The 11th annual Mayhem in the Midlands crime-fiction conference was held this past Memorial Day weekend, May 27-29, in Omaha, Nebraska.
The conference guest of honor was Deborah Crombie, author of the Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James series; the toastmaster was Marcia Talley, who writes the Hannah Ives and Chesapeake Crimes series; and the Caroline Willner Special Guest was Steve Hamilton, author of the Alex McKnight series and several standalones, including his newest novel, The Lock Artist.
Unlike the schedules of past years, this conference began a day early, on Thursday, May 27, and eliminated the customary closing Sunday morning brunch. This was done to accommodate travel plans, but it doesn’t matter to this writer what the schedule ultimately ends up being. Mayhem in the Midlands is simply too good to pass up, no matter the chronology of events.
As has been the case in the past, there were many highlights to this exceptionally well-organized and thoroughly informative conference. Kudos to Sallie Fellows, Manya Shorr, and Evelyn Whitehill, as well as the unnamed others who pulled it all together.
My personal highlights? They began on Friday morning, as I stood at the entrance to the Embassy Suites hotel lobby, collecting my thoughts for a panel discussion I was supposed to participate in that afternoon. I glanced to my side and saw novelist Alex Kava heading toward the entrance. I introduced myself, and we talked about writing for a few minutes. It was a special moment for me, because I make no bones about admiring this Nebraska-born author’s books (among them, 2007’s Whitewash). I later attended Kava’s panel, “Clinging to the Edge of the Page: The Art of the Thriller,” which was moderated by Michael A. Black, a Chicago police officer and the author of many thrilling police novels, including Hostile Takeovers. Besides Kava and Black, the other panelists were Shannon Baker and Robert Doerr. Baker made the case that something has to happen on nearly every page, or shortly thereafter, if a writer wants to keep tensions high. Black mentioned that when he employs real-life events in his fiction, he likes to mix the settings up, so the connections are less obvious.
My own panel later that Friday afternoon was called “The (Not So) Glamorous Life of a Writer,” which was moderated by Michael Allen Dymmoch, and also featured David Walker and Nancy Pickard. (Those panelists are pictured above in the same order, with yours truly on the far right.) Pickard and Walker had the glamorous part down, recounting their first trips to New York City to either meet with agents, or to attend the Edgar Awards banquet. The not-so-glamorous part? We all know that: write every day, no matter what.
On Saturday, I attended “Research: What You Didn’t Expect to Find,” which was moderated by Minneapolis-based author Gary Bush. Other panel members were Steve Hamilton, Chris Everheart, and Mark Bouton. Hamilton recounted some of the research he did for The Lock Artist. He stated that the best safe-crack artist today is not a criminal but rather a man who flies around the world, opening safes for various individuals or corporations for a fee. Do the math. Hamilton made the logical reference that you have to have constant practice to be the best, and criminals are either in jail or only occasionally trying to crack safes. I later asked Bouton, a former FBI agent who was part of the team that arrested Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, whether or not there was a third person, besides McVeigh and Terry Nichols, behind that 1995 bombing. Conspiracy theories revolve around a third man with either Hispanic or Middle Eastern features. But Bouton stated that there were “only two.”
I took part in a second panel discussion on Saturday, this one titled “Good to be Bad: Is It More Fun to Write the Hero or the Villain?” Moderated by Sue Senden, it also featured J. Mark Bertrand, Carl Brookins, and Radine Trees Nehring. If memory serves me correctly, while we all stated that we enjoyed writing a kick-ass villain, we mainly preferred writing the good guys. At one point Senden asked us if we had murderers in our families, and all of us said “no”--with the exception of Bertrand, who told the story of a bloody suit hanging in his grandmother’s closet. I suspect that tale will make it into one of his books someday.
There were non-panel activities too, of course, including a bus tour of the seedier side of Omaha. That excursion focused on the historical grittiness of this Midwestern city in its formative years. It seems there were lots of prostitutes, illegal gambling operations, and booze-running in Omaha’s past. After being shown the location of some of the houses of ill repute, I know I’ll never see the town the same way again.
During the conference, I also had the opportunity to talk with several authors, among them Sean Doolittle, who is currently working toward deadline on his next book. He recently moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa, which is just to the east of Omaha, across the Missouri River. Subsequently, I took a trip to Council Bluffs myself, though not for literary reasons--I went to visit the town’s floating casinos. And I won!
Finally, I must thank the bartender at the Sisters in Crime buffet dinner on Friday night, who was generous in pouring my whiskey--several times.
Next year, Mayhem in the Midlands is scheduled to take place from May 26 to 28, with Laurie R. King as guest of honor, and S.J. Rozan as toastmaster. Just as important as supporting independent bookstores, it is vital to support smaller conferences such as Mayhem. I hope to see you in the Midwest next year.