Category Archives: Martha Grimes

Been Caught Stealing*

One of the big challenges that a lot of retailers face is shoplifting. I got to thinking of this after I read a fascinating post by K.B. Owen, author of the Concordia Wells historical mysteries. Her post is an interesting reminder that shoplifting has been around for a long time. It’s well worth the read. And so are the Concordia Wells stories, so you’ll want to try them.

Shoplifting shows up in a lot of crime fiction, as you can imagine. Sometimes, it’s a sub-plot; sometimes, it’s a major part of the main plot. Either way, it’s interesting to see how it’s been treated over the years.

In Agatha Christie’s short story, The Veiled Lady, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from Lady Millicent Castle Vaughn. She says she is being blackmailed over an indiscreet letter she wrote several years earlier. The blackmailer – a Mr. Lavington – will send her letter to her wealthy, titled fiancé if she doesn’t pay. She wants Poirot to try to get the letter for her. Poirot manages that feat in a very creative way. And, he and Hastings find that the letter is connected to the audacious daylight robbery of an upmarket jewelry store.

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe begins as Perry Mason and Della Street take refuge from a rainstorm in a department store. There, they witness a store security officer arrest Sarah Breel for shoplifting. It turns out to be a regular habit of hers; so usually, her niece, Virginia Trent, goes shopping with her to prevent any incidents. But this time, the two got separated for just enough time for Aunt Sarah to fall back into her usual pattern. Mason gets involved in this family’s problems when Virginia Trent comes to him with an even more difficult situation. Her uncle is a gem expert, who buys, sells, cleans, and custom-cuts gems on commission. When he’s away, Aunt Sarah runs the business, and now, a valuable set of diamonds has gone missing. And there’s every reason to believe she has it. Austin Cullens, the dealer who acted as ‘go-between’ for the diamonds, doesn’t think that Aunt Sarah stole the diamonds, though. Everything changes when Cullens is murdered, and Aunt Sarah becomes the prime suspect. Now, Mason goes to work to find out who the murderer really is, and what happened to the diamonds.

In John Dickson Carr’s Death-Watch, a police detective named Ames is found dead in a rooming house owned by Johannes Carver. He’s gone to the boardinghouse in the guise of a homeless man to investigate a rash of shoplifting incidents. He’d settled on one of Carver’s lodgers as the guilty party, and was ready to make an arrest. But this case doesn’t turn out to be as simple as a shoplifter who killed a police officer to avoid arrest. This is Carr after all…

The main plot of Martha Grimes’ The Old Contemptibles concerns the Holdsworth family. Inspector Richard Jury meets Jane Holdsworth at a marketplace, and they are drawn to each other. They begin a relationship, but then, Jane is murdered. Jury finds himself a suspect in the killing, but he knows (and so do the rest of us) that he’s not guilty. His friend, Melrose Plant, helps him look into the backgrounds of the other members of the family, to find out which one of them would have wanted the victim dead. And it turns out that there’s more than one possibility. One of the characters we meet in the story is a local shoplifter named Jimmy the Dip. Early in the story, Jury’s at the marketplace where he meets Jane, when he sees Jimmy, prowling for opportunities. In fact, he actually witnesses Jimmy ‘accidentally’ bumping into a customer who’s just made a purchase. He decides not to make the arrest. For one thing, Jimmy seems to make apologies, so it’s not clear he actually stole anything. For another, Jimmy is a valuable source of information on other criminals who,
 

‘…did more than just work the Passage.’
 

Finally, it’s not that Jury condones shoplifting; he certainly doesn’t.  But he does have a soft spot for Jimmy.

And then there’s Sue Grafton’s V is For Vengeance. In it, Marvin Striker hires PI Kinsey Millhone to find out the truth about his fiancée’s death. It seems that Audrey Vance (Striker’s fiancée) committed suicide, and that’s what’s on the official report. But Striker doesn’t think that’s the case, and he wants Millhone to investigate. She soon learns that the dead woman was a shoplifter and professional thief. In fact, she believes that Striker is wrong, and that his fiancée was conning him. The search for answers leads to a Los Vegas ‘private banker’ and a wealthy ‘attorney to the stars’ and his wife.

