Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bouchercon Postmortem II:
San Francisco Was All About Friendships, Part 1

Author Gary Phillips and Ali Karim with his infamous white glove.

(Editor’s note: This is the opening installment in British correspondent Ali Karim’s belated but nonetheless delightful recap of last month’s Bouchercon in San Francisco. A previous summary of those festivities can be found by clicking here.)

First off, let me apologize for this obviously tardy posting about Bouchercon, but I had struck a deal with my wife that I needed to honor. In order for me to fly off to America’s West Coast for a few days, I agreed to take my family to the South of France on vacation after returning home. Failure to honor my side of that bargain would surely have resulted in divorce and further miseries. Hence my delay.

Writing a convention report (and I have composed quite a few over the years) is an evocative way of reliving the experience of meeting old friends and new ones, and with each memory comes a smile. Bouchercon is always about friendships, as far as I’m concerned, and the too-infrequent chance to get together with readers who share my passion for crime, mystery, and thriller fiction. And this year’s gathering was no exception. Because of the huge number of events arranged for October’s long Bouchercon weekend (was it only my imagination, or did the 2010 Bouchercon seem bigger than usual in terms of ambition and scope?), I will guarantee that no two attendees can claim the same recollections. My only regret is that there were many people I wasn’t able to see, and some with whom I could not spend sufficient time. Clashing panel discussions and the deleterious affects of jet lag and alcohol consumption took their toll on this shy, reserved reviewer-cum-fanboy.

Prior to making the long journey to Northern California, I’d planned extensively to be sure that I could cram as many activities as possible into my painfully short visit. This was my first trip to America’s West Coast, and I didn’t want to waste any of it. As I had back in 2008, when I attended Bouchercon in Baltimore, I made this journey with my friend Roger “R.J.” Ellory (The Anniversary Man), who had broached the subject of our attending the convention last summer, after he won the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year Award in Harrogate for his 2008 book, A Simple Act of Violence. I’d been reluctant to go at first, but quickly warmed to the notion.

Only one week prior to our departure for sunny San Francisco, however, I suffered a serious, job-related chemical burn to my right hand, and things suddenly didn’t look good for my going away. I would be risking infection, due to my loss of skin on that hand. Fortunately, though, I was dosed up at my local hospital with antibiotics and pain killers. I got a tetanus jab, and my hand was wrapped with an anti-bacterial bandage laced with metallic silver. Over all of that, I stretched a protective white glove, which I thought made me look rather stylish and mysterious, like Michael Jackson. My wife suggested, instead, that I looked more like a swarthy Ernst Stavro Blofeld, combined with Mickey Mouse.

Wednesday, October 13: Roger and I got an early start from our homes to ensure that we would reach London’s Heathrow Airport well in advance of our flight. The air travel was fine, but entailed a four-hour layover at the notorious airport in Minneapolis, Minnesota--enough time for us to refuel with some beer and chili before continuing on to San Francisco. Because of the metal in my bandages, I set off every airport alarm. Thankfully, I carried a letter from my hospital, which mollified the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) gang well enough.

As usual, I had loaded my luggage down with copies of several books I hoped to hand out during Bouchercon. That meant paying excess baggage costs. Oh, well. I love giving books out as a way to say “hello.” This year I was packing along copies of Börge Hellström and Anders Roslund’s Three Seconds, Charlie ChartersBolt Action, and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Ashes to Dust, none of which were yet available in the States. I did this same sort of thing with Stieg Larsson’s books in Baltimore and also in Indianapolis in 2009, and it seems those British editions were rather popular with Americans.

We landed in the Bay Area at 11 p.m. on Wednesday, and took a cab to the Hotel Griffon, boutique lodgings on the San Francisco waterfront just a few blocks south of this year’s convention hotel, the giant Hyatt Regency. While Roger unpacked, I whipped downstairs, armed with a gin-and-tonic and a pack of duty-free Marlboro cigarettes. After going close to 20 hours without a smoke, I wanted to tar my lungs and unwind before retiring to bed. And as I was busy puffing away on the sidewalk, I espied blogger Peter Rozovsky of Detectives Beyond Borders. It was as if he’d been summoned by the fragrance of Gordon’s Gin. I first met Peter during Bouchercon in Baltimore, following a panel discussion I was moderating, called “Alcohol and Crime Writers.” (Other members of that panel were authors Ken Bruen, Jason Starr, Elizabeth Zelvin, Michelle Gagnon, and Con Lehane.) It didn’t take me long to discover that Peter has a sharp nose for a certain juniper-flavored libation, which he demonstrated again during his attendance at this last summer’s CrimeFest in Bristol, England.

After tipping back a couple of G&Ts and briefly exchanging our respective plans for the upcoming weekend (we’d both been tapped to moderate panel discussions about international writers), I saw Peter off to his own hotel. I can’t be sure, but he appeared to be weaving a wee bit more than he had done before our encounter.

Thursday, October 14: Crossing so many time zones had bolloxed our body clocks, so Roger and I were up very early the next morning, walking the streets of San Francisco in the predawn twilight on our way to the Four Seasons Hotel. We were to enjoy a gourmet breakfast as guests of chairman Edwin Buckwalter and his team from Severn House Publishers. This was something to look forward to, as Severn publisher-editor Kate Lyall-Grant--formerly with Hodder & Stoughton and Simon & Schuster UK--had recently joined that niche publishing house. And less than a month before, Severn House had hosted a reviewers’ lunch in London’s West End to launch the Crime Writers’ Association anthology Original Sins, edited by Martin Edwards. We greatly enjoyed the morning repast in San Francisco, which brought us together with Severn authors such as John Shannon, Gar Anthony Haywood (who I recalled meeting at my very first Bouchercon, in Las Vegas in 2003), and Adrian Magson and his charming wife. I’ve known Magson for some time now, and highly recommend his latest thriller from Severn House, Red Station. On top of his other work, Magson reviews books for the e-zine Shots.

Also on hand for this breakfast was my dear friend and editor at Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, George Easter, who, while enjoying his meal, was fondling his iPad almost as reverentially as I do mine. We were able to catch up a bit and share our mutual disappointment at the fact that fellow DP contributor Larry Gandle wasn’t able to attend Bouchercon this year, because his wife had been taken seriously ill. A Bouchercon without Gandle’s acidic wit is like Abbott without Costello. We hope to see him at another of these events in the near future.

Editor George Easter greets Ali Karim.

After breakfast, Roger and I jumped in a taxi and sped to the Hyatt, where we finally registered for this convention. Upon our arrival, we bumped into Mark Billingham and took a few moments to talk about the recent British TV series based on his detective Tom Thorne books. Roger kept up that conversation while I searched out the Green Room and the people who would be joining me for a panel discussion about book reviewing titled “Most Likely to Succeed.” I was flattered to have been asked to moderate this exchange, the lineup for which featured Janet Rudolph of Mystery Readers International; Chris Aldrich, formerly of Mystery News; Andi Shechter, one of this year’s Bouchercon officials; and from Australia, lawyer and crime-fiction reviewer Sarah Byrne. By the time our discussion began, we were prepared to talk about what we thought were important books in the genre, both past and present; our favorite subgenres of crime fiction; and the importance of crime, thriller, and mystery awards. One interesting verbal strand covered how we had all gone from being ardent readers to becoming critics, bloggers, awards judges, and the like. It seems many of us owe it to events such as Bouchercon for propelling us from our dark reading corners, out into the more public world of crime-fiction fandom. Since none of the panelists had to run off to sign books after our allotted hour was spent, we stayed overtime and opened our talk to the audience, members of which were glad to share the names of their favorite books and wordsmiths--from Reginald Hill, Michael Connelly, and Neil Cross, to Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels, Richard Stark’s Parker works, and Arnaldur Indridason’s Inspector Erlander series. The enthusiasm around this topic was enough that we probably could have carried on chatting for another hour, at least.

From there, I went to see blogger Jen Forbus talk with panelists Brad Parks, Hilary Davidson, Douglas Corleone, and my traveling cohort, Roger Ellory, about “Making Stories Come Alive in Crime Fiction.” This proved to be another lively topic of conversation, featuring some enthusiastic young authors, who shared a love for thoughtful storytelling. There was an especially funny moment early on when Roger told the audience that he was nervous about sharing the same platform with a member of the Corleone family. Later, one attendee said that her primary purpose in coming to Bouchercon this year was to meet the author of A Quiet Belief in Angels. Roger seemed quite taken aback by this bold expression of fan favor, but managed to thank the woman for her response to his often dark tale of childhood friendships and past sins.

