Category Archives: Peter Robinson

Let’s See What We Can Do, Together Me and You*

One of the interesting things about human interaction is the influence people have on each other. For example, you might not be inclined to take that healthful early-morning walk or run yourself. But if you have a buddy to go with you, you might do it. Of course, that sort of influence isn’t always positive. You might spend more money if you go shopping with someone than you would if you shopped by yourself.

Whether the influence is positive or negative, it seems to be that case that people can, for lack of a better word, push each other. For example, I once had the rare privilege of seeing Billy Joel and Elton John together in concert. The show was among the best I’ve seen, and part of the reason is that the two artists spurred each other on, so that each was at his best.

We see a lot of that sort of influence in crime fiction, and that makes sense, considering it’s part of human nature. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who was strangled during a trip on the famous Blue Train. Her estranged husband, Derek Kettering, is one of the suspects. He’s in real need of money, and she had a fortune to leave. What’s more, he has an expensive mistress, Mirelle, who was, as she puts it, not born to be poor. Another suspect is Armand de la Roche, who was having an affair with the victim. He, too, is eager for money, and Ruth had with her a valuable ruby necklace that’s been stolen. There are other possibilities as well. At one point in the novel, Mirelle is furious because Kettering has broken things off with her. In her anger, she visits de la Roche, and tells him that she knows Kettering is guilty. Whether not Kettering is the murderer, both she and de la Roche know that it’s in their interests for him to be blamed. It satisfies Mirelle’s desire for revenge, and it gives de la Roche the opportunity to blackmail Kettering (i.e. ‘I won’t go to the police with what I know if you pay me….’). And, if either Mirelle or de la Roche is the murderer, framing Kettering is of benefit. It’s an interesting example of each one pushing the other, so to speak.

There’s a chilling example of this sort of influence in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. That’s a fictional account of the 1959 murders of Herb and Bonnie Clutter and two of their children. The murderers, Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock and Perry Smith, were tried, convicted, and later executed. Among other things, the novel tells the story of how they planned and committed the crimes. It’s possible that neither man alone would have committed the murders. But Hickock had heard that the Clutters had a safe with a lot of money in it. His plan was to rob them. And he knew that Smith would be a useful ally. If either man had acted alone, the crime might not have ended in so much tragedy. But they encouraged each other, in their way, and things got out of control.

That’s what happens in Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, too. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks has recently moved from London to the small Yorkshire town of Eastvale. He doesn’t have much time to settle in before several cases come up. One is a voyeur who’s been making the lives of Eastvale’s women miserable. Another is a series of home invasions. Then there’s a murder. Possibly mixed up in it all are two teenagers, Trevor Sharp and Mick Webster. Separately, each has had his troubles. But together, they’re even more trouble. And they’re not exactly fans of the police. It’s really interesting to see the dynamic between these two, and to see how it influences them.

Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders introduces Melbourne police detective Titus Lambert, and his assistant, Sergeant Joe Sable. They investigate when Xavier Quinn and his father, John, are brutally murdered on Christmas Eve. They’re soon joined by Constable Helen Lord, and the three look into the killings. One possibility is that someone is targeting the Quinn family for personal reasons. But another possibility is that the murders are political in nature. There’s evidence in the home that connects the Quinns to Australia First, a far-right group that includes pro-Nazis (the novel takes place in 1943). As the three investigate the murders, we see how people can influence one another to act in ways that they might not act alone.

That’s also true in Herman Koch’s The Dinner. In that novel, two couples meet for dinner in an ultra-exclusive Amsterdam restaurant. Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, have made plans to dine with Paul’s brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. On the surface, it looks like two couples having a fancy meal. But as the novel goes on, we soon learn that it’s much darker. As each course unfolds, we learn more about this very dysfunctional family. Readers find out about their backgrounds, and about the real reason they are meeting. Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son. Together, the cousins committed a terrible crime, and Lohmans are meeting to decide what they should do. As we find out what the crime is and how it came about, we also see how cousins interacted, and how that mutual influence impacted what happened.

And that’s how it often is when people act together. It can be for the good, or…not. Either way, mutual influence can spur us on to do things we might not do alone.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Doug Robb’s Fist Bump.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Herman Koch, Peter Robinson, Robert Gott, Truman Capote

We Keep to Ourselves*

Today’s technology has meant that it’s possible to communicate with nearly anyone, nearly anywhere. But it wasn’t so long ago that families could be very insular, having little contact with anyone who wasn’t a member of the family. Even with modern communication, there are still some families that keep to themselves.

