By the banks of the Big Muddy: Bouchercon 2011

by Jonathan Hayes


Warning: This post contains a somewhat whimsical graphic of an active penis.

Here’s some simple advice: when you live in the Greatest City on Earth, never leave it.

Never go on vacation. Never fly somewhere to meet someone you met on the Internet, no matter how incredibly hot they are. Refuse all invitations to weddings and funerals. If you get the urge to leave, lie down and order Chinese for delivery.

The honest truth is that no good can ever come of leaving the earthly Eden that is the island of Manhattan.

However. If you absolutely must leave the island, the annual Bouchercon crime fiction festival is a fantastic reason to go. What’s not to love? A couple thousand bloodthirsty readers, writers, agents and publishers marooned in the middle of an unfamiliar city is a surefire recipe for hilarity. Oh, the days start off innocently enough – friends hugging, a Who’s Who of international crime fiction doing panels and interviews, hilariously awkward authors having “casual chats” with fans, that sort of thing. But after dark, the event transforms into something dark and glittering – if you’ve seen the grainy snapshots and Paris Hilton nightvision-style cellphone videos taken in the hotel bars starting around 2 AM, you’ll know what I mean. Really, this conference should be called Debauchercon. 

I’m sitting in St. Louis Airport, on my way home after B’con11. O St. Louis, City on the banks of the mighty Big Muddy! How you have abused me! It wasn’t the conference – Bouchercon was as great as ever. It wasn’t your citizens, charming and polite to a tee. It wasn’t the packed hordes of fundamentalist Christians in my hotel, surging through the halls and elevators of my hotel in a tsunami of sensible clothing and “Love Life” badges (even though my neighbors did insist on rising at the crack of dawn – every. freakin’. day). Your streets are handsome, your Downtown has some of the best-looking old skyscrapers and covetable factory spaces I’ve ever seen.

It’s your food. And I know that you can’t judge a city’s food by its Convention District fare – if you visit NYC, and eat only in the Times Square/42nd Street area, you’d probably eat pretty poorly too. But by God I had some appalling swill here!

The gold standard seemed to be the sort of cuisine generally served heaped on platters in front of the TV on Game Night: battered, fried to a crisp, dipped into Ranch dressing mix blended with mayonnaise and blue cheese. Never before have I seen such liberties taken with produce – hey, chef who came up with“Fire-roasted artichoke hearts, served with sweet chili sauce and chipotle sauce”? They’re putting together a tribunal in the Hague to investigate your kitchen crimes.

What’s so frustrating about this was that there’s clearly good food to be had. The town lies on a river in the middle of fertile plains, surrounded by vegetables and some of the country’s best pigs. There’s no need for everything to be a variation on Buffalo chicken wings – that’s what Buffalo’s for!

The wrongness of this state of affairs was proved by dinner at Niche, where the food was so good I almost wept. The maple custard with roasted chopped porcini mushrooms and a dashi “caviar” was one of the few validations of this whole vogue for making little membrane-clad spheres of liquid, and the Jonah crab appetizer (crabmeat, flaked pink grapefruit, shiso leaf, mint, avocado panna cotta and shards of cocoa glass) was revelatory. The ingredients are there, and the cooks are there, too – Niche chef Gerard Craft has said that there’s a thriving food culture there, with serious cooks and fantastic food blogs; given the culinary wasteland that was downtown, I’m sure he’s right, since people here must be forced to fend for themselves.

Gerard Craft of Niche:

Of course, I’m exaggerating wildly (not about Niche, though, which is excellent), but, still: too often the food across this great land of ours looks right, but is miles away from tasting anywhere near decent. The word “fusion” has been used to justify some of the worst atrocities of this young century; if you don’t know how exotic flavours go together, why not work with the flavours you do know? There’s nothing wrong with American food – and so much right with American produce! Or buy a copy of Dornenburg and Page’s excellent Culinary Artistry, which clearly outlines which foods go well together, and (just as importantly) which are in season at any given moment.

Anyway, Bouchercon.