(Left) Roger “R.J.” Ellory checks out the hotel’s book-sales room.

It was now half-past noon, and I was ready to eat again. So I met up with J. “Jeff” Kingston Pierce, my editor at The Rap Sheet and January Magazine, and John Purcell, an old friend from the rec.arts.mystery newsgroup. We left the hotel and found a nearby pizza joint. I hadn’t seen Jeff in the flesh since Baltimore in 2008, though we communicate regularly via phone and e-mail; and I owed Purcell lunch, because he’d sent me some Steve Earle CDs for my last birthday. This break from the convention’s excitement was brief but welcome, as the three of us had a good chin wag about what we had been up to lately, and how we intended to enjoy our time in San Francisco.

Renewed with food, Jeff headed off to take part in an abridged version of Don Herron’s famous Dashiell Hammett tour, while John and I returned to the Hyatt. My next obligation, if you can really call it that, was to join Roger Ellory and his publisher from Orion Books in the UK for drinks. As we were talking, Judy Bobalik (who had co-chaired the 2008 Bouchercon with Crimespree Magazine’s Ruth Jordan) and author F. Paul Wilson stopped by, and we pulled up extra chairs so they could join us. Wilson has long been one of my favorite writers, thanks to his Repairman Jack stories and his definitive horror work, The Keep (1981). I first met him--thanks to the late, great Elaine Flinn--at the inaugural ThrillerFest in Phoenix, Arizona, back in 2006, and have seen him several times since. While sipping spirits, Wilson and I reminisced about the World Horror Convention we both attended earlier this year in Brighton, England. And being the incorrigible fanboy that I am, I mentioned how honored I’d been to have an essay of mine appear in Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads (2010), edited by David Morrell and Hank Wagner. This came up, because Morrell and Wilson have the distinction of being the only two authors to have contributed essays to that collection, as well as had their own novels analyzed in the book by other writers.

Then we all fell into conversation about one of my favorite topics: conspiracy theories. Wilson mentioned that he’d recently been involved in a conference focused on paranormal research, and during that had been caught between a pair of conspiracy devotees. One of them went on at great length about how UFOs originate from a hole in the North Pole, connected to an alien base at Earth’s core. This brought a response from his colleague--“Are you a nut-job?”--that precipitated a heated argument. Wilson explained that the believer in the “hollow Earth theory” eventually stormed off, leaving the author with the second gent, who was apologetic about his associate’s behavior. “I’m sorry about him,” the man said, “he’s a real nut-job, really, truly. Everyone knows that the UFOs do not originate from the Earth’s core.” To which that man then added in a whispered and very serious tone: “Everyone knows they come from an alien base on the far side of the moon ...” This punch line brought a roar of laughter from around our table.

My itinerary led me next to a panel discussion about “Crime Fiction from Overseas.” Led by Peter Rozovsky, and featuring Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Christopher G. Moore (a Canadian who lives in Southeast Asia and spins out the Vincent Calvino private-eye series), and the charming Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears (who together write Africa-set mysteries under the joint byline “Michael Stanley”), this exchange highlighted terrific tales of criminality originating from beyond the U.S. and UK mainlands--works that teach readers about foreign cultures at the same time as they entertain.

Blogger Peter Rozovsky (middle), with the men who write as “Michael Stanley”--Stanley Trollip (left) and Michael Sears (right).

Later, I took my initial cruise through the book-sales room in the Hyatt’s basement, a fatal move for somebody like me who lives by the maxim, “you can never have enough books.” Each time I return home from the States, I pack along many more works of crime fiction than I owned before, much to my wife’s dismay. I was delighted to find that Sharon Canavar and Erica Morris from the Theakstons Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, along with CrimeFest organizer Adrian Muller had set up tables in the book room, encouraging more American mystery enthusiasts to attend their superb British events.

