Ali Karim (center) shares the love with Jon and Ruth Jordan.
(Editor’s note: This is the third and final entry in British correspondent Ali Karim’s recap of last month’s Bouchercon in San Francisco. The first part of his report can be found here, while the second part is here.) Another summary of Bouchercon is located here.)
Saturday, October 16: After waking at a rather more civilized hour than we had the day before, my roommate, author Roger “R.J.” Ellory (The Anniversary Man), and I found a diner opposite the Hyatt Regency Hotel, where we enjoyed a generous breakfast. All through that meal, though, I was looking over the day’s Bouchercon schedule with dismay. There were simply too many interesting panel discussions for one person to attend, many of them clashing with each other. I couldn’t figure out what to do.
I sought at least temporary escape from my quandary by paying another visit to the hotel’s book-sales room. And while buying works to have signed by authors later in the day, I also spent some time with hometown girl Kelli Stanley, chatted with Michelle Gagnon about her latest thriller, and talked to the very amusing Tim Maleeny about how his 2007 novel, Stealing the Dragon, had beaten Stieg Larsson to the bookshelves with a cover that featured a dragon-tattooed woman. Especially pleasing was the time I spent with author Sophie Littlefield, who I had discovered last year at Bouchercon in Indianapolis, following the publication of her first novel, A Bad Day for Sorry. In San Francisco, I managed to pick up a copy of her second book, A Bad Day for Pretty, and I learned that she’s penning a young-adult series. We also talked about her brother, Mike Wiecek, who was on a panel I moderated at the inaugural ThrillerFest in Phoenix in 2006, and whose first novel, Exit Strategy, was shortlisted for a Thriller Award.
(Right) Author Scott Phillips clowns around with Sophie Littlefield.
Toting my bag of books, I headed outside for a quick cigarette, only to bump into Crimespree editors Jon and Ruth Jordan, crime-fiction fan Judy Bobalik, author Cara Black, and Matt Hilton, who had come over from England with his wife. They would all be my smoking buddies during Bouchercon’s duration, along with Libby Fischer Hellmann, into whose shoe I managed to drop a lit cigarette, causing her to yelp and me to rush in to prevent a burn on her ankle.
From there it was off to my first panel presentation of the day, a poignant one recalling the long shadow Robert B. Parker (who died in January of this year) cast over the field of private-eye fiction. I was joined in the crowd of listeners by Rap Sheet editor Jeff Pierce, who once interviewed Parker and had kept up with his various works since. This panel’s moderator was Scotsman Russel D. McLean, the author of one of 2010’s Shamus Award nominees, The Good Son. He had a tough job keeping the peace between novelists Joseph Finder and Lee Goldberg, who appeared on the panel with Rap Sheet contributor and author Mark Coggins, Irish wordsmith Declan Hughes, and Dick Lochte, who currently serves as president of the Private Eye Writers of America.
Bostonian Finder, a longstanding friend of the Parker family, opened the session by reading for the audience a very moving letter from Parker’s wife, Joan. In it, she detailed how Parker, through his fiction, had taken stands against casual and not-so-casual racism over the years, and how his rough-housing but romantic gumshoe, Spenser, had always stood up for underdogs, be they Jews, blacks, Asians, women, gays, or others. As Finder read on, my wind swirled back to my teenage years, when I was buying American paperback editions of Parker’s books from a market stall that specialized in used copies. Back then, in the 1970s, I hadn’t been aware of Parker’s liberal stands, but now I realized why his stories, like those by Arthur Conan Doyle, had always so attracted me. So much of what I read as a boy, whether it was penned by Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie, or Roald Dahl, had been filled with dismissive turns of phrase, reflecting an upper-class perspective. However, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, like Spenser and his African-American sidekick, Hawk, demonstrated no such prejudices against minorities. I found that refreshing, and it made me feel better not only about myself--a young man born into what seemed like an alien world--but about some of my non-white, non-heterosexual, and non-Christian friends.
The highly contentious Robert B. Parker panel, featuring (left to right) Joseph Finder, Dick Lochte, Declan Hughes, Mark Coggins, Lee Goldberg, and Russel D. McLean.
