Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bouchercon Postmortem II:
San Francisco Was All About Friendships, Part 2

The Friday morning breakfast queue outside Dottie’s.

(Editor’s note: This is the second installment in British correspondent Ali Karim’s evocative recap of last month’s Bouchercon in San Francisco. You’ll find the first part of his report here.)

Friday, October 15: Still unaccustomed to West Coast time, author Roger Ellory (The Saints of New York) and I were up before dawn. We had arranged to meet Rap Sheet editor Jeff Pierce--who, by coincidence was staying in the hotel right next door to ours--at 8 a.m. Although Jeff lives in Seattle, he has so far written two non-fiction books about San Francisco (including this one), so is very familiar with the city--or The City, as proud locals refer to it. He proposed taking us to one of his favorite breakfast joints, which required a fairly healthy morning walk. Along the way, Jeff pointed out various landmarks, including quirky Lotta’s Fountain, the beautiful Hallidie Building, and the once-exclusive promontory of Nob Hill. (It’s juvenile, I know, but I always chuckle when I hear that name, due to the association of “nob” with the male genitalia.)

(Left) Looking west up California Street to Nob Hill.

It turns out that Jeff was marching us to Dottie’s True Blue Café on Jones Street. This was obviously a popular eatery, as we had to queue outside for half an hour, and the long walk and the aroma of cooking breakfast that wafted our way every time someone opened the front door made me ravenous. But I was obviously not the only one so affected. Once Jeff, Roger, and I were seated at the counter, we ordered huge breakfasts that we watched being cooked on the griddle right in front of us. I managed to consume all of my meal, while my cohorts did their best, but ultimately could not clean their plates. By the time we were finished, it was past 11 a.m., and I’d arranged to meet my next panelists in the green room of the Hyatt Regency at 11:30. So after Roger generously picked up our tab for breakfast, and despite Jeff’s reassurance that we would make it back to the convention hotel with time to spare, I raced ahead. Of course, what I didn’t tell Jeff or Roger (who wanted to dawdle and take photographs along the way) was that, with all the walking and that enormous meal, I needed to use the men’s room rather desperately. Instead of going directly to the Hyatt, then, I stopped at my own hotel--just in time for a bit of relief and to pick up my notes--before dashing off to the green room, coated in perspiration, to meet my fellow panelists: crime writers Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Zoë Ferraris, and Joshua Sobol.

The last thing I had on my mind at this point was my right hand, which I’d injured in a chemical accident before leaving England; but the white glove I wore over my bandages immediately drew the concern of Swedish writing partners Anders and Hellström, as well as Yrsa, whom I’d met before. Meanwhile, Zoë was rather amused by the fact that Joshua seemed to have wandered away immediately prior to our departing for the conference room where we were to address the subject, “Where Will the Next Great Idea Come From?” I tried to remain calm, and get to know my panelists, especially Zoë, who’d been in Saudi Arabia at the same time as I was, during the first Iran-Iraq War of the mid- to late-1980s, when I worked escorting cargo ships out into the Straits of Hormuz. But I was fairly distracted by Joshua’s absence, and also by the sudden appearance in the green room of Michael Connelly, who laughed when he spotted my heavily bandaged and white-gloved hand. “Only you,” he muttered, “could look like a super-villain.”

We finally decided to walk to our designated room, only to be met en route by Joshua Sobol. I’d feared our discussion might be poorly attended, as it had been scheduled against an interview with Connelly, conducted by Gregg Hurwitz, and was a last-minute addition to the lineup, made possible by Roslund and Hellström’s 11th-hour decision to attend Bouchercon. Fortunately, though, there were plenty of people in our audience, and conversation between the panelists was quite lively--a remarkable thing, given that only Zoë and I could claim English as a first language. What connected these panelists was that their fiction bears ample social commentary: Joshua’s tales build around the conflicts endemic to the Middle East; Zoë, though she looks very prim and proper, writes about the darker elements of Saudi Arabia’s repressive society; Anders and Hellström mine criminal currents oozing beneath the enlightened veneer of Swedish society; and Yrsa’s alter-ego, detective-lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottir, attempts to restore order out of the chaos that results from misdeeds in Iceland. By the end of our hour, we had had tremendous fun talking about international crime fiction, and there were plenty of folks wanting to get their books signed by the panelists. One special treat was that Roslund and Hellström’s U.S. publisher, Sterling, in cooperation with Quercus UK, had shipped boxes filled with advance reading copies of their latest novel, Three Seconds, to give away during Bouchercon, even though the book won’t be released in the States till January 2011.

