Archive for October, 2008
by Jonathan on October 18th, 2008
As Bouchercon went on, I could feel myself wearing out. At home, I’m frequently woken during the night by my two cats (one inherited from my ex-girlfriend, the other acquired when my ex-girlfriend insisted the first needed company. Ever since, the two have waged a full-on yakuza-style feud, the violence unrelenting, the body count high. Actually, I am the body count, my chest leaped on every night at 4AM by a 20 pound cat with claws of honed stee – mine is a truly Promethean existence.), but for some reason, I slept badly every night I was in Baltimore. Adrenaline, I suspect.
Saturday was my birthday, and a pretty fun and hectic birthday it was too. I spent a slightly sluggish morning, drifting groggily through the halls, and was pleased to find that many of the attendees were in a worse way than me. Some had rolled back into the hotel well after 5AM, but were pressed back into action before 9AM, sore of head, furred of tongue and possessed of photographs of themselves chugging down champagne bottles in seamy-looking bars, and of the police cruisers dispatched to greet them (reflection of the City of Baltimore’s devotion to literature). I realized that being tired because I’d slept poorly was a pretty damn feeble excuse – while they’d been out on epically worthwhile Bukowskian benders, the stuff of writerly legend, while I’d stayed home and played the Princess and the Pea like a wuss.
At 11:30AM, Brian Lindemuth was the ringmaster for the Serial Killer panel, with Mark Billingham, Michelle Gagnon, Alan Jacobson and myself roaring and batting at his questions with our paws. We went back and forth on the realism question, on whether or not the motive of a serial killer could ever be really understood, discussed some prominent real and fictional serial killers, and debated Hannibal Lecter’s underwear choices (full credit to Brian for keeping the discourse snappy with carefully crafted questions, including the occasional curveball).
Afterwards, I signed books in the uh, book-signing room. Through a pleasant accident of alphabetical coincidence, I found myself next to Christa Faust, a strikingly pretty, compact blonde whose preference for sleeveless tops won her the Most Visibly Tatooed Author at Bouchercon 2008 award. She’d also be a shoo-in for the Most Direct Conversationalist award – I knew her as a wildy popular author of hard-boiled fiction for Hard Case Crime, but was pleased to discover that she was a professional dominatrix specializing in bondage and foot worship within two minutes of striking up conversation (Englishmen are always delighted to learn things like that, trust me.) Since the first friend I made when I moved to New York City was the infamous photographer Eric Kroll (warning – if you have a delicate constitution or are easily offended, do not click on that link), it wasn’t surprising that we had friends in common. With a funny, smart and beautiful companion, my minutes in the signing room blasted by, and I was soon sprung to find Alafair for a bite of lunch.
In the afternoon, I visited the book stores, but couldn’t find a copy of the book I’d been looking for (James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, since successfully located). I milled around the halls a bit, repeatedly bumping into Jonny Santlofer – a man who’d hold impromptu court on a lily pad, if that’s all that was available – and finally decided I’d be better off back in bed. A nap later, I swung by the bar, where the New York branch of the Mystery Writers of America was holding a get-together, chatted with Meredith Cole for a while (admiring the scarf she’d whipped together, which had the cover of her upcoming book printed on it – true Williamsburg hipster crafting!), then with Joanna Powell and Sharyn Rosenblum from Harper Collins, spotted Tasha Alexander and, I think, Danielle Emrich and their posse plotting malfeasance in the lobby, then Alafair summoned me to dinner.
Harry Hunsicker and Margery Flax had hastily assembled a small group; superior logistical technique resulted in a minivan magically appearing to whisk us away to dinner at Oceanaire, a sleek modern seafood restaurant where one could freely eat crabcakes without risking the food poisoning that had gutted the Bouchercon ranks. It was a fun group of people – Margery, Harry and his wonderfully stylish wife Allison, Alafair, her friend McKenna Jordan from Houston’s Murder by the Book, Tim Maleeny, Dan Hale, Charlaine Harris and her agent Joshua Bilmes.