Everyone needs a different amount of social contact, but most experts agree that it’s important for mental health to have some outside contact. Families that are too turned in on themselves can become dysfunctional. And that can have all sorts of consequences. Certainly, it can in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to the Boynton family. Mrs. Boynton, the family matriarch, is tyrannical and malicious. In fact, she has her family so much under her thumb that no-one dares to refuse her even the slightest request. Her three stepchildren, Lennox, Carol, and Raymond, and her daughter, Ginevra ‘Jinny,’ have very little experience outside the family property, and don’t interact comfortably with others. So, when the family takes a sightseeing trip to the Middle East, they’re not sure exactly how to behave. The family decides to include a visit to Petra in their itinerary; while they’re there, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. On the surface, it looks as though her death was natural. She wasn’t in good health, the trip was physically taxing, and the climate is very warm. But Colonel Carbury isn’t satisfied. So, he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot soon learns that a number of people had very good reasons to want Mrs. Boynton dead. As he interviews the various family members, we see how being a part of a secluded, insular family has impacted each of them.

As Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell tells the story of the Cosway family in The Minotaur. This family keeps very private and insular, and matriarch Mrs. Cosway would like to keep it that way. But her son, 39-year-old John Cosway, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. So, the family hires a full-time nurse, Kerstin Kvist, to care for him. She is happy to take the position, as it will allow her to be closer to her lover. At first, things seem to go well enough, although Kvist finds the family to be a little strange. But she soon learns that her patient is kept heavily medicated at his mother’s request. In Kvist’s professional opinion, he doesn’t need that medication. So, without telling anyone, she withholds the drugs he’s been taking. Her decision turns out to have tragic consequences for more than one character. Throughout the novel, we see how insular this family is, and how that’s affected the members.

The Blackwood family, whom we meet in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is also extremely insular. Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood lives with her older sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian on a Vermont estate. It’s soon clear that they are not welcome in the nearby village, and gradually, we learn why. Six years earlier, three other members of the family were poisoned, and everyone is convinced that one of the Blackwoods is a murderer. Still, although they’re isolated, the Blackwoods have made a sort of life for themselves. Then, the outside world intrudes. A family cousin, Charles Blackwell, comes for a visit. That event touches off a series of other events that end in real tragedy.

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is, in part, the story of the wealthy and very insular Vanger family. Almost forty years ago, Harriet Vanger went missing, and was presumed dead. But for the past few years, her great-uncle, Henrik Vanger, has been receiving gifts of dried flowers, just as she used to send him for his birthday. He wants to know the truth about what happened to her, so he hires journalist Mikael Blomqvist to find out. Blomqvist is highly motivated to agree to investigate, because his magazine, Millennium, is in serious financial trouble. Together with his research assistant, Lisbeth Salander, Blomqvist looks into the Vanger family’s past. And he finds out the truth about Harriet Vanger.

And then there’s Peter Robinson’s A Strange Affair. In one plot thread of this novel, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks gets a telephone message from his younger brother, Roy, who lives in London. The message says that Roy needs his brother’s help, and that it may be a matter of life and death. Banks is going through his own problems, but he musters up the energy to go to London. When he gets there, he finds that Roy is missing. Eventually, he discovers that this case has a link to a case that Inspector Annie Cabott, his teammate and former lover, is investigating. As the novel goes on, we see that the Banks family is, in its own way, quite insular. And the family history has played its role in the relationship between the Banks brothers.

Some families are like that. The members turn inward rather than outward, and keep to themselves. Sometimes, that’s not necessarily a problem. But sometimes, especially in crime fiction, it can spell disaster.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Peter Robinson, Ruth Rendell, Shirley Jackson, Stieg Larsson

You Know I’m Gonna be Like Him*

It’s interesting how things get passed along in families. I’m not really talking here about physical appearance, although that, of course, is passed along, too. I’m talking more about things such as mannerisms, traits, and, sometimes, special talents. If you’ve ever caught yourself saying something exactly like one of your parents, or using a mannerism that one of your parents used, you know what I mean.

We see this in crime fiction, too, and it can make for an interesting layer of character development. It can even add to a plot point. It’s realistic, too, so it can also add some credibility to family dynamics.

