My Author Focus slot was 9:00 AM, when most Bouchercon attendees can’t focus at all. With eight other concurrent events, I had as much chance of drawing a crowd as Mel Gibson has of becoming B'nai B'rith’s Man of the Year. So, I cheated. (Anyone who calls himself a crime writer and isn’t willing to cheat is engaged in false advertising.) I, personally, might not draw a crowd—okay, would not—but I was willing to bet Les Edgerton, Tim Hallinan, and John McFetridge all together would, and they did. The room was packed, remaining so even after they had finished and the only reader remaining was me, which shows what a courteous bunch crime readers are. (Editor’s Note: The “packed room” held about a dozen people, four of whom were the authors, one was The Beloved Spouse, and one was Jack Getze, who has a special relationship with Les Edgerton we’re not going to get into here.) Still, it was packed, and a good time was had by all. Especially me, which is what I really cared about. Many thanks to Les, Tim, John, and all those who attended when there were plenty of others things they could have been doing. (Such as soaking their heads in ice.)
When Your Sleuth is a Crook – Criminal Protagonists
Moderator Josh Stallings got things rolling with an observation that he didn’t understand the term “page turner.” Said he turns pages in every book he reads.
Jodi Compton lamented the stereotypical treatment of gang members, what she called “gangbanger catch and release.” Bring them in, they act tough for three minutes, then they fold, get turned loose, and nothing happens to them.
Stallings is most interested in what happens after the robbery or murder or whatever, when things have returned to “normal.” Most people have wondered at times, “What would happen if I took that bike? Or car?”
Tim Hallinan noted that setting is the interaction between location and character. Crooks see the same locations differently than straights.
Seth Harwood said life is like a cake. Straights live on the frosting, while crooks are boring through the inside. Sometimes a crook breaks through the frosting and has to be noticed. Still, everyone is somewhat in the cake. People may think someone lives on the frosting, but go into their houses, look deeper. They’re all in the cake in some way.
Jamie Mason thinks of all her POV characters as protagonists, that it’s all a matter of “screen time.” Backing this up, Jodi Compton says Jamie’s novels remind her of Coen Brothers movies.
Hallinan: Everyone thinks he’s a good guy. As more people come to realize the game is rigged, there is more willingness to go outside the rules and accept the consequences. People think about crooks differently, as people who show great rectitude are actually crooks. (Jamie Dimon’s name got mentioned.)
John Stallings: The Wild Bunch.
John Morgan Wilson: Vito and Michael Corelone
Jodi Compton: Jonah (Old Testament God tends to choose bad guys to do things. Jonah showed no fear of God, before or after that whole getting swallowed business.)
Tim Hallinan: Macbeth. (Basically a good man whose life was twisted around.)
To show the levels of corruption available, Hallinan told the story of Sidney Korshak, who effectively represented both the movie studios and the unions while working for the Chicago Outfit. “When there was a labor dispute in Hollywood, Sidney Korshak went into a room by himself and made a decision.” He also did a lot of good.
Wilson told a story from his days as a journalist, catching some gang members on another gang’s turf, asking if they were concerned. Turned out there was a truce on weekends, so the bangers could shop for their girlfriends.
Hallinan told a story of a cop calling him to ask how he knew of a scheme to use refrigerator boxes to break and enter houses. He’d made it up himself, not knowing it was a thing in LA.
The topic of redemption came up. A consensus formed around the ideas, “What level of redemption, and what kind?” Justice doesn’t have to be served. It’s not in real life.
Harwood wrapped up by saying the key is to establish the moral code of each character.
Another great panel.
Crime Novel as Social Novel – Dealing With Issues and Problems of Our Time
Moderator Hilary Davidson opened with a Dennis Lehane quote: “This is where the social novel went. It went into crime fiction.”
Joe Clifford: If gentrification can happen in Reno, it’s happening everywhere.
Les Edgerton decides what his “theme” is after the first draft, then goes back and cuts the irrelevant passages.
Bill Loehfelm noted that any social commentary has to be woven in. If the reader hears the author and not the characters, you’ve gone too far.
Tim O’Mara believes if a novel doesn’t have any social issues, the author is not doing justice to the setting.
When discussing arguments over the minimum wage and how it will price fast food out of its market, Loehfelm said, “If they can afford to sell it to you for a dollar, you don’t want to eat it.”
People in the service industry can size others up quickly: who tips, who’s trouble, who has a drinking problem, how they treat women. They have to learn this if they want to succeed.
When someone who doesn’t smoke picks up an ashtray, he’s looking for a weapon.
Edgerton believes in the Jack London school of writing. Taking jobs at the bottom of the pile to gain experience. When it was noted that Flannery O’Connor once said living in the same house for 17 years should provide enough material for a lifetime, he said he wished to hell he’d heard that earlier.
Tim O’Mara now teaches on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, said the saddest thing he’s seen there is a black nanny pushing a baby in a stroller while the mother walks beside them, talking on her cell. This is a kid who’s going to be telling his stories on a couch one day.
Joe Clifford noted that empathy can’t be taught; it has to be experienced. Everyone wants a better life. Everyone has dreams. Loehfelm followed up with a Steve Earle quote: If you’re a storyteller, you’re only job is to create empathy.
To write characters who aren’t similar to you, grab onto whatever similarities you can and use them.
Edgerton hates the idea of heroes and villains. It creates two-dimensional characters.
When asked about balancing commentary and entertainment:
O’Mara: Social commentary works best when it comes from characters not based on yourself. The context is the key.
Loehfelm: Beware the crusader. He comes across as heavy-handed. Humor can go a long ways. He didn’t enjoy The Corner nearly as much as The Wire because The Corner had no humor.
Edgerton: Criminals, like cops, are always joking. It’s a stress management technique.
A brief exchange:
Edgerton: My publisher didn’t want to use The Bitch or The Rapist as titles, but fuck him.
Loehfelm: That’s the next book.
O’Mara noted a Special Ed class on the Upper West Side, all the kids are black or Hispanic. The white kids have money and health insurance. “I’m putting my kid on medication because the insurance will pay for it.”
Recommendations for crime writers who tackle social issues well:
Clifford: Ben Whitmer, Tom Pitts.
Edgerton: Ray Banks.
Loehfelm: Richard Price, Laura Lippman.
Sara J. Henry: John D. MacDonald
O’Mara: Jess Walter (The Financial Lives of the Poets.)
Beyond Chandler, Hammett, and Spillane – Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Eras
Yet another example of a panel I probably would not have attended had not Peter Rozovsky been the moderator. If you’re ever in doubt about a panel at Bouchercon, go to his, even if you don’t think you care about the topic. No one prepares better, or plays as well to the strengths of his panel. The nature of this session didn’t lend itself to the kind of comments of the others I attended—mostly talking about underappreciated authors, including why they were sometimes underappreciated—but I did come away with some writers to check into, notably Ennis Willey and Roy Huggins. Oh, and why do I always have to be reminded to read more Chester Himes? It’s a serious weakness on my part.
Similar, But Different - Cops and PIs Sleuthing Around
Kenneth Wishnia made a telling comment that all writers would do well to remember: Humor is the weapon of the powerless.
Cops who want to come across the table during an interrogation are a problem in too much fiction. The way to do it is to sympathize; that’s why interviews take so long. You have to let them know you know they’re lying without breaking trust.
PIs can screw up the chain of evidence if they’re not careful. Same rules would apply as if they were cops, but they may have no witness to the original collection, thus queering the deal.
Cops may have to do something they don’t think is “right” because it’s the law.
PWA Banquet and Shamus Awards
Unfortunately, Bob Randisi was unable to attend, but Max Allen Collins did yeoman’s work in his stead.
Congratulations to all the well-deserved winners:
The Hammer Award, for best PI series character: Kinsey Millhone, accepted by Sue Grafton.
Best Hardcover PI novel: The Good Cop, by Brad Parks.
Best First PI Novel: Bear is Broken, by Lachlan Smith.
Best Original Paperback PI Novel: Heart of Ice, by P.J. Parrish.
Best PI Short Story: “So Long, Chief,” by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane.
Best Indie PI Novel: Don’t Dare a Dame, by M. Ruth Myers.
St. Martins/PWA Award: The Red Storm, by Grant Bywaters.
This was my first PWA banquet. I’d heard much good about them, and my expectations were fully realized. The support and affection for the members of this community was obvious.
On Wednesday, how the weekend went.