So this might be the funniest story to come out of Bouchercon 2016, the September 15-18 World Mystery Convention held in New Orleans, Louisiana.
As Icelandic crime novelist Yrsa Sigurdardóttir (Someone to Watch Over Me) writes on her Facebook page, she had been scheduled to hold a public meet-and-greet session on Friday afternoon during Bouchercon, along with fellow Reykjavik native Ragnar Jonasson (Snowblind) and Norwegian cop-turned-author Jørn Lier Horst (The Caveman). Their event was to take place in an establishment on rowdy Bourbon Street, in the city’s historic French Quarter. “We showed up with lots of drinks, cups, and even ice,” Yrsa recalls. “We were a bit surprised at the locale (a tourist shop open for business), but moved some stuff around and set up the bar on a handy table. People arrived and we mingled with our guests, drinking and chatting, mixing drinks and doing what one does at such soirées. After an hour of this, the owner showed up. The woman went ballistic; turned out we were in the wrong location and had held our meet-and-greet in somebody‘s store without permission. In the words of the owner: ‘Who are you people? You can’t just show up here and set up a full bar in my store, what is wrong with you?’ But [it] turns out we did, and somehow managed to do it in peace for a full hour. We have not reached a conclusion if the term for this should be ‘pop-up bar’ or ‘flash-bar,’ but the concept is fully recommended. Next stop, IKEA.”
Not every element of this year’s 47th Bouchercon—aka “Blood on the Bayou”—offered such surprises, or enjoyed similarly favorable results. There were problems here and there, a handful of real disappointments, and the usual missed opportunities for participants to connect with writers or other folks they’d most hoped to see. The weather provided additional challenges; I can’t tell you how many mornings my hotel wake-up call delivered some variation of this message: “Good morning. The weather today is predicted to reach 93 degrees, but with the humidity it might feel more like 108.”
Yet when you pack 1,900 or so people into a conference hotel (the New Orleans Marriott, on Canal Street) for the conflicting purposes of edification and entertainment, you’re bound to have a few things go awry.
Remarkably, this was my seventh Bouchercon. The first time I took part was way back in 1994, when I covered the 25th annual get-together for a then-influential Seattle newsweekly. I’ve since traveled to gatherings in Baltimore (2008), San Francisco (2010), St. Louis (2011), Long Beach, California (2014), Raleigh, North Carolina (2015), and now the Big Easy. I hadn’t planned a journey to Louisiana’s largest city for this affair; in fact, I’d told friends I usually see only at Bouchercon that I would definitely be sitting this one out. However, as the start date approached, I realized I was in need of a vacation from the debilitating solitude of my office. And having paid several calls on New Orleans in the past (the last time being in 2007, only two years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed so many homes and lives there), I knew I could find solace—and some remarkable cuisine—in that ol’ burg on the Mississippi River Delta.
Drawing from notes scribbled on the convention program as well as on crumpled napkins, cash register receipts, a torn envelope or two, the backs of menus, and still-damp bar coasters (never let it be said that news reporting didn’t teach me resourcefulness), allow me to present some of my strongest memories from this year’s Bouchercon.
Best Incorporations of New Orleans into the Festivities
Most Bouchercon host cities don’t make much effort to bring local culture into these conventions. But then most cities are not New Orleans. The Thursday-night Opening Ceremonies were kicked off by a Mardi Gras-fashion parade of small floats through the Marriott’s crowded Carondelet Ballroom. This video clip shows the succession of decorated vehicles, led by one containing a prodigiously feathered Harlan Coben, the 2016 American Guest of Honor, followed by David Morrell (this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner) and the other official guests of honor. Just like Mardi Gras, the float-riders tossed beaded necklaces to the assembled masses. One such souvenir, pitched by International Rising Star Guest of Honor Craig Robertson (Murderabilia), hit me square in the face. Fortunately, there was no reason for medical attention.