Not only was it fun, it was raucous fun: the rendition of “Happy Birthday” I endured on the way to the restaurant had the sort of bracing ferocity one only encounters once in a lifetime, if one is lucky. Alas, they nailed me with it again when my Baked Alaska arrived, and quite possibly once more on the way home, although by then I’d packed my ears with a prophylactic paste of birthday candle wax and meringue. When my hearing finally returned, Margery was telling a blood-curdling story of dancing the Hustle in a New York City bank in the early 1970′s – apparently that kind of behaviour, like leisure suits and snorting cocaine, was acceptable back then. O tempora, o mores!
I’m a huge fan of True Blood, the bodice-ripping Southern Gothic vampire series on HBO that Alan Ball has created from Charlaine’s Sookie Stackhouse series. It was a real treat to meet her, and to hear that she’s a huge fan of the show, too. Of course, how could she not be? – the week of Bouchercon, it was announced that all seven of Charlaine’s Sookie books had bounced onto the New York Times bestseller list. She was supersweet (and probably continues to be), and had all sorts of choice gossip about the show.
By the way, about the show: on various groups, I’ve heard people complain about the explicit sex and violence in the TV show. WTF??? That’s like being outraged to discover bacon or chocolate in your dinner! Sex and violence are the spice of premium cable! It can’t all be Wheel of Fortune and Everybody Loves Raymond…
Back at the hotel, I was flagging again. I said hi and bye to a few people, then watched Jonny Santlofer holding court again in the corner of the lobby, this time sprawled on a banquette, showing off his expensive and curious footwear to Dan Conaway and Megan Abbott,the foxy Wednesday Addams of Crime Fiction. They were fading fast too, and so I left before I had to carry them up to their rooms.
On my way back to my room, my Bouchercon visit effectively finished, I passed the electronic podium in the Sheraton lobby that showcases the best that Baltimore has to offer. I realized I hadn’t taken a single photo at the festival, so I did:
Then I went to bed, after offering a little prayer that I’d survive another trip on I-95 with Alafair at the wheel.
by Jonathan on October 17th, 2008
A slight diversion from my Bouchercon coverage…
The other day I watched the video for the song “Poison Dart” by London post-grime, post-dubstep musician the Bug (click here):
That record has never sounded better than when Kode 9 dropped it this summer in his set at the Winter Garden, down in the Financial Center. Hearing “Poison Dart” unleashed into the high arches of the atrium triggered the kind of transcendence I’ve felt all too rarely in recent years. Everything was perfect for me that night – Kode 9 was just killing on the turntables, the Brooklyn-based ragga MC rocked it, the projections were stunning, and everyone danced about the palm trees, hands in the air, waving them like they just didn’t care. Around the margins of the marble floors, bewildered tourists and bankers drifted in and out, ambling past Godiva Chocolates to suddenly find themselves in the middle of a riotous dancefloor where a DJ was blasting music they’d never heard before (and probably never will again) – and blasting it loud. I managed to get a few photos off despite energetic interference from the impressively polite security staff.
It’s weird for me – still! – to be at the Winter Garden. My strongest memories of the place are from the night of September 12, 2001, walking in single file through the dark and the dust, the metal uprights bent and twisted, the glass blown out, the palm trees knocked about, everything covered in dust. The dust was extraordinary, thick and velvety, tamped down into a footpath on the route to Ground Zero; I remember thinking this is what Pompei must have been like. A bit.
In the flashlight, the smell of burning, the heat, the all-embracing unrealness of the experience, I was overwhelmed, and as I traipsed along, I spewed out a series of vigorous obscenities. Someone up front asked what we all did, and I said I was an M.E., and then the man in front of me said he was a priest; I apologized for my foul mouth, but he told me he understood.
In the above photo, the light at top is outside, over Ground Zero. I have avoided that dismal pit as much as I can since the ceremonies that marked the end of the recovery dig, sometime in the summer of 2002. I visited once, stuck my head in to look sometime in 2003, but when I go to the World Financial Center, I take routes that avoid the site.
