I’m home, after a few days with some of my favorite people — the crimefic writing and reading community. It was the return of Bouchercon, live and in person for the first time since The Before Times. This year’s version was based at the Hilton in downtown Minneapolis and ran through today, although I had to bail out in order to catch an early enough flight to let me get back in the classroom on Monday. So here are some of the highlights.
I got into the Twin Cities Wednesday evening, getting to my room at the convention’s backup hotel just after its kitchen had closed. This will be a recurring motif. I found a pizza place (a link in a chain with which I was unfamiliar) that delivered and had a nicely done calzone before I crashed to get ready for a full day on Thursday.
[Side Note: The Marquette is part of Hilton’s “Curio Collection“, which seems to be a high-end subset of hotels with interesting locations, architecture, and/or histories. I can certainly testify to the “high-end” part — not because of the cost (as a conventiongoer, I got a special rate), but because my room was spacious, well appointed, and offered a nifty view with wraparound windows. The staff was attentive and pleasant as well. In short, this was a level of classiness to which I’m unaccustomed, but one I could easily learn to like. Now, if only their restaurant were open later… End of Side Note.]
[Side Note the Second: Just a block or so from the Marquette is the Foshay Tower, a gorgeous Deco skyscraper that also hosts a boutique hotel, in the W chain. I didn’t have time to go in, but I had a blast walking past it each day. End of Side Note. Again.]
Thursday was chock full of panels, including the one on which I appeared. The panels throughout the convention were varied and interesting, and I often found myself in the position of Frost’s narrator who was “sorry he could not [attend] both/ and be one traveler.” I did notice that while the sessions weren’t overtly organized into tracks, certain rooms seemed to host a series of panels appealing to specific groups. In my particular instance, the Hilton’s “Duluth” conference room seemed to host a bunch of panels aimed at professional and aspiring writers. As I’m somewhere between the two, I wound up spending a lot of time there.
Because I was getting my convention gear (and my bearings) when I first got there, I didn’t get to a panel until the second session of the morning. But I did make it to the room where I could select my four free books. When I started going to B’con back in 2015, books appeared in attendees’ swag bags more or less at random. However, in recent years, we’ve been given tickets and turned loose in a room full of books, many of which are new. My acquisitions included a book on the history of mystery fandom, a new Amos Walker mystery from Loren D. Estleman, a mystery set in academia, by David Bell (about whom more later), and an advance copy of Everybody Knows, by Jordan Harper, one of the best crime writers out there (even though you might not have heard of him, because he does much of his work as a screenwriter — indeed, I have it on very good authority that his unaired pilot for a TV series version of LA Confidential was astonishingly good, and if there were any justice, would have been one of the most watched shows of our era.)
And in fact, Mr. Harper was one of the panelists at the first session I attended, about screenwriting. It isn’t my particular milieu, but Harper (along with co-panelists Stephen G. Eoannou, Jule Selbo, John Shepphird, Dänna Wilberg, and moderator Matt Witten) talked about the challenges and satisfactions of the job. They also offered some useful resources for people who want to get into the game, but don’t really know where to start.
The next session I caught was about relationships — especially familial relationships — as a useful topic for crime fiction. (Given that my new story “Brothers” will appear in the printed program for next month’s virtual NoirCon (What do you mean you haven’t signed up yet? Fix that, darn it!), I certainly wouldn’t disagree. I also checked it out because some of my work has been compared to that of one of the panelists, Peter Swanson. Swanson had a great line, saying that we are all born as captives of our families — bound to them not by choice, but bound to them nonetheless. Other panelists included Mary Burton, Gwen Florio, James Hankins, and Marcy McCreary, and Jamie Mason moderated.
Then it was time for lunch at the Hilton’s restaurant. Since I was a party of one, but the first available table was a four-topper, I turned to a group of three women behind me and suggested we should share a table. And we did, and now I have some more “friends in the business.” That’s the kind of place Bouchercon is. It reminds me of something that a prof in my Ph.D. program told my incoming cohort. Given the specialization we would encounter when we joined various English departments, she said that grad school, is often the last great chance to swap ideas about books with really smart people who have read the same ones you have. But B’con is like that as well — the people there (writers and fans both) really care about this stuff and are open to each other because of the shared passion for books about people who do awful things to each other.
For the first afternoon session, I went to see someone I had seen at an earlier B’con: Luci Zahray, a toxicologist also known as “The Poison Lady.” She’s a delightful speaker, whose mordantly gleeful comments pass without offense, chiefly because she is absolutely, joyously passionate about poisons and their uses. While this particular session focused on arsenic, she talked about the variety of common household substances with highly lethal uses. Attending one of her lectures is like chatting with a mad scientist who is also a childlike innocent, or maybe like Vincent Price’s bit in Alice Cooper’s The Black Widow. She added the delightful comment that an estimated 70-80% of poisonings go undetected. Basically, she said that if you poison one person, you’ll probably get away with it. It’s the poisoners who make a habit of it — “black widows” and “angel of death” types — who tend to get caught after folks notice the trend.