After Finder finished reading, the discussion broke down into two camps: those who defended the consistent excellence of Parker’s work, and those who--like Goldberg--applauded the author’s early books as groundbreaking, but saw declining quality in his later efforts. Actually, the division was pretty much Goldberg versus the rest; whenever they got a word in at all, Lochte, Hughes, and Coggins expressed mostly favorable judgments of Parker’s extensive oeuvre. There was much more agreement among the panelists when they were asked to name their favorite Spenser novel. They all seemed fond of the first Spenser outing, The Godwulf Manuscript (1973), but I agreed with Lochte, that top marks belong to The Judas Goat (1978), which brought Spenser and Hawk to my home turf of London.
Once the discussion was over, I approached Joe Finder. I told him how much I’d enjoyed Joan Parker’s letter and also how much I regretted never having had the chance to personally thank Robert Parker for what his work had meant to me as a teenager. Finder urged me to write a message to Joan, saying she would be delighted to hear of my enthusiasm, and he’d happily pass my letter on to her. (Naturally, one of the first things I did upon returning home to Britain was compose such a missive and send it to Finder, for forwarding. Never underestimate the power of words. Had it not been for Robert Parker’s books, I might have matured into a lesser person than I am today.)
It being after noon by this point, Jeff and I went upstairs to the Hyatt’s Atrium-level restaurant, where I’d organized lunch with critic-blogger Sarah Weinman and her partner, Edward Champion. I’ve known Sarah for many years now, back to when she lived in London, and we both attended the inaugural Theakstons Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in 2003. Over the years I have learned that, unless you plan specific meetings during Bouchercon, and pre-arrange meals together, it’s very difficult to spend the time you’d like with friends and colleagues. So this lunch was firmly on my docket. As we were ordering food (mostly burgers of various done-ness), I got to talking with Champion, who I’d met before in New York City, in Sarah’s company, and only then did I realize that he’s the guy behind the Internet phenomenon Bat Segundo, aka Dr. Mabuse. I have often downloaded and enjoyed the Bat Segundo podcasts, so congratulated Champion on interviewing some truly iconic writers, which brought a blush to his face. Between bites, Sarah told me that she’s enjoying success as a freelance writer, but that it doesn’t leave much time for her short-story writing. That’s too bad, as she has contributed her fiction over the years to several collections.
(Left) Author Kate Atkinson, seated on the left, being interviewed by critic Sarah Weinman.
Sated, and with our bill settled, the four of us split up. Jeff was scheduled to host a two-hour, interactive discussion about “the business of books,” while Sarah was off to interview Kate Atkinson, author of the Jackson Brodie crime novels. Since Atkinson is a favorite author of mine, I joined that session. Weinman, who is quite obviously also a fan of Atkinson’s work, probed her subject specifically on why a “literary writer” would switch to penning criminal yarns. Atkinson defended herself by saying that she essentially writes the stories she wants to, and then leaves it up to others to decide where they might be properly pigeonholed. In the signing room after the interview, I had a delightful tête-à-tête with Atkinson, as she sought to puzzle out why I was wearing one white glove, Michael Jackson-style. I could see the writer’s mind whirling, trying to rationalize this peculiar trapping. When I finally explained the sorry saga of my chemical burn, she roared with laughter--even more so when I noted that the glove had made me quite popular with airport security personnel.
Then it was on to a panel featuring “literary heavyweights” Martin Cruz Smith, Andrew Klavan, Joseph Finder, and Wallace Stroby (Gone ’til November), who performed admirably as moderator. The discussion contained numerous valuable nuggets having to do with Hollywood’s treatment of their respective novels. Smith recounted the battles he had with his publisher after Gorky Park won acclaim in the early 1980s, trying to thwart commercial efforts to convert his protagonist, Russian cop Arkady Renko, into an American. Meanwhile, Finder told the audience about his cameo role in the 2002 Ashley Judd thriller, High Crimes; and Klavan expressed his disappointment with Clint Eastwood’s 1999 film, True Crime (based on Klavan’s 1997 novel of the same name). The real treat for me, though, came after the panel presentation, when I queued up to meet Smith and Klavan, writers whose work I have read much of over the decades. While I was standing in line, I was surprised to have a couple of readers approach me, requesting that I autograph their copies of Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, edited by David Morrell and Hank Wagner--a book for which I wrote about English espionage novelist Eric Ambler. Normally it’s me who’s asking writers for signatures!