Agatha Christie addressed this in several of her stories. There’s even one (I’m not giving title or sleuth, so as to avoid spoilers) in which family traits prove to be a major clue to a killer. Appointment With Death, for instance, features the Boynton family, Americans who are on a tour of the Middle East. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is a malicious, tyrannical person whom Hercule Poirot calls a mental sadist. She has her family so much under her control that they do whatever she says, and never risk displeasing her. The family takes a trip to the ruins of Petra, during which Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies. Colonel Carbury is in charge of the case, and he’s not quite satisfied that this was a natural death. He asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and it soon comes out that the victim was murdered. The most likely suspects are the members of her family, each of whom had a very good motive for murder. One of those family members is seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Jinny’ Boynton. She’s become mentally quite fragile as a result of her mother’s psychological abuse, and on the surface, she doesn’t seem much like her at all. But, she has a rare acting ability. When she gets the chance to live her own life, free of her mother’s influence, we see just how talented she is – and that she has more in common with her mother than it seemed. Here’s what one character says:
 

‘‘Looking at Jinny, I saw – for the first time – the likeness. The same thing – only Jinny is in light – where She was in darkness…’’
 

It’s an interesting commentary on the way certain mannerisms and personality traits can be passed down.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, we are introduced to Trevor Sharp. He’s a teenager who’s a bit at loose ends. He doesn’t fit in well at school, and he doesn’t have a lot of friends. So, as you can imagine, he’s quite drawn in by a local delinquent named Mick Webster. His father, Graham, warns him away from the boy, but Trevor doesn’t listen. That’s how he gets mixed up in several cases that Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks is investigating. For one thing, a voyeur has been spying on several of Eastvale’s women. For another, there’s been a series of home invasions. Then, there’s a murder. And Banks wants to know what role, if any, Trevor has played in these crimes. As we get to know the Sharps, we see that on the surface, they’re different. But they really aren’t that different after all. And, in the end, we see how much Trevor has inherited, if that’s the right term, from his father.

One of the main characters in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential is an LAPD officer named Edward ‘Ed’ Exley. He is the son of LAPD legend Preston Exley, and that fact makes his life extremely complicated. His older brother Thomas, was, in many ways, just like their father, and slated for a highly successful police career. In fact, Exley senior placed all of his hopes in Thomas. But Thomas was killed in WW II (the novel takes place in the early 1950s) shortly after his graduation from the police academy. Now, the burden of excelling on the police force falls to Ed, who’s not nearly as much like his father as his brother was. Still, as the novel goes on, we see that he has more in common with his father than it may seem on the surface.

Herman Koch’s The Dinner features the members of the Lohman family. One evening, Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, meet up with his brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. They’re having dinner at an ultra-exclusive and extremely expensive Amsterdam restaurant. On the surface, it’s just a getting-together of two couples. But under the surface, there’s a lot more going on. Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son, and, together, their boys have committed a terrible crime. Now, the two couples have to decide what they’re going to do about it. As the novel goes on, we see that, in several ways, the boys have inherited their attitudes and beliefs from their parents. While the parents are unwilling to admit it, there’s a resemblance between them and their sons.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. She is a (now-retired) academic and political scientist. She is also the mother of an adopted daughter, Taylor. Among other things, Taylor is an extraordinary artist, with rare talent. Interestingly, her biological mother, Sally, also had real artistic talent. The novels in the series don’t all focus on Taylor, Sally, or art. But throughout the series, we see how, even though they spent no real time together during Taylor’s formative years (Sally was killed when Taylor was not much more than a toddler), there are still real resemblances between the two. And sometimes, they’re very clear to Joanne, who was friends with Sally and who has raised Taylor.

There are, of course, plenty of examples of parents and children who are absolutely nothing like one another. But in a lot of cases, there are similarities, whether it’s in attitude, mannerisms, preferences, or something else. So it makes sense that we’d see those similarities in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Herman Koch, James Ellroy, Peter Robinson

Each Parent Here Expects Their Child to Earn a High Return*

One of the important jobs that teachers often have is to work with their students’ parents. Research shows that a solid home/school relationship contributes to student achievement; students benefit if their teachers are in regular communication with their families. More than that, a solid home/school relationship makes communication much easier and less awkward if there is a problem. So, it makes sense that teachers and other school staff would want to reach out to parents.

But that communication can be fraught with difficulties. For one thing, parents and teachers may not see things the same way. For another, there’s a lot at stake in the relationship. Parents want their children to do well; and for many, their children’s reputations are a reflection of their parenting. Because the home/school relationship is so important, and sometimes so tense, it’s not surprising that it come up in crime fiction. Here are just a few instances; there are a lot more out there.

In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, we are introduced to Honoria Bulstrode. She is the headmistress at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. The novel opens as Meadowbank begins the summer term, and parents arrive with their daughters. Miss Bulstrode, her business partner, Miss Chadwick, and her assistant, Eleanor Vansittart, welcome the students, deal with the parents, and try to get everyone settled. There’s a funny scene where one parent arrives, completely inebriated, with the goal of taking her daughters out of the school. Miss Bulstrode sees what’s happening and how it’s handled, and completely misses something important that’s said to her. That comment turns out to be key to the solution when the new games mistress, Grace Springer, is shot late one night. That murder is related to a kidnapping, some stolen jewels, and a revolution in a faraway country.

Peter Robinson’s Gallows View takes place in the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks has recently moved there with his family. Almost immediately, he is faced with some difficult investigations. There’s a voyeur who’s been making the women of Eastvale miserable. And there’s been a series of home invasions. Then, there’s a murder. And one person who may be mixed up in it all is a teenager named Trevor Sharp. He doesn’t fit in particularly well at school and is a bit at loose ends. His teachers have told his father that he doesn’t apply himself, and that he could do better, but Trevor’s father is, to say the least, not helpful. That’s what Banks finds, too, when he tries to talk to the man about his son. The relationship between home and school isn’t a major part of the plot in this novel, but it does add interesting character layers, and it shows what happens when there’s a gulf between parents and teachers.

Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark is, in part, the story of Ilse Klein, a secondary school teacher in the small town of Alexandria, on New Zealand’s South Island. In one plot thread, she becomes concerned about one of her most promising students, fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. Lately, Serena has been skipping school a great deal. And when she is there, she takes no interest in what’s going on, and she doesn’t participate. This is so unlike the girl that Ilse alerts the school’s counseling team, who send a representative to Serena’s home. Serena’s mother resents the visit, and in any case, doesn’t have much to say about her daughter’s recent changes. She proves to be more defensive and self-involved than helpful. Then, Serena goes missing. Now, Ilse Klein is very worried, and ends up getting more deeply involved in what’s going on than she ever thought possible.

One of the main characters in Herman Koch’s The Dinner is former teacher Paul Lohman. One night, he and his wife, Claire, meet up for dinner with his older brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. The restaurant is ultra-exclusive, and on the surface, it looks like a lovely night out. But underneath, things are quite different. The story is told as the meal progresses, and during each ‘course,’ we find out more about these two couples. One thing we learn is that their sons, each aged fifteen, are responsible for a terrible crime. The reason for the dinner is that the parents want to discuss what to do about what they know. As the novel moves on, we learn the families’ backstories, including Paul’s time as a history teacher. It turns out that he angered some parents (and some of the students) with his comments about the Second World War. The parents complained to the school board and principal, and Paul was urged to ‘take some time off,’ and ‘get some rest.’ In the end, he retired for medical reasons. There are a few scenes in the novel that depict some conversations between Paul and the school principal, and they show how teachers can view things very differently to the way parents do. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Paul is not a very reliable narrator, so it’s also an invitation to the reader to think about what really happened in the classroom.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. That’s the story of a group of families, all of whose children attend Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main focus of the novel is the Kindergarten class and the members of their families. The Kindgergarten teacher, Bec Barnes, is looking forward to a good school year. But that’s not how things turn out. First, one of the most influential mothers at the school, Renata Klein, claims that another boy, Ziggy Chapman, bullied and hurt her daughter, Amabella. Ziggy claims he’s innocent, and his mother, Jane, believes him. But Renata is extremely influential. So, Bec is soon caught in the proverbial crossfire between ‘team Renata’ and ‘team Jane.’ At first, as you would imagine, her impulse is to stop the bullying immediately, and to protect Amabella. But as time goes on, we learn that things aren’t as simple as they seem. As if this isn’t enough, the school’s big fundraiser, a Trivia Night, ends in tragedy. As the story goes on, we learn more about the characters, about what’s behind their closed doors, so to speak, and about what leads to the tragedy.

Students do best when their parents and teachers work together. But that doesn’t always happen, and, in fact, that relationship can be very tense indeed. Perhaps that’s why it can add such interesting ‘spice’ to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Glenn Slater’s Here at Horace Green.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Herman Koch, Liane Moriarty, Paddy Richardson, Peter Robinson

Get Up, Get Out, Get Well Again*

Not long ago, Moira, at Clothes in Books, brought up a very interesting question: what books would you recommend for someone who is convalescing? It isn’t an easy question. Books that are very bleak, or very long, or that explore deep philosophical issues, might not be the best choice. People who are convalescing may need to rest a lot, and they may not have the energy to ‘go dark,’ keep pace with a thriller, or really think deeply about issues. At the same time, just because people are recovering from an illness or surgery doesn’t mean they want ‘frothy’ books or badly written books.