(Right) Swedish authors Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström sign advance copies of their new novel.

Leaving my panelists at the mercy of fans hoping to have their books autographed, I headed toward the Hyatt’s bar with Jeff Pierce and Roger Ellory. After our mega-breakfast at Dottie’s, my stomach refused solids, and a liquid lunch seemed the order of the day. Joining us were über-novelist Heather Graham and her husband, Dennis Pozzessere, along with Severn House publisher-editor Kate Lyall-Grant and several other convention-goers. Then, fresh from their signing duties, Roslund and Hellström pulled up chairs of their own, and our conversation veered off onto the topic of Swedish crime fiction’s increasing significance. Eventually, Jeff peeled away to speak with novelist and Wall Street Journal writer Jim Fusilli (Narrows Gate), who was at a table beside his literary agent, Ann Rittenberg. I had a chance, as well, to talk with Rittenberg, who in addition to Fusilli, represents Dennis Lehane. I thanked her for passing some letters of mine along to Lehane back in the 1990s, said I was looking forward to seeing him again at next year’s Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, and mentioned how much I looked forward to reading his new Patrick Kenzie-Angela Gennaro novel, Moonlight Mile. It was thanks to Jeff Pierce that I’d acquired an advance reading copy of Moonlight Mile, which was destined to be my reading material on the flight back to London.

Before leaving the bar, I chatted with the delightful Christa Faust and mentioned how eagerly I anticipated reading Choke Hold, her sequel to 2008’s Money Shot (its release postponed until 2011, due to recent business changes for her publisher, Hard Case Crime). I also introduced Christa to Roslund and Hellström, who were intrigued by my description of Money Shot’s noirish plot. If there’s one thing these three writers have in common, it’s that they don’t shy away from tough narratives.

Authors Gary Phillips, Walter Mosley, and Gar Anthony Haywood

By this time, I needed a short break from the convention hubbub. So I sneaked back to my room at the Hotel Griffon for a quick shower and a change of attire. Before rejoining the excitement, I stopped off in front of the Hyatt for a quick smoke. And there I got talking with authors Gary Phillips (The Underbelly) and Gar Anthony Haywood (Cemetery Road). Gary and I began reminiscing about how we’d met the great, but now gone actor, Richard Widmark, at Crimescene 2002 in London. As we were nattering on, a cab pulled up and disgorged the legendary Walter Mosley, who I’d met during a different Crimescene convention, back in 2003, which had featured Mosley as its guest of honor. I was flattered that Mosley remembered that event as well as my knowledge of his work, including his science fiction. To tell you the truth, I really enjoyed being a “man of color” in company with these terrific writers. After taking the opportunity to photograph the three of them together, I stubbed out my cigarette and re-entered the hotel.

I had a chance only in passing to say hello to Irish wordsmith John Connolly and editor Andrew Gulli from The Strand Magazine, which says much about the pace of Bouchercon and the abundance of key figures in attendance. Gulli told me that following the conclusion of Bouchercon festivities on Sunday, he intended to zip down the coast to the town of Monterey. I told him that Roger Ellory and I had our own plans: to boat across San Francisco Bay for a tour of the old prison facilities on Alcatraz Island, provided we could get tickets. Earlier, I’d hoped also to hire a car and re-enact parts of Steve McQueen’s famous car chase from Bullitt, but with my hand damaged, that was no longer possible.

(Left) Roger “R.J.” Ellory and Daniel Woodrell at Gordon Biersch.

By now it was time for the Mulholland Books Party. So, together with Roger, Mark Billingham, Chris Mooney, Martyn Waites (aka Tania Carver), and Jeff Pierce, I strolled down to the Gordon Biersch Brewery and Restaurant, several blocks south of the Hyatt, where Mulholland marketing director Miriam Parker greeted us with beer, pizza, and much else. The highlights of this event were meeting Scott Phillips (The Ice Harvest) and Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone), writers who are skilled in making the rural American backdrop look as dark as pitch.

Unfortunately, I could not stay at Gordon Biersch for long, because that evening’s main attraction, the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA) Shamus Awards Banquet, was set to get underway soon at the Empress of China restaurant in Chinatown. A gang of us had tickets--Roger, Jeff, blogger Jen Forbus, and crime-fiction fan Judy Bobalik--and we all somehow managed to squeeze into a taxicab, telling the driver, “Don’t spare the horses!” as we raced downtown. Or was it uptown?

Pizza fans Chris Mooney, Martyn Waites, and Mark Billingham.

