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In The Spotlight: Sarah Dunant’s Birth Marks

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As time has gone by, the PI novel has become more and more diverse. And that makes sense, as more different kinds of people get into that business, both in fiction and in real life. Modern fictional PIs are more varied than ever, and so are the stories about them. Let’s take a look at one today, and turn the spotlight on Sarah Dunant’s Birth Marks, the first in her Hannah Wolfe series.

Wolfe is a former employee of a security/investigation firm owned by her mentor, Frank Comfort (yes, that’s his real name), who’s an ex-copper. When she finds that her financial situation isn’t working out the way she’d hoped, she asks Frank for freelance work. And the case he offers her is a strange one.

Augusta Patrick is a former dancer who served as a surrogate mother and mentor for Carolyn Hamilton, a talented dancer in her own right. Carolyn did well, and they had hopes that she could have a great career. After she left to pursue that career, Carolyn kept in regular touch with her mentor, mostly by postcard. But Miss Patrick hasn’t heard from Carolyn in a long time and is worried about her. Wolfe takes the case and starts trying to trace the young woman’s whereabouts.

Then, the body of a young woman who turns out to be Carolyn is pulled from the Thames. At first, Wolfe thinks the job is over. And Miss Patrick doesn’t seem to want more information. It looks like a rather clear-cut case, too. Carolyn was eight months pregnant when she died, and it wouldn’t be out of the question for a young, pregnant woman with nowhere to turn to take her own life.

But Wolfe doesn’t think it’s as simple as that. And it turns out not to be. An unknown client who works only through a legal representative hires Wolfe to look into the circumstances of Carolyn’s death. So, she starts to investigate more deeply.

One of the most important questions is, of course, who is the father of the baby? To find out, Wolfe traces Carolyn’s last year of life. The trail leads through several dance groups, and, ultimately, to the top of Paris’ ‘A-list.’ Slowly, Wolfe finds out the truth about the father of the baby. But that doesn’t explain how and why Carolyn died.

The closer she gets to the truth, the more Wolfe learns that almost no-one is being honest with her. If she’s going to find out what really happened to Carolyn, and be able to answer to her client, Wolfe is going to have to peel back several layers of dishonesty. She’s also going to have to keep herself out of danger.

This is, as I say, a PI novel. Readers follow along as Wolfe talks to people, gets her hands on information (some of it confidential) and otherwise follows up leads. She doesn’t have the force of he law behind her, so she’s had to become skilled at getting people to talk to her. The novel was published in 1991, before the Internet was a real factor in detection, and before most people had mobile telephones. So, readers get the chance to see how PI work was done before the age of apps, Google, and social media.

One important element in the novel is the network of family relationships. There’s Carolyn’s relationship with her own biological parents and with Miss Patrick. There’s Wolfe’s own relationship with her family, especially her sister, Kate. There are other family dynamics explored, too. As she looks into this case, Wolfe faces her own torn feelings about being a mother at some point.

This isn’t a ‘happy ending’ sort of novel, where all is put right again in the end. Knowing the truth about Carolyn doesn’t make anyone happy about it all, and few of the characters were really content, anyway. In that sense, there’s just a hint of noir.

And yet, it’s not a completely bleak story. There is wit woven in, too. For instance, here’s Wolfe’s reaction when Frank offers her the case:

‘‘So, do you want it?’ [Frank]
Not really. Missing girls seldom turn up somewhere their mothers want them to be. But if I didn’t want it, the gas and electricity board did. And I could hear the sound of British Telecom cheering on from the sidelines.’

The wit serves to lighten what is a very sad story. Without getting too close to spoilers, I can say that no-one really wins, if you want to put it that way, in the end.

The story is told from Wolfe’s point of view (first person, past tense), so readers get to know her character. She’s smart and resourceful – no ‘helpless female’ here. She’s determined to make her own way. But at the same time, she has her own vulnerabilities, as we all do.

Readers who dislike a lot of violence will be pleased to know that there’s very little of it here, and none of it brutal. There is explicit language, although it doesn’t pop up in every conversation. In that sense, and in terms of the topics explored, this is grittier than a cosy novel. At the same time, it’s not ‘hardboiled.’

Birth Marks is the story of a young woman who started out wanting to be a dancer and ended up in a quite different place. It explores several questions of family, of parenting, and of what you can get if you just have enough money. And it introduces a contemporary London PI who’s got brains and good instincts, even as she’s trying to sort out her own direction. But what’s your view? Have you read Birth Marks? What elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 26 March/Tuesday, 27 March –  Koreatown Blues – Mark Rogers

Monday, 2 April/Tuesday, 3 April – The Salaryman’s Wife – Sujata Massey

Monday, 9 April/Tuesday, 10 April –  The Ghosts of Belfast – Stuart Neville


Filed under Birth Marks, Sarah Dunant

Walk Away From it All*

An interesting comment exchange with crime writer and fellow blogger E. Michael Helms has got me thinking about crime-fictional situations where the sleuth is asked (or sometimes told forcefully (or worse)) not to investigate. That happens quite a lot in the genre, and it’s interesting to consider the many reasons why.

Obviously, the guilty party (or someone in league with the guilty party) wouldn’t want an investigation. I’m not really talking of those cases: the reason is patently clear. But there are other reasons, which can add a layer of interest and character development to a story.

In several of Agatha Christie’s stories, the sleuth is pressured not to investigate. For example, in Appointment With Death, Hercule Poirot is on a trip through the Middle East. Colonel Carbury asks Poirot’s help with a case he’s investigating. The Boynton family has been sightseeing in the area and took a trip to Petra. There, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton suddenly died of what looked at first like sudden heart failure. That wouldn’t be surprising, given her age and health. But it turns out that Mrs. Boynton was poisoned. Poirot starts to look into the case, and it’s not long before one of the characters asks him to let the matter go. The reason is that Mrs. Boynton was tyrannical and, as Poirot says, ‘a mental sadist.’ She kept her family so cowed that none of the members dared disagree with her on anything. It’s felt that the family have suffered enough, and that if one of them is guilty, this will just make things worse.

In A Dark-Adapted Eye, Ruth Rendell (as Barbara Vine) explores the complexities of family dynamics, among other things. The Longley family has always prided itself on being very ‘respectable.’ There’s been no scandal or cause for anyone to gossip. Then, journalist Daniel Stewart digs up a Longley family secret and decides to write a book about it. He contacts Faith Longley Severn to help him with the book, and she agrees. But it’s not going to be easy. Many years earlier, Faith’s aunt, Vera Longley Hilliard, was executed for murder. It was all kept very quiet, and no-one really wanted an investigation. To have the Longley name dragged through the mud like that would have been unthinkable. As the story goes on, we learn what really happened, and how the family dynamics played an important role in everything.

Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X offers another interesting reason people wouldn’t want a murder investigated. In that novel, Tokyo Inspector Shunpei Kusanagi investigates when Shinji Togashi is murdered. The most likely suspect is the victim’s ex-wife, Yasuko Hanaoka, and she certainly had motive. Togashi was abusive and had been harassing her again lately. But Kusanagi can’t find any real evidence to link her to the case. And she has an unbreakable alibi, so there seems no way to connect her to the murder. Kusanagi asks for help from an old college friend, Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa, a physicist who sometimes consults with the police. Yakuwa discovers that a gifted math instructor named Tetsuya Ishigami lives next door to Hanaoka. He suspects that this man knows more than he is saying about the crime, but Ishigami holds firmly to what he claims. He corroborates Hanaoka’s alibi, and does everything he can to protect her, mostly because he is in love with her. He doesn’t want the case investigated, and he does what he can to keep the police from making progress.

