Category Archives: Michael Connelly

I Wasn’t There But I Heard it All*

As this is posted, it’s 103 years since Thomas Edison invented the telescribe, a device for recording telephone conversations. Since that time, of course, technology has dramatically changed the way conversations are recorded. But the basic idea – that someone can record and later listen to one’s telephone conversations – hasn’t.

The notion of recording private telephone conversations without consent is controversial. On the one hand, wiretapping can lead to valuable information that catches criminals. On the other, there are serious issues of privacy and civil rights when telephone conversations are recorded. So, in general (not to say this always happens!), the police need a warrant in order to be allowed to record someone’s conversations without that person’s consent.

As you can imagine, there are plenty of mentions of wiretapping in crime fiction. And it doesn’t just happen in spy thrillers. Space only permits a few examples; I know you’ll think of many more than I ever could.

In Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes, we meet professional thief John ‘Duke’ Anderson. He’s recently been released from prison, and is trying to live a legitimate life, with a legitimate job. Then, he gets the chance to visit a luxury Manhattan apartment building. The visit gives Anderson the idea for a major heist: robbing the entire building. To do that, he’ll need materials and support, so he begins to enlist both from his contacts. What he doesn’t know is that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been wiretapping several of those contacts. So, most his conversations with those people are being recorded. In fact, plenty of the story is told through transcripts of those recordings. As Anderson begins to make final plans, the question becomes: will the police find out about the heist in time to be able to stop it?

James Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover is the third in his Underworld USA trilogy. The novel takes place between 1968 and 1972, and it follows the political and other machinations of those years (e.g. J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with civil rights leaders, the Mob’s behind-the-scenes development of casinos, and Nixon’s political ambitions). Three people – Wayne Tedrow, Jr. (who is a drug runner), Dwight Holly (an FBI agent whose father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan), and Don ‘Crutch’ Crutchfield (who does menial PI work) – are caught up in all of the complexity. The plot involves several ‘backroom deals’ and more than one betrayal. And it features quite a lot of wiretapping, which shouldn’t be surprising to those who know what the US political situation was during that era.

In Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion, Anna Travis joins the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. At the time, the squad is facing a perplexing case. Seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been murdered, and the profile of her death fits that of six other women who’ve also been killed. But there are major differences. For instance, the other victims were older sex workers, but Melissa was young, and not a sex worker. Still, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) James Langton believes that the same killer is responsible. After a time, the team settles on a suspect: up-and-coming television/film star Alan Daniels. But it’s going to be difficult. He is beloved, wealthy, and well-connected. What’s more, there’s very little evidence that conclusively links him to the crime. He may, in fact, be innocent. As the story goes on, the team uses recordings and ‘wires’ to find out the truth, and it’s interesting to see how those fit in.

Ed McBain’s Criminal Conversation (he wrote this one as Evan Hunter) features an ambitious assistant district attorney named Michael Welles. He has a particular loathing for the Mob, so when a thug named Dominick di Nobili is ready tell what he knows about Mob operations, Welles is only too happy to listen. It seems that de Nobili owed a big gambling debt to a loan shark, and the result is that he’s now caught between two major crime families: the Colottis and the Faviolas. As he sees it, he’s safer in police custody than he is on the streets. Welles arranges for all sorts of telephone tapping and other surveillance, thinking he finally has the opportunity to bring down these crime groups. But what he doesn’t know is what the wiretapping will actually reveal. When he finds that out, he learns that it’s all much closer to home than he imagined.

And then there’s Michael Connelly’s The Closers. In that novel, Harry Bosch is working in the Open-Unsolved Unit of the LAPD. And, in one plot thread, he re-opens the murder of sixteen-year-old Rebecca Verloren, who was taken from her parents’ home and shot. Bosch finds that there’s a possible DNA match between evidence on the gun used in the crime, and a man named Roland Mackey. Now that his interest in Mackey is piqued, Bosch wants to trace Rebecca’s last few days and weeks, to see if there’d been any contact with Mackey. More than that, Bosch wants to record Mackey’s telephone conversations. As he says to his colleague, Kiz Rider,
 

‘‘…since Nine-Eleven and the Patriot Act it’s easier for us to get a wiretap.’
 