We arrived at the restaurant after most everyone else had been seated, so wound up being scattered in empty chairs around the fourth-floor dining room. Just as I entered, I heard a throaty voice, “Hey, baby, what’s happening?” and saw Gary Phillips beckoning me over to his giant round table. Also there were Dashiell Hammett tour guide Don Herron and his wife, and Shamus-nominated Scottish novelist Russel D. McLean. Every time I go to Bouchercon, Gary Phillips tries to rope me into one of his poker games, and 2010 was no exception. My only reply: “Gary, look, I’d love to play you, dude, but I’d feel bad flying back to London with the keys to your house, the keys to your car, and your kids’ education fund”--which always brings a deep boom of laughter from Gary.

As ever, the Shamus Banquet was expertly organized by Christine Matthews, with novelist and PWA chair Robert J. Randisi in the master of ceremonies role. Robert Crais (The First Rule) was supposed to have been on hand to receive the 2010 PWA Lifetime Achievement Award, but he had to bow out of Bouchercon this year, due to his mother taking ill. That, however, was the only disappointment of this affair. I was pleased to see Kelli Stanley (City of Dragons), Shamus-nominated David Levien and his charming wife, and The Thrilling Detective Web Site’s Kevin Burton Smith, who I hadn’t shaken hands with since Vegas in 2003. It was good, too, to say hello once again to Edwin Buckwalter, the chairman of Severn House Publishers, which is bringing out Randisi’s latest “Rat Pack Mystery,” I’m a Fool to Kill You. Oh, and the awards results held plenty of surprises. I just joined the PWA as an associate this year, and I look forward to getting more involved with that organization.

During dinner, concerned authors Reed Farrel Coleman and S.J. Rozan asked me what had happened to my bandaged right hand. Being a bit full of gin, I mentioned that somebody earlier had suggested it was the result of an injury due to excessive masturbation, which made them both blush. Then I told them what I’d said in response: “Don’t be silly. I’m left-handed.”

(Right) David Levien and his wife, Melissa, at the Shamus Banquet.

After the main meal and dessert were polished off, and toasts had been offered to the awards recipients, Jeff, Roger, and I decided to walk back to the Hyatt, taking in the eccentric sights of Chinatown along the way. By the time we finally reached the hotel, the annual Lee Child/Jack Reacher Party at Bouchercon was in full swing. Primo publicist Maggie Griffin was on hand and busy with a CBS-TV film crew, as Jack Reacher lookalikes roamed the bar area, engaged in some sort of competition. I was simply too drunk and confused to comprehend what was happening, so I went outside for a smoke with Crimespree Magazine editors Jon and Ruth Jordan, and we wound up talking about our favorite Battlestar Galactica episodes. (Yeah, it was that kind of night.) Then it was back to the bar for a chat with amusing author Barbara Fister, about whether Stieg Larsson’s Lisabeth Salander should or should not be considered a sociopath. Somewhere along the line, I bumped into editor and bookseller Otto Penzler, with whom I talked (perhaps incoherently) about both his recent collection of espionage fiction, Agents of Treachery, and his previous book, The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives.

Finally, after sitting down at a table with Jeff Pierce and Kevin Burton Smith, but feeling the room start to swirl around me, I decided the night had gone on long enough. I thanked Lee Child and Maggie Griffin for their hospitality, and then retreated to the Griffon. Roger was nowhere to be seen when I arrived, which was great, because it gave me a head start of a solid night’s sleep. But he rolled in the door ’round about 3 a.m. to curse my snoring with all of the linguistic tools at his disposal.

(The third entry in this report can be found here.)


Michael Malone said...

thanks for that, Ali! I really must go there one year. I hope your hand has recovered?

Paul D. Brazill said...

Sounds fantastic!

Kiwicraig said...

Sounds fantastic Ali. Thanks for another great report. I've been fortunate enough to meet several of those authors (Lee Child, Gregg Hurwitz, Roger Ellory, etc) here in New Zealand in recent months, and have spoken to several others (eg Connelly) on the phone as well. There's a real sense of community and camaraderie in the crime fiction world, which I've been enjoying even out here on the periphery.

Hopefully one day I'll be able to join you at one of these fantastic festivals.

Kia Kaha from Aotearoa.

Jane said...

That was an excellent panel. No regrets about choosing it over the Michael Connelly event. Great choice of writers: distinct personalities and interesting things to say about their writing as well as their books. (Thanks for solving white glove mystery :)

Peter Rozovsky said...

If you giggled so much over Nob Hill, I'd better not tell you that my Nob Hill hotel was on a street called Bush.
The Gin Genie Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"