Wednesday night’s highlight, of course, was the Bouchercon opening ceremony. Jeff Pierce, Rap Sheet contributor Cameron Hughes, and I made our way to the hotel’s Grand Ballroom, where we snagged front-row seats. In our progress, we bumped into this convention’s toastmaster--writer, film noir authority, and all-around nice guy Eddie Muller--who was headed toward the stage to welcome us all to his hometown, San Francisco. My memory immediately leapt back to a drunken Saturday night in Vegas, during Bouchercon 2003, when Muller and fellow authors Wallace Stroby, Ken Bruen, and Chris Mooney, along with Shots Webmaster “Grog,” and yours truly tested the forbearance of our fellow patrons at The Peppermill, a bar made infamous by John Ridley in his 1999 novel, Everybody Smokes in Hell. That was the same night I somehow managed to lose my footing in a parking lot and fall into a pool of viscous engine oil during our return to the Riviera Hotel.

In any case, let it be said that Muller was in far fitter fettle on this evening in San Francisco. He began by introducing a six-minute video montage that featured clips from classic crime movies set in the Bay Area (of which there are many). As the soundtrack--Donovan’s menacing “Hurdy Gurdy Man”--roared into life, the hairs on the back of my neck bristled. That same song was featured in David Fincher’s wonderfully chilling Zodiac, which was also, of course, set in this town. I focused on the ballroom’s screen in a trance as scenes from Dirty Harry, The Game, Bullitt, The Birds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Maltese Falcon, and other pictures blended together. I never felt closer to the people at this year’s Bouchercon than I did during that presentation, when we all watched and nodded our heads in recognition of the mutual interests that had drawn us here. Following the final frame, everyone stood to clap. Well, everyone but me, since my injured hand wasn’t ready for such antics.

(Right) Author Christa Faust with toastmaster Eddie Muller.

After quiet returned, the convention’s guests of honor were officially welcomed. We heard some very funny speeches, probably the most amusing coming from Chris Mooney, who had been called upon to deliver an appreciation--written by Dennis Lehane and filled with F-bombs--of Lee Child, who was being spotlighted this evening for his “distinguished contribution to the genre.”

Then it was on to announcements of the 2010 Macavity and Barry award winners. The greatest surprise for me revolved around Deadly Pleasures editor George Easter’s declaration that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by late Swedish author Stieg Larsson, had been chosen as the Best Mystery/Crime Novel of the Decade (2000-2009). Actually, my astonishment didn’t arise from the fact that Dragon Tattoo won (I’d begun exalting its virtues even before it appeared in an English-language translation), but because I had been asked to accept that award on behalf of publishers Knopf/Random House and Quercus UK, along with the Larsson family, which I was pleased to do. (Just so you know, competition in that awards category was fierce, with Dennis Lehane’s 2001 novel, Mystic River, coming in an extremely close second in the voting--the same result found in a poll conducted by The Rap Sheet. Being a fan of both Lehane and Larsson, I was torn between those two superb novels.)

With the conclusion of those ceremonies, Jeff’s wife, Jodi, appeared and we all trod off toward the waterfront and a party being hosted by Minotaur Books and its amazing publicity manager, Hector DeJean. Not only did this fête provide me the opportunity to mingle with novelists Andrew Grant (Lee Child’s brother) and his wife, Tasha Alexander, as well as the hard-working Carol Fitzgerald of Bookreporter (a valuable resource for readers and writers), but I got to demonstrate the barman skills I’d picked up during my student work days. Neither Jeff nor Jodi had ever tasted a pink gin, so I mixed them each one of those, while the hired bartenders looked on with some annoyance.

Pretty soon, though, the combination of gin and the excitement of that first day of Bouchercon began to take its toll. So as the merrymaking wound down, and others headed for the Hyatt, I stumbled back to the Hotel Griffon. I was still not soundly asleep, though, when Roger appeared in the early hours, after partying hard, and we both raced to see who could pass out first, as the other would be treated to loud snoring. This time, I lost--but there were more such nights to come.

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


Peter Rozovsky said...

"After tipping back a couple of G&Ts ... I saw Peter off to his own hotel. I can’t be sure, but he appeared to be weaving a wee bit more than he had done before our encounter."

Now just a minute there, ya crapulous limey bastid. I had nothing more than a sip of your g&t, and it there was anything less than a youthful spring to my step as I made my way back to my own hotel, it was due entirely to the lateness of the hour.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Nigel Bird said...

if all that happened to me in one year, i'd be calling it a good one!

Ali Karim said...

Arghhh..Peter....that explains it, the rejuvinating powers of Gin gave you a spring in your step! Excellent

Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, you may be right about my alleged affinity for gin.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Paul D Brazill said...

It's a hard life ...