Sometimes fictional characters don’t want cases investigated because they’re afraid of the consequences for themselves if they are. For example, in both Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, and Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead, the police are investigating cases of sex workers who’ve been murdered. As you would expect, the police want to talk to the victims’ friends and co-workers to try to find out who the killer is. That makes sense, as those people might know the victims well enough to help. But in both cases, those friends and co-workers (mostly other sex workers) do not want the police to investigate. It’s not because they don’t mourn their friend. And, in an ideal world, they’d want the killer brought to justice. But it’s not an ideal world, and these sex workers are afraid for themselves if the police investigate, since they’re mixed up with some dangerous people. So, they say as little as they can get away with saying.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne has reached a sort of crossroads in her career. She’s well aware that there are younger, ‘hungry’ journalists out there who would be more than happy to supplant her. So, she’s looking for the story that will establish her at the top of New Zealand journalism. She thinks she finds that story when she hears of the case of Connor Bligh. He’s been in prison for years for the murders of his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Their daughter, Katy, survived only because she wasn’t home at the time of the murders. Everyone’s assumed that Bligh was guilty, but now there are little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. If he is innocent, and he’s been wrongly imprisoned, this could be a major story. So, Thorne starts asking questions. Almost immediately there’s a lot of pressure on her not to investigate. Some of it comes from people who are convinced that Bligh is guilty. There are also those who don’t want people’s lives turned upside down. But Thorne persists, and finds herself getting much closer to the case than she thought – or than is good for her.

A murder investigation is a difficult, painful process, even for those who are not suspects (or criminals). So, it’s understandable that sometimes, people wouldn’t want an investigation to be carried out. This reality can add interest and tension to a story.

Thanks, Michael, for the inspiration. Folks, do visit Michael’s site, and his blog, and do try his ‘Mac’ McClellan mysteries. You won’t regret it.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Roland Kent LaVoie (AKA Lobo).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Harry Bingham, Keigo Higashino, Maureen Carter, Paddy Richardson, Ruth Rendell

Got to Begin Again*

It’s a not-so-pleasant fact of life that sometimes, you have to stop what you’re doing and start all over again. You know the feeling, I’m sure. You’re nearly done putting together a piece of furniture, only to notice you’ve put a key piece on backwards. Or, you’ve just finished an email, ready to click on ‘Send,’ when you notice you’ve made some major mistakes in it and have to rewrite it. We all have to start over sometimes.

That includes fictional sleuths. As sleuths investigate, they develop mental constructs of what probably happened. Sometimes, something happens that makes that construct impossible. So, they have to start all over again. It’s frustrating and time-consuming – so much so that there are people who will ignore new evidence that disproves their own ideas. But, if a sleuth’s to find out what really happened in a case, that frustration is sometimes part of the proverbial package.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, for instance, Inspector Lestrade gets what looks like a ‘cut and dried’ case. Charles McCarthy has been murdered, and the most likely suspect is his son, James. There’s plenty of evidence, too, as the two were seen quarreling loudly just before the killing. James McCarthy’s fiancée, Alice Turner, is convinced that he’s innocent, though. She pleads with Lestrade to take another look at the case. For all of his faults, Lestrade doesn’t want an innocent man executed. So, he contacts Sherlock Holmes about the case, and Holmes and Watson look into the matter. Holmes starts again at the beginning and finds out who really killed McCarthy and why.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that she uses that trope of starting all over again in several of her stories. There’s a clear example of it in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence investigated the murder of a charwoman, and all of the evidence pointed towards her lodger, James Bentley. The evidence was so compelling, in fact, that Bentley was arrested, tried and convicted – all very fair and above-board. But Spence has begun to think he was wrong. The theory of Bentley’s guilt doesn’t make sense to him as it did, and he doesn’t want to see an innocent man hung. So, he asks for Hercule Poirot’s help. Poirot agrees, and travels to the village of Broadhnny, where the murder occured. He begins all over again and goes back over the case. And in the end, he finds out who the real killer is. Although it’s Poirot who finds the solution, it’s Spence’s willingness to start over that makes that possible.

Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye begins as schoolteacher Janek Mitter wakes up after a long night of drinking. Badly hung over, he slowly comes to his senses, only to discover the body of his wife, Eva Ringmar, in the bathtub. The police, in the form of Inspector Van Veetern, are called in and, as you can imagine, Mitter becomes the most likely suspect. In fact, he’s arrested, tried and convicted. He can remember nothing about the murder, because he was far too drunk at the time. So, he’s remanded to a mental facility, rather than a traditional prison, in the hope that his memory will return. Van Veeteren has come to wonder whether his initial theory about the murder was correct. And, when Mitter himself is brutally murdered, Van Veeteren is sure that he was wrong. Now, he and his team have to let go of their theory of Eva Ringmar’s death and start all over again. And now they’ve got two murders to solve.

Gordon Ferris’ Glasgow trilogy features former journalist Douglas Brodie. In The Hanging Shed, he’s just returned from service in World War II (the book takes place just after the war), and is living in London. He’s trying to pick up the pieces, as the saying goes, and start life again. Then, he gets a call from an old friend, Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. Donovan’s been arrested for the abduction and murder of a young boy, Rory Hutchinson. There is a great deal of convincing evidence against him, too. For instance, the boy’s clothes were found in his home, and there are traces of heroin in his system (Donovan has the habit). But Donovan claims that he had nothing to do with Rory’s death. Brodie isn’t sure what he can do to help. And, in any case, he’s not entirely convinced that his old friend is innocent. Donovan went through the war, too, and that sort of trauma can do all sorts of things to a person. Still, Brodie agrees to see what he can do, and travels to his native Glasgow. There, he meets Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell. Together, the two have to start all over again and try to put the pieces of the puzzle together in a different way if they’re to save Donovan.

And then there’s Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink. Lucy Khambule is one half of The Publicists, a Johannesburg company which she owns with her friend, Patricia Moabelo. But, she’s at a bit of a crossroads for a few reasons. Everything changes when she gets a telephone call from Napoleon Dingiswayo, who’s in a maximum-security prison for a series of horrific killings. She had written to him during her years in journalism, and he kept her contact information. Now, he wants to meet her and possibly have her write a book about him. The offer is extremely tempting, since Khambule has always wanted to write a book. So, she goes to the prison, and she and her interviewee start working together. Then, some very unsettling and violent things begin to happen. Dingiswayo can’t be responsible for them, since he is in a maximum-security facility. But if he’s not guilty, then who is? And what might that say about the murders for which he’s in prison? Now, the whole theory of what really happened has to be set aside and re-examined. And Khambule will have to do that quickly, before anything else happens.

It’s never easy or fun to have to toss something aside and start over again. But sometimes, it’s the only way to get to the truth. And the sleuth who can do that is more likely to find out the real answers.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Makholwa, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gordon Ferris, Håkan Nesser

You Can’t Compete With Murder Incorporated*

One of the most influential films of the last decades has arguably been Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, which premiered 46 (!) years ago. It’s based, as you’ll know, on Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name, and traces the fortunes of the Corleone family. Many people consider it a remarkable film; certainly, it’s had a real impact.

But it’s not by any means the only story about members of the Mafia. It seems as though we have a real cultural fascination with Mafiosi, crime families, and their doings. And, if you look at crime fiction, such characters and plot lines are woven into the genre. There are crime families and dynasties all over the world, and there’s only so much room in one post. But here are a few examples.

Puzo’s original 1969 novel, of course, had quite an impact of its own, independent of the film. It features the Corleone family, mostly between 1945 and 1955, and traces that family’s rise to power and its feud with other New York crime families. This novel’s focus is the New York Mafia culture, and its links to the Italian Mafia, and that’s become part of the mythology.

