his friends.  Without giving away spoilers, I can say that it’s interesting to see how being involved in petty crime impacted each of these characters.

In one plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage, we meet Vincent Naylor. He’s recently been released from prison, and has quite a history with law enforcement. He has no desire to go back inside, so he’s decided not to take any more risks. Not unless the payoff is so great that it makes the risk worthwhile. He thinks much more in terms of heist and theft than he does of murder. After his release, he meets up with his brother Noel, his girlfriend, Michelle, and some other friends. Before long, they begin to plan a major heist – one that will set them all up financially. Their target will be Protectica, a security company that transports cash among various Dublin banks. The group plans out every detail of what they’re going to do, and pull off the heist. But then, things begin to go badly wrong. There’s no doubt that Vincent Naylor is a thief who’s been in more than one scuffle with the law. Does that mean he’s a murderer, too? It’s an interesting layer in this novel.

Of course, there are characters such as Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder, and Lawrence Block’s Bernie ‘the Burglar’ Rhodenbarr. They’re thieves, and have committed other crimes, too. But they aren’t what you’d call ‘natural’ killers. And, of course, any crime fiction fan knows that there are characters who are completely law-abiding – until the day they kill. So perhaps the connection between crimes such as theft, home invasion and so on and murder isn’t really clear. Certainly the law puts those crimes in very different categories. What do you think about all of this?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart’s Reviewing the Situation.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Donald Westlake, Gene Kerrigan, Jean-Claude Izzo, Lawrence Block, Peter Robinson

Multi-Million Dollar Heist*

HeistsHave you ever seen George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)? If you have, then you know its focus is an outlaw gang called the Hole in the Wall Gang. One of their goals is to rob the Union Pacific’s Overland Flyer, and the gang makes preparations to do so – twice, on both the eastward and westward run of the train. The first time they’re successful. The second train’s arrival, though, sets off a chain of events that changes the story dramatically. Throughout the story, though, the two lead characters, played by, respectively, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, are portrayed sympathetically.

More than that, Hill built the tension in this film not through a murder (or murders) and the investigation, but through the plans and execution of a heist. And that makes sense. Fictional heists can add at least as much conflict and tension as a murder can, not to mention another layer to a plot. It’s little wonder, then, that they figure so often in crime fiction.

Many heist novels do include murders or other deaths. It’s just that it’s the heist that’s the main plot, rather than the murder(s). There are a lot of heist novels out there. I’ll just mention a few; I know you’ll think of more.

In Robert Pollock’s Loophole, or: How to Rob a Bank, we are introduced to professional thief Mike Daniels and his teammates Harry and Gardner. They decide to pull off a difficult, but potentially very lucrative job – a theft from the City Deposit Bank. It’s a heavily guarded bank with the latest in security, so it’s not going to be easy. In fact, in order to carry their plan out, the thieves will need the services of an architect. They find one in the person of Stephen Booker, who’s recently been laid off from his job and hasn’t been able to find another. In fact, he’s been driving cab at night to pay the bills. That’s how he meets Daniels, who finally convinces Booker to join the thieves. They prepare very carefully for the heist, and on the day of the job, all goes well at first. Then a sudden storm blows up, and changes everything for the men.

In Donald Westlake’s The Hot Rock, we are introduced to professional thief John Dortmunder. He’s recently been released from prison, and the plan is that he’ll ‘go straight.’ But that’s before he meets up with his old friend and co-conspirator Andy Kelp. Kelp tells Dortmunder that a new heist is in the works, one that’s worth ten thousand dollars to each member of the team. The target is a valuable gem called the Balabomo Emerald, currently on display at the Coliseum in New York. While the African nation of Akinzi claims ownership, another African nation, Talabwo, contests that claim. Talabwo’s Ambassador to the US, Major Patrick Iko, wants the gem, and is willing to pay the heist team to get it. Dortmunder, Kelp, and the rest of the gang meet and plan the heist very carefully. But almost from the beginning, things don’t go at all as the team planned…  Westlake’s Dortmunder series sees the heist team get in several serious situations as they plan and try to carry out difficult heists.

Fans of Lawrence Block will tell you that one of his series features Bernie Rhodenbarr, who’s a New York bookseller. But he’s also a burglar. In fact, he served a prison sentence as a young man. Now he’s determined not to get caught again, so he’s very careful when he plans a heist. He’s good at what he does, but he sometimes has a habit of finding bodies when he’s actually on the trail of some other prize. Bernie is well aware that it’s illegal to break and enter, but he’s what you might call addicted to the thrill. This series is lighter than Block’s Matthew Scudder series. Although I don’t usually like to compare series, it has a hint of similarity to Westlake’s Dortmunder series on that score.

