Three conferences in a six-week period proves it’s good to save the best for last. No offense to C3 (where I plan to become a regular) or NoirCon, but Bouchercon can’t help but be the big event of any year. Last week’s conference in Long Beach was no exception. It’s hard to winnow down the highlights, and my notes from the bar are less than complete (apologies to anyone I omitted; the fault is entirely Stella Artois’s), but here’s my best remembrances of Bouchercon 45.
Women Wearing a Badge – Making Their Way and Working With the Boys
Not the first panel attended, but a great way to start. (The first actual panel quickly proved itself to be a self-promotional effort for a publisher that will not be named here.) Deborah Crombie got the ball rolling with an observation that British TV does a much better job of depicting realistic female cops than we do here. Broadchurch and Happy Valley received favorable mentions.
Allison Brennan noted many female cops have male relatives in law enforcement in one way or another. Not that it’s a family tradition for the women, but having a father/uncle/brother/cousin seems to create a more favorable perspective toward joining up. Allison also mentioned she has met cops who are convinced they have never arrested an innocent man. (Well, I sure hope so. I’d hate to think, “Well, close enough” is a prevailing philosophy.)
Peter Robinson was cited as a male author who writes women well. There appeared to be a consensus—which I’d heard before—that women are more comfortable writing male characters than men are writing women. This may be why there are more male protagonists written by women than vice versa. (I wonder if there might not be two other things at work: male crime fiction protagonists have been traditionally male, and therefore safer to write; and a man is far more likely to get carved up for poorly-written female characters than the other way around.)
Family is always a concern when writing a female character, as women are far more likely to put family ahead of career. Not that they all do, but it should be accounted for.
In a confrontation, women will tend to talk longer; men are more proactive.
Doesn’t Play Well With Others – How Dysfunctional Characters Enhance Plots and series
Moderator Kim Hammond offered a free book by each of the authors to the first person who could correctly identify the author from a little-known fact. First up was Brad Parks, and the fact was from a story I’d heard him tell at the C3 conference last month. I told The Beloved Spouse, she raised her hand, and—voila—we get a book. I feel a little guilty about it, but not so much so I declined the book.
Great unattributed quote: “To find the truth about any era, read its fiction.” I looked it up and can’t find who said it. (I mean originally, not at Bouchercon.) A free copy of Grind Joint is coming to the first person who can steer me in the right direction.
In the realm of attributable quotes, Mara Purl said “You can’t write the character and judge the character at the same time.” This panel was great fun, but would have been worth it for that alone.
Cops Around the World – International Police Procedurals
Mark Billingham got the elephant in the room out of the way right up front, saying, let’s be honest, no one is writing actual police procedurals. They’d be a thousand pages long, dull as ditchwater, and you wouldn’t like the ending. The authors and readers have an arrangement where they will suspend disbelief and we will provide a heightened reality.
As usual, Billingham was full of money quotes. (The problem with his panels is keeping up with the note taking.) Among his other gems:
• The primary difference between US and UK procedurals is, we have guns, they have whistles. This alters chase scenes considerably. “Stop, or I’ll…say ‘stop’ again.”
• He was asked once which actor he’d like to see play Tom Thorne. That actor coincidentally read one of the Thorne novels, Googled him, and saw their names pop up together. He got the part. Billingham says he’s sure Lee Child always had Tom Cruise on mind to play Jack Reacher.
• Since Thomas Harris’s success, serial killers have become a lazy way to provide pacing. (Time for an action? Order up another murder.) It dehumanizes the victims.
• The ongoing problem with Harris and Hannibal Lector is that so many writers were inspired to write brilliant killers. Most killers are stupid.
Speaking of serial killers, Stav Sherez doesn’t think they’re interesting, as the psychological motivations are always disappointing and weaker than solving crimes committed for a reason. Ragnar Jonasson says there has never been a serial killer in Iceland, which is good, because there are so few Icelanders to start with.
Sherez considers James Ellroy to be the best procedural writer. (I’m sure Ellroy agrees, and no, I did not get my picture taken with him.) He and Billingham both believe the best procedurals are about how the characters are affected over the years. There must be change; they see, and experience, too much. Sherez says it’s like watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon, where an anvil drops on Tom’s head and he’s anvil shaped for a while. We’re only writing the anvil-shaped characters. He’s interested in why the cop became a cop.
As video surveillance becomes more prevalent, the trick for the writer is to keep that as interesting as knocking on doors.
Kwei Quartey pointed out that even an autopsy scene should be about the killing, not a dissertation on the damage.
Sara Blaedel has two protagonists. One is a cop, the other a journalist. She says that allows her to get “completely around” a case. The cop has great resources, but there are things people will tell a journalist they’d never tell a cop.
Billingham and Sherez both write series, but do the occasional standalone as breaks for themselves. No one ever says, “You know what the best book of that series was? Number 13.”
Yeah, that was a good one.
Noir at the Bar
Not the kind of thing one takes notes at, but, in case Eric Beetner sees this, it’s spelled, “Swierczynski.” A metric shit tonne of kick ass noir writers, each given a minute to read something that will hook new readers. In my case, five, not including those I was already in the tank for.
On Monday, we’ll take a look at Day Two.