It’s really only this year that I’ve felt OK with going back to the Winter Garden. It’s astonishing how perfect it is now, like some high end shopping center in a rich neighbourhood in Asia, all shining marble and gilt and glass. It’s like nothing ever happened. I sit there, I listen, I dance a bit. Life has moved on, and, I suppose, because I can go there, and listen, and dance a bit, I have moved on too. So I go and I hear Kode 9, and I dance a bit, and I take photos, and I can feel happy in this place which I associate with the cruelest, most desperate time of my life, and I don’t understand how that can work. I don’t feel “normal” again, and yet… I act as if I am.
I took my tripod to photograph Ground Zero. At the Ulrich Schnauss concert, I’d climbed the amphitheater steps to escape the crowd, and at the top had been astonished to find myself face to face with the hole. The superslick finishes of the World Financial Center make it feel like being on the observation deck at an airport. The glass, the metal, the cranes, the lights – it could have been a vista from any superheated Asian economy, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Bangkok, any of them in the middle of a glitzy building boom.
Only there was no building going on. Seven years on and it’s still a hole in the ground, concrete foundations enmired in an endless polemical grapple of money and politics. Everyone gets their say, and nothing gets done. At some level, I wish we could just fill it in with earth, bury it in forgetful grass, make some beautiful park with hills and trees where we could just be; not remember, not make money, feel the absence, respect the loss, just be.
But this is some of the most valuable real estate on earth, so that’s not going to happen. And I distrust my sentiment – I’m sure that some of me feels that to rebuild there, to put up something soaring and financial, to do that is to ask to be attacked again. And some craven corner of my soul quails at the thought.
It hurts to see it still there, still empty, this huge void in the heart of the city, aching and empty while the surgeons squabble about what to do next. Ground Zero, annihilated and annihilating:
Last night, cutting across Union Square, the wind picked up, and I could feel the chill, and I remembered how I welcomed it back then, when we let go of that hideous, dazzling Indian summer of 2001, and the city grew dark and cool, and the adrenaline passed and we finally began to accept the truth and to mourn in earnest.
by Jonathan on October 16th, 2008
Well, I’m back from Bouchercon, the annual crime fiction festival, this year held in Baltimore and run by Ruth Jordan of Crimespree Magazine and Judy Bobalik. It was my first Bouchercon, but I felt not so much “virginal” as (whatever the single word adjective you’d use to describe someone arriving in the Big City for the first time, and feeling a bit disoriented and lost amid all the bustling crowds). It was a bit bewildering, but there was a tremendous sense of community, and everyone was super nice – like, Midwestern-level nice.
I arrived Thursday afternoon, and was ecstatic to get there, at least in part because I drove down with Alafair Burke; Alafair is, to be frank, certifiably psychotic at the wheel, her need for speed almost carnal in its urgency. The combination of high speed daredevil manoeuvres (at one point, she drove under a semi just so she could slam us up the ramp of an empty car transporter trailer, shooting us up about 20 feet high, hurtling through the air to land squarely 8 inches in front of the black Tahoe that had irritated Alafair by dawdling in front of her for a good two minutes). (Seriously.)
I checked into the Sheraton, which was actually not bad for a chain hotel – the common areas had all the elegance of a feed auction in Topeka <tm a joke I made at the time>, but the rooms were pleasantly modern in their style, and the bathrooms were quite handsome. Unusually inoffensive for a chain hotel! Of course, the widescreen LG TV was set to Standard Definition, with the images all stretched to fill out the screen space, something I HATE! If your signal isn’t in widescreen, set your set to Academy Ratio, darnit all to heck!
I checked in with my publicist, Harper’s wonderful Heather Drucker, then milled about a bit with Alafair, but I was exhausted, so when she and her coterie headed out to dinner, I disappeared to bed. Roomservice steak, serviceable, some awful TV vampire movie with that blonde sweater girl from that Star Trek spin-off. Jeri Ryan? Something like that.