As you’ll know, there were also many connections between the New York Mafia and other crime syndicates and the underworld of Havana during the years before Fidel Castro took power there. There’s an interesting look at those links in Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra,which takes place in 1957. In that novel we are introduced to Havana journalist Joaquín Porrata, who writes for the Diaria de la Marina. He’s accustomed to writing ‘puffball’ pieces such as interviews with performers. One day, though, he hears of the murder of Umberto Anastasia, who’s been killed in a New York barbershop. Anastasia was known as the Great Enforcer of Murder, Inc., and Porrata believes that he was murdered because he took more of an interest than was good for him in some of the other Mob bosses’ dealings in Havana. Porrata’s supervisor doesn’t want him to follow up on that story, though. Instead, he sends him to cover the story of a hippopotamus who escaped from a Havana zoo and was later found dead. When Porrata hears that the animal’s death was likely a message to Anastasia, he is convinced that the two incidents are linked, and starts to ask questions about Anastasia’s death, and about what it suggests about the Mob’s hold on Havana. The closer he gets to the truth, though, the clearer it becomes that some people do not want him to find out what’s really going on.

Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs is the story of Franco family, who moves from Italy to New York City at the beginning of the 20th Century. Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco wants the ‘American Dream’ for his family, so he gets a job in a shoe repair shop, works hard, and within a few years is able to open his own shoe sales and repair shop. The business does well, too. But then disaster strikes. Ben Franco, who by this time has changed the family’s name to Frank, kills a man in a bar fight. That man turns out to be Luigi Lupo, son of notorious Mafioso Tonio Lupo. Frank is arrested and imprisoned for the murder, and Lupo visits him in prison. There, he curses the family, and says that each of Frank’s three sons will die at the age of forty-two, the same age Luigi Lupo was at his death. It’s not an idle threat, either, as Tonio Lupo is powerful, notorious, and ruthless. As the years go by, we see what happens to Frank’s sons, and how this curse impacts the family. And we also see how the Mafia plays a part in what happens to the Frank family fortunes.

Mafiosi make an appearance in Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes, too. In that novel, we are introduced to professional thief John ‘Duke’ Anderson. He’s recently been released from prison and is trying to ‘go straight.’ He changes his mind, though, when he gets the chance to visit a posh Manhattan apartment building. He decides to plan a robbery, but not just of one apartment. His plan will be to rob the entire building. For that, of course, he’ll need equipment, money, and people to work with him. So, for about five months, Anderson makes his plans and gets his team in place. One of Anderson’s sources will be the Angelo family, a Mafia family involved for some time in New York’s underworld. The FBI and other authorities are very interested in anything they can learn about the Angelos’ activities, so they’ve placed the members under electronic and other surveillance. They’ve also got an interest in several other of Anderson’s contacts. The question will be: can the authorities stop this robbery before it takes place? As we get to know the Angelos, we learn a little about how such families work.

And then there’s Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children move from New Jersey to a small town in Normandy. The four settle in and try to adjust to the new culture, the new language, and so on. But this isn’t a typical American family. ‘Fred Blake’ is really Giovanni Manzini, a member of the New Jersey Mafia. He’s committed the unforgiveable sin of testifying against his former Mafia colleagues in court. Now, he and his family are in the US Federal Witness Protection Program. The plan to start life over in Normandy works well at first. But then, word of the Manzinis’ new location gets back to New Jersey. Now, the family has much more serious problems on their hands than ‘culture shock.’ This novel was the inspiration for Luc Besson’s 2013 film, The Family.

The Mafia has woven into the underworld for a very long time. So it makes sense that we’d see examples all through crime fiction. I’ve only had the space to mention a few; I know you’ll think of many others (right, fans of Andrea Camilleri’s series?). Which ones have stayed with you?

As you know, I usually take my own ‘photos for this blog. But I just couldn’t resist this iconic image of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Murder Incorporated.



Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Lawrence Sanders, Mario Puzo, Mayra Montero, Tonino Benacquista

He’s a Genius Who Believes*

As this is posted, it would have been Albert Einstein’s 139th birthday. For many people, Einstein personified genius. And he was, of course, a truly remarkable mathematician, physicist, and more. His contributions to science and technology have had profound and lasting effects on the world.

