Category Archives: Patricia Highsmith

What’s It All About, Alfred Hitchcock?*

Alfred HitchcockAs I post this, it would have been Alfred Hitchock’s 117th birthday. Whether you’re a Hitchcock fan or not, there’s no denying his influence on filmmaking. He also had quite an influence on crime fiction, since several of his films were adaptations of crime stories. There’s not enough space, of course, for me to discuss Hitchock’s career or the merits of his various films. For that, let me invite you to check out Tipping My Fedora, which is the source for top posts on crime films. All sorts of interesting information awaits you. There are a lot of discussions of Hitchcock on Sergio’s fine blog – far better than I could ever do!  Here’s just one great example.

Hitchcock’s 1941 film Suspicion was based on Francis Iles’ (AKA Anthony Berkeley Cox) 1932 novel Before the Fact. The book and the novel have in common their focus on the relationship between sheltered, dowdy Lina McLaidlaw (played by Joan Fontaine in the film) and attractive, extroverted Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant took this role in the film). In both film and book, Lina and Johnnie meet and begin a whirlwind romance. Lina’s warned about Johnnie, but doesn’t listen. Instead, they marry over the strong objection of Lina’s father. Lina’s very much in love with her new husband, but soon discovers that he’s not at all what he seems to be. In fact, he’s a liar, thief, an embezzler, and more. What’s worse, he plans to kill his wife. There are some major differences between film and book, including the way the story ends (no spoilers!). But both build suspense through Lina’s gradual awareness of the danger she’s in, and of her husband’s true nature. It’s a psychological thriller as much as it is anything else. And, incidentally, it’s the only Hitchcock film that includes an Oscar-winning performance (Fontaine’s).

One of the best-known of Hitchock’s book-to-film adaptations is 1951’s Strangers on a Train, his take on the Patricia Highsmith novel. The film stars Farley Granger and Robert Walker as, respectively, Guy Haines and Bruno Anthony (Highsmith called him Charles Anthony Bruno). If you’ve read the book, seen the film, or both, you’ll know that the two men are strangers until they meet by chance on a long train ride. Each one has a deep unhappiness in his life, caused by a family member. Anthony makes the suggestion that each ought to commit the other’s murder, so to speak, since there would be no motive. Haines agrees jokingly, sure that Anthony isn’t serious. He is, though, and the result of that agreement sends things spinning out of control for both men. Hitchcock did make some changes to the original Highsmith story (besides the name) for the film. For instance, in the film, Haines is a tennis player. He’s an architect in the novel. And then there’s that amusement park scene in the film. There are other differences, too. But the basic premise is the same.

Possibly the best-known of Hitchcock’s films is 1960’s Psycho, starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. In the film, Marion Crane (Leigh) can’t resist the lure of easy money, and takes $40,000 from the Phoenix real estate firm where she works. Then she heads towards Fairvale, California, where her fiancé Sam lives, planning to give him the money, so they can start their lives together. On the way, she stops for the night at the Bates Motel, where she meets its owner, Norman Bates (Perkins). That meeting has fateful consequences, as fans know. This film is based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name. In the novel, the secretary’s name is Mary Crane, but otherwise, there are a lot of similarities – certainly in the main plot points – between book and film. Most critics agree that this is at least one of Hitchcock’s best, and a lot consider it his very best.

There’s also Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds, starring Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor. This film was inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 short story of the same name. The main plot of both stories is a sudden and inexplicable rash of extremely aggressive acts by birds. In fact, du Maurier was inspired to write this when she saw some seagulls circling and diving as a farmer was at work. That said, though, there are many differences between the story and the film. In fact, du Maurier is said to have hated Hitchock’s adaptation. One major difference is the setting; du Maurier’s story is set in Cornwall, and Hitchock’s in San Francisco. Another is the cast of characters and the focus. The story features a farmer named Nat Hocken, who’s desperately trying to protect his family from the birds. The film features socialite Melanie Daniels and attorney Mitch Brenner, and their struggles to save the Brenner family from avian attacks. In this case, it’s really interesting to see the differences between the two stories. It’s probably best to consider them as exactly that – two very different stories about bird attacks – and judge each on its own merits.

Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972), starring Jon Finch, Alec McCowen, and Barry Foster is based on Arthur La Bern’s 1966 novel, Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell, Leicester Square. Both book and film tell the story of a London serial rapist and murderer. The evidence seems to point to a former decorated RAF pilot named Richard ‘Dick’ Blamey. He’s faced some hard times lately, but he claims to be innocent. Still, the police arrest him, and he’s duly imprisoned. Inspector Oxford, though, isn’t entirely convinced of Blamey’s guilt, and begins to look into the evidence again. And it turns out that it’s just as well he does. Blamey’s been set up by the real killer. There are differences between the book and the film. For instance, there’s more emphasis on Blamey’s trial in the novel. And the book and film have different sorts of endings. Still, the basic premise of one man using another as a convenient scapegoat is preserved. So is the London setting.

There are many other Hitchcock films that have gotten lots of praise (and others that have gotten plenty of criticism too). But whatever you think of Hitchcock, his work has had an indisputable impact on film and on crime fiction. If you’re a fan, which Hitchcock film do you like best?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Nields’ Alfred Hitchcock.

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Filed under Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Berkeley Cox, Arthur La Bern, Daphne du Maurier, Francis Iles, Patricia Highsmith, Robert Bloch

Anyone For Tennis*

TennisAh, tennis! For many years it was one of those genteel sports, where players and coaches were supposed to behave politely. But if you’ve ever played tennis, you know that it can be extremely competitive. And for those with real talent, the international tennis circuit can be lucrative, so there’s a lot at stake.

With all of that competitiveness and money (not to mention the fame) on the line, it shouldn’t be surprising that tennis features in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll think of more than I could.

In John Dickson Carr’s The Problem of the Wire Cage, we are introduced to Frank Dorrance and his fiancée, Brenda White. Frank has made it clear that his main purpose in marrying Brenda is access to the money she will inherit if they marry. But Frank has a rival, Hugh Rowlands, an impoverished solicitor who’s genuinely in love with Brenda. One day, Frank and Brenda attend a tennis party, where Frank manages to alienate just about everyone there. When it’s over, they leave the court. After the party, Brenda finds her fiancé murdered on the same court. The only footprints on the wet, sandy court belong to Frank, so there’s very little evidence to suggest how and by whom he might have been killed. But there’s no lack of suspects, as the victim was arrogant and obnoxious, and had made many enemies. Dr. Gideon Fell gets involved in the case, and finds that he has to clear both Hugh and Brenda, since both had motives.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories involve tennis. In Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance, we are introduced to Jennifer Sutcliffe, who is an avid tennis player. She’s a new student at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school, and soon makes friends with another new student, Julia Upjohn, and both enjoy their shared interest in tennis. Late one night, the school’s games mistress, Grace Springer, is shot in the new Sports Pavilion. Then there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. Julia’s mother happens to be friends with Maureen Summerhayes, an acquaintance of Hercule Poirot’s, whom fans of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead will remember. When she finds an important clue to the murder, Julia uses that connection to visit Poirot. He returns with her to Meadowbank, and investigates the events there.  You’re absolutely right, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train, and of Evil Under the Sun.

In Harlan Coben’s Drop Shot, sports agent Myron Bolitar and his friend, Win Lockwood, are attending a U.S. Open tennis event, where Bolitar’s client, Duane Richwood, is competing. Richwood is an up-and-coming tennis star from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, ready to take the tennis world by storm, as the saying goes. During the game, Bolitar and Lockwood head to the food court outside the stadium, where they discover the body of former tennis great Valerie Simpson. For a number of reasons, Bolitar has an interest in finding out who killed the victim. First, it’s possible that his client might have known her. If there is a connection between the two, then Richwood could be a suspect. Second, Bolitar himself had been getting calls from Simpson, who wanted to resurrect her career. And it turns out that Lockwood referred her to him. With all of these connections hitting close to home, Bolitar decides to find out the truth behind the murder.

There’s a tennis angle in Elmore Leonard’s The Switch, too. Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara met in a Michigan prison, where both were serving time for stealing cars. They’ve become friends, and have decided to join forces to plan a potentially very lucrative crime. They’re going to kidnap Margaret ‘Mickey’ Dawson, wife of wealthy Detroit developer Frank Dawson. He’s in a position to pay a large ransom, and Robbie and Gara don’t think they’ll have any trouble from Mickey. She’s a devoted wife, and dedicated ‘tennis mum’ to thirteen-year-old Bo, who’s shown real talent on the court. But this plan soon goes wrong. First, Dawson has little interest in paying ransom. He’s got a girlfriend in the Bahamas, and was planning to divorce his wife, anyway.  There are other complications, too (no spoilers here!). As the novel goes on, we see that Mickey comes into her own, showing herself to be far from the ‘meek little housewife’ she seems to be at first. Among other things, this novel gives readers a peek at the perspective of the ‘sports parent.’

Many people know H.R.F. Keating best from his Inspector Ganesh Ghote novels. But he wrote several other novels too, including a series featuring Detective Superintendent Harriet Martens of the Greater Birchester Police. In one plot thread of A Detective in Love, the second in that series, Martens is seconded to the Leven Vales Police when U.K. tennis star Bubbles Xingara is stabbed to death during a morning training run. The victim was top-seeded at Wimbledon, so there’s more than just possible personal angle to this murder. What’s more, her fame and her reputation as a ‘media darling’ means that this case is going to get international exposure. So Martens will have to do everything right.

I don’t think I could do a post on tennis in crime fiction without making reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. As fans of the film will know, Hitchcock turns Guy Haines from an architect (his profession in the novel) to a professional tennis player. And there’s a very famous scene in the film that takes place at a tennis match in which Haines competes. Those who know the film will know exactly which scene I mean. If you haven’t seen this adaptation, I recommend it. But then, I admit to bias, as I like Hitchcock’s work very much.

See what I mean? Tennis seems like such a civil sort of game, where everyone is well-behaved. But under the surface? Hmm…. I’m not so sure.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Cream.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Elmore Leonard, H.R.F. Keating, Harlan Coben, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Highsmith

But You Just Keep Me Hanging on Again*

Building Tension Without GoreI think most of us would agree that a high-quality crime novel builds tension and suspense without resorting to a lot of gore and gratuitous violence. Everyone’s idea of what ‘counts’ as ‘too much’ or ‘gratuitous’ violence is likely to be a little different. But all of us have our limit. And there are ways to keep people turning and swiping pages without a bloodbath.

How, exactly, does a crime writer go about that, though? How can an author keep the tension strong in other ways? Here are just a few of my ideas. I’m sure you’ll have your own, too, and I’d love to learn from them.

 

Creepy Settings
 

Eerie settings can take on a life of their own, as the saying goes. When they’re depicted well, they can add quite a lot of suspense to a story. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle uses Baskerville Hall to good effect in The Hound of the Baskervilles. In that novel, Sherlock Holmes sends Dr. Watson to Baskerville Hall on Dartmoor to help investigate the recent death of Sir Charles Baskerville. Legend has it that the Baskerville family is cursed by a phantom hound, and that’s the reason for his death. Holmes isn’t sure that’s true, though. In any case, family friend Dr. Mortimer wants to prevent a similar fate for the new heir, Sir Henry Baskerville. As you can imagine, Sir Charles’ death has a much more prosaic explanation than a curse. One interesting thing about this story is that there isn’t a lot of violence in it. The tension and suspense aren’t built that way. The setting, though, is eerie. First, there’s the bleak moor, which at night is not exactly a warm, welcoming place. There’s the house itself, too, which
 

‘…was a heavy block of building from which a porch projected. The whole front was draped in ivy, with a patch clipped bare here and there where a window or coat-of-arms broke through the dark veil. From this central block rose the twin towers, ancient, crenelated, and pierced with many loopholes.’
 

It’s certainly not a cheerful, bright place.

Neither is the eponymous lodging that features in Daphne’s du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Also located on Dartmoor (hmm……), it’s owned by Joss Merlyn and his wife Patience. Their niece, Mary Yellan, goes to stay with them when her mother dies. Before she even arrives, she’s warned about the place; and when she arrives, she finds that the warnings have been more than justified:
 

‘She [Mary] went out of the room and into the dark passage, bumping against the settle in the hall, and so upstairs, feeling her way with her hands, judging her whereabouts by turning round and facing the stairs again. Her uncle had told her the room over the porch, and she crept across the dark landing, which was unlit, past two doors on either side – guest rooms, she imagined, waiting for those travelers who never came nowadays, nor sought shelter beneath the roof of Jamaica Inn – and then stumbled against another door and turned the handle, and saw by the flickering flame of her candle that this was her room, for her trunk lay on the floor.
 

Not the sort of place that suggests a happy, warm story. Like The Hound of the Baskervilles, the violence is more implied than depicted in detail (although there is more of it in this story). The setting builds the tension as much as anything else does.

 

The Elements

 

Along with physical setting, authors can also use the elements to build tension without getting gory. In Nevada Barr’s Firestorm, for instance, US National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon has been sent to Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. She’s to serve as a medic for those fighting a wildfire – the Jackson fire – in the area. Weather predictions are for colder air and snow to move in, so the hope is that the firefighters will soon be able to leave the area. Pigeon and a small group remain behind, though, to help an injured comrade. That’s when a freak thunderstorm forms and changes everything. A firestorm is whipped up, and all of the team dives for cover in individual shelters. When the storm passes, the firefighters check on each other only to find that one of them has been murdered. Now, Pigeon has to help the other exhausted firefighters, and at the same time find out who the killer is. This novel uses the quickly-changing and dangerous elements to add suspense to the story, rather than a very high ‘body count,’ or a lot of brutal gore.

That’s also true of Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish, which introduces his sleuth, Sheriff Walt Longmire. In this novel, Longmire and his deputy, Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti investigate two murders, both of young men who were involved in a previous rape. There are a number of possibilities, including that the family of the rape victim has exacted vengeance. Although the story has some dark elements, it’s not a really gory novel. And the violence that there is, is not extended. Part of what builds the tension here is a snowstorm that moves in during a trek that Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear make to try to prevent a third murder. The weather is brutal, and the two men are at serious risk. That’s what adds to the suspense, rather than a lot of violence.

 

Psychological Tension

 

Authors can also use the buildup of psychological tension to invite readers to stay engaged in a story. That’s what Agatha Christie does in And Then There Were None. In that novel, ten people visit Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. They’re all there for different reasons, but as we learn early on, they’ve all been deliberately brought to the island. After dinner on the first night, each is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Shortly afterwards, one of them suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, another dies. Soon enough, it’s clear that someone is trying to kill all of them. The survivors have to find out who that person is, and stay alive themselves. Admittedly, there’s a higher ‘body count’ here than there is in some of Christie’s other work. But the deaths are not described in ugly, gory detail. The real tension lies in the growing paranoia and the knowledge that someone in the same house is a killer.

Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train also uses a solid buildup of psychological tension. The real action in that novel begins when Guy Haines travels across country by train to visit his estranged wife Miriam, from whom he’s hoping to get a divorce. While he’s en route, he meets Charles Anthony Bruno. The two men get to talking, and before very long, Bruno proposes that each man commit the other man’s murder. He will kill Haines’ wife if Haines kills his father. At first, Haines doesn’t take Bruno seriously. But then, Bruno actually kills Miriam, and demands that Haines fulfil his side of the bargain. Now Haines has a terrible dilemma. In this novel, the violence isn’t the main part of the story, really. It’s the buildup of psychological tension as we slowly see the kind of person Bruno really is, and as Haines tries desperately to get out of his situation.

There are a lot of other ways, too, to ramp up the suspense in a story without a bloodletting. Which keep your interest the most? If you’re a writer, how do you build suspense without gore?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Hooters’ Hanging on a Heartbeat.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Daphne du Maurier, Nevada Barr, Patricia Highsmith

Don’t Go Around Tonight*

Scarey StoriesA really interesting post by Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about really frightening stories. You know, the ones you can’t put down, but at the same time, scare the wits out of you. Of course, each of us is frightened by different things, so the stories that have scared you probably won’t be the stories that have scared me.

That said though, and because it’s Hallowe’en, here are a few stories that I found really chilling:
 

The Fall of the House of Usher – Edgar Allan Poe

You’ll probably already know that this is the story of Roderick Usher and his sister Madeleine. Usher is suffering from several complications from anxiety disorders; Madeleine is also ill and seems to fall have catalyptic seizures. Usher writes to a friend – the narrator of the story – asking for his help. The narrator arrives and right away is sobered by the grim physical and psychical atmosphere of the home. But he settles in and tries to help his friend. Little by little, the house and grounds seem to take on an eerie life of their own, and although the narrator doesn’t quite want to believe Usher’s claim that the house is sentient, some strange things begin to happen. It all ends in tragedy, and to me, what’s creepiest about this story is how things we imagine can take on lives of their own. In this case, they turn out to be all too real, but even when they aren’t, the mind can conjure up some terrible things.
 

The Trial – Franz Kafka

This is the story of Josef K., an ordinary enough junior bank manager who is accused of a crime by two unidentified agents. They won’t detail the crime, nor will they tell him who employs them. K. isn’t imprisoned, but he is told to wait for further instructions from the Committee of Affairs. K. is summoned to a hearing, but every indication is that he will not really have a chance to make his case – that he has no idea what he might have done wrong, and that the court has made a mistake. Everything about the hearing seems engineered against him. He hires an Advocate who ends up doing no good, and as the story goes on, matters spin more and more out of control. As those who’ve read this story know, the more K. tries to make sense of it all and find out the truth, the more surreal things get, and the more obvious it is that there is only one fate for him. And that’s part of what’s very chilling about this story: that lack of control. There’s also a haunting question of what is and isn’t real, as well as the question of whether our fates are decided for us.
 

The Lottery – Shirley Jackson

This short story takes place in what seems like a normal small town. Everyone’s gathering for an annual lottery, a town tradition. The way the lottery works, each family chooses a member to draw from a black wooden box – the same box that has been used for the lottery since anyone can remember. The story follows the fortunes of one particular family that’s drawn this year’s ticket. It’s hard to say more without spoiling the story for those who haven’t read it. I can say this though: what’s chilling about the story is how normal everything seems.
 

Don’t Look Behind You – Fredric Brown

Brown involves the reader directly in this short story, and that adds considerably to its chill. It begins like this:
 

Just sit back and relax, now. Try to enjoy this; it’s going to be the last story you ever read, or nearly the last. After you finish it you can sit there and stall awhile, you can find excuses to hang around your house, or your room, or your office, wherever you’re reading this; but sooner or later you’re going to have to get up and go out. That’s where I’m waiting for you: outside. Or maybe closer than that. Maybe in this room.’
 

Then the narrator goes on to tell the story of a printer named Justin, a suave man named Harley, and what happens when they get involved with some dangerous people. The end in particular is very creepy – or was to me.
 

Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith

This story starts off normally enough. Guy Haines is on a cross-country train ride to visit his estranged wife Miriam. That’s when he meets Charles Anthony Bruno, who’s also on a journey. The two get to talking and begin to commiserate: Haines tells Bruno about his wife and Bruno tells Haines about his father, whom he hates. Then Bruno suggests that each one should commit the other’s murder. If Bruno kills Haines’ wife, and Haines kills Bruno’s father, there’s no motive to connect either murderer to either victim. Haines jokingly agrees, sure that Bruno isn’t serious. He is though, and as the story goes on, we see how Haines is drawn deeper and deeper into Bruno’s dysfunctional, mentally twisted world. And that’s what’s chilling about this story, at least to me. Oh, and I recommend Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 flim adaptation of the story. It’s a little different, but no less haunting…
 

A Judgement in Stone – Ruth Rendell

This novel has one of the most famous first sentences – and I think one of the most powerful – in the genre:
 

‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’
 

Right from there we know that the well-off and well-educated Coverdale family is doomed. The story tells how George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire Eunice Parchman to be their housekeeper. Tragically, they don’t find out much about her, but she seems to suit, and at first, all goes well. But the new housekeeper is hiding something that she is desperate not to reveal. As the story goes on, she gets more and more paranoid, and the Coverdale family gets closer and closer to danger, although they are eerily unaware of it. When one of the family members accidentally finds out the truth, this seals their fate. One of the truly frightening things about this story is how easily everything goes horribly wrong. The Coverdales aren’t stupid, but you could say they’re comfortably unaware of the danger that awaits them. They’re not too different really from a lot of everyday people, and that’s creepy too.

So there you have it – a few stories that I found really frightening. What about you? Do you dare to share?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Hey, folks, have a look at Moira’s list. And while you’re on the hunt for terrifying tales, you’ll also want to visit Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews every Tuesday for Tuesday Terror!! Lots of frightfully good suggestions! You may not want to be alone when you do, though….
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising.

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Filed under Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Fredric Brown, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Shirley Jackson

Baby, Look at You Now*

BabyLookatYouNow

Yesterday I posted some pictures of famous crime writers when they were young, and invited you to guess who they are. As promised, here are the answers 🙂
 
 
 
Young and Adult Ngaio Marsh

Why, look! That adorable child became the one and only Ngaio Marsh!
 
 
Young and Adult Colin Dexter

And that fine young man grew into…..Colin Dexter!
 
 
Young and Adult Val McDermid

This little lassie could only be…Val McDermid!
 
 
Young and Adult Arthur Conan Doyle

This little boy is none other than…Arthur Conan Doyle! Elementary😉
 
 
Young and Adult Patricia Highsmith

This cheerful young lady blossomed into…Patricia Highsmith! Smiles on the outside, but what a skill at inner noir.
 
 
Young and adult Michael Connelly

And this serious young man? Well, when you’re Michael Connelly, you have a lot to think about! All those great plots and characters…
 
 
Young and Adult Agatha Christie

The devious mind behind that innocent face could only belong to…the ‘Queen of Crime,’ Agatha Christie!
 
Young and Adult Ian Rankin

Isn’t that a great ensemble? It’s being modeled for us by…Ian Rankin! Wonder if Rebus ever wore somthing like that…
 
 
Young and Adult Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton got an early start at reading. Doesn’t seem to have done her any harm…
 
 

And finally…
 
Young and Adult Arthur Upfield

That adventurous young man made the most of his travels in his books. Yes, it’s Arthur Upfield!
 

So… how did you do? Did you recognise that greatness for what it is? Thanks for playing! Happy Weekend!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer’s You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Highsmith, Sue Grafton, Val McDermid