As hard as it had been for me to choose between panels for most of that day, it was equally trying to determine which party invitation to accept for the evening. (Publishers love to wine and dine authors as well as critics at Bouchercon.) I ultimately decided to attend the Orion Publishing fête, hosted by publishing directors Bill Massey and Juliet Ewers. I still have fond memories of breaking bread with Lawrence Block, Steve Hamilton, Harlan Coben, Linwood Barclay, and other writers during the Orion party at Bouchercon Baltimore two years ago, so I was confident this year’s bash wouldn’t disappoint. Dinner was held at a Greek restaurant. Among those seated around the table were Carla Buckley, Denise Mina, Steve Hamilton again, roommate Roger, and my dear colleague, the distinguished French translator Robert Pepin. Orion had chosen Walter Mosley to be guest of honor this year, and I had the pleasure of sitting right beside him. The restaurant’s cuisine was excellent, as was its wine, and many of us followed Mosley’s lead in picking goat stew as our main course--a dish I’d never tried before, and which is probably an acquired taste, though an interesting dish, to be sure.
(Right) Authors Steve Hamilton and Heather Graham.
The dinner conversation was wide-ranging. I told Hamilton how much I’d enjoyed his latest book, The Lock Artist, which was the first novel I read on my iPad. He then informed us that Tommy Lee Jones has acquired the movie rights to his book, so we all drank a toast to the promise of said project getting beyond the pre-production stage. Mosley and Roger Ellory discussed with Carla Buckley the dangers of artificial sweeteners, and actually convinced her to sign a contract saying that she would restrict her future diet soda intake. Later, Mosley and I discussed his science fiction, and he told me how surprised he’s been that few readers of his mystery fiction realize that he’s written tales as well in that other genre. At one point, we all got to talking about lesser-known films and novels, and I was delighted to discover that Scottish wordsmith Mina is a fellow admirer of the 1988 French-Dutch film The Vanishing (aka Spoorloos), directed by George Sluizer--a picture that still lives in my head, a decade after I first saw it. Apparently Mina is also enthusiastic about her entry into the world of graphic novels, and plans to compose more of them in the future. That affair’s most amusing moment, though--at least from my perspective--came during our discussion of obscure but significant crime novels. I noted that, as part of The Rap Sheet’s “One Book Project” a few years ago, I had recommended Bradley Denton’s 1993 book, Blackburn. This provoked a coughing fit in Robert Pepin, who was unfortunately trying to drink wine at the time. “You’ve read Blackburn?” he enquired excitedly. “Yes,” I said, passing him a napkin. “I consider it a masterpiece. So have you read it?” “Read it, Karim?” he responded. “Not only have I read it, but I also translated it into French. A wonderful book, you have great taste!” With what he remained in his glass, he raised a toast.
Dessert followed, as did more conversation, much of it centered around the importance of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a favorite topic of mine. (Somebody asked, “How can a book that most people struggle with the first 100 pages become such a monster?” My answer was simple: The book takes off the moment protagonist Lisabeth Salander appears on the page.) Then it was time to say goodnight to most of the company, and to stroll on back to the Hyatt with Bill Massey and Juliet Ewers, who I thanked for their generous hospitality.
Unwilling yet to retire, Bill Massey treated a group of us to nightcaps in the hotel bar. By this stage, I was starting to feel weary, but was kept on my toes by various writers stopping at our table to chat. I was especially pleased to see Silicon Valley novelist Keith Raffel (Smasher), who I met initially last year at Bouchercon in Indianapolis. A regular Rap Sheet reader, Raffel thanked me for my early heads-up about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and mentioned that as a result of it he’d purchased a British first edition of the novel, only to see its value increase greatly.
After Massey headed off for bed, I went outside for a smoke break with author Lee Child, and talked about the recent brouhaha over his comments having to do with literary fiction versus genre fiction. As is his style, Child seemed relaxed about the issue, which the press had turned into a bogus rivalry between him and Ian McEwan (Solar).
Back inside, I found room beside the hugely talented Alexandra Sokoloff (Book of Shadows), who was already seated at a table with novelist Heather Graham and her husband, Dennis Pozzessere (a dear friend of mine), and F. Paul Wilson. I recall reading Alex’s horror fiction, and nodding as critics compared it favorably to the work of genre legend Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House, 1959). And I look forward to digging into the paranormal fiction series that she, Heather, and Deborah LeBlanc are composing together. Yet, as much as I appreciated the women’s company, I enjoy Dennis’ even more. He’s very funny, and we share reading tastes. After awhile, seeing me wave and talk to assorted crime novelists who were tipping back their last libations of the night, Dennis said, “You know, Ali, you know everyone!” To which I replied: “Dennis, look around you. I am the only non-white guy in the room, hence I stand out, and this white glove of mine makes me look even weirder!” Wilson thought about that for a few moments and then said, in utter deadpan fashion, “He’s got a point. Ali looks like a super-villain.” We all had a good laugh at that.
Late-night revelers Heather Graham, F. Paul Wilson, Dennis Pozzessere, and Alexandra Sokoloff.
Dennis mentioned in passing that he and Heather had booked a couple of tickets for a Sunday afternoon tour of the old prison facilities on Alcatraz Island. I said that Roger and I were also hoping to take the same tour, but Dennis shook his head. He informed me that it was a very popular attraction, and tickets had to be reserved well in advance. The chances of our getting in before we had to return to England were slim. But I’m a firm believer in the adage, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and was not prepared to give up hope.
Weariness catching up to me at last, I tracked down Roger Ellory and Deadly Pleasures editor George Easter. We poked our heads into the ballroom where the Bouchercon Disco was in full swing, but decided that with the white glove and loud music I’d look too weird taking part in the festivities. So off to bed we all went.
Sunday, October 17: Although a few panel discussions were held on this final morning of the convention, Roger and I decided to sleep in, then shower and head off to the Anthony Awards brunch at 10 a.m.
We organized a large round table for brunch and reserved seats for British author Dreda Say Mitchell and her husband, Jeff and Jodi Pierce, and author Holly West and her husband. While we were filling our stomachs, I bugged Holly a bit about getting me a draft copy of her debut novel, Diary of Bedlam, and I congratulated Dreda on her role as the program chair for next year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, England. The rest of time I spent telling Jeff and Jodi about my obsession with the classic Planet of the Apes movies and their source material, Pierre Boulle’s 1963 science-fiction novel. I told them that both my parents and wife long ago grew tired of my interest in simian takeovers of Earth, and that in 1995 I had taken my wife--as a special treat on her birthday--to a showing of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Actually, it was more of a special treat to me, as my wife hates science fiction. I didn’t tell her the title of the film we were going to see, just that it was a romantic comedy starting Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, and Madeline Stowe. After we were seated in the cinema, an overweight guy with terrible body odor decided to position himself next to my wife, forcing her to sit with a handkerchief over her mouth and nose. And when the curtain came up and the title 12 Monkeys flashed on the screen, she tuned to me and said, in a sinister whisper, “It’s my birthday, and you bring me to one of your Planet of the Apes movies--and I have to sit next to a guy who smells of rotting cabbage and shit ...” Needless to say, a romantic evening was not in the offing, but at least it was a good film.
After most people were done with brunch, the Anthony Award ceremonies got underway. I was particularly pleased to see Louise Penny (The Brutal Telling) and Sophie Littlefield rewarded for their literary efforts, and happy with the rousing applause given to Maddy Van Hertbruggen, head of the online book-discussion group 4MA (For Mystery Addicts), who was this year’s Bouchercon fan guest of honor. Alafair Burke and Reed Farrel Coleman delivered a moving, joint speech in tribute to publisher and bookstore manager David Thompson, who passed away in September. They announced that Thompson would being given, posthumously, an Anthony for Special Services to the Industry, and that in years to come, that commendation would be renamed the David Thompson Award for Special Services to the crime-fiction genre. Since many people in the audience knew Thompson personally, the standing ovation that followed this announcement was predictable. Another similar cheer greeted Bouchercon 2010 conference chair Rae Helmsworth as she took to the stage and thanked us all for coming to San Francisco for this event. As she bid us adieu, a song rolled out from the giant conference room’s speakers--and it couldn’t have been a more apt choice.
