No matter what else happened, for at least one Crescent Blues reporter, Bouchercon 2001 will always be remembered as the con where the giant cockroach dropped out of the sky.
It started out normal enough. Since the organizers of the 32nd World Mystery Convention chose to stage this year's Bouchercon at a Hyatt -- at the Hyatt Crystal City, Va., to be specific -- Elevator Hell went into effect as soon as registration opened Oct. 31. The phenomenon continued for the duration.
Guests such as Laurell K. Hamilton and Lee Killough who frequent Dragoncon must have wondered if someone rerouted their planes from Virginia to Atlanta without telling them. Fortunately, event organizers resolved the confusion in the most efficient manner possible -- by scheduling the "Homage to Vlad the Impaler" vampire detective panel for 8:30 a.m. Nov. 2.
Reliable pre-con reports indicated that vampire detective panelist and Arkansas resident Charlaine Harris could and frequently does emit complete sentences at 8:30 a.m. However, sharp questioning of Harris after the fact failed to establish that any of her vamp-loving colleagues took a bite out of their unnatural time slot. Instead, Harris sniffled to "Bad Girl" mystery writer Elaine Viets that none of her friends attended her panel. Since Harris numbers at least two of her fellow vampire detective panelists among her friends, this was not a good sign.
Bouchercon 2001 American Guest of Honor Sue Grafton, author of the bestselling alphabet-titled mysteries featuring Kinsey Millhone, presented a more encouraging picture. Grafton applied the wit that infuses her mysteries to engaging the crowd both on and off the stage. But overall, the program struck many D.C.-area mystery lovers as a weird combination of Malice Domestic retreads and standard Bouchercon how-to.
Like World Fantasy Con and World Science Fiction Con, Bouchercon promotes itself as a "professional" convention. Theoretically, aspiring authors can ask professional writers tough questions about the business, put the information squeeze on toxicologists and law enforcement agents, buttonhole editors and agents in the bar (or considering the location, fall in love, marry and bear their children in the elevators) and pitch their way to bestsellerdom.
But when hard-hitting award-winners Val McDermid and Dana Stabenow sit on a panel with the puff-ball title of "Kiss me, Kate: why are crime-solving Kates so appealing?" you start to wonder what the organizers meant by "con." Couldn't someone devise a better way to showcase the talent of McDermid, Stabenow and Laurie R. King than by lumping them together based on the first name of their sleuths?
Fortunately, a few panels also soared. Programming Chair Carole Anne Nelson confessed some nervousness about the premise of her Nov. 2 panel, "Keeping in character: do characters take on a life of their own?" Nelson convinced panelists Peter Guttridge, Marianne Macdonald, Sujata Massey, Tamar Myers and Daniel Stashower to show up in the costume and character of their respective sleuths: woebegone reporter Nick Madrid, bookshop owner Dido Hoare, Tokyo heroine Rei Shimura, prim Pennsylvania Dutch innkeeper Magdalena Yoder and Houdini.
"I didn't know what to expect," Nelson said. "But within 10 or 15 minutes they were reacting back and forth and really playing off their characters."
Of course, it helped that the panel featured two of the most committed muggers in the mystery community. A half-hour before the panel, Myers appeared in the Green Room like a specter from American Gothic. Completely in character, Myers interrupted a Crescent Blues interview with Nancy Bartholomew (whose mysteries feature exotic dancer Sierra Lavotini) to offer a special deal at Magdalena Yoder's inn. "You can wash your own dishes and make your own bed, and for a little extra, you can even milk the cow," Myers/Magdalena crooned. "Of course, I won't allow any smoking or drinking. And there will be none of that horizontal mambo."
"No problem," the interviewer said. "We can do it vertically."
"How can she screw up her face like that?" Bartholomew asked. "It doesn't even look like Tamar anymore."
Stashower, proud possessor of the Malice Domestic 2001 Pink Boa, needed to be coaxed into his Houdini straightjacket. But as soon as his fellow panelists buckled his final restraint and led him to the dais, Stashower began leading audience in the chant: "The Great Houdini -- the most celebrated sensation of this or any other century!" Stashower repeated his mantra so often that the audience memorized it, consoling him with it when repeated struggles against the straightjacket failed to produce any results.
Eventually, someone asked "The Great Houdini" why he couldn't perform his signature stunt. "I'm building suspense," Stashower said. As in fiction, the technique worked. When Stashower broke free in the last possible instant, the audience cheered, "The Great Houdini -- the most celebrated sensation of this or any other century!" And they meant it.
Fans and guests found less to cheer about in the greater than usual number of last minute cancellations. Particularly vulnerable were single-expert seminars like Luci Zahray's "A Strange Brew: Potions A to Z" and Art Scott's homage to mystery artist Robert McGinnis. But even the panels experienced an unusually high level of no-shows. Writers doubled up as moderators and worried about balancing their own need for self-promotion with the desire to showcase their colleagues.
Predictably, verifiable attendance figures proved hard to obtain. The folks staffing the information booths claimed that attendance topped 1,700 and never dipped below 1,500. In contrast, in the six weeks prior to Bouchercon 2001, ticketholders panicked by the events of Sept. 11 deluged major mystery bulletin boards and email lