Friday, November 14, 2008

Manic Monday, Part I

Novelist Laura Wilson and critic-author Barry Forshaw

I have to be obsessively organized in order to juggle my day-job with all my crime/thriller fiction work. A recent Monday presented me with a significant challenge, as there were three major events taking place that evening in London. First off, there was the presentation of the annual Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award. This was a must-attend occasion for me, as the shortlist was so brilliant, I wondered how on earth the judges would come up with a winner. In addition, two American authors were making appearances: Neil Gaiman and Brett Battles, the latter of whom was in England to finish off research for book #4 in his “cleaner” Jonathan Quinn series.

Conferring with my frequent partners in crime, reviewers Mike Stotter and Barry Forshaw, I realize that all of us were triple-booked for that Monday. So, with a bit of help from my GPS system, I worked out a navigation plan that would take us around London to all three events. Forshaw began by going off to meet Gaiman, while Stotter and I decided to warm up with a stop at the Fitzroy Tavern in Charlotte Street. It had been a while since I’d last seen Stotter, so I regaled him with some of my adventures from Bouchercon in Baltimore. We were soon joined by critic-columnist Mike Ripley and the ever-mysterious Ayo Onatade. After handing out a few goodies I’d brought back from the States (including advance copies of Barry Eisler’s forthcoming standalone thriller, Fault Line), I launched into an account of my nerve-wracking departure from Charm City.

Now, I am as happy as anyone that airport security can be tight, protecting travelers from the threats posed by psycho-terrorist nutters. But the problem is that anyone with brown skin--such as yours truly--is often given what might be termed “special treatment.” And I seem more often than not to be the recipient of such attention. The troubles in Baltimore began when author Roger Jon “R.J.” Ellory and I checked in at the airport, following the convention. Not surprisingly, I was massively overweight on my luggage, so I had to remove a load of the books I’d purchased during Bouchercon, and put them in a spare hold-all to use as carry-on luggage. Even with this effort, though, I still had to pay a large surcharge for my overburdened suitcase. While I was still in the midst of reorganizing my books, we were advised that we’d be changing planes in Charlotte, South Carolina, and would have to re-check our bags with security there before flying on to London. This didn’t sound like any particular challenge, since we were supposed to have a two-hour layover in Charlotte--plenty of time to get things sorted. But when we arrived in North Carolina and went to the luggage carousel, our suitcases were nowhere to be found. Inquiring at the nearest information desk, we were told that they had in fact been checked through straight to London. Naturally, by this time, we’d eaten up most of our layover period. Glancing at his watch, the info desk official said, “You guys better run, you have 35 minutes to make your flight.” So we did. We raced up the stairs to the Departures security area, cursing the check-in clerk in Baltimore the whole while. I was sweating profusely, as my hold-all weighed a ton, due to all the reading matter inside.

Here’s where things really got tricky. After the usual routine of X-rays, shoes and belts off, etc., Ellory was waved on through, but I was escorted into what I thought was another X-ray machine, but was in fact a bomb-proof glass cubicle. Once inside, the door was firmly locked behind me. Then, three Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers said they wanted to ask me a few questions. They opened up my luggage, as I tried to explain my predicament and, meanwhile, heard over the loudspeaker, “Passenger Karim for London, your flight is boarding and your gate is closing in 10 minutes.” The two officers told me to relax and said jovially that if I could run as fast as I could talk, I ought to have no problems making my plane.

While pawing through my carry-on cases, one of the security guys inquired, “Mr. Karim, do you always travel with 80 crime novels in your luggage?” I pulled out a Bouchercon brochure and explained that I am a reviewer and collector of books, at which point they asked for recommendations for themselves--so we had a nice little conversation about various recent works, such as Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Linda L. Richards’ Death Was the Other Woman, and Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44. The men from the TSA scribbled furiously as I reeled off the titles of books I’ve loved, and all the while, the clock was ticking. I was panicked, sure that I would miss my flight, as the loudspeaker pleaded, “Passenger Karim, please make your way immediately to Departure Gate D11, your flight is ready for departure.”

The TSA officers--really nice guys, despite everything--only released me after their notebooks were filled with my reading suggestions. I quickly repacked my luggage, and the security men told me to run fast, giving me directions to my gate. Fast? I had to run like a damn Olympian, the sweat dripping off me, as if I were under a shower head. With the straps of my overtaxed hold-all digging into my shoulder and the loudspeaker declaring, “Mr. Karim, please make your way to Gate D11 immediately, your flight is closing,” I shouted at people to move aside. It suddenly crossed my mind that an Asian-looking guy with a big bag slung over his shoulder, running like a madman through a U.S. airport, shouting at people to move out of his way might look ... um, not cool. It was lucky I wasn’t shot by some trigger-happy law-enforcement type.

Finally, I made it to my flight gate, just as the bridge was about to close. Breathing heavily, my hair dripping, I thought I might have a heart attack. As I took my seat on the plane, Ellory remarked that my love of books could have proved dangerous. I laughed it off, and told him it all added to the many adventures of my life.

Mike Stotter weighed his gift copy of Fault Line in his hands, as he realized that it was one of the books I’d been carrying on my stampede through the Charlotte terminal. Then, checking our watches, we decided it was time to move on to 6 Fitzroy Square, our venue for the Ellis Peters Award presentation. Since Stotter, Forshaw, and I all had invitations to join Brett Battles later for dinner, we had agreed to meet first at the Ellis Peters party; then, after the results were announced, we would slink off to dine with Battles. Our timeframe was tight. We had a table for dinner in the posh Belgravia district booked for 8 p.m., so we’d have to leave the Ellis Peters affair by 7:40 at the latest--and of course, there would be no champagne for the driver, me.

Arriving early at Fitzroy Square, we chatted with Lesley Horton, the current chair of the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA), and erstwhile chair Robert Richardson about the difficulty judges faced in winnowing down this year’s shortlist of Ellis Peters nominees. The quality of submissions was so high, that the judges decided in the end to mention a few novels that had made their longlist, as well.

To be fair, all of the books on those two lists--whether it was Ariana Franklin’s The Death Maze, Philip Kerr’s A Quiet Flame, Andrew Taylor’s Bleeding Heart Square, R.N. Morris’ A Vengeful Longing, or the rest--deserved the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award. That point was reiterated by David Shelly, the publishing director at Little, Brown UK, when he took the podium to welcome everybody to the evening’s festivities. And it was picked up again by Janet Laurence, the CWA chair of judges, who went on to remind us that the commendation being given out on this evening was named for Edith Pargeter (1913-1995), who under the pseudonym “Ellis Peters” created A.D. 12th-century Benedictine monk and part-time criminal investigator Brother Cadfael. The Ellis Peters’ prize of £3,000 is sponsored by the Estate of Ellis Peters, Headline Book Publishing Company, and Time Warner/Little, Brown Books UK.

After sharing that background, Laurence tugged open the envelope containing the winner’s name--and announced that Laura Wilson was the recipient of this year’s Ellis Peters Dagger for her World War II-era yarn, Stratton’s War. I happened to be standing near Wilson when that declaration was made, and it clearly caught her off-guard. Accepting the commendation a few minutes later, the author noted, graciously: “The other books on the shortlist were of such high caliber, that I really did not expect to win. In fact, just before the announcement, I’d taken a consoling swig of my drink--I practically choked, and had to be slapped on the back. Very dignified! I’m absolutely delighted, and still slightly stunned.”

Having read Stratton’s War myself, and interviewed Wilson this year for The Rap Sheet, I thoroughly agree with the judges’ comments about her book, which Laurence read out to the crowd:
“The early stages of World War II see [Detective Inspector Ted] Stratton, a traditional detective coping in a war situation with everyday crime and the underworld and investigating what he believes is a murder but has been officially judged to be suicide. At the same time Diana Calthrop, a beautiful, bored socialite, is drawn into MI5’s battle with anti-war fascism on the home front, a battle in which no holds are barred. Gradually, Laura Wilson’s atmospheric book unites the two main strands of her subtle plot. Her characters are complex and totally believable, as is their struggle to cope with wartime London, with its constant bombing, increasing bureaucracy, and the breakdown of family life. The plot builds into a complex picture of a time in which no one is immune from the insidious effects of war.”
Following that, we raised our glasses in toast to all the Ellis Peters Dagger nominees. And then got down to the serious business of mingling. I was delighted to meet Sarah Turner from Transworld Publishing, as she had kindly sent me an astounding “debut” novel, The Calling (due out in paperback in the UK in December), written by an elusive author traveling under the moniker “Inger Ash Wolfe.” Not long afterward, I happened across Helen Heller, the agent for American author Linwood Barclay (No Time for Goodbye). I embarrassed myself when Turner “introduced” me to Heller, for the agent was so glammed-up, I’d failed to recognize her, even though we have known each other for years. We had a good laugh about that, I’ll tell you, and I went on to congratulate Heller on the part she’s played in Barclay’s success in the UK. Hearing Barclay’s name, editor Jon Wood of Orion, the publisher of No Time for Goodbye, joined us to relate the news that Barclay’s book is expected to sell 750,000 copies in Britain before year’s end. Outstanding.

Pretty soon I noticed that Barry Forshaw had arrived--tardily, after first dropping by the launch party for Neil Gaiman’s new young adult novel, The Graveyard Book. He indicated that we had only 15 more minutes before we should dart off to meet author Brett Battles for dinner. That turned out to be just enough time for Forshaw to quaff some champagne and congratulate Laura Wilson, and for me to round up Mike Stotter. After thanking the CWA gang for their hospitality, we sneaked out and drove to Belgravia. Along the way, I rang up Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce in Seattle to relay the scoop that Wilson had won the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger.

A busy night, indeed.

(Part II can be found here.)

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One other thing worth mentioning: Since his return from this year’s Bouchercon, Roger Ellory and his wife, Vicki, have added a number of photographs to his blog, recounting “Roger and Ali’s Excellent Baltimore Adventure.” You’ll find those here.

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