And she agrees:
 

‘The word’s sort of gotten around that this is a tool we can use now.’’
 

That said, though, approval for recording telephone conversations isn’t usually given capriciously.

And there’s good reason for that. Recording and listening to someone’s telephone conversations is an invasion of that person’s privacy. But at the same time, it can yield valuable information. So, it’s little wonder that tactic is used in some criminal investigation. An, of course, that means it shows up in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: the title of this post is a line from the Undertones’ Listening In.

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Filed under Ed McBain, Evan Hunter, James Ellroy, Lawrence Sanders, Lynda La Plante, Michael Connelly

A Small Offense*

Most people see a big difference between little peccadillos and larger crimes. Certainly, the law does. Some things, like speeding, are technically illegal, but a lot of people do them with no sense of remorse. There are other little ‘sins’ like that, too. It’s not a good idea to speed too much, or to bring that stapler home from the office. But those are things people do.

Those little things can get people into difficult situations, though. Just look at some examples from crime fiction, and you’ll see what I mean. There are plenty of cases where a character starts out by doing something questionable and ends up drawn into something more.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, we are introduced to Edna Sweetiman. She’s not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, as the saying goes. And she’s gotten herself into a bit of a mess. She’s been meeting a married man – one whom her parents have strictly forbidden her to see. But their disapproval doesn’t stop her. One night, she’s waiting by a corner (their meeting-place) when she happens to see a woman go into a nearby house. That in itself doesn’t mean very much to Edna. But then, the news breaks that the owner of the house, Laura Upward, has been murdered. Now, Edna’s evidence could be essential. But she doesn’t want to admit to anyone, least of all her father, what she was doing. Still, as her mother says, she saw what she saw, and must report it. With a little help, Edna finally does just that. It turns out that this murder is related to an earlier one that Hercule Poirot is investigating. And, although Edna’s evidence isn’t the ‘smoking gun,’ it’s a clue worth having.

In Minette Walters’ The Breaker, brothers Paul and Daniel Spender are doing some exploring near Chapman’s Pool on the Dorset coast. They’ve – ahem – borrowed their father’s very expensive binoculars for the trip; after all, what harm could it do? As they’re using the binoculars to look around, they see the body of a woman. They end up breaking those costly binoculars, but at the moment, that doesn’t matter. They give the alarm, and, soon, Police Constable (PC) Nick Ingram takes over. It turns out that the dead woman is identified as Kate Sumner, whose husband, William, reported her missing. Ingram works with Detective Inspector (DI) John Galbraith, WPC (Woman Police Constable) Sandra Griffiths, and Superintendent Carpenter to find out who killed the victim and why. As it turns out, there are only three viable suspects: William Sumner; Stephen Harding, a sexually-obsessed actor with whom Kate flirted more than once; and, Harding’s room-mate, teacher Tony Bridges. It’s interesting to see how a small peccadillo like taking the binoculars gets the Spender boys tangled up in a murder case.

Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor knows all too well how big a little incident like a speeding violation can become. In The Guards, we learn that Taylor used to be a member of the Garda Síochána. He was assigned to set up a speed trap on a particular part of the motorway. It wasn’t a difficult job, but it was cold, and Taylor had more coffee laced with brandy than he should have had. Then he caught a speeder, and everything spiraled out of control. It turned out that the car’s passenger was a Teachta Dála (TD), a member of the lower house of the Irish Parliament. The car had government plates (thus, the assumption that the driver wouldn’t get cited). Taylor was having none of it, though, and ended up punching the TD. That incident cost him his job, and now, Taylor is an unofficial PI. A simple speed trap changed everything for Taylor.

Barbara Neely’s sleuth, Blanche White, makes her debut in Blanche on the Lam. As the novel begins, she has just been sentenced to jail time for writing bad checks. Not that writing a bad check is to be condoned, but, as White reasons, it was only two checks. And she had to do something to make ends meet. She is a professional housekeeper, so she’s not wealthy to begin with. And now that she’s more or less raising her sister’s two children, money doesn’t go far. That’s the main reason, as a matter of fact, for which White desperately wants to avoid jail. How can she take care of the children from behind bars? So, she tricks the prison matron who’s guarding her, and she makes an escape. Then, she takes a temporary housekeeping job, to try to say out of sight, so to speak. And that’s how she gets drawn into a case of murder. The smallish matter of a couple of bad checks ends up pulling her into a serious case.

And then there’s Jesse Milford, whom we meet in Michael Connelly’s The Overlook. He made the trip from his native Canada to Los Angeles to try to ‘make it’ in the music world. Milford’s obsessed with superstar entertainer Madonna, and he tries to sneak onto her property to get an autograph or some other memento to send home. Trespassing isn’t to be encouraged, but what Milford thought of as a minor matter quickly escalates. While he’s on Madonna’s property, he happens to witness the murder of physicist Stanley Kent. When L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch learns that Milford was a witness, he decides to find out everything Milford knows. As it is, Milford’s facing charges of trespassing. So he can use all of the help Bosch can give. And Bosch needs Milford’s information. So, he persuades Milford that it’s in his interest for them to work together.

And that’s the thing about this minor ‘sins.’ Things like speeding, writing a bad check, and so on, are not good ideas. But they’re usually relatively small matters. You never know, though, where those small things might lead…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jandek’s Don’t Get Too Upset.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Ken Bruen, Michael Connelly, Minette Walters

Double Helix DNA*

As this is posted, it’s 65 years since James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of the DNA molecule. In the intervening years, DNA and DNA testing have become important parts of criminal investigation. Of course, DNA analysis is more complicated and takes longer than what you might see on TV shows and film. It can take weeks or even months to get results, depending on the situation. And DNA analysis can be costly. So, many smaller police departments don’t have access to convenient laboratory testing.

All that said, though, DNA testing and analysis are woven into a lot of modern crime fiction. Sometimes it’s used to look into ‘cold cases.’ Other times, it’s used to exonerate or implicate someone. There are other uses, too. And it’s interesting to see how different authors integrate this technology.

In Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion, we are introduced to Detective Sergeant (DS) Anna Travis, who’s just joined the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. As it happens, it’s a critical time for the team. The body of seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been discovered, and it looks on the surface as though this murder fits the profile of six other murders of women, all killed in exactly the same way. But there are differences. For example, the other victims were all older prostitutes. Melissa was young and not a prostitute. Still, the Murder Squad’s leader, Detective Chief Inspector James Langton, suspects that the same person killed all seven victims. This case isn’t going to be easy. The killer’s been careful and hasn’t left obvious evidence. And some of the murders took place before the use of contemporary DNA testing. Still, the squad persists, and, in the end, it turns out to be DNA that links Melissa and her killer – and connects the other murders, too.

Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw has an interesting use of DNA evidence. Wealthy Japanese magnate Takaoki Ninagawa is devastated when his granddaughter, Chika, goes missing. Her body is later discovered, and it’s established that she was raped before being murdered. Now, Ninagawa is determined to do something about it. DNA evidence has identified the killer as thirty-four-year-old Kunihide Kiyomaru. So, Ninagawa offers a one-billion yet reward to anyone who kills Kiyomaru and can prove it. He then arranges for a very public announcement and website that explain the matter and outline how a person can claim the reward. When Kiyomaru hears of the reward, he comes out of hiding and turns himself in to the police at Fukuoka. His thinking is that he’ll be safer in prison than he would be with hundreds of thousands of potential assassins after him. In order for him to face trial, he’ll have to be returned to Tokyo, a matter of some 1100 km/685 mi. Special Police(SP) officer Kazuki Mekari of the Tokyo Municipal Police Department (MPD) is tapped to escort Kiyomaru, and he’s given a team of people with whom to do the job. But, with so many people interested in the bounty, it’s going to be difficult to keep their prisoner alive. Even the police aren’t immune to the temptation of so much money. The question becomes: will Kiyumaru be brought back alive to Tokyo? And at what cost?

As useful as DNA evidence is, it can sometimes confuse cases, too. For instance, in one plot thread of Michael Connelly’s The Drop, L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch is investigating a decades-old case: the rape and murder of nineteen-year-old Lily Price. The DNA evidence linked Clayton Pell, now twenty-nine and in prison for other sexual crimes, to this crime. The strange thing is, he was eight years old at the time of the murder. So, at least on the surface, either Pell was an unusual child, or something went very wrong at the Regional Crime Lab that processed the DNA evidence. Among other things, the novel shows how DNA evidence can complicate an investigation.

Now that DNA analysis is more common than it was, most people know at least a little about it. Even people with no background at all in medicine or other science are aware of it. We see that, for instance, in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, the second of his novels to feature Delhi-based PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. In one plot thread of the story, Puri’s mother, Mummy-ji, attends a kitty party with Puri’s wife, Rumpi. Everyone at a kitty party contributes a certain amount of money to the kitty. Then, one person’s name is drawn, and that person wins all the money. This particular party, though, is interrupted when someone breaks in and steals the money. Mummy-ji scratches the thief, and later goes with Rumpi to the local forensics laboratory, demanding that her nails be tested to get the thief’s DNA. Here’s what the lab attendant (the son of one of her oldest friends) says:
 

‘‘Auntie-ji, I think you’ve been watching too much of CSI on Star TV, isn’t it?”
 

But Mummy-ji isn’t dismissed so easily as that…

DNA testing is also, of course, used to determine biological relationships. And that, too, can play a role in crime novels. For example, in Peter May’s The Blackhouse, Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod returns to his home on the Isle of Lewis to help in a murder investigation. Angel Macritchie has been killed, and his murder looks very similar to an Edinburgh case that Macleod is investigating. The hope is that, if it’s the same killer, pooling resources will help catch that person more quickly. This isn’t a happy homecoming for Macleod, though, as he had his own good reasons for leaving in the first place. But, he does his job the best he can, and in the end, finds out the truth about Macritchie’s death. The Isle of Lewis is a small community, the kind where everyone knows everyone. And everyone knows (or knows of) Fin Macleod. So, as the searches for answers, he also has to face his own past, which is connected with those of several other people on the island. And I can say without spoiling the story that sorting out some of those connections involves a DNA test.

People speak almost casually now of DNA testing and analysis. But it’s really only been a straightforward part of criminal investigation for a few decades. And it’s had some profound effects on evidence gathering, criminal procedures, court cases, and a lot more.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Prism’s Just Like Me.

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Filed under Kazuhiro Kiuchi, Lynda La Plante, Michael Connelly, Peter May, Tarquin Hall

And All My Experiences Ride With Me*

As this is posted, it would have been Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 151st birthday. Millions of people (myself included) grew up reading her stories of life on the American prairie (remember those great Garth Williams illustrations?). As you’ll know, the ‘Little House’ books are semi-autobiographical. In fact, those who are interested can visit the ‘little town on the pairie,’ De Smet, South Dakota, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder home in Mansfield, Missouri, where she lived for the last 60 years of her life. I’ve done both trips, and they’re rich experiences.

But Wilder is by no means the only author to be inspired by personal experiences. In fact, my guess is that nearly every author draws at least a little inspiration from real-life experiences. I know I do. A story may not be the direct retelling of an event, or description of a person. But things that happen to a writer do have a way of coming out in that writer’s work.

For example, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is the story of the killing of an American businessman named Samuel Ratchett. He’s on his way across Europe on the world-famous Orient Express train, a journey of three days. On the second night, he is stabbed in his compartment. Hercule Poirot is on the train, on his way to London, and is prevailed upon to find Ratchett’s killer. The trip, the murder investigation, and, as it turns out, the murder itself, are all complicated by a major snowstorm. The train ends up being snowbound and is stranded for quite a while until the tracks can be cleared. It’s said that Christie herself was once snowbound on a train (although not trapped with a murderer, or for as long a time as the story depicts). That experience was a part of the inspiration for this novel.

In The Lincoln Lawyer, Michael Connelly introduces Los Angeles attorney Mickey Haller. Among other things, he is half-brother to one of Connelly’s other main protagonists, Los Angeles police detective Harry Bosch. In fact, as fans of Connelly’s work can tell you, the two men work together in a few of Connelly’s novels. Haller doesn’t have a conventional office. He does most of his legal business in the back of his Lincoln. If you know anything about Los Angeles traffic, you’ll know why it makes sense for him to have an ‘office on wheels.’ Connelly has said that he was inspired for Haller’s character in part by a chance meeting at a baseball game. He happened to be sitting near a lawyer who said that he works mostly out of his car. That was enough to intrigue Connelly, and the end result was Haller. Of course, that attorney and Haller are quite different people, I’d guess. But that one interesting aspect found its way into Connelly’s work.

In the opening scene of Val McDermid’s The Vanishing Point, Stephanie Harker is escorting five-year-old Jimmy Higgins through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. They’re just going through the security procedure when they’re separated. Jimmy’s passed through security; Stephanie’s delayed. By the time she’s through, Jimmy’s been abducted by someone in a Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) uniform. Here is how McDermid explains the inspiration for that part of the novel:
 

‘‘I was travelling with my son when he was about six,’ she says. ‘I’ve got replacement knees so I set off the detectors, and they literally put you in a box. While I was there, my boy was standing by the luggage belt waiting for our bags to come through and I thought that someone could just take him by the hand and walk away with him.’’
 

Thankfully, McDermid’s son was safe. But that experience played an important role in the novel.

Alison Gordon’s series features Kate Henry, a sportswriter for the Toronto Planet. Her particular interest and specialty is baseball, so she travels with the American League (AL) Toronto Titans when they go to their ‘away’ games, and attends all of their ‘at home’ games, too. Henry’s experiences as a sportswriter are reflective of Gordon’s own background. Gordon was a sportswriter for the Toronto Star, and the first woman to cover a Major League Baseball team (beginning with the Toronto Blue Jays). She carried those experiences into her fiction writing. While her fictional sleuth doesn’t have to contend with as many barriers as Gordon did, they still have plenty in common.

Some authors are inspired by major events, and for crime writers, that often means major crimes. That was the case with Truman Capote. In 1959, Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife, Bonnie Mae, and his children, Nancy Mae and Kenyon, were murdered in their home. Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested, tried, and convicted of the crime. Apparently, they’d been in prison before these murders, and a fellow inmate had told them that Clutter kept a lot of money at the farm. It wasn’t true, but they believed what the inmate said, and committed four murders because of it. Capote took those events and created a fictional account, In Cold Blood, that told the story of the killers’ backgrounds, the events leading up to the murders, and more.

And that’s the thing about authors. Even when they write fiction, their own lives and experiences impact what they write and how they write. I’m not sure it could be otherwise.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Bouncing Souls’ Night Train.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alison Gordon, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Michael Connelly, Truman Capote, Val McDermid

They’ll Be There Calling Me ‘Baby’…Maybe*

When a young person’s parents can’t or won’t provide a safe and appropriate living environment, that child is sometimes made a ward of the state. This often means the child goes to a foster home or series of foster homes, and is supposed to be monitored by a social services agency. It’s not at all an ideal solution, but it can be better than living with a parent who’s addicted to drugs, or who abuses the child, or who needs intense and ongoing mental health care. Young people who spend time in ‘the system’ need to develop a tough exterior, and things can be difficult for them. Sometimes, their lives work out well; sometimes they don’t.  Either way, such children can make interesting characters.

There are plenty of them in crime fiction, too. For instance, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is a product of the ‘the system.’ He’s the son of a prominent lawyer and a prostitute. Since his father wasn’t a part of his life until he was an adult, he spent his early childhood with his mother. Then, when she was murdered, he became a ward of the state, and spent much of his time in foster care, orphanages, and other institutions. Those experiences have definitely impacted Bosch’s life, and given him a different outlook on life to the one he might have had if he’d grown up in a stable home.

In C.J. Box’s Open Season, we are introduced to Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett. Shortly after the novel begins, he has an encounter with a local poacher, Ote Keeley. It doesn’t go well for Pickett. A few months later, Keeley’s body turns up near the Picketts’ own woodpile, and Pickett is drawn into the mystery of who killed the victim and why. When Keeley’s daughter, April, is abandoned by her mother (that story arc appears in a few of the novels), the Pickett family takes her in. Officially, she’s a ward of the state, but the Picketts see her as their adopted daughter. She adjusts to life with her new family, but, as fans of Winterkill and Below Zero know, things do not magically turn out all right for her.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe is the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Botswana’s only female-owned private investigation agency. At the beginning of the series, her focus is on her work. Everything changes when her then-fiancé, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, takes in two foster children, Motholeli and her brother Puso. They’ve lived at the local orphanage as wards of the state since their parents died, and are doing well enough. But Mma Silvia Potokwane, who runs the orphanage, wants them placed in a good home. She persuades Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to take the children, and at first, Mma Ramotswe isn’t too pleased that all of this happened without her knowledge. But she takes to the children, and they to her. And in the end, these children find a safe and caring new home.

So does former Bangkok street child Miaow, whom we meet in Timothy Hallianan’s A Nail Through the Heart. Ex-pat American Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty has taken Miaow in as a foster child, and his doing his best to care for her, with the help of his partner, Rose. It’s not always easy, because Miaow has her own trauma and ‘baggage.’ But she’s doing well – much better than she would if she’d stayed on the streets. Rafferty wants to adopt her legally; and, as the series goes on, we see what it’s like when children who are wards of the state go through the adoption process.

And then there’s Caroline Overington’s Sisters of Mercy.  In one interesting plot thread of this novel, we learn about a woman named Agnes Moore. Born in England, she was sent to an orphanage as a ward of the state when her parents were believed to be among the war dead (of World War II). After the war, she and many other British children were sent to Australia. Agnes stayed at a place called Fairbridge Farm, where she had a good experience. Later, she grew up, returned to England, and married and had a family. What she was never told, though, was that her parents weren’t dead. They were listed as dead in error, but they survived the war. When they found that Agnes had been sent to Australia, they went there, too, and had a second child, Sally ‘Snow.’ Agnes later discovered she had an Australian family, and the novel begins as she goes back to Australia to try to connect with her sister and, if possible, her parents. Instead, she goes missing. Her daughter, Ruby, wants the truth about what happened to her mother. Journalist Jack ‘Tap’ Fawcett is covering the story in a professional but not particularly interested way. His curiosity is piqued, though, when he learns why Agnes was in Australia. He starts to write stories about the family, and begins receiving letters from Snow, who’s now in prison for a crime that is revealed as the story goes on. She, too, has had experiences with the fostering system, ‘though from a very different perspective. Now thoroughly interested, Fawcett follows the history of both sisters, and it’s fascinating to see how differently they turned out.

Being in foster care – in ‘the system’ – doesn’t have to sentence a child to a miserable life. But it is a difficult situation, and many authorities try to avoid it if possible. It does make for some interesting plot points and characters, though.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Charinin’s Maybe.

 

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, C.J. Box, Caroline Overington, Michael Connelly, Timothy Hallinan