Bouchercon is always a fantastic conference – tightly plotted and elegantly executed. I spent quite a lot of time hanging out with Chevy Stevens, who is as wonderful as she is Canadian. It was her first B’con, my third, but we agreed: for authors, at some level, it’s a bit like high school. There are all sorts of competing hierarchies, some based on obvious metrics (book sales and fame, mostly), others on less readily quantifiable criteria (coolness, edginess, connectedness, attractiveness). The bar where the authors gather is like a lava lamp of cliques, clots of friends and colleagues forming, gradually budding off other little blobs which then merge to form new, bigger blobs.

I don’t mean to imply that it’s ruthless or exclusive – on the contrary, it’s actually a pretty friendly bunch, particularly if you can prove your worth. And even if you can’t, most of the authors I know are pretty good about supporting newer writers.

But there’s a very clear sense of who’s made it and who hasn’t, and all sorts of confident assertions of advances and sales and print runs for this guy’s or that gal’s books. The talk is often fairly gloomy these days, with authors worrying about declining advances and print sales, and how to negotiate the ebook market. This is one of the reasons it’s kind of nice to hang out with the best-selling crowd, for whom life seems to be an endless series of expenses-paid readings in Amsterdam, Rome and Mumbai, options moving quickly into production, or how a new Twi translation means that their sleuth can finally reach the Akan people of Southern Ghana.

I was on three panels. The first was a forensics panel, with Jan Burke, Marcia Clarke, Stefanie Pintoff and Doug Starr, ably chaired by Leslie Budewitz. There was a decent crowd, and the discussion was vivid and spritely, with Marcia talking about how hard she had to push to get blood on OJ’s socks tested for DNA, and me trying delicately to explain that the OJ Simpson trial was one of the best things to happen to forensic science in the last century, since it caused us to radically tighten procedures for obtaining, securing and storing forensic evidence.

The music panel – Mark Billingham, Roger Ellory, Brian Glimer, me and Rochelle Staab, with Wallace Stroby cracking the whip – was altogether more rollicking. An enjoyable portion of the session was spent dissing the music of Phil Collins, and, eventually, Paul McCartney, comme il faut. Actually, the Macca stuff wasn’t so much a diss of the music (anyone who hates Band on Run is a bad person) as a diss of the man himself. There was music love aplenty, and some feisty Brit-on-Brit badinage (between Mark, Roger and myself, there were enough Englishmen to start shifting that Boston Harbor tea back up into the boat), but at the end of the day, it was a bunch of middle-aged white people sitting around talking about music, which only gets you so far before the nostalgia begins to clot thick and lumpy.

The next day I signed with Joe Finder at the Crimespree booth. The wonderful Denise Hamilton, celebrated noir author and LA Times perfume columnist stopped by with perfume samples, at which point I learned that Joe, too, is a scent aficionado – he’s even friends with Luca Turin, the brilliant sense scientist and perfume critic, a personal hero.

Some weeks back, Denise had introduced me to the Perfumed Court, a kind of samizdat distributor of perfume samples and decants. I try consciously to develop my sense of smell – something I’ve done since my food writing days; my interest is mostly in smelling things analytically, rather than in perfume. I collect essential oils, but my attempts at perfumery have mostly served to remind me how gifted real perfumers are (like the amazing Swiss parfumier Andy Tauer – if you can, try and find his L’Art du Désert Marocain, a heady exotic, warm with coriander, rock rose, jasmine and cedar).


I went a bit wild at the Perfumed Court, buying about 20 different samples, of which the most interesting was Sécretions Magnifiques. succes de scandale from the punkish French perfume house l’État Libre d’Orange, SM is inspired by bodily secretions – breast milk, blood, semen. Denise had pronounced it “unwearable”, so I ordered it immediately. But the sample I’d received wasn’t at all offensive – it was powdery and dry, and smelled quite nice when my friend Jill modeled it for an evening. So I’d asked Denise to bring some of her official sample to B’con just to make sure I’d got the right thing.

Sitting at the booth, chatting with Joe and the occasional passerby, all was fine and dandy. Denise arrived with her little sack of product, and I wasted no time dousing myself liberally with the magnificent secretions. Both arms.

And that was when my troubles began.