After that, well, what do you know? It was my turn in the barrel.
It’s always odd (to me, anyway) when I’m on one of these panels. Invariably, there are numerous people with plenty of novels and awards to their credit — and then there’s me. Yeah, I write and sell, but because the bulk of my work is in short story form, folks are much less likely to have heard of it, or of me. I always think back on my appearance at a library during 2015’s B’Con, where the host said “We have a suspense writer, a writer of cozies, someone more hard-boiled… and Warren Moore.” I think audiences tend to see me as “that one guy — no, not him, the other — come on, you’re looking right at him!”
Still, it was a fun time, along with Jim Fusilli, Cheryl A. Head, Sharon Michalove, and Holly West. Denise M. Jendusa put us through our paces talking about music and crimefic. I’m certainly at home with that — besides Broken Glass Waltzes, my stories “Rough Mix” (in At Home in the Dark) and “Lightning Round” (coming soon in Playing Games) have music as an important part of the story.
And I had a chance to dip into the comedy vault while we were at it. Denise started the question, “If you could have dinner with any musician alive or dead — “
I leaned into my microphone and said “I’ll take ‘Alive’, thanks.” It worked — comedy gold, I tell ya! But we also talked about things like the issue of referring to actual songs in our work. Getting clearances can be pretty expensive, which is why a lot of song references aren’t direct quotes. Jim Fusilli mentioned paying Leonard Cohen $75 to use part of one of his songs, which was actually a sweetheart deal. These sorts of things can run into four figures in a big hurry, and music publishers have lots of attorneys. (In a work-in-progress, a character is a big fan of my beloved Green Pajamas. I wrote to Jeff Kelly, songwriter for the PJs, and he gave me permission to use his lyrics without asking for pay. Jeff Kelly is a sweetheart and a gentleman. Also, I plugged the Green Pajamas during the panel when I was asked if I listen to music when I write.)
In any case, it was a good time, and as is the custom at these events, after the panel we went to the book sales room, which doubles as a signing room for authors. In my case, that’s typically an exercise in futility, if not fatuity, because of that short story thing I talked about earlier (especially given that I’m often the least well known writer in these anthos.)
But this time was different. I sat down, and a gentleman came up to me with a couple of LB’s art anthos, asking for my autographs. But that wasn’t all — he also had two blank cards (about the size of business cards) that he wanted me to sign for two other anthos that he had left at home. Another one of those Pinocchio moments. Afterward, another attendee asked me to sign his program. I told him that because I was a late addition to the convention, I wasn’t pictured in the authors’ section this year. He said that was fine — I could just sign in between two other Moores. How could I decline that? I swear, the feeling is almost like singing doo-wop and having the chords come out right.
And speaking of “other Moores”, I had several opportunities to brag on the Spawn, and you’d best believe I seized those with alacrity. But I was also delighted when I was talking to All Due Respect‘s Chris Rhatigan, who published her story last year. He told me that he hadn’t realized that the Spawn was my kid — he just knew it was the best story out of that set of submissions. “I remember thinking ‘What kind of 23-year-old college kid can write a story like that, and so finely honed?’ It wasn’t ’til afterward that I found out you were her dad.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “She probably gets it from her mom.”
The last session of my day dealt with serial killers and psychopaths, and it featured Vera Kurian, Joanna Schaffhausen, Cathi Stoler, Marie Sutro, and Carl Vondreau, with Leanne Sparks moderating. While I’m not all that big into serial killer novels, I do have some firsthand knowledge of psychopathy, and so I went to the session, where I found myself thinking along the lines of Yep, uh-huh, Oh yeah. Checkity check check. And then it was time for dinner, which I got at a restaurant near the Marquette. The nachos were better than one might expect to find in Minneapolis, but that may be unfair stereotyping on my part.
I spent most of Friday in the Duluth Room again, hanging out with the writers’ track. The first section dealt with writing shorts, and the pains and pleasures of that part of the business. That was followed by a session where editors talked about what they’re looking for in potential authors (SURPRISE! It’s interesting, engaging stories by writers who write interestingly and engagingly.), and what they aren’t looking for (Don’t try to capitalize on trends or other zeitgeisty stuff. It takes a while to get a book out there into the world — by the time it might theoretically hit the bookshops, the trend that inspired it may be as dead as coke-spoon necklaces.)
I skipped lunch, choosing instead to spend time catching up with folks I hadn’t seen since the Before Times. And that’s another great part of Bouchercon, perhaps reinforced this year by the forced hiatus. Although writers keep in touch with one another via social media and such, writing is a largely solitary activity, just hanging out with the computer, typewriter, or quill and foolscap. It’s great to hang out with other people who get what that’s like to some degree or other. There’s common ground there, whether you’re a tyro, a pro, or someone in between.