On Friday, Mardi Gras style reigned once again, when Bouchercon participants were invited to take part in a second line parade from the hotel to downtown’s Orpheum Theater, site of the Anthony Awards presentations. Small, colorful paper parasols were handed out to all who wanted them, but when the clouds burst shortly before this procession commenced, a few real umbrellas were summoned to duty. In the photo on the right, author Sara Paretsky (Brush Back) joins hands with a stilts artist at the pageant’s end. (Photo by Edith Maxwell)
Panel Highlights, Low Points
During my early Bouchercons, I took in more author panel presentations than I do nowadays. That’s because I knew fewer people then, didn’t have as many opportunities to chat with friends outside of the panel events, and was perhaps more optimistic about learning something new from each presentation. Because there were so many authors attending the New Orleans convention, most of whom wanted to be promoted to potential readers, the schedule jammed in up to six panel discussions per hour. That meant a hell of a lot of sitting on poorly padded seats, listening to writers talk about the nuances of their storytelling. Nonetheless, I succeeded in attending a dozen or so panels over three days. Among the standouts was a Thursday-morning huddle moderated by Detectives Beyond Borders blogger Peter Rozovsky, and focused on history’s lesser-known crime novelists. Panelist Martin Edwards (The Golden Age of Murder) championed fellow British scribbler Michael Gilbert, while New Hampshire novelist Rick Ollerman (Mad Dog Barked) sung the praises of Peter Rabe (whose yarns, he said, defined the noir style—“You start out screwed, and you end up screwder.”). However, Los Angeles’ Gary Phillips spotlighted the only author I’d never heard of before: Detroit-born African-American fictionist Clarence Cooper Jr. (1934-1978), who—before he died penniless and alone in a Manhattan YMCA—penned at least one book about the American underworld of drugs and violence that Phillips recommends highly: The Scene (1960).
At the other end of the spectrum was a Friday panel discussion titled “We Don’t Need No Hero.” With a lineup that included Chris Holm (Red Right Hand), Dana Cameron (Ashes and Bones, Hellbender), Brad Parks (The Fraud), Lori Rader-Day (Little Pretty Things), and Duane Swierczynski (Revolver), this could’ve been a winner. Instead it was a flop, with critic/moderator Bryan VanMeter peppering his guests with silly, unrevealing questions about whether they’d ever been stalked by fans and which fellow panelists they’d most like to do away with (and in what manner).
Authors I Was Most Pleased to Encounter
This conference marked my first opportunity to see Harlan Coben in action, and I wasn’t disappointed. After an early onstage interview with Bosch creator Michael Connelly (during which New Jerseyite Coben complained about his first two “bleeding balls” paperback covers and admitted that his sports agent series protagonist, Myron Bolitar, “is me with wish fulfillment”), I happened across Coben again in the cavernous book sales room, where he was shaking hands, telling jokes, and inking copies of his new Bolitar novel, Home. Needless to say, I asked him to sign my copy, as well.
Other welcome, but mostly accidental meetings included those with Hilary Davidson (Blood Always Tells), Ace Atkins (The Innocents), Julia Dahl (Invisible City), Bill Crider (Survivors Will Be Shot Again), Art Scott (The Art of Robert E. McGinnis), and Patrick Hoffman (Every Man a Menace).
On Saturday, during an afternoon party at the Garden District residence of author Laura Lippman (Wilde Lake), to which she’d invited a select group of notable wordsmiths, plus a few shameless hangers-on such as yours truly, I chatted with Canadian thriller writer Linwood Barclay (The Twenty-Three); Washington, D.C., sex crimes prosecutor-turned-author Allison Leotta (The Last Good Girl); and Oklahoma City’s Lou Berney, who captured three different awards at this Bouchercon for his 2015 mystery, The Long and Faraway Gone.
Writers I’d hoped to see in New Orleans, but who ultimately couldn’t attend: Robert Wilson (Stealing People); Patricia Abbott (Concrete Angel), whose husband had just undergone surgery; and Max Allan Collins (Road to Perdition), whose wife experienced her own health problems.