Within seconds, notes of half-cleaned fish bones, curdling milk and blood-spattered abattoir floor swum around me, underneath them a dank plateau of metal, stale sweat and flesh fold grime. I was near-gagging as the smell intensified; it occurred to me that the perfume was a synthetic, and that it would be impossible to scrub off. I leapt to my feet and lurched through the hallways to the men’s room, spent 10 minutes washing and soaping and scrubbing, my arms shocked pink, my head spinning with nausea as I tried to sluice the vile syrup from my skin.

It may have been post-traumatic stress, but for the rest of the day I kept getting Magnificent Secretions flashbacks.

Nonetheless, the afternoon was fun. Maddee James, who designs web pages for many in the mystery community, gathered writers up for a game. The audience was small, but select, including power book bloggers Erin Mitchell of In Real Life, and Chantelle Aimée Osman of Sirens of Suspense. Let’s see: Brett Battles, me, Will Lavender, Boyd Morrison, Stefanie Pintoff and Eric Stone all played this game where Maddee gave us a book title and author eg James Lee Burke’s Rain Gods. We each had to write what we thought would be the first line. All the first lines – including Burke’s original – were read to the audience, who had to guess which was the real one.

It sounds a little involved, but it was actually pretty simple, and really hilarious, mostly because the participants were so funny. My favourite line was Eric’s, for Rain Gods, in fact. It wasn’t the entire sentence so much as his creation of the phrase “displaced Vietnamese shrimper woman” that just killed me…

After that, my panel obligations were done, so I hung out and schmoozed, in the tremendously inept way in which I “schmooze”. I spent a lot of time saying hi to people, including finally meeting David Corbett and JT Ellison and Zoe Sharpe, among the Murderati. I hung out with old friends, made some new ones and caught a few panels. There were so many great authors there, but I’m trying to work on my new book, so I limited myself to buying just three books, picking up Will Lavender’s Obedience, and John Rector’s The Grove and The Cold Kiss. And I have a list of other people I want to read. We’ll see.


Anyway, all in all it was a great Bouchercon. 

And in truth, I even enjoyed the bad food. Something one of my old girlfriends never quite understood was that an appalling meal is much more satisfying than a mediocre meal, since then you get to really tear it apart.

Anyway! Another sprawling post from me. David Corbett, if you’ve made it this far, I owe you another drink. I was ready to pay out in St. Louis, but you were all over the place! Next time, buddy.

Anyone else have any Bouchercon reminiscences they’d care to share with the class?


17 thoughts on “By the banks of the Big Muddy: Bouchercon 2011

  1. Sarah W

    This was my first Bouchercon, but it won't be my last!

    I attended the forensics panel and the music panel and scribbled pages and pages of quotes and notes for both. I posted a daily account over at my place, for whatever that's worth.

    I don't think I mentioned your comment to Doug Starr there, but variations on, "I think that's the problem with FRENCH autopsies," have been heard among my circle. The whole thing was fascinating — and the term "neurolaw" gives me shivers.

    I thought I knew about music before your panel . . . whew! The only question I felt qualified to ask was how Ms. Staub's neighbor managed to get her son to practice for *two hours,* as my older daughter barely clocks in a minute and a half of piano time (we did discuss it a day or two later in the lobby — she's a wonderful person).

    I found it interesting that most of you prefer silence while you write, though I agree with Mr. Stroby (I think) that it's the lyrics, rather that the music itself, that's distracting.

    I wanted to say hello at your signings, but was hijacked on the way both times and our paths didn't cross after that. Maybe in Cleveland?

  2. Pari Noskin

    I wish I could have been at Bouchercon; I've very much enjoyed them in the past. Thank you for the ride in your post today. In many ways, it retained some of that BCon energy — fascinating, scattered, unexpected (nausea? really? yuck), international and just plain fun.

  3. Jonathan Hayes

    Sarah W! I can't BELIEVE you didn't say Hi! I'm not sure that I'll make it to Cleveland, as I won't have a book to whore, so… Albany?

    Pari: Nausea, yes.

    Alafair: I can't believe I'm the first to utter the word "Debauchercon".

  4. judy wirzberger

    Ah! My heart has been stabbed. You slammed the cuisine of my native land. Well, I admit that the food is not as good since the elimination of Crisco. Things fried not swimming in a melting pot of liquid lard do unfortunately become somewhat bland. The problem with the restaurant vegetables, of course, is that they most probably used fresh ones. Big mistake. Huge mistake. Nothing is mashier than peas rolled out of a can or crunchier than battered fried onion rings that have aged in a container. True, vegetables are not quite as flavorful since we had to give up the beloved tin can of the midwest. But certainly you delighted in the mashed potatoes with whole milk and genuine oleo-margarine? And excellent gravies (not sauces) whose first line of the recipe is First, burn the roast.

    My favorite meal pork roast with browned potatoes and sliced carrots and halved onions swimming in KitchenBoquet gravy. Served with sliced white bread and iceberg lettuce salad. Sorry you missed it. Course you smelled so bad no one would invite you to their home.

    Yours for Mississippi catfish. Judy

  5. JT Ellison

    This year's Bouchercon was especially good – a really nice mix of people. I loved meeting you, Jonathan. You continue to be one of the most interesting people I've ever known – and that is meant as a most sincere compliment.

  6. Lisa Alber

    Love your ode-to-penis perfume description. Hah!

    I went to BCon by the Bay last year, but couldn't go to St. Louis this year for which I was sad-faced :-(. Thank you for pointing out the clique factor — that was funny — I thought I was the only one who noted that last year…Not that it inhibited my fun at all. Though I didn't have anything to say for myself at the time (except that I'm working hard at my fiction), I met some wonderfully nice, successful novelist types who didn't seem to mind talking for me, for a bit, so that was nice. (Murderati Stephen for one!)

    Debouchercon, it is! Hope to go next year (with something to say for myself!). Thanks, Lisa

  7. Cornelia Read

    Oh, what a wonderful post! You make me weep for having missed this Bcon, and with your descriptions of the food at Niche…

    But as to "The honest truth is that no good can ever come of leaving the earthly Eden that is the island of Manhattan…." I used to feel that way, but I'm rather liking Brooklyn.

  8. Rae

    Debauchercon = awesome.

    Loved your forensics panel, it was the first I'd attended in quite awhile (no time last year) and it reminded me how good panels can be (all hail Judy Bobalik).

    No specific reminiscences to share, just enjoying a warm glow from some great conversations with lovely people. It reallly was fabulous this year.

    P.S. Sidney Street Cafe was brilliant.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    The only downside I know to BCon, except of course for having to leave, is that it divides itself in circles. And I don't mean cliques, which I don't really find – it may look like cliques but most every group is pretty porous. I mean circles in the sense that you see the exact same people over and over every day of the conference, and there can be people there you never once cross paths with.

    Which this year was you, Jonathan – I only saw you once when I dropped in to the music panel and didn't even catch a whiff – I mean glimpse – of you the whole rest of the time. 🙁

    I agree about the food. I'm so not a foodie and even I was complaining. Will steer away from the perfume.

  10. Denise Hamilton

    Hi Jonathan, I enjoyed your post, the foodie and perfume guide to Bouchercon. I guess Magnificent Secretions wasn't, and well, I can't say I didn't warn you! I'm glad you like Andy Tauer, I think he's genius. I'd happily sniff with you anytime, and hope to see you down the road, but next time let's also chat about crime fiction. I'm curious, since you're big into the 5th sense (smell), if you use perfume, or describe the way things smell, smell, in your own novels? The heroine of my latest novel, Damage Control, is a budding perfumista. Ta for now, Denise

  11. Jonathan Hayes

    Alex makes a good point about repeating the same people and not seeing some people at all – JT rushed off to find you, Alex, but it was not to be. Next time.

    You're right – "cliques" is an overstatement, certainly. And with my lava lamp analogy, I meant to imply some degree of porosity. But I do feel there is a real social stratification, and some "circles" are less porous than others. Still, few assholes (I base that not on any statistically valid survey, but on the fact that I didn't meet any).

    Denise, absolutely, next time we shall huff away. I do use scent in my books; my hero, Jenner, started collecting and smelling essential oils as recommended by his therapist after 9/11. Indeed, in PRECIOUS BLOOD, there's a scene where he works on a tincture of saffron. And I try to be conscious of scent, of all senses when I write; I know what things smell like, and I want to share them with the reader.


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