In one plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage, we are introduced to Vincent Naylor. He’s recently been released from prison, and has no desire to go ‘back inside.’ So he’s careful about avoiding risk unless the payoff is very much worth it. He meets up with this girlfriend, Michelle Flood, his brother Noel, and some other friends; together, they come up with an idea for a heist that will set them all up for life. The target is Protectica, a company that provides secured transportation of cash among different banks. The heist is planned down to the last detail, and everyone is hoping it’ll go smoothly. At first, things do go well. But then, there’s a tragic turn of events that changes everything.

And then there’s Andrew Nette’s Gunshine State. Gary Chance is, among other things, a professional thief who’s been lying low in South Australia. A union leader friend of his named Lawrence convinces him to work a robbery so he can have money to care for his wife Faye, who has cancer. When that robbery goes wrong, Chance knows he has to get out of the area. So he heads for Brisbane. There, he meets Dennis Curry, who runs certain non-casino poker games. Curry wants to rob wealthy Frederick ‘Freddie’ Gao, who’s one of his high rollers. Chance meets the rest of Curry’s team and takes the job. Not one of the other team members is a reliable, straightforward sort of thief, but they’re the people Curry has picked. Despite the fact that he doesn’t really trust them, Chance has to work with them to plan the heist with as few risks as possible. But this doesn’t turn out to be anything like the sort of job Chance thought he was taking.

There are, of course, many other kinds of heist novels. Some, such as Gunshine State, are a little grittier. Others are lighter. But all of them have an added layer of tension that comes from the heist and the planning that leads up to it. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blue Meanies’ Big Brother’s Watching.

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Filed under Andrew Nette, Donald Westlake, Gene Kerrigan, Lawrence Block, Robert Pollock

A Public Service Update… ;-)

The GirlFair Warning: this post is not appropriate for impressionable disbeliefs. So please have your disbelief leave the room as you read this. Thank you.

As a public-spirited citizen, and especially one who’s interested in crime fiction, I feel a responsibility to alert you to things that are going on in the genre. In that spirit, let me make you aware of a potentially dangerous individual who’s been lurking among recent crime novels. That’s right, I’m referring to an unnamed person I’ll refer to as The Girl.

She’s become a prominent character in a lot of crime fiction, but she’s just been reported as a Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn).  In case you haven’t noticed, let me fill you in on what she’s been doing and why authorities are looking for her. You’ll soon see why she’s a cause for concern.

Let’s begin with what she’s been doing. There is evidence that she is The Girl Who Played With Fire (Stieg Larsson), and that’s of course always dangerous. Word is also that she’s The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (Stieg Larsson). That’s a very risky thing to do, as it could result in swarms of hornets who could pose a threat. She’s quite possibly been responsible for a great deal more harm, too, so I think it’s important that the public be aware of this person.

Here is what we know about her appearance. One important identifying feature is that she’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson). It’s quite likely that you’ll notice her right away, as she’ll be The Girl in the Green Raincoat (Laura Lippman). Reports are, though, that she’s been seen in other clothes. For instance, you may see her as The Girl in the Red Coat (Kate Hamer).  So don’t be fooled by changes in clothes. The ‘photo above is provided so that you can get a sense of what she may look like.

Hospitals and doctors’ offices are also being alerted to the presence of this girl. She will likely stand out at such places, because she is The Girl With a Clock For a Heart (Peter Swanson). As if that weren’t unusual enough, we’ve also gotten reports that it’s a unique sort of a clock. In fact, some people call this girl The Girl With the Long Green Heart (Lawrence Block). That may very well be because of the shape and appearance of this clock. Authorities aren’t sure at this point where the clock came from, or what the girl’s purpose was in having it. It’s possible that she stole it or was transporting it for someone else.  Either way, it’s hoped that if the girl goes for medical treatment of some kind, the clock can then be traced to its source.

There have been several alleged sightings of this girl. Some witnesses have reported seeing The Girl on the Stairs (Louise Welsh). Others, though, insist that they saw The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins). Descriptions of the girl were not clear enough to establish whether the witnesses were speaking of the same, or of two different, girls. Authorities are not ruling out either possibility. There has even been speculation that she was The Girl in the Ice (Robert Bryndza), as some witnesses have suggested. That possibility seems less likely, though.

Whatever her actual whereabouts may be, this girl has certainly caused quite an upheaval in the crime fiction genre, and authorities would like to find her as soon as possible. If you do happen to see her, use extreme caution in approaching her. She’s been involved in all sorts of crime-fictional doings. Keep an eye out: she could even be The Girl Next Door (Ruth Rendell).

Thank you very much for your kind attention and alert observation in this matter. The more of us who know about this girl, the more likely it is she’ll be found. Now, please feel free to pick up your disbelief as you exit. Thank you.

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Filed under Gillian Flynn, Kate Hamer, Laura Lippman, Lawrence Block, Louise Welsh, Paula Hawkins, Peter Swanson, Robert Bryndza, Ruth Rendell, Stieg Larsson