If there’s anything you have to accept when attending Bouchercon, the annual World Mystery Convention named in honor of critic and crime novelist Anthony Boucher, it’s that you are extremely unlikely to spend much time—if any—with the folks you hope to spot there. This is true for veterans of these affairs, but a particular problem for newcomers, who aren’t accustomed to the frenetic pace of Bouchercon or the crowding they can expect to find.

Read last week’s Rap Sheet interview with Kelli Stanley.

The 2011 Bouchercon, for instance, held Sept. 15-19 in St. Louis, Mo., drew an estimated 1,600 people. That body count pales by comparison to, say, a season-opening crowd at the city’s ball park, Busch Stadium. And it would seem that, given the size of the convention venue—downtown’s Renaissance Grand Ballrooms building—there ought to have been plenty of opportunities to see, meet and greet authors both celebrated and still-struggling.

Yet those writers spent most of each day gathered in nondescript meeting rooms, listening to or taking part in panel discussions, and much of every night prowling for decent nearby restaurants or hole up in the convention hotel bar, commiserating about the confusing state of modern publishing. In between, they rushed about the conference, waving at people they knew or whose names they recognized on chest badges, and only rarely stopped to engage in substantive conversations.

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After experiencing four Bouchercons (including recent ones in Baltimore and San Francisco), I have learned this: It’s entirely possible to see somebody you know on day one, express a heartfelt wish to get together at some point during the convention...and then never see that person again before you board your flight home.

There are simply too many other distractions.

The panel discussions, for one. Of those I attended in St. Louis, two really stood out. The first, titled “Shadows Rising,” included authors Megan Abbott, David Corbett and Wallace Stroby, and focused on “movies for the crime-fiction fan.” Moderated by Jeremy Lynch, the entertainment editor of Crimespree Magazine, it proved to be an extremely lively and periodically contentious exchange that covered films from across the 20th century and left listeners with myriad ideas for future Netflix ordering. The recommendations ranged from famous pictures—such as Double Indemnity (1944), In a Lonely Place (1950) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955)—to much more obscure ones, on the order of Il bidone (1955), an Italian flick about swindlers. 

max allan collins Also memorable was “I’m Alive and On Fire,” a roundtable charged with debunking the suggestion that private-eye fiction is on its last legs. Featured among that subgenre’s defenders were the prolific Robert J. Randisi (creator of New York City gumshoes Miles Jacoby and Nick Delvecchio, and the founder of the Private Eye Writers of America) and Max Allan Collins (the “father” of historical shamus Nate Heller). After listening to them, as well as Barbara Fister and Richard Helms, talk about the rich heritage of the P.I. novel and the many new works they’re laboring over right now (including Collins’ completion of Mickey Spillane’s Lady, Go Die!, a sequel to 1947’s I, the Jury), it’s hard to imagine that fictional dicks will disappear at any time soon.

Beyond gleaning insights into this genre, one of the beneficial consequences of sitting through panel talks can be to discover connections with writers whose work you’ve neglected in the past. For instance, I hadn’t found time for either of journalist-turned-author Bryan Gruley’s Gus Carpenter novels (The Hanging Tree and Starvation Lake) prior to this month’s Bouchercon, but after listening to his thoughtful comments on crime fiction, I’m inclined to give him a try. The same goes for Thomas H. Cook, a Southern-born fictionist with an extensive reach of storytelling (and the awards to show for it), and British writer Martyn Waites, whose dark yarns featuring investigate reporter Joe Donovan must be born in a different part of his brain than the persistent good humor he exhibits in person. And though I’ve read from South African wordsmith Deon Meyer’s oeuvre before, I shall certainly sample more after hearing the hilarious tale about his being accosted at a book signing by a reader who insisted beyond reason that he was actually author Michael Connelly; Meyer eventually told the guy he was Connelly’s stunt double (“I do all of the stunts in his books”), which seemed to mollify him.

For authors, critics and publicists, socializing is a huge component of Bouchercon. I don’t mean merely drinks during the off hours, but also partieschelsea cainsponsored by big-name publishers from both sides of the Atlantic. I took advantage of a few such invitations, in the process meeting Sara Paretsky, Thomas Kaufman, D.E. Johnson and Chris Ewan, as well as Chelsea Cain, about whom one must ask that immortal question, “How can someone so nice write such shocking thrillers?” Best of all, though, I had the chance to share plates of mini-burgers with legendary publisher Otto Penzler, who talked my ear off about his latest door-stopper of a short-fiction collection, The Big Book of Adventure Stories. (“It’ll take you back to those days when you were a kid, reading H. Rider Haggard and Jack London for the first time.”)

bury Then, of course, there are the literary prizes. Several of those are given out during Bouchercon, their recipients chosen either by panels of expert judges or, in the case of the Anthony Awards, by more democratic votes. Among this year’s winners were: The Lock Artist, by Steve Hamilton (Barry Award for Best Novel); Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny (Macavity Award for Best Mystery Novel); The Damage Done, by Hilary Davidson (Crimespree Award for Best First Novel); In Search of Mercy, by Michael Ayoob (Shamus Award for Best First P.I. Novel); and Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: 50 Years of Mysteries in the Making, by John Curran (Anthony Award for Best Critical/Non-Fiction). In addition, hyper-energetic British reviewer Ali Karim was given a commendation for special services to the industry. You’ll find full lists of the award winners here, here and here.

By the time you’ve spent three or four days amid this hectic pace of happenings, you may find yourself exhausted, your brain crammed to bursting with future reading ideas and your luggage overflowing with books you really shouldn’t have bought, but did. Logically, you ought to be ready to go home and relax. Yet if there’s one thing true of both Bouchercon and roller coaster rides, it’s that no sooner are you done with one, than you want to try another.

So keep these dates in mind: Oct. 4-7, 2012. That’s when the next Bouchercon takes place, this time in Cleveland, Ohio, with its opening ceremony scheduled for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

J. Kingston Pierce is both the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine.

Photo 1: J. Kingston Pierce with Max Allan Collins and Ali Karim.

Photo 2: J. Kingston Pierce with author Chelsea Cain. All photos courtesy of Ali Karim.