Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Playing Poker with Michael Robotham

(Editor’s note: This is the first of three pieces set to be posted this week from The Rap Sheet’s chief British correspondent, Ali Karim, all of them related in some way to the most recent Bouchercon.)

Michael Robotham (third from the left) surrounded by this year’s Goldsboro Gold Dagger award judges.

Some people consider me to be a bit of a raconteur, always willing to share amusing stories I’ve picked up from my reading, my travels, and my friendships--stories I wouldn’t have available to offer were it not for my longtime obsession with crime, mystery, and thriller novels. However, I’m naught but a rank amateur at relaying amusing anecdotes, when compared with Australian journalist and ghostwriter-turned-crime-fictionist Michael Robotham.

I can, though, share here a rather entertaining anecdote about Robotham himself--whose surname, I should make clear, does not contain a silent “h.” (The correct pronunciation of his last name is a standing joke between us, for I struggle to pronounce “Robotham” without an accompanying spray of spittle.)

As many Rap Sheet readers are aware, I was part of the team responsible for putting together this month’s Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Raleigh, North Carolina, an event also known as “Murder Under the Oaks.” It was a huge gathering of people devoted to the darker side of literature, drawing just over 1,400 attendees. Working on the programming for a conference of such magnitude is tougher than you can imagine, filled with anxious moments as well as numerous challenges, of which e-mail management was only one.

Because of those Bouchercon 2015 responsibilities, I had to cancel my participation in this last summer’s Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, England (usually a regular feature on my annual calendar). I simply had to devote my time and energy to figuring out the schedule for the Raleigh convention, slotting authors and panelists into their appropriate positions. (As the old saying goes, “Needs must, when the devil drives.”) But not long after that Harrogate weekend, my friend and colleague from New Zealand, Craig Sisterson, who writes the popular blog Crime Watch, called me up. He was in England and had been in contact with Robotham, who’d participated in the Harrogate festivities and was next due to take part in Bouchercon. Craig wanted to arrange for the two of them to share a few beers in London with myself and Mike Stotter, my very dear friend and the editor of Shots. This sounded like a great idea, and it would provide a welcome break from the rigors of exchanging e-mail communications with writers and others who hoped to be part of the Bouchercon program.

There was only one problem--and it was a serious one.

You see, Robotham’s 10th novel, the Texas-based prison drama Life or Death, was one of seven books shortlisted by the British Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) for its 2015 Goldsboro Gold Dagger award. (The longlist of contenders is here.) I served on the committee (under the chairmanship of Richard Reynolds) that judged those books, while Stotter was the CWA Dagger liaison officer, charged with managing the process by which publishers submitted their works to the various Dagger judging committees.

At the time Sisterson invited us out for drinks, we had just decided--after much deliberation, debate, and discussion--which book deserved this year’s Gold Dagger … and it was Robotham’s Life or Death. Not only did I know that outcome, but so did Stotter. We were also aware that the Dagger judges had signed confidentiality agreements, which included the stipulation that we not reveal any winners’ identities before the official announcement on Tuesday, September 29. (Let me add that those agreements are no insignificant matter, but actually involve blood and a secret ceremony, held in a basement cell in the Tower of London.)

Stotter and I discussed our predicament during a telephone call. We both wanted to meet Sisterson and Robotham, but we needed to be careful not to reveal (even inadvertently) that Life or Death had claimed the Gold. We finally agreed that from the outset of our get-together, we would say that “the judges have not yet agreed on the winner of the Gold Dagger, as it is a very tough shortlist.”

So in late July, the four of us gathered at a pub called The Spice of Life on Charing Cross Road in central London. Stotter and I recited our fiction about how the judges were still deliberating over the Gold Dagger recipient, and then we all began a remarkable evening, filled with tales of great amusement--which was particularly true of those told by Sisterson, who’d recently been managing his Kiwi crime-based blog from a new base in the British capital. Robotham was in fine form, too, spilling out yarns to make us all chuckle. Friendships within the crime-fiction community can be wonderful, for though we all lead busy lives, when we encounter one another periodically it never seems awkward; we just continue where we left off, as good friends do.

Michael Robotham, Craig Sisterson, Mike Stotter, and Ali Karim meet up for drinks at London’s The Spice of Life.

