Bouchercon Day One: Laughter, Murder, and Music

I slept in this morning until almost 6:30am.  It was glorious.

So was the chai tea latte I had for breakfast.  I’d like to say that the yogurt parfait with berries and granola was glorious, too . . . but it was yogurt.

Moving on.

The first panel of the morning was “Laughter of the Clowns: Comedy in Crime Fiction,” which featured Gary Alexander, Alan Ansorge, Jack Fredrickson, Alan Orloff, and Robin Spano.  The moderator was Jerry Healy.

Here are the highlights:

Mr. Ansorge:  “All humor has a victim, just like crime.”  Don’t deceive the audience—the reader owns the book.

Mr. Orloff:  “There’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy.”

Ms. Spano:  “Crime writers are nice people because we get our rage out . . . ”  In Ms. Spano’s first book, she killed the mayor of Montreal because at the time he infuriated her.  In translating her anger to the page, she had to laugh at the intensity, which helped her cope.  Laughter is the best medicine, for the writer and the reader.

At one point, there was a discussion of how to balance the tragedy of death with humor.  The consensus was that you could write tasteless lines, but never give them to the main characters, or anyone you wanted to be sympathetic.

The moderator said that a few authors were experts in balancing humor and death, and one of these was Parnell Hall.  Mr. Hall stood up and waved, nice things were said about him, and he sat down again.  Later, during question time, Mr. Hall raised his hand and stood with a handheld video camera.  “Could you introduce me again?” he said.  “I didn’t have the camera on.”

Mr. Hall is known for his videos.  I can see why:

I’d been planning on attending a more serious panel next, but decided to follow Mr. Hall to “Mermaids Singing: a taste of Magna cum Murder,”  which was basically an advertisement for the Magna cum Murder event at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, in late October.

People, we all have to go to this next year.  I’m serious.  Even those of you who don’t write crime.

Kathryn Kennison, who is a gracious lady as well as the coordinator for Magna, attempted to moderate a panel of six of the funniest people I’ve seen in one place for a very long time:  Parnell Hall, John Gilstrap, Val McDermid, Stuart Neville, and Caroline and Charles Todd (who are mother and son).

They were all obviously great friends and gave Ms Kennison a very hard time, starting with Charles Todd and Parnell hall switching their nameplates and answering each other’s questions.  I was laughing so hard by the end that it was all I could do to suppress squeaky dolphin noises so I could hear more of the byplay.

The best I can do is offer misquotes:

Val McDermid, on the influence Parnell Hall had on her life:  “You taught me that you can make a total fool of yourself on a panel and people will still buy your books.”

John Gilstrap:  “I have a story.”
Val McDermid:  “Not the blow-up doll, John.”
John Gilstrap: “Then I have nothing to say.”

Someone else: “You can tell that story, he’s dead.”

So Mr. Gilstrap told a story that I’m not even going to attempt to repeat, about James Crumbley, alcohol, and a reading of a lurid sex scene during a Magna dinner banquet. I was moved to tears.  And  just when I thought it was over, Mr. Gilstrap stopped for one perfect beat and said,  “It had cornmeal in it.”

At which point, Ms. Kennison grabbed her microphone and said in a firm, ladylike Georgian accent, “Are there any more questions?

I dropped my pen and sobbed.

Val McDermid’s Magna story concerned a bed & breakfast, a bottle, a locked balcony door, and the shoving of a slender, well-known author through a half-open window.  Parnell Hall’s story involved a meringue pie, which led into a short discussion about the use of iron skillets in Southern cooking:

“But see, if you use the skillet as a murder weapon, you can’t make cornbread, and you’ll have all this cornmeal—you’ll have to use it for something.

One of the last panel-submitted questions was “Gin or Vodka?” answered by Ms. McDermid with a relentless treatise on vodka that had me dropping my pen again.*

Mrs. Todd: “I much prefer a pink lady.”
Mr. Gilstrap: “Well, who doesn’t.”

After this, slightly soggy and with aching obliques, I went to the forensics panel, “Clear Cut Case of Murder,”  and listened to Jan Burke, Marcia Clark, Jonathan Hayes, Stephanie Pintoff, Doug Starr, and Leslie Budewitz discussing a range of topics from evidence, neurolaw, nature versus nurture, reality versus realism, and the real problems with CSI.

Mr. Starr, who writes nonfiction,  said that people always ask him where he gets his ideas:  “Talk to everyone and read everything.”  He also said that if a non-fiction writer doesn’t get every detail right, they’re committing professional malpractice:

Mr Starr:  “I envy you fiction writers.  You get to play, I have to work.”
Jan Burke:  “Yeah.  It’s a snap.”

It was later established by Jonathan Hayes that Mr. Starr’s digestive system doesn’t appreciate autopsies, which I suppose is a type of revenge.

Marcia Clark said that, in her opinion, there were no irresistible impulses—only impulses one doesn’t choose to resist.  I liked that.

I had two more panels, which, since I’ve reached 900 words already, I will describe briefly.

“To Love is to Bury: Finding new ways to get rid of the body” with Donna Andrews, Sandra Balzo, Jess Lourey, half of PJ Parrish, and Sarah Shaber, with Catriona McPherson moderating.

These women are all amazing and knowledgeable and open and funny and hell—and instead of writing down everything they said, I quite halfway and decided to downloading the recording when I get home.   But here are some quotes i remember:

“The New York Times said—who cares?  Sarah got a review in the New York Times!”

“I was trying desperately to think of a plot so I could write off our Paris trip . . .  ”

“I only kill tourists.”

“If you agree to trust me, I agree to give you a good time.”

“A character continues on and lives with you.”

“Death and Sex?  I’m laughing.”

“There’s always one character . . .  It’s not her book, and they tap your shoulder, saying, tell my story, tell my story, TELL MY STORY!”

“How long do people flirt?  In 1942?  Ten books? I don’t know.

“They didn’t know where to shelve it.  They kept saying it was nether fish nor fowl—it’s a book.”

And, finally, “I Got the right to Sing the Blues: Let the music take control,” with Wallace Stroby, mark Billingham, Roger Ellory, Bryan Gilmer, Jonathan Hayes, and Rochelle Staab.

This was a marvelous panel, basically a discussion on using music as background and character development and what those writers listened to when they wrote—surprisingly, most preferred silence, but they did create mood and character playlists.**   They had many, many personal stories, and I can’t possibly share them all, sorry.

I used to think I knew about music, but I clearly know nothing.  Now, of course, I have a looong list of bands and musicians I must find, plus a couple of quotes:

“I have to research so much, I’ll be buggered if I’ll research what music he’s listening to—he’ll listen to what I listen to.”

“When male crime writers get together, they don’t talk about murder, they exchange mix tapes.”

“They’re the Stieg Larssons  of the music industry . . . “

So that’s my day.  And now it’s seven-thirty, I’m starving, and I’m gonna go grab a salad.


*And after which Stuart Neville—who had my vote for most beautiful accent until I heard Catriona McPherson—answered every question with, “Gin,” which was probably the safest option  at that point.

** Ms. Staab told a great story about trying to write while the next-door neighbor’s son practiced “Three Blind Mice” on his flute for two hours.  All I wanted to do was ask her how on earth her neighbor got that kid to practice for more than ten minutes, but we ran out of time.