Saying good-bye to everyone at the table, and all of those friends and colleagues who stopped us on our way out the door, was an extremely emotional experience. I told Dreda Say Mitchell that I was looking forward to hearing her next book review on BBC Radio 4 (as she seems to have become a regular there), and nagged Holly West one last time about finishing her book, so I can actually read it sometime. Then I asked Jeff and Jodi if they would like to join Roger and me on our proposed post-convention trip out to Alcatraz, but unfortunately they had to catch a plane home to Seattle that afternoon. It was a rather quiet walk Roger and I had back to our hotel, as we were reliving experiences from our busy last few days among book lovers. But as we entered the lobby, one of the receptionists gestured us over, and handed each of us a wrapped package. As we opened them, we broke into smiles, for Jeff had left us inscribed copies of his latest non-fiction book about San Francisco as a souvenir of our recent days together.
Ignoring all the naysayers, who insisted we’d never get last-minute tickets out to Alcatraz, Roger and I decided to take a chance. We walked up the bay-side Embarcadero to Pier 33, from which the Alcatraz tours begin. Along the way, it began to rain--the first bad weather we’d had all weekend, and a deterrent, we hoped, to less-sturdy visitors wishing to board one of the island tour boats. However, when we reached the ticket booth we were told in no uncertain terms that every seat for that afternoon’s trips to Alcatraz had already been allocated. This proved a test of our ingenuity. Affecting a highly accentuated English upper-class accent (referred to by the BBC as “received pronunciation”), I told the lady in the booth that Roger and I were British crime writers, researching San Francisco’s notorious island penitentiary for a forthcoming book. I said that we had traveled all the way from London expressly for this tour, and hadn’t been advised that a reservation was necessary. Carrying a concerned look, she told us to wait a moment while she consulted with her supervisor. He, in turn, informed us that a few tickets were always held in reserve, and we could have two of them.
Ali Karim is finally sent off to “The Rock.”
The sailing wasn’t for another hour, so clutching our prized passes, we walked further on down the street, looking for someplace to tip back a celebratory beer. In addition to being a tremendous novelist, Roger is also a talented musician, so we were pleased to find a Hard Rock Café nearby, on Pier 39. While I was chugging my brew at the bar, an elderly lady sat down on the stool next to mine, and in broken English inquired about my bandaged right hand. I told her about the chemical burn, and how Roger and I were in town, along with many other crime novelists and readers, for Bouchercon. I soon realized that she was Swedish, and was visiting the city with her daughter, who asked us, “Have you read Stieg Larsson?” Roger and I couldn’t help but laugh; what were the odds of our falling into conversation about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in a bar halfway around the world from our homes? When the daughter asked whether we were writers, I told her about Roger’s breakthrough novel, A Quiet Belief in Angels, a copy of which she promised to obtain. Then I asked our waitress for a Hard Rock Café notepad, the top sheet of which Roger signed and suggested she slip into his book after she’d bought it.
(Left) Roger Ellory samples the bars on Alcatraz Island.
Returned to the mainland, and back at our hotel, Roger mentioned to me that the chambermaids seemed to be giving us funny looks. I said he was paranoid, and that even though we were a couple of guys (both family men, I should add) sharing a room to keep our traveling costs down, this was San Francisco, one of the most gay-friendly metropolises on the planet. There was no reason for the maids to think much of two men staying in the same room. But then I broke out laughing, because as I was packing my bags--getting ready before our last dinner out--I realized what might have drawn us the quizzical gazes. I pointed to the medical kit I had brought along, given the condition of my hand, and highlighted for Roger the blue latex gloves and lubricating creams assembled on my bedside table. I’d had to use the protective gloves when I showered and shaved, and the creams I required to keep the burned flesh of my hand moist. But together they might have suggested we were into some more exotic behaviors than the hotel’s average guests. “They must think we’re a pair of cock-knobblers!” I cried. “What the heck is a cock-knobbler?” Roger retorted, and we laughed like hyenas over the situation, all the while contemplating the big tip we’d be leaving our maids.
We had hoped to share a parting dinner that night with several editors: Carol Fitzgerald of Bookreporter, Ruth and Jon Jordan of Crimespree, and Andrew Gulli of The Strand Magazine. When we got to the Hyatt, it was strange to see it so quiet, stripped of all evidence that Bouchercon had taken place there that weekend. With our prospective dining companions nowhere to be found, Roger and I decided to order gin at the bar and discuss our other eating options. Just as our drinks arrived, an excited Peter Rozovsky of Detectives Beyond Borders seemed to emerge from thin air. I greeted him with a chuckle and the statement, “Peter, you’re like a gin genie. Every time I have gin, you suddenly appear.” After which he asked: “Hey, are you guys coming for dinner?” Since we’d just learned that the Jordans were dining, instead, with Rae Helmsworth and her Bouchercon organizing team, and neither Fitzgerald nor Gulli was around, Roger and I took Peter up on his invitation to cab over to an Italian restaurant and share a repast with Kelli Stanley and Heather Graham.
That meal was a terrific end to the day, providing a great opportunity for us all to discuss what we’d all been up to, both during Bouchercon and otherwise. Of course, I had already consumed quite a bit of gin by this point--enough that when our waitress stopped ’round to ask whether we required a doggie-bag for all our leftovers, I once more affected my upper-class English accent and said, “Yes, please.” Then, knowing that Peter was planning to stay over in San Francisco for a couple of extra days, I added, gesturing in his direction, “Bring a doggie bag for Peter, as he wants to rub all that pasta over his cock-knobbler tonight.” You should have seen the strange look that waitress gave Rozovsky! Gales of laughter soon erupted from our table, as Roger recounted the talk we’d had earlier about our maid service, and Kelli Stanley and her partner went red in the face, guffawing between gulps of oxygen. It was a very humorous conclusion to the evening, and Peter was good-natured enough not to take offense at being the butt of my jest.
Afterward, Kelli and her partner drove Heather and her husband, Dennis, back to the Hyatt, while Roger, Peter, and I elected to walk back to the waterfront, taking in the late-night sights of this beautiful city. A charming end to this memorable weekend.
Monday, October 18: We had to be up early to reach the airport. Roger was scheduled to fly to Vancouver, Canada, for a literary festival, while I was bound for London. After wishing my now ex-roommate fair travels, and thanking him again for his excellent company and his encouragement to attend this year’s Bouchercon, I set off to find my boarding area. I was standing in line at the security gates, when I felt a tap on my shoulder, and there behind me was a smiling Alafair Burke. We chatted for a bit, and she joked about how I must now be accustomed to the airport security aspect of travel, having come so far to San Francisco. Oh yes, I reassured her, and it’s soooo much more fun with my white glove! After we made our way through the line, and split up in pursuit of different boarding gates, I went looking for coffee, only to bump into Robert Pepin, whose plane was slated to leave from the gate just opposite mine. We spent a pleasant hour together, as he shared his tales of translating and meeting some of the world’s best-known authors. I was bowled over when he told me about the times he used to spend with Kurt Vonnegut.
Summoned to our respective flights, we shook hands in farewell. I was now truly on my own, so after finding my seat for the initial leg of my transatlantic journey (with an anticipated change of planes in the Midwest), I pulled out the first of several books I had at hand to read: Dennis Lehane’s new novel, Moonlight Mile. As I began turning that book’s pages, and again entered the dramatic lives of Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, the Boston private eyes Lehane last wrote about a decade ago, it felt like I was reconnecting with old companions. It’s the same sort of feeling I have every time I participate in Bouchercon. I may not see the crime-fiction writers and readers I know from those conventions very often, but they are forever welcome in my life.
As I stated when I began writing this recap series, Bouchercon is always about friendships. Always.