The 44th World Mystery Convention, also known as Bouchercon (say it BOUGHchurcon) happened this weekend in Albany, New York. It's a unique gathering, organized and produced by fans of crime fiction to create an opportunity for readers to mix with their favorite mystery authors, honor the genre's heroes, and share their recommendations for what to read next. Even now in this age of social media, when everyone seems so accessible online, Bouchercon is a mystery fan's dream come true, and anyone who's seriously interested in the genre should try to get to one. A list of the next five meetings is here; one's probably not far from you.
Bouchercon moves around every year, as local organizing committees (LOCs) bid on a chance to welcome 1,500 fans and authors for a four-day party. Although Bouchercon has a standing Board of Directors, everyone involved with it is a volunteer. The meeting pays expenses for its Guests of Honor, but otherwise, everyone attends on their own dime, and all the organizers work for free. It's a community that forms because of a shared passion, which is the best kind of community, and once you go to one Bouchercon, you're part of that community forever.
I've been going since 2005, when the meeting was in Chicago; I missed Anchorage in 2007 (too far) and St. Louis in 2011 (my daughter's wedding), but have been back every other year since. It's a chance to see clients and colleagues, and actually marks the beginning of a new business year for me; it's where I hear about what's coming my way, pick up industry gossip, and get a sense of whether or not my clients are happy with me. But most of all it's a party with my friends. I can't even list the lifelong friends I've made at Bouchercon, for fear that I'll leave someone out — but my hotel roommate at this meeting, Judy Bobalik, and one of my primary clients, Joseph Finder, were both people I met at the Chicago Bouchercon.
This year's Bouchercon was good, bad and ugly.
The Good: I got to moderate a panel called "A Matter of Trust," asking what's fair and not fair when it comes to literary tricks: unreliable narrators, shifting
time lines, twist endings, etc. Just as casting is 80% of directing, the
panelists are 80% of moderating, and mine were a moderator's dream: Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, and Jennifer McMahon, all of whose books you should be reading. (Sadly, Lori Roy, who was also scheduled for this panel, had to cancel at the last minute because of a family emergency.) Bouchercon's panels were great, thanks to the efforts of the aforementioned Judy Bobalik and her programming partner, Jon Jordan.
This year's Guests of Honor were Sue Grafton (Lifetime Achievement), Anne Perry (International), Tess Gerritsen (American) and Steve Hamilton (Toastmaster), with Chris Aldrich and Lynn Kaczmarek as Fan Guests of Honor. It's rare to get a chance to listen to a master discuss her craft, and the guest-of-honor interviews I saw (Anne Perry and Tess Gerritsen) were fascinating. As a bonus, Lawrence Block made a surprise appearance, and gave an impromptu Q&A session on Saturday at lunch time.
Oh, and Books to Die For, which launched at last year's Bouchercon, picked up Macavity and
Anthony Awards for best Nonfiction/Critical crime book of 2012. Since the book's editors, John Connolly and Declan Burke, were not at this year's Bouchercon, I volunteered to pick up the prizes on behalf of them and the book's 116 other contributors, many of whom were in Albany as well. Thank you, thank you, thank you to Mystery Readers International (who vote on the Macavity) and the members of Bouchercon (who vote on the Anthony) for honoring the book, which was a labor of love for everyone involved.
The Bad: The reason I didn't see all of the Guest of Honor interviews was that they were scheduled at night, two hours after the day's panel programming ended. This might not have been a bad choice if the programming had not been in the Empire State Plaza, blocks away from anyone's hotel and from any place to get dinner. It was too easy to decide not to return to the Empire State Plaza after dark, and attendance was sparse at the evening events I did attend. That's a rotten thing to do to one's Guests of Honor. If those interviews had been scheduled in the lunch hour, they'd have been standing room only, and they should have been.
Downtown Albany, like downtown Augusta, is a ghost town outside normal business hours. The Empire State Plaza's food court closes on weekends, and the food trucks that line the plaza on weekdays disappear. Worse, the restaurants and even the Albany Hilton go to skeleton staffs, even though they knew (or should have known) that a convention of 1,500 people would be staying until Sunday and needing food and drink. The staffing decisions of the Albany Hilton, in particular, were baffling, not to say enraging. I felt terrible for the overwhelmed bar, restaurant and kitchen staff who just didn't have the numbers they needed to serve an impatient crowd.
The bar is the beating heart of Bouchercon, and Bouchercon's bar requirements are pretty specific. First, the bar needs to be adequately staffed. Second, the bar needs to allow for mingling, but also needs space for people to sit down, and the option of a quiet corner for people who don't want to shout at each other. Atrium bars are terrible: they never have enough seating and they require people to shout at each other, with no possibility of a quiet conversation. The Hilton Albany's is an atrium bar. 74 State, a hotel around the corner, had a much nicer bar, but remained a well-kept secret to most.
The Ugly: The accessibility arrangements for this year's Bouchercon were disgraceful. Trekking to and from the Empire State Plaza, especially at night, was inconvenient for me and the other able-bodied Bouchercon participants, but it was almost prohibitively difficult for anyone in a wheelchair. The Empire State Plaza, built in the late 1960s, is accessible only according to the letter of the law. Ramps are hard to find, doors and entrances are narrow, elevators are scarce and wheelchair lifts are awkward and tucked away. "Shuttles" ran back and forth between the hotels and the Plaza, but these were ancient school buses with steep, narrow boarding stairs; I never saw one that looked accessible to the mobility-impaired, although I assume at least one of those was running. Shuttles let people off on the far side of the Plaza, where people had to navigate at least half a mile to the Convention Hall entrance, over uneven paving stones. I know of at least two people who didn't attend everything they wanted to see simply because it was too hard to get there, and that's not okay. That's shameful, and future Bouchercon organizers need to make physical logistics a priority.
Next year's Bouchercon is in Long Beach, California, November 13-16, and I seem to have signed up for the organizing committee of the 2018 meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida. Hope to see you there!