Category Archives: Michael Connelly

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

We’re On the Move to the Scene of the Crime*

Any police officer or other first responder can tell you that when a call comes in, there’s no telling what, exactly, awaits. So those who are called to the scene need to be prepared for just about anything.

That first few minutes at the scene are crucial, too. There’s sometimes valuable evidence there, if it’s a crime scene. If it’s a medical emergency scene, every second can count. And in either case, it’s important to get as accurate a first impression as possible.

In a crime novel, the arrival at the scene of a crime or other tragedy gives the author a potentially powerful tool for suspense and tension. And authors of whodunits can use that scene for clues or ‘red herrings.’ It’s also a very realistic part of dealing with crimes. So, it makes sense that we’d see a lot of those moments in the genre.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot isn’t officially a first responder. But in The Hollow, he does come upon a murder scene. He’s been invited for lunch to the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. They’ve got several weekend house guests, and he’s included in their Sunday plans. When Poirot arrives at the house, he’s escorted to the outdoor pool area. There, he finds one of the guests, John Christow, lying by the pool, very close to death from a gunshot. Another guest is holding what appears to be the murder weapon. Everyone else is also nearby. At first, Poirot thinks it’s some sort of macabre ‘amusement’ for his benefit. But very quickly, he sees that Christow really has been murdered. The police are called, and Inspector Grange and his team begin the investigation. Later, Poirot’s first impression of the murder scene turns out to add an interesting dimension to the story.

Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice sees his sleuth, L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch, listening to the police-band radio in his home one evening when he’s ‘on call.’ That’s how he finds out about the discovery of the body of another police detective, Calexico ‘Cal” Moore in a seedy hotel room. Bosch rushes to the scene, not happy at all that he wasn’t called out right away, since he’s on duty. He’s soon told that Moore committed suicide, mostly because he had ‘gone dirty,’ and that he (Bosch) should leave the matter alone. Anyone who knows anything at all about Harry Bosch will know that ‘leaving matters alone’ is one thing he doesn’t do. He follows up on Moore’s death, and finds that it leads to a vicious drugs gang, incidents from the past, and some things the police department would rather not have made public. And one of the first impressions he gets from that initial arrival at the scene turns out to be helpful.

Katherine Howell is a former paramedic, and often taps those experiences in her writing. And several scenes in her novels depict what it’s like when first responders arrive. In Violent Exposure, for instance, paramedic Carly Martens and her teammate for the day, Aidan Simpson, are called to the scene of what seems to be a domestic dispute between Connor Crawford and his wife, Suzanne. The couple assure the paramedics that all’s well. But Suzanne is injured, and the tension between her and Connor is palpable. Still, there’s not much the paramedics can do in this particular situation, so they leave. The next day, Suzanne is discovered brutally murdered. New South Wales Police detective Ella Marconi and her partner, Dennis Orchard, begin the investigation. Based on what Martens and Simpson tell them, they suspect Connor Crawford right away. But he’s disappeared. Then, one of the young people who work at the Crawfords’ nursery also goes missing. Now, the detectives have to find the two missing people, if they’re still alive, and find out who killed Suzanne Crawford and why.

Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning begins as journalist Jack Parlabane wakes up. He’s sleepy and hung over, but he hears a lot of noise coming from the flat downstairs. Too curious to stay where he is, he leaves his own flat, and forgets to take his key with him. He goes downstairs to see what all the noise is about, only to find that that flat’s door is open. Parlabane soon regrets going in, because he finds a brutal and very ugly murder scene. He knows he can’t simply go back upstairs, because he’s locked out of his flat. So, he decides to climb out an open window in the downstairs flat, make his way up to his own open window, directly above, and return to his home that way. It doesn’t work. He’s no sooner heading out the window when he’s stopped by Detective Constable (DC) Jenny Dalziel. Soon enough, Dalziel sees that Parlabane is not guilty of the murder. Little by little, they begin to work together, and they soon find that they can be helpful to each other. It may be a very gory murder scene, but helps to forge a solid working partnership.

Every first responder, police or otherwise, knows that going to the scene can be highly dangerous, even fatal. We see just how fatal in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. One day, the Tasmania Police are alerted to a home invasion. Sergeant John White goes to the house, bringing with him probationer Lucy Howard. When they get there, they decide to split up. Howard will stay at the front of the house, and White will go to the back. Very shortly afterwards, White’s dead of a stabbing attack. Everyone thinks that the killer is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley. The theory is that he was in the home, taking what he could, when White interrupted him. Rowley’s going to be a difficult case, though. For one thing, he knows how to work the juvenile justice system very effectively, so as to stay out of trouble. For another, he’s part Aboriginal. So, the media will be closely watching everything the police do. Still, they start the task of linking him to the murder.

Of course, once in a while, a crime/murder scene comes to the police, if I can put it that way. In Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt a Whirl, for instance, Sea Haven police officer John Ceepak is having breakfast one morning with one of the summer-hire cops, Danny Boyle. They’re sitting in a local restaurant when they hear screaming. Running down the street towards them is a young girl, whose dress is covered with blood. She’s practically incoherent, but they finally calm her enough to find out what’s wrong. She says her name is Ashley Hart, and that she and her father, wealthy Reginald Hart, were on a ride at the local amusement park when a strange man with a gun came up and shot her father. Ceepak and Boyle go right to the crime scene, and end up involved in a murder investigation that isn’t nearly as straightforward as it seems.

The first look at the scene of a crime can be jolting. But it’s an important part of an investigation. And it can yield valuable clues.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Nell Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe’s Scene of the Crime.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Grabenstein, Christopher Brookmyre, Katherine Howell, Michael Connelly, Y.A. Erskine

Something’s Got to Pay Off*

Have you ever been to a casino? They’re designed to be exciting, and to get the adrenaline going. And every detail is very carefully planned so that you’ll spend the maximum amount of time there, and wager the maximum amount of money.

Because casinos are exciting, suspenseful places where a lot of money changes hands, it’s not surprising that they’re also really effective settings in crime novels. All sorts of things can happen in a casino, and they run the gamut from seedy, dangerous places to some of the most luxurious places in the world. So, there are lots of possibilities for an author.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, for instance, we are introduced to London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey. She’s just won a lottery, so she decides to take a trip to Le Pinet, where many of her clients go. She doesn’t have much luck at the casino, but she does meet some of the characters who figure later in the story. One of them is Lady Cicely Horbury. She’s got a gambling addiction, and has the bad judgement to think that her next roll will wipe out her debts. She has a run of bad luck, though, and is desperate for money. So, she borrows money from Marie Morisot, a Paris moneylender who does business as Madame Giselle. When she can’t pay the money back, Madame Giselle prepares to use the ‘collateral’ she has – private information that Lady Horbury does not want her husband to learn. Everything changes when Madame Giselle suddenly dies during a flight from Paris to London. It looks at first like heart failure due to a wasp’s sting. But it’s soon clear that this was murder. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight as Madame Giselle, as are both Jane Grey and Cicely Horbury, and all three get caught up in the investigation.

In the US, several Native American Nations generate revenue by operating casinos on their land. One of them, a casino in the Ute Nation, figures in Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger. In it, the casino is robbed by a group of far-right militia members who want to use the loot they stole to buy arms and equipment. If you know about casinos, then you know it’s well-nigh impossible to steal from them without ‘inside help.’ Deputy Sheriff Teddy Bai works part-time at the casino as a security guard, and the police suspect that he’s in league with the thieves. He claims he’s innocent, and his friend, Navajo Tribal Police detective Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito, believes him. She takes her concerns to Sergeant Jim Chee, and he starts asking questions. It turns out that this case is linked to the past, and to an old Ute legend.

In Michael Connelly’s Trunk Music, L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch investigates the murder of mediocre filmmaker Tony Aliso, whose body is found in the trunk of his Rolls Royce. He was killed execution-style, and all signs point to this being a Mob ‘hit.’ As Bosch looks into that possibility, he follows the trail to a seedy Las Vegas casino – and to former FBI agent Eleanor Wish, who’s become a professional poker player. He and Wish develop a relationship that ends in marriage, and it’s interesting to see how their story arc impacts the novels that come after this one. And in this novel, there’s a really telling scene between them that takes place in a casino.

As you’ll know, Havana was, at one time, a mecca for those who liked casinos. And many of those watering holes were owned by, or at least controlled, by Mob members. That’s one of the plot points in Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra’, which takes place in the years just before the revolution that put Fidel Castro into power. In that novel, we are introduced to fledgling journalist Joaquín Porrata, who works for the Diario de la Marina. Most of what he writes is ‘lightweight’ news, such as interviews with film actors. But then, he hears of the murder of Umberto Anastasia, who was killed in a New York barbershop. Anastasia was known as ‘The Great Executioner of Murder, Inc.,’ and Porrata thinks he was killed because he ‘stuck his nose’ into Mob business in Havana casinos. If that’s correct, then there’s a major story here. But instead, Perrota is told to write a story about a hippopotamus that escaped from a Havana zoo and was later found killed. He does what he’s asked to do, but his interest in the Anastasia murder is renewed when he uncovers a link between it and the hippo’s death – and yes, there is one. Throughout this novel, we see the role that casinos played in Havana’s economy and society during the last years of the Batista regime.

Andrew Nette’s Gunshine State features a different sort of casino. In it, professional thief Gary Chance goes from South Australia to Brisbane when a robbery he was involved in goes wrong. There, he meets Dennis Curry, who runs certain poker games for wealthy people who don’t go to ‘regular’ casinos. Curry wants to rob one of his clients, Frederick ‘Freddie’ Gao, and he wants Chance’s help. It sounds like an opportunity for a big payout, so Chance meets the rest of Curry’s team, and agrees to join it. The robbery is planned, but it doesn’t turn out to be anything like what Chance had imagined…

And, of course, I don’t think I could bring up the topic of casinos in crime fiction without mentioning Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Fans of these novels can tell you that he’s as comfortable at the baccarat table as he is anywhere else. And there are several important and tense casino scenes in the series.

But that’s just the thing. Casinos lend themselves to adrenaline, tension and suspense. And a lot of money is at stake. So, they do make really effective contexts for crime novels, and scenes in them.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Easy Money.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Nette, Mayra Montero, Michael Connelly, Tony Hillerman

Just the Few of Us*

There are only so many ‘regular’ characters an author can weave into a series without confusing readers. That’s why, even in crime fiction series that are set in large cities, there’s a relatively small group of ‘focus characters.’ That’s just as true of police procedurals as it is of other sorts of series.

It’s easy enough when a series takes place in a small town. Such places may only have one police station with a relatively small number of people who work there. It’s a bit trickier for series that take places in larger cities. Readers couldn’t, for instance, keep track of every fictional police officer in Sydney, Toronto, London, Los Angeles or Moscow. So, how do authors face this challenge?

Some focus on one geographic area. For example, Ed McBain’s long-running police procedural series mostly features the police who serve in the 87th Precinct of Isola, a thinly-disguised New York City. That precinct has a limited number of officers, and serves a limited geographic area. Fans of the series know that there are occasional forays into other parts of the city. But, because the 87th is a finite group, it’s easier to keep track of Steve Carella and the rest of his team. The reader isn’t faced with the challenge of trying to remember the thousands of fictional police officers who might actually serve in such a large city.

Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series also has a geographic focus: New York City’s Chinatown. Yu was born and raised in that part of the city, and in Chinatown Beat, he’s stationed there. The series does see him temporarily assigned to other places, but he basically stays in Chinatown. This allows readers to get to know the area, as well as the various characters with whom Yu usually interacts. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Jean-Baptsite Adamsberg will know that that series, too, focuses on one small geographic part of Paris.

That’s certainly not the only way to address the challenge, though. Some authors focus on just one department (such as Robbery, Homicide, etc.). That’s what Michael Connelly does with his Harry Bosch novels. Fans of this series will know that Bosch has been a member of several L.A.P.D. departments. He’s been a part of Robbery/Homicide, Open/Unsolved, and Homicide Special, among others. This choice has given Connelly (and his readers) some real advantages. One is that, as Bosch works with one team (say, Open/Unsolved), readers get to know that team, and don’t have to try to remember the many other members of other teams. As the series has gone on, and Bosch has been with other departments, it’s kept the series from being restricted to only one small group. This has allowed for different sorts of plots and characters.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss also works with a departmental team. She is a member of the Göteborg/Gothenberg Police‘s Violent Crimes Unit. It’s a relatively small unit, with a focus just on murder and other violent crimes. This choice has allowed Tursten to develop her characters over time, as different members of the department evolve. It’s also allowed (as happens naturally) for members to leave and join.

The same thing’s true of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad. That team, has a small number of members. So, we get to know them. And different members of the squad ‘star’ in the different novels of the series. So, as members leave, join, and so on, we get to see how the team operates in the real world of a large city like Dublin.

Sometimes, police teams are gathered for a specific purpose. For example, at one point, P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh heads up a squad set up specifically for investigations that are likely to attract a lot of media attention. That’s the case in A Taste For Death, when Crown Minister Paul Berowne is murdered. He’s well known and ‘well-born,’ so of course the media take note when he’s killed. The squad, which consists of Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham, and DI Kate Miskin is assigned to the case. They slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together, and find that this is as much about the victim’s private life as it is about his public life.

There’s also Jussi Adler-Olsen’s ‘Department Q.’ Part of the Copenhagen police force, Department Q is tasked with cases ‘of special interest.’ It was set up in part to appease the government’s (and the public’s) demand that the police show they’re looking into all cases, even those that have ‘gone cold.’ This group is headed by Carl Mørck, a homicide detective who has a reputation of being difficult. In fact, he’s so hard to work with that that’s the reason he was given the department in the first place – to keep him off others’ teams. Mørck is crusty and sometimes truculent. And the department has few resources and only a very few members. But the team gets the job done.

And then there’s Christopher Fowler’s London-based Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). That group, led by Arthur Bryant and John May, is tasked with solving strange crimes that the regular police homicide units haven’t been able to solve. It’s a very small group, but that makes it easier for readers to follow the team and get to know the members well.

These small units, whether they’re based on geography, on department, or on special assignment, allow the author to develop characters. And they make it much easier for readers to follow along and keep track of those characters. I’ve only mentioned a few; which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s It Takes Two.

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Filed under Christopher Fowler, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, Henry Chang, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Connelly, P.D. James, Tana French