Even though it doesn’t usually end in violence, shoplifting costs retailers millions a year. And, of course, that cost ultimately gets passed on to the rest of us. So, in real life, it’s little wonder that shops want to do everything they can to reduce ‘shrink.’ In crime fiction, though, shoplifting can be an interesting sub-plot, or add an interesting layer to a character.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jane’s Addiction.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, John Dickson Carr, Martha Grimes, Sue Grafton

Been So Long Since I Last Saw You*

letting-a-series-goI’ll bet you know the feeling. You read about – or someone mentions – an author whose work you’ve always admired. Then it hits you: you haven’t caught up with that author’s work in a long time – perhaps too long. How does it happen that we stop reading one or another of our top authors?

I’m not talking here of authors who’ve put you off for one reason or another. We all have lists of authors like that. Rather, I mean authors you really like, but whose books you haven’t kept up with the way you wanted to do.

There are, of course, any number of reasons that might happen. And our reasons for not keeping up with a series can be as varied as we are. So, I can only speak for myself. That said, I do find it a really interesting topic, and I’d love your input on it.

Sometimes, people don’t keep up with, or finish, a series they really enjoy because there are just too many entries in it. For instance, Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series runs to more than 50 novels. It’s very difficult to keep up with a series that long. That takes quite a commitment. So, I have to confess, I’ve not read every entry in this series (although I would like to). And one of the things about this series is that it does depict changes in the characters’ lives as time goes by and as they evolve. For that reason, it would be especially good to follow the series straight through in its entirety. I’ve not, but perhaps someday.

There are authors who take a hiatus from a series – sometimes a long one – and then bring it back. That’s what Philip Kerr did with his Bernie Gunther series. Fans of this series will know that it begins with the Berlin Noir trilogy that takes place just before and during World War II. Gunther is a private detective, who’s trying to negotiate the very risky landscape that is Berlin at that time. After the first few novels, Kerr didn’t publish a Bernie Gunther novel for fifteen years. In that time, people move on to other things. Or, their tastes may change. That could very easily impact someone’s decision to keep up with a series. In fact, you could argue that it’s a real tribute to Kerr’s skill that he found a ready audience for his more recent Gunther novels.

In those sorts of cases, it’s understandable enough that someone might not keep up with a series, even an excellent one. What, to me, is more interesting is the case of the series where there’s no obvious reason to let it go, but we do.  Again, everyone is different about this, but for me, Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury series falls into that category. It’s a well-regarded series, with interesting characters and some wit. There are solid puzzles in it, too. I didn’t keep up with that series the way I wanted to, and it has nothing to do with its quality. Nor is it because my tastes have changed dramatically. Perhaps it’s got something to do with time; no-one has time to read everything that’s good. But this is one of those series that I’d like to keep up with better than I did.

So is the “Emma Lathen’ writing team’s John Putnam Thatcher series. Fans can tell you that it has as its context the banking and finance industry, with Thatcher as a vice president for the Sloan Guaranty Trust. The series is very well regarded, and with good reason. I know people who’ve read every one of the novels, too. I’ll confess I haven’t. And there’s no specific reason for that, either. I like the series, I like Thatcher’s character, and so on.  It’s just one of those series that simply hasn’t stayed in the forefront of my reading.

Neither has the work of Robert Barnard, who created several terrific crime-fictional characters. A few are recurring (such as PI Perry Trethowan). Others of his novels are standalones. In both cases, Barnard wrote some solid and well-crafted stories. I enjoyed those that I read very much. But…I didn’t keep up with them. It’s got nothing to do with the quality of the books, and I do recommend them.