Friday morning at the crack of dawn (8:30AM), I joined authors John French (Baltimore PD Crime Lab), ex-cop Lee Lofland, all around force for good Cody McFadyen and Gwen Freeman, pinch-hitting for Sheila Lowe (both Sheila, a hand-writing analyst and forensic artist Brenda Robertson Stewart were felled by food poisoning, an epidemic of which shot through the assembled ranks like melted butter through a loosely-packed Jumbo Bag of popcorn) to discuss the way forensics in movies, TV and books relates to the real world. (In brief, many forensics folks hate how fake it is, I personally like it because it often captures the spirit of what we do, and it makes us look absurdly glamorous – and hey, what’s not to like about that? I’ve written about it a few times, most recently in a blog for the Baltimore Sun, and previously for New York magazine. And I actually believe what I said!)
Despite the obscene hour, a good time was probably had by everybody – it was too early to make rigorous judgements like that. It was good to finally meet Lee, whose blog, the Graveyard Shift, is a fantastic resource for all things police and forensics-related; Lee’s book on police procedure is aimed at writers, and is a goldmine for, uh, writers. I’m going to try to persuade him to let me make the occasional guest post on the Graveyard Shift.
The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. I saw a bit of various assembled friends; people seemed to accumulate in the lobby as overflow from the overcrowded restaurant, and then move on to other places. I saw quite a lot of Tasha Alexander (that blonde hair is like a flag), J.D. Rhoades, Jonny Santlofer, Megan Abbott, Dan Conaway, Joe Konrath, Meredith Cole, Michael Koryta, Sean Chercover, Mark Billingham, Michelle Gagnon, Sarah Weinman, Tim Maleeny – y’know, I’m going to stop now. It’s going to KILL me to add in the URL’s to everyone I’ve just listed! I saw lots of great writers, in short.
There’s a really interesting (at least to a newbie) and palpable hierarchy to the event. Well, not so much a hierarchy as a finely-pitched sense of celebrity, an awareness of superstar success. Lee Child just has to lean against a door frame in his elegantly lanky way to trigger waves of psychic attraction; he becomes more apparent simply by standing still. And Harlan Coben strides affably through the halls, his smooth dome poking above the heads of the crowd like an iceberg in a flat sea; even if you didn’t know what they looked like, it’d be easy to spot the million dollar-plus advance crowd.
That probably sounds bitchy, but I really don’t mean it that way – one of the hallmarks of Bouchercon (based on my huge experience of the thing) is the friendliness of the participants, and the willingness of authors to stop and chat. I never once saw either Child or Coben not talking and smiling with fans or with other writers. It felt good to belong to that brother/sisterhood (to the extent that a novice author can consider her- or himself as belonging to that community).
In the evening, I went to the Harper dinner at Cinghale, a slightly swank modern Italian restaurant. I got to meet (breathlessly!) the amazingly cool Val McDermid ; I cornered her and told her about how worried I’d been when some critics found Precious Blood gory, and then how relieved I’d been when I read The Mermaids Singing, her first – Crumbs! And people said my book was gory! She was supernice, in line with the conference’s Nice Mega-authors theme. As was Laura Lippman, who I’m sure I terrified with my fanboy ravings about The Wire, created by her husband David Simon and Ed Burns.
I had a fun table, including Billingham, and it was great to finally dine with the notorious Otto Penzler, New York City icon and King of the Mysterious Bookshop. He would’ve been an entertaining enough companion on the mystery chatter front alone, but that he should be an informed and opinionated foodie was just gravy…
After dinner, hmmm… I took a taxi back to the hotel with Otto, Tasha, Andy Gross and Jonny Santlofer, then we milled around for a while before making our way to the Reacher’s Creatures party for Lee Child. I was fading fast by that time, and went home to crash not long after 1AM.
Now I’m fatigued from all that writin’ and linkin’; I’ll finish the rest of Bouchercon tomorrow…