Oh, Yeah, About Those Prizes…
Lou Berney was hardly the only writer applauded in New Orleans for his literary efforts. There were five sets of commendations handed out during this gathering: the Anthony Awards (with winners chosen by Bouchercon attendees), the Shamus Awards (presented by the Private Eye Writers of America), the Barry Awards (dispensed by Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine), the Macavity Awards (sponsored by Mystery Readers International), and the Derringer Awards (presented by the Short Mystery Fiction Society). You’ll find a full rundown of recipients in The Rap Sheet.
Oddest Side Stories
Although there was lots of talk about New Orleans being a dangerous place, I know of only two crimes committed against Bouchercon attendees. In one instance, a couple was accosted on the street by a group of alleged musicians, who intimidated the pair into buying their CDs. Later, the wife of a writer woke up in her hotel room, only to find that all of her luggage—including her passport and money—had been stolen. The possibility of her having been drugged the night before was raised.
Meanwhile, best-selling British crime writer Martina Cole was lying low in town throughout Bouchercon, staying at the Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street and dining with assorted convention-goers, but never showing her face at the Marriott. Most people didn’t know she was around, though Cole did partake of the revelry on Saturday night, when the House of Blues, on Decatur Street, invited authors such as Heather Graham (Darkest Journey) and Mark Billingham (Die of Shame) to perform.
Over the last several years, it’s become a delightful tradition among my Bouchercon-going buddies—especially British Rap Sheet contributor Ali Karim, Shots e-zine editor Mike Stotter, and blogger Peter Rozovsky—to locate a diner-like eatery where we can all enjoy breakfast every morning. Last year in Raleigh, it was downtown’s Mecca Restaurant, on Martin Street. In New Orleans, we chose the Ruby Slipper, on Magazine Street, just blocks from the Marriott. Although some folks eschewed the wonders of such comestibles as grits and fried green tomatoes (yeah, I’m looking at you, Ali), I dug in with enthusiasm, ordering the Slipper’s Southern Breakfast every a.m. The attendance at these repasts varied per day, with authors as diverse as Stuart Neville (So Say the Fallen), Daniel Palmer (Constant Fear), and Joseph Finder (Guilty Minds) joining in. On the right is shown one such meal, featuring (left to right) yours truly, Rozovsky, Karim, horror-fiction specialist Nanci Kalanta, and her husband, Phil. (Photo by Mike Stotter.)
Most Embarrassing Personal Moments
The first came during a visit to the Bouchercon book sales room, when I was introduced to a winsome young blonde who turned out to be country-music singer/songwriter Kasey Lansdale, the daughter of Texas mystery and Western writer Joe R. Lansdale (Hap and Leonard). Caught off guard when Kasey asked me whether I’d heard her music, I babbled something about having watched a video of her work on YouTube, then added, as if craving approbation: “That means I’ve had one more experience with your music than most people.” She looked at me, offered the smallest of smiles, and said, “I hope that’s not true.” I subsequently saw Kasey again in one of the hotel hallways and thought fleetingly of trying to apologize, but decided that my foot was already shoved far enough into my mouth as it was.
The second such episode arrived late one evening when I joined two colleagues, author Linda L. Richards (When Blood Lies) and former Mystery News contributor Stephen Miller, for a drink in the noisy Marriott lobby bar. The last time we’d all gotten together was at the 2007 Left Coast Crime convention in Seattle. Since on that occasion Steve had introduced Linda and me to a salacious-sounding beverage called a Red-Headed Slut, we decided to order the same thing this time. Which led to my passing comment, “I don’t remember now what a Red-Headed Slut tastes like”—delivered at the top of my lungs, just as the bar’s background chatter stilled, making me the center of attention.
Until We Meet Again…
By the weekend’s close, it wasn’t uncommon to hear participants praising this convention, and saying how it had raised expectations for the 2017 Bouchercon, in Toronto. New Orleans co-chairs Heather Graham and Connie Perry deserve tremendous credit for putting on a show that made good use of the setting, provided a diverse portrayal of the crime/mystery/thriller genre, and encouraged camaraderie between attendees. I suspect I won’t be the only one holding onto my fond memories—and beaded necklaces—for a long time to come.