A story I got to tell a couple of times was my account of being The World’s Slowest Book Signer. Afterward, someone told me, “You know, it’s not easy to talk about doing a signing with Lawrence Block and Lee Child and turn it into a self-deprecating anecdote. That’s impressive.” What can I say?
Then it was back to the room, for sessions with agents (“Always do simultaneous queries, and don’t be afraid to copy and paste a taste of your work at the end. Don’t do it as an attachment, though, because we are as afraid of malware as the next person.”) and publishers (who largely echoed what we had heard earlier. One nice thing about the publisher’s session, though, was that it gave me a chance to say hi to Jessica Case from Pegasus, the folks who published El Bee’s three art-based anthologies. She’s been gracious enough to talk to some of my students who are interested in the industry, and I thanked her again for doing that.
I bailed on the afternoon’s final session in order to get back to the hotel and chill for a bit. Then I made my way back to the Hilton for more conversation and catching up. Much of the fun at B’con is to be had around the hotel bar. I had a laugh, though, when I mentioned having gone up to the bar and ordered… a Shirley Temple. “What the hell,” I said. “I’m six-four, play drums in rock bands, and have fathered a child. If I want to order a Sissy-Mary Foo Foo drink, I’ll do it.”
“Yeah,” my partner in conversation replied. “You have to be pretty secure in your masculinity to do that in this crowd.”
A little later, a friend of mine and I were talking and I began to remember that I had skipped lunch earlier, and it was now around 9 or 10 p.m. We decided to remedy that situation, so we went to a place around the corner, to find out that the kitchen had closed for the evening. And we found that out again at the next place. And the two after that. Yeah, we could buy drinks (perhaps even Shirley Temples), but when it came to food, we were out of luck.
After almost half an hour, we wandered into what appeared to be the entertainment district, with venues like the Orpheum theater and a comedy club. After another failed attempt, we finally found a place called MacKenzie‘s on Hennepin. The place was a dive bar in the best sense of the word, and it was serving food — fish tacos for my friend and a bacon cheeseburger for me. But best of all, they had a pinball machine celebrating Canadian prog-rockers Rush. This was exactly where we needed to have dinner.
So we did, and then it went from “late” to “quite late” and we headed back to our respective hotels for the night.
On Saturday morning, I took in a session on hard-boiled and noir fiction that managed to avoid the usual “Whither noir in the 21st-C.” kind of stuff. James D.F. Hannah noted that noir seems to bubble up in hard times, citing the WWII era and the rise of neo-noir in the 70s. He observed that it’s easy these days to see a world that appears to be burning down, and so noir might be due for another cycle, even if it looks a bit different.
After that was a panel called “Dark Academia,” featuring profs and teachers who write crimefic set in and around scholastic institutions. Much as in the psychopath session from earlier in the week, I found myself nodding a lot. (After all, I’ve written at least one story in that area myself, in the form of “Alt-AC” from Darkling Halls of Ivy.) As it turned out, one of the panelists was David Webb, whose book I had picked up earlier. As it happens, we share a mutual friend in the person of Dr. Kristi Pope Key, who worked with both of us at different institutions. Meanwhile, it turns out that his other half writes for younger audiences, and she gave me some advice to pass to the Spawn.
An overpriced sandwich at the hotel snack shop later, I spent much of the afternoon talking about writing, trauma, and policing with Bruce Robert Coffin, and that’s another example of what I was talking about earlier. We’ve been following each other on social media for quite some time, but this was our first face-to-face meeting. He’s a great guy and a heck of a writer (as is evidenced by the fact that he just signed a four-book deal for a new series.)
Given all that, I had to go to his panel on writing about cops in the post-George Floyd era. The writers on the panel acknowledged that the police are seen in a variety of ways, not all of them positive, but the conversation managed to be both honest and respectful. It’s a shame it wasn’t videoed — reasonable conversations on stuff like this are rare and valuable these days.
Afterwards, I picked up one of Bruce’s novels and the new one from Matt Goldman (creator of the Nils Shapiro series). But the new one is set only a couple of hours from Mondoville, well away from the Twin Cities beat Shapiro covers. I got both of those signed, and I’m looking forward to reading them once I get caught up on school.
It probably won’t come as a surprise to hear that I was worn out by this time, and I knew I had to get up at 4 this morning to catch my flight back to South Carolina. So I wound up spending Saturday night back in my room, eating a really nice Beef Vindaloo dinner and watching my beloved Kentucky Wildcats defeat the Florida Gators. After that, it was all too few hours of sleep before it was time to start my journey home.
So it was good to be back. Bouchercon has become one of my favorite things, and being part of that community is one of the best aspects of this calling I have to write. It’s exhausting, educational, funny, and exhilarating, and even as I type this (running on fumes), I’m already looking forward to next year in San Diego.
See you soon!