Later, Robotham treated the lot of us to dinner at an Indonesian restaurant, regaling us with more stories well into the night. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much while endeavoring to consume a plate of Thai green curry. It was only after the coffee arrived that the following curious exchange took place.

Michael Robotham: “Hey Ali, I love my panel [assignments] for Raleigh. Really looking forward to Bouchercon this year as I had to miss Long Beach last year.”

Ali Karim: “Thanks, it’s been somewhat interesting but the panels are shaping up pretty well. So what are you gonna do, as the week after the CWA Dagger awards, you’re at Bouchercon. I know you lived in London for over a decade; do you plan to stay here and fly to Raleigh the week after the awards?”

MR: “Yeah, it’s a dilemma. The travel I do from Australia is a nightmare, a helluva journey to make. But let’s be real: I haven’t got a chance for the Gold Dagger, and I know you are one of the judges. But look, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Belinda Bauer [are all nominees]--there’s no way I have a snowball’s chance in hell, so I am wondering if I should skip the Daggers in London and come straight to Raleigh.”

I sought to put on my best poker face, even as my heart sank. To be presented in person with the CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger in London is a major event in the life of any crime writer; it would be sad for Robotham to miss the ceremony. Still, I was bound by that confidentially agreement to say nothing.

AK: “Well, anyway, it’ll be good if you can come as we always have a laugh, and if you do, dinner will be on me this time.”

I thanked Robotham for dinner, as he paid our bill. Then we all shook hands and wished each other well. I told Robotham I looked forward to seeing him in Raleigh in October, and that I hoped he’d come ultimately decide to attend the Daggers presentation. He said he’d think about it, and added, “I may come, as I have plenty of practice holding the loser’s smile over the years, and am rather good at it.”

Now fast-forward to the night of Tuesday, September 29. As I arrived for the Dagger award revels, my mind was aswirl with Bouchercon responsibilities and frustrations. Entering the prestigious hotel where the prize presentations were to take place, I was greeted by an excited Mike Stotter. “Robotham’s made it here!” he declared. I’m sure I must have sighed in great relief, though my memory of that is lost among other recollections of meeting my fellow Dagger judges and us all toasting the hard work (and long reading hours) we had put into deciding on this year’s winners.

While mingling I spotted Michael Robotham. I wished him the best of luck, and he thanked me, remarking: “Look, I know you are a judge and in the end it’s a crapshoot, as I’m up against some brilliant books. So I’ll just enjoy the evening and see you in Raleigh next week.”

Finally it was time to put down the canapés and champagne, as critic and author Barry Forshaw stepped to the podium (see above), replacing CWA chair Len “L.C.” Tyler, who’d welcomed us all to this event, and the awards ceremony commenced. There were three Daggers to be dispensed that night, and neither of the first two recipients was in the audience. A representative from Heinemann, Smith Henderson’s UK publisher, accepted, on his behalf, the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger for Fourth of July Creek, while someone from Transworld/Random House stepped up to receive Karin Slaughter’s CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for Cop Town. Then the final announcement was made: Michael Robotham had won the Gold Dagger.

An obviously shocked Robotham took over the microphone from Forshaw, and he stumbled around for a few seconds in front of the crowd until it sank into his brain that he was there to take delivery of one of the most prestigious accolades given for modern crime-fiction writing. Then he launched into a highly amusing and self-deprecating speech, which I recorded on video and present below.

Once the ceremony had run its course, it was time for people to tip back some more champagne, roam about the room, and share our mutual admiration for the evening’s prize winners. It was wonderful for me to at last meet Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling (who was there as “Robert Galbraith,” the pseudonym under which she had penned the Gold Dagger-nominated The Silkworm), and to see previous Gold Dagger recipient Belinda Bauer. Both of those women were gracious in congratulating Robotham on this year’s win (commemorated in these photographs from The Bookseller, supplied by the CWA). Stotter and I were no less fervent in our praise, after which my Shots colleague remarked quite mischievously:

“Remember the beers and Thai green curry night we enjoyed a few months back?”

“Yes,” Robotham said, “it was a fun night.”

“Well, Ali and I both knew you’d won the Dagger that night, but we were naturally sworn to secrecy.”

At which point Robotham squinted his eyes, looked at us intensely, smiled, and said, “Remind me never to play poker with you guys.”

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