Einstein isn’t, of course, the only person people regard as a genius. There are plenty of others. And the people you would put on your ‘genuine genius’ list would depend on how, exactly, you define genius. And that’s by no means a settled question. Still, it’s interesting to take a look at people with extraordinary intellectual gifts.

There are certainly plenty of them in crime fiction. One of the crime-fictional geniuses most people think of is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. He’s made detection his life’s work and passion, so he channels his brilliance into certain specific areas. But in those areas, he has remarkable knowledge. Fans of these stories can tell you that genius seems to run in Holmes’ family. His brother, Mycroft, is even more gifted, and in a few stories, the Holmes brothers work together. There’s also genius on the other side of the law in the form of Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty. In fact, Moriarty is one of the few people who can really be a match for Holmes’ skills.

In Matthew Gant’s short story, The Uses of Intelligence, we are introduced to eleven-year-old twins Patty and Danny Perkins. They are both geniuses, with exceptionally high IQs. One day, they learn that an acquaintance of theirs, banana seller Aristos Depopoulos, has been killed. The weapon looks like the proverbial blunt instrument, and the police think Depopoulos was killed by one of the workers at a nearby construction site. But Patty and Danny aren’t sure that’s what happened. So, they put their genius to the test and work to find out the truth. When they discover who the killer is, the twins decide to engage in a bit of blackmail: their silence for regular weekly payoffs. What they don’t know, though is that they’re not the only ones who are geniuses…

Keigo Higashino’s crime fiction series features Tokyo physics professor Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. In many ways, this is a police procedural series, and the focus is on the police and the way they go about investigating and solving crime. But Yukawa acts as a mentor to several of the police officers who took his classes or have otherwise had dealings with him. So, they bring their cases to him when they need to tap his genius. And he proves to be very helpful. Yugawa doesn’t claim to have a great deal of knowledge outside his fields of physics and mathematics. But within those fields, he has remarkable abilities.

If you’ve read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels, then you know that one of his protagonists, Lisbeth Salander, has a rare gift with computers and a photographic memory. She has Asperger’s Syndrome, so social skills are not her strength. But she does have real genius in certain areas. And her skills turn out to be crucial for journalist Mikael Blomkvist. It all starts in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, when he is hired by Henrik Vanger. It seems that Vanger’s great-niece, Harriet, went missing nearly forty years earlier. Everyone thought she was dead, but Vanger’s been getting gifts of dried flowers for his birthdays – something only Harriet would do. Vanger wants Blomqvist to find out what happened to Harriet, in return for which he’ll help Vanger bring down the man who successfully sued Blomqvist for libel. Blomqvist hires Salander to do the background research, and she proves to be critical to finding out the truth.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. In that novel, Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne is at a crossroads. She’s had quite a bit of success, but she isn’t naïve enough to think that she can rest on her laurels. There are younger, ‘hungry’ people coming up behind her, and Thorne would like to cement a position at the top of New Zealand journalism. She thinks she may have her chance when she learns about the case of Connor Bligh. He’s been in prison for years for the murder of his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. The only survivor was their daughter, Katy, who wasn’t home at the time of the killings. Everyone assumed that Bligh was guilty, but now, there are little suggestions that he might have been innocent. If so, then this could be the story that Thorne needs. Despite the misgivings that several people express, Thorne starts asking questions. And in the end, she finds herself much more bound up in the story than she thought she would be (or should be). As Thorne does her research (including lengthy communication with Bligh himself), she learns that Bligh is a brilliant person – a genius. He’s had unusual intellectual gifts all his life, but not much in the way of social skills. His struggle to find a place, if you will, has played an important role in his life.

There are, of course, many different kinds of genius, and many examples of people who possess it. These are just a few crime-fictional examples. Over to you.

In Memoriam

Although we celebrate Einstein’s birthday today, this post is also dedicated to the memory of Stephen Hawking, a true scientific visionary, who saw so much more than most. He will be sorely missed.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Instanzia’s A Genius Who Believes.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Keigo Higashino, Matthew Gant, Paddy Richardson, Stieg Larsson