First thing I learned at Bouchercon? I was pronouncing it wrong. I assumed the name was from the French boucher, or butcher. A bit gruesome, if not inappropriate for a convention devoted to crime fiction. But, no. It rhymes with voucher. Bouchercon. Still doesn’t sound quite right. (Many years ago when I was a newsreader for Radio Netherlands, I received a letter from a listener in Seattle: “Mr. Swatling, why do you always adopt a French intonation whenever uncertain of the correct pronunciation? It is increasingly annoying. If you don’t know, you should ask someone who does!”)
Bouchercon is the Anthony Boucher Memorial World Mystery Convention. All you need to know about sci-fi editor and mystery writer Anthony Boucher is in a tribute essay by William F. Nolan. But a couple things caught my attention. He was active in college theatre, wrote book reviews for newspapers, and worked in radio for several years. Mr. Boucher and I have a fair amount in common. At Bouchercon I discovered many crime fiction authors had backgrounds in theatre and/or journalism. Me, too.
There was a big difference between attending ThrillerFest last year in New York City and Bouchercon 2013 in Albany a week ago. ThrillerFest focused on the craft of writing – perfect for a wannabe author in the midst of rewriting his first book. Bouchercon is where mystery/crime fiction fans get to meet the authors. I don’t have fans yet, but I could now think of myself as an author. The publisher Bold Strokes Books had just announced the acquisition of my novel Calvin’s Head and I was on cloud nine!
International Crime Scenes
I attended three full days of author panel discussions on a wide variety of topics. I can’t write about them all, but three in particular interested me. In fact, considering my story is set in Amsterdam, the first was perfect. Six authors whose books take place in what American readers might consider “exotic” locations: Annamaria Alfieri (Argentina), Cara Black (France), Lisa Brackmann (China), Jeffrey Siger (Greece), Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Iceland), and Michael Stanley (Botswana). Together they have a website called Murder Is Everywhere. Indeed.
Most of them chose the locations they wanted to write about. But two use home turf, just as I did. Jeffrey Siger is an American expat living on the island of Mykonos. The Greek press has called him “prophetic” due to his uncanny ability to write plots that later become real-life headlines. The popular Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir is part of the recent wave of Nordic crime fiction. Some of her books are inspired by real events – for example, a 1973 volcanic eruption. And her latest, more horror than crime, makes use of Iceland’s rich literary traditions and folk tales.
My book weaves in some Dutch art history regarding Vincent van Gogh. But oddly, just as I was about to head to Bouchercon (the same day my publisher announced the acquisition of my book) I read about the brutal stabbing of a gay man in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark – in the rose gardens, a well-known gay cruising spot. Exactly the same place that I began my story – where a murder victim was found in 1995. It’s not so much prophetic, perhaps, as a case of history repeating itself. Chilling, nonetheless.
Canine, Equine, Feline & Avian
Since a central character in my story is the title’s eponymous canine Calvin, I could not miss a panel called If I Only Had the Words: Four-legged Sleuthing. Five authors represented more species than I expected. Sasscer Hill & Kathryn O’Sullivan both feature horses in their books. O’Sullivan, also a playwright, won the 2012 Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Competition for Foal Play, described as a humorous cozy. Hill’s edgier work is inevitable compared to Dick Francis, with her background as an amateur jockey. She tackles subjects like human trafficking. Not so cozy.
Spencer Quinn (alias Peter Abrahams) and Neil S. Plakcy take a dog’s-eye view of crime fiction. Quinn even writes his Chet & Bernie mysteries from Chet the Dog’s perspective. Plakcy’s own golden retrievers inspired his tales (so to speak.) Without having read either author, it appears my book has elements in common with both. Not so surprising but now I’m curious to read them. I was surprised by a connection with pet noir writer Clea Simon. Her primary focus has been feline, but her latest work includes a foul-mouthed African gray parrot. Is there really room in crime fiction for another one of those? I have to hope so!
A Bonktastic Sextet
Hot on the heels of the animal panel came the most entertaining and provocative discussion of the weekend: Shameless Dead Cats & Bad Girls: The True Taboos in Crime Fiction. Did my book touch on taboos that might disturb some readers? Based on the topics covered by these “Real Housewives of Bouchercon” (Megan Abbott, Rebecca Chance, Alison Gaylin, Greg Herren, Laura Lippman and Alex Marwood) the answer has to be: Yes! Ah, but to be in the company of these clever, thoughtful authors – the phrase that came to mind was “too cool for school.”
Was hardcore sex transgressive if its only purpose was to shock? How long does one wait before writing about a tragic event? Why is there always a psychopath? Is killing off a main character fair game? What about rape? The death of a child? Is torture the new escapism? All those angry letters about profanity – what the fuck is up with that? And why is it okay to dismiss Agatha Christie but not Raymond Chandler?
And on and on… gulping cocktails every time the words “my book” were uttered (words writers seem unable to resist.) They compared sex scenes from The Postman Always Rings Twice with those in the bonkbusters by Miss Chance until a catfight broke out. Miss Marwood’s ample bosom heaved and Mr. Herren’s kilt flapped, as insults where exchanged over the Shamus Award Miss Gaylin had won the previous evening. Miss Abbott tried to restore order as Miss Chance stormed off the stage in a huff, knocking Miss Lippman to the ground as she went.
At least now I know how a published author should present himself in public.
(Click on authors’ names to find out more about their books on their websites.)