On Exceeding Expectations

calamari crime

 

(Just to warn all you fencers, this is a bit different from my usual national tournament notes.)

 

Last weekend was one I’d been looking forward to for a long time—about a year and a half, actually, since I took advantage of the super-early registration for this year’s Left Coast Crime convention. I took one look at the list of headliners, at the discounted registration fee, and the location, and decided that there was no doubt whatsoever that I’d be heading off to LCC in Monterey this month. (It was fortunate there were enough bout committee volunteers for Memphis the weekend before, too, so I didn’t even have to feel guilty for skipping the March NAC.)

The anticipation could have been a problem, though. All those months thinking about where I’d be and who I’d see—I was in serious danger of disappointment due to too-high expectations.

I shouldn’t have worried. The weather, while not spectacular, was well within the pleasant range, particularly for the central coast this time of year:

The view from my room wasn't bad at all.

The view from my room wasn’t bad at all.

 

Crime fiction conventions are somewhat peculiar gatherings. You’ve got a bunch of murder mystery readers,  a significant chunk of whom also write murder mysteries—in this case, at least 250 of the 800+ attendees were published authors, not to mention the many like me who are what Sisters in Crime refers to as “pre-published.” Unlike some conventions, LCC makes no distinction on their badges among readers or authors or agents or publishers, so as you wander around—unless you’re already familiar with the faces of authors or other supposed VIPs—the comfortably plump elderly hippie with the purple-tipped spiky hair might be an avid reader or might just as easily be a multiple-Edgar winner or an editor at an independent mystery publisher or a librarian. I was entertained by the contrast between our crowd and that attending the National Council for Public History conference, with which we shared the conference center. We were considerably older and more colorful and—judging by the reaction of one academic who interrupted a chat about means of death or hiding corpses or some such in the hotel lobby with a startled “Who are you people?”—more eccentric. (On the other hand, I suspect that the crime fiction crowd would get along very well indeed with fencing officials, if volume and density in hotel bars are valid indicators.)

I wasn’t consistent at all with my picture-taking, nor did I take many notes at panel sessions, but here are a few highlights:

"G Is for Guest": Sue Grafton interviewed by Toastmaster Brad Parks

“G Is for Guest”: Sue Grafton interviewed by Toastmaster Brad Parks

• Sue Grafton’s interview Thursday afternoon was great. (Leslie Karst has a good summary on her blog, including Sue’s discussion of freeing your “Shadow.”) I was tickled to hear, in response to a question from the audience about how she came up with the alphabetical titles for her Kinsey Milhone books, that at the time she was trying to think of good titles, she happened to be reading one of my own kids’ favorite alphabet books, Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies (“M is for Maud who was swept out to sea/N is for Neville who died of ennui”).

• Those of us who didn’t get enough of Sue Grafton Thursday afternoon got a second helping Friday morning, along with Marcia Muller and Jan Burke:

"In the Beginning: Reminiscing" - Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller, with moderator Jan Burke

“In the Beginning: Reminiscing” – Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller, with moderator Jan Burke

Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone (1977) and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone (1982)—along with Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski (also 1982)—are now such popular established series characters that it’s hard to recall the scorn with which their debuts were greeted, as in “Nobody wants to read about girl detectives.”

• There were several panels intended to be funny and were (“Murder Lite: Why Authors Write Humor into Mysteries,” with Harley Jane Kozak, Donna Andrews, Mary Jane Maffini, and Helen Smith; “Been There, Wrote That: A Game Show,” with Gar Anthony Heywood, Donna Andrews, Rhys Bowen, Lee Goldberg, and Parnell Hall), but for my money, the most hilarious session in Monterey had to be “Where Rubber Meets the Road,” with Deborah Coonts, Linda Joffe Hull, Catriona McPherson, Johnny Shaw, and Jess Lourey moderating. At least one gentleman attended expecting a discussion of car-related mysteries, but he stayed anyway when Jess explained that the panel would focus on sex in crime fiction. The panelists were nearly united in their dislike of writing sex scenes, though Deborah Coonts admitted to enjoying occasionally writing them if and only if they furthered her narrative. Catriona McPherson stated emphatically that she does not write explicit sex scenes in her Dandy Gilver books. In an inspired move, though, Jess Lourey had brought short excerpts of past nominees for the annual Bad Sex Award presented by the UK’s Literary Review, giving each panelist one to read aloud. Johnny Shaw bravely took the first (and longest), which was not only supremely silly out loud, but turned out to be written by Lee Child. I’ve still not decided whether I preferred Johnny’s performance or Catriona’s (you haven’t heard bad sex read until you’ve heard it in her Scots accent), but every one of the panelists had us laughing to the point of tears.

• A few of the more serious panels were outstanding as well:

"Crime Fiction: The Bigger Picture" - Aaron Elkins, Laurie R. King, Craig Johnson, Cara Black, Janet Dawson (moderator)

“Crime Fiction: The Bigger Picture” – Aaron Elkins, Laurie R. King, Craig Johnson, Cara Black, Janet Dawson (moderator)

“The Bigger Picture” panel show above was excellent, as was “Murder in Another Era: Historical Mysteries,” with Annamaria Alfieri, Laurie R. King, David Morrell, Caroline Todd (who writes with her son as Charles Todd), and Patti Ruocco moderating, but my favorite was “The Heart & Soul of Murder: Mysteries with a Meaning,” with Jacqueline Winspear moderating Ann Cleeves, Deborah Crombie, Michael Sears, and Louise Penny.  These were almost a continuing discussion of the crime fiction genre, the difficulties in tackling serious issues without getting preachy, and the research and creativity required to create believable characters and the worlds they inhabit in great crime fiction.

• All of the Guest of Honor interviews were good. In addition to Sue Grafton’s, there were Louise Penny, interviewed by Andrew Martin, her American publisher; Cara Black, interviewed by Louise Penny, who filled in at the last minute when Deborah Crombie was unwell; Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, interviewed by Bette Golden Lamb and J.J. Lamb. For some reason, the Muller/Pronzini interview is the only one I took a photo of:

Lifetime Achievement Honorees Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini interviewed by Bette Golden Lamb & J.J. Lamb

Lifetime Achievement Honorees Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini interviewed by Bette Golden Lamb & J.J. Lamb

And of course, there was the Saturday evening awards banquet. One of the perks of very early registration, which I’d entirely forgotten about, was getting to choose my preferred banquet table host ahead of time, and I was happy to get my first choice, my current favorite but daunting geez-I’ll-never-write-as-well-as-she-does author. As you can see from the photos, being seated at the table of an author who is an expected-to-win nominee for an award provides an excellent view of the proceedings:

The banquet ran too long, naturally. Those of us at the Penny table didn’t mind too much, because we were enjoying ourselves, not least because it’s such a joy when a writer of books that give great pleasure lives up to the expectations she creates with those books. I couldn’t have asked for a better LCC—or a better crime fiction con at all.

Now I just have to make sure I finish my own book in time for next year in Portland.

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