There’s also the matter of personal taste, of course. Some series are more appealing than others, whether or not a person is in good health. So, making recommendations almost always carries a certain risk. That said, though, Moira asked a good question, and I decided to offer a few suggestions.

I’ll start by saying I couldn’t recommend just one book, or even just one author. I’ll also add that all of my suggestions are crime fiction (which should surprise exactly no-one). That said, here are a few of my ideas.

 

Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series

There are several things I like about this series for the person who’s convalescing. For one thing, none of the books is very long. So, someone who needs to rest, and may not have a lot of energy, can still enjoy the books. I also like the fact that the pace of these books is leisurely, but (at least for me) not plodding. It’s not the sort of series that wears a person out. And yet, the stories are engaging, and the characters interesting. There’s also the optimistic nature of the series. Even when things don’t work out, or there’s bad news, or… the stories have hope. Someone who’s convalescing isn’t likely to want to dwell on how bad things could get. Finally, the setting is exotic enough that it can draw the reader into a fascinating different place.

 

Cathy Ace’s Caitlin Morgan Series and W.I.S.E. Series

Ace writes traditional-style mysteries. One of her series features Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan, a criminologist and academician who teaches at the University of Vancouver. Her W.I.S.E. series features four women (one Welsh, one Irish, one Scottish, and one English) who set up an investigation agency. The stories mostly take place in the Welsh town of Anwen by Wye. Both of these series include whodunit-type plots that invite the reader to stay interested and keep turning and swiping pages. They both feature appealing (well, at least to me) settings and characters as well. Since they’re both traditional-style series, they don’t feature gore or a ‘high octane’ pace. Yet, they are not without substance. To me, they strike a fine balance between engaging and keeping the reader’s attention without being too much for a reader who is recovering from an illness or surgery.
 

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges Series

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series strikes a similar balance. Bruno is Chief of Police in the small Périgord town of St. Denis. He’s also a member of the community, who’s woven into the town’s life. The mysteries he investigates are not light, ‘easy’ cases. But neither are they gory or bleak. And they invite the reader to engage in the story. They make their points without getting overly philosophical or ‘weighty,’ and the pace moves along without being tiring. While they’re not what you’d call very short books, they’re also not doorstop-length, either. A person who’s convalescing would, at least in my opinion, be able to enjoy the series without getting exhausted.

 

Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks Series

There often comes a point in convalescence when a person is almost, but not quite, ready to rejoin the world, so to speak. People in that situation may not be at the point of going back to work yet, but they are getting some energy back. And they may be ready for a series that sometimes gets a bit darker. That’s where Peter Robinson’s Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks series may come in handy.  These novels take place mostly in and around the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. They begin, in Gallows View, as Banks and his family move from London to Eastvale and follow Banks’ personal and professional life. The novels aren’t really overly long, and they’re not what you’d call bleak or gory. The focus is often on the whydunit as well as the whodunit, and Robinson doesn’t go for ‘shock value’ as he writes. That said though, these books aren’t always very easy, light reading, and sometimes address more challenging subjects. For me, that makes them a solid choice for the convalescent who’s strong enough to start rejoining the human race, so to speak, but isn’t quite finished resting and taking extra care.

 

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourne Shreve Series

And I wouldn’t want to do a post like this without mentioning Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series. Joanne is a political scientist and (later, retired) academician. Based mostly in Regina, the series follows Joanne’s life as she teaches, does research, raises her family and, later, becomes a proud grandmother. The investigations she’s drawn into are sometimes somewhat dark. But Bowen weaves hope, family bonds, and sometimes wit through the novels as well. They are also interesting character studies, as well as solid portraits of life in modern Canada. They aren’t overly philosophical, and they’re not gory or explicit, either. I recommend them in general to begin with, but I think they’re also a fine choice for someone who’s convalescing.

And there you have it.  A few ideas of mine for series that might be of interest to those who are convalescing. Your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary. Thanks, Moira, for inviting me to think about this. Folks, do check out Moira’s excellent blog. It’s a treasure trove of reviews and discussions about fashion and culture in books, and what it all says about us.

What are your ideas, folks? What would you recommend?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Duke Ellington’s Merry Mending.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Cathy Ace, Gail Bowen, Martin Walker, Peter Robinson