Those are just a few examples from my own reading. Perhaps you have some of your own. And that raises a question (at least for me). If we don’t stop reading a series for quality reasons, why do we? Is it the ‘Oooh, shiny’ factor of new novels and new-to-us authors? It is the time factor? Or, perhaps, is it that ‘I will never catch up’ feeling when it occurs to you that you’re four or five books behind with an author?

I’d love to hear from you about this. Which enjoyable series have you let slip away? Do you plan to pick up where you left off?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Hollies’ Come on Back.

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Filed under Ed McBain, Emma Lathen, Martha Grimes, Philip Kerr, Robert Barnard

The Wise Old Owl, The Big Black Crow*

Bird WatchingAn interesting comment exchange with Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about birds and bird watching. It’s a delightful pastime, really. It gets you out into nature, it doesn’t have to be expensive, and it can be really interesting. You might think of it as peaceful, too, but if you read crime fiction, you’ll soon see that it isn’t at all. There are plenty of examples of ways in which bird watching can get you into a lot of danger.

The novel Moira and I were discussing was Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage, in which Miss Marple has quite a hand in solving the killing of Colonel Protheroe. Miss Marple isn’t an avid bird watching enthusiast in the sense of belonging to the local Society, or going on lots of bird-watching excursions. But she does find bird watching to be a very handy explanation for the binoculars that she uses to see what some of the other characters are doing. And those binoculars give her useful information.

In Colin Dexter’s The Way Through the Woods, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis ‘inherit’ a cold case. Swedish tourist Karin Eriksson went missing a year ago during a trip to Wales. She was on her way through Wytham Woods when she disappeared, and as you’d expect, a thorough search was conducted there. The only useful discovery was a rucksack belonging to the young woman. In it was a small book called A Birdwatcher’s Guide and a list of birds with some names checked off. Now Morse and Lewis are tasked with tracing her movements and, hopefully, finding her body, so that they can learn the truth about what happened. As they do so, we see just what trouble you can get yourself into by taking an interest in birds…

Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace sees Inspector Richard Jury called to the small town of Littlebourne when a local dog discovers a human finger. Jury’s friend Melrose Plant soon joins him there and, each in a different way, start to investigate. They don’t get very far when another grim discovery is made. Ernestine Craigie is a bird-watching fanatic, who’s happy to get up at all hours in hopes of completing her list. That’s how she discovers the body that belongs to the finger. The victim turns out to be Cora Binns, who worked for a London temporary secretary agency. Jury and Plant eventually find that her death is related to a brutal attack on another Littlebourne resident, as well as to a robbery that occurred in the area about a year earlier.

And then there’s Holger Eriksson, whom we meet in Henning Mankell’s The Fifth Woman. He’s a retired car dealer who’s taken up poetry and bird watching. One night, he goes out to watch some migrating birds, and is brutally murdered. Inspector Kurt Wallander is sick at the moment, and really didn’t need an extra case. But when Eriksson is reported missing, he has to respond. When the victim’s body is discovered, Wallander and his team have to find out who would have wanted to kill a seemingly inoffensive elderly man who just wanted to be left alone with his poetry and his birds. In the end, they discover a connection between this murder and the murder of a local florist. And they learn how those deaths are related to five murders in Africa a year earlier.

Several of Ann Cleeves’ stories feature bird enthusiasts, bird sanctuaries and bird watching. For example, in A Bird in the Hand, we are introduced to Tom Porter, a Norfolk ‘twitcher’ – bird watching fanatic – who works as a vegetable chef/kitchen porter. One morning he keeps a promise to himself to get up early and head for the marsh on a bird watching excursion. He’s found later face-down in a pool on the marsh, with his binoculars still on his neck. George Palmer-Jones is a twitcher himself, and a retired Home Office investigator. So naturally he takes an interest in the case. One thing that he notices immediately is that no-one seems to be especially upset about Porter’s death. And the more Palmer-Jones and his wife Molly look into the case, the more suspects they find. I know, I know, fans of Blue Lightning and The Crow Trap

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s One For the Rook. Blake Heatherington is a milliner who’s getting ready to retire. He’s got his beloved allotment in the village of Tuesbury, and is no longer interested in the increasingly annoying commute to his London shop. Hoping for a peaceful autumn, he’s getting ready for a local harvest festival. Then, he discovers the body of Peter Kürbis in his pumpkin patch, killed, it would seem, by Heatherington’s own prize pumpkin. The police are looking into this murder when another Tuesbury resident is killed. In the meantime, there’s another strange occurrence. A rookery that’s been in the area for some time seems to have disappeared. It’s a traditional sign of bad luck when rooks leave a place, and that’s certainly what happens here. One of the suspects in these murders is Dennis Nyeman, former member of the local caged bird society, and strident (and aggressive) proponent of those who want right of way through all of the local allotments. No, the rooks aren’t the killers here. But there’s certainly interest in birds in this story.

So do be careful, please, if you decide to spend some time contemplating our feathered friends. It’s important to connect with nature. But it’s not always good for the health. Little wonder a group of crows is called a ‘murder…’

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leon René/Jimmie Thomas’ Rockin’ Robin, made famous first by Bobby Day and later by Michael Jackson.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Colin Dexter, D.S. Nelson, Henning Mankell, Martha Grimes

You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)*

Police in Supporting RolesFor obvious reasons, police characters play critical roles in crime fiction. Even when the main character is a PI or perhaps amateur sleuth, we see a lot of police presence. It’s a bit tricky to write a story where the police play an important role, but aren’t main characters. On the one hand, the author wants the protagonist to be the main focus of attention, which means that character needs to be featured and developed. On the other, readers know that it’s the police who have the authority to make arrests, and who have the resources and government sanction to go after criminals. Most readers want their crime fiction plots to reflect that. And they want their police characters to be more than caricatures. It’s interesting to see how different authors have integrated police character when they are not (co)protagonists.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s police characters are arguably often used to highlight just how skilled his Sherlock Holmes is. Holmes fans will know that he has, in general, little respect for the police. He works most often with Inspector Tobias Gregson and of course with Inspector Lestrade, and refers to them as,
 

‘…the pick of a bad lot.’
 

To Holmes, the police of Scotland Yard are thick-headed and miss obvious evidence. Gergson and Lestrade are, perhaps, less guilty. At least they notice when things don’t add up. But even so, they certainly don’t save the day. That’s Holmes’ role.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are definitely the ‘stars’ of his series. But Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins also play roles in the stories. Rarely does Wolfe approve of what they do, although both he and Goodwin depend on them for actual arrests. And as fans will know, Cramer, Stebbins and Lieutenant Rowcliff aren’t always happy about what Wolfe and Goodwin do, either. In this series, the police play a more integral role than just making Wolfe, Goodwin and their team look good. And that makes sense, given how important police are to crime detection. They’re not bumbling imbeciles, either (‘though Wolfe might beg to differ at times). Rather, they add tension and sometimes conflict to the stories.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot gets ‘top billing’ in most of the novels and stories that feature him. But the police certainly play integral roles, although not as ‘co-stars.’ And although Poirot is not at all modest about his own powers of deduction, he does have respect for police detectives whom he considers to be good at their jobs. And he often says that the police have more resources at their disposal than he does; in fact, he frequently suggests that his clients go to the police. Chief Inspector Japp is perhaps the best-known of Poirot’s police associates. But he’s not the only recurring police character. There’s also Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence. And of course, other police characters make one-time appearances. In just about all of those cases, the police play a supporting role, but an important one. We may not get much of a look at their home lives or what it’s like at the police station, but they do matter in the stories. It’s interesting too that Christie created a mix of skilled detectives (such as Japp) whom Poirot respects, and detectives for whom he has little liking (Am I right, fans of The Murder on the Links?).

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels feature Wimsey, and later, Harriet Vane, as protagonists. But Inspector Charles Parker is an important supporting character. In Clouds of Witness, where we first meet him, Parker is called in to help the local police find the killer of Dennis Cathcart. The victim was the fiancé of Lady Mary Wimsey, Lord Peter’s sister; and at one point, the evidence seems to implicate her. Luckily for both her and Parker (who has fallen in love with her), it turns out that Cathcart’s murderer was someone else. As the series goes on, Parker marries Lady Mary, and he and Wimsey become friends. That makes things a bit awkward in Strong Poison, when Parker gets solid evidence that mystery novelist Harriet Vane has poisoned her former lover Philip Boyes. Wimsey has fallen in love with the accused, and is determined to clear her name so that he can marry her. And Parker’s made out the case against her. Still, they do work together, and in the end, Parker helps Wimsey find the truth about the murder. In this series, Parker plays the role of friend, sometimes-confidant, and professional resource for Wimsey.

The protagonist of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… mysteries is newspaper columnist James ‘Qwilll’ Qwilleran. Circumstances have placed him in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The stories are told from Qwill’s perspective, and he’s the one who often puts the pieces of the puzzle together. But one of the important supporting characters in the series is Police Chief Andrew Brodie. Qwill respects Brodie as an intelligent police professional, and he lets Brodie and his team do the evidence-gathering and arresting. Brodie may not be a main protagonist in this series, but he does have a key supporting role. Especially in series such as this, where the protagonist is an amateur sleuth, the presence of a recurring police-officer character adds realism.

It does in K.B. Owen’s series, too. These historical mysteries, which take place at the very end of the 19th Century, feature Concordia Wells, a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut)’s Women’s College. She herself is, of course, not on the police force. And during the era in which she lives, it’s considered unseemly for ladies to be interested in crime and detection anyway. But she is insatiably curious, and does get drawn into murder as it touches those she knows. She’s made a friend of Lieutenant Aaron Capshaw, who is married to her best friend Sophie. Capshaw isn’t the main character of this series. But he plays an important role, since he has access to information that isn’t available to civilians. In that sense, his presence in the stories makes the series more realistic.

You’ll notice I’m not mentioning series such as Stuart Palmer’s, Elly Griffiths’ or Martha Grimes’, which feature recurring police characters. That’s because in those cases and cases like them, the police character really is one of the protagonists. That dynamic can be highly effective. But it’s also interesting to look at cases where the police are supporting players. Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Elly Griffiths, K.B. Owen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Martha Grimes, Rex Stout, Stuart Palmer

We Just Saw It From a Different Point of View*

PerspectivesonCultureWhile I was in Madrid I had several interesting conversations with José Ignacio at The Game’s Afoot. One of them was about the differences between books written by authors who are members of the cultures they write about, and books written by authors who aren’t. One the one hand, someone who’s not a member of a given culture can offer a distinctive perspective on that culture. On the other, a member of a culture has an intimate knowledge of that culture’s subtleties and nuances. So the reader can really get an ‘insider’s view.’

The diversity of crime fiction lets us use both perspectives, and that in turn gives us a better understanding of the places and cultures that are discussed in the genre. Let me just offer a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll have many more to offer.

Ruth Rendell is English. Her novels under her own name and as Barbara Vine reflect her background; she is very much a member of the culture that’s featured in her work. Whether it’s her Inspector Wexford novels or one of her other works, we really get the ‘insider view’ on her culture. The same could be said of course of many other English authors. By contrast, Martha Grimes is American, although most of her Inspector Richard Jury novels take place in England. Like any two authors, these two have different writing styles and that’s clear in their novels. But beyond that, there’s an interesting question of the way they write about England. One has the intimate knowledge of the ‘insider.’ The other has the distinctive perspective of someone from a different culture.

We also see a contrast in crime fiction that takes place in Spain (and this is what José Ignacio and I spoke of in our conversation). In recent decades, there’ve been several Spanish authors who have given readers an ‘insider’s’ look at life in different parts of Spain. Authors such as Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who wrote the Pepe Carvalho series, and more recently Domingo Villar (the Inspector Leo Caldas series) and Teresa Solana (the Martínez brothers PI series) have portrayed Spanish life from a ‘local’s’ point of view if I may put it that way. There’ve also been many novels set in Spain that weren’t written by Spanish authors. For instance, Roderic Jeffries (the Inspector Enrique Álvarez series) is English. And Jason Webster, author of the Chief Inspector Max Cámara series, is Anglo-American. There are lots of other such examples too. These authors do vary in their writing styles of course. But you could also argue that there is a difference in perspective between novels about Spain written by Spaniards, and novels about Spain that are written by members of other cultures.

Both H.R.F. Keating and Tarquin Hall have written series that take place in India. Keating’s of course features Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay police force. Hall’s sleuth is Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Neither author was born in India, so you could argue that these series are written from the perspective of people who aren’t members of a given culture. On the other hand, Kishwar Desai is Indian. Her Simran Singh series has an ‘insider’ perspective because she is a member of one of India’s cultures. When it comes to India, one could make the point that because the British were in India for a long time, they became members of one Indian culture – the Anglo-Indian culture. And there are still close ties on many levels between India and the UK. But there is arguably a difference between books about India written by, say, English authors and those written by members of one of India’s original cultures.

The Chinese detective story has a long history, and many Chinese crime fiction stories haven’t been translated into other languages. But there are authors such as A Yi, Qiu Xiaolong and Diane Wei Liang, whose novels have been translated. Through those authors’ perspectives, readers get an ‘insider look’ at life in Beijing, Shanghai and other places in China. There have also of course been crime fiction stories set in China that aren’t written by Chinese authors. For instance, there’s Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee series, which is set in China’s northwest. Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing takes place mostly in Beijing. So does Catherine Sampson’s The Pool of Unease. And of course plenty of authors have had their protagonists visit China, even if the novel wasn’t set there. Those novels also depict life in China, but many people would say the authors have a different perspective, since they are not native members of any of the Chinese cultures.

Thai author Tew Bunnag has given readers a unique perspective on life in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. Admittedly he doesn’t exclusively write crime fiction, but through his stories we get an ‘insider’ look at the country. Many other authors, such as John Burdett, Andrew Grant, Timothy Hallinan and Angela Savage, also write about Thailand. Their perspectives are different because they aren’t members of that culture, but that’s just what makes those perspectives valuable. We get a broad look at the country from both points of view, if you will.

And that’s the beauty of the diversity in the genre. There’s room enough for both perspectives. These are just a few examples. Lots of other countries and cultures have been portrayed in crime fiction both by members and by non-members. My guess is that you’d be able to contribute a much longer list than I would.

How do you feel about this issue? Do you see a difference between novels written by members of a culture, and novels that aren’t? Writing style aside, for instance, do you see a difference between the work of Donna Leon and that of Andrea Camilleri, both of whom write about Italy? Do you see a difference between the portrayal of South Africa in the work of Malla Nunn, who is Australian, and its portrayal in the work of Deon Meyer, who is South African?  If you do see such a difference, do you find it off-putting?

And then there’s perhaps a more difficult question. How do you feel about the way your own culture is portrayed in crime fiction? Does it bother you when it’s portrayed by someone who’s not a member (assuming of course that the writer is accurate)?

If you’re a writer, do you write about another culture? If you do, what drew you to it?

 

ps  The ‘photo is of a sculpture by Joan Miró, which now makes its home in Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía,

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue.

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Filed under A Yi, Andrea Camilleri, Andrew Grant, Angela Savage, Barbara Vine, Catherine Sampson, Deon Meyer, Diane Wei Liang, Domingo Villar, Donna Leon, H.R.F. Keating, Jason Webster, John Burdett, Kishwar Desai, Malla Nunn, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Martha Grimes, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Van Gulik, Roderic Jeffries, Ruth Rendell, Shamini Flint, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana, Tew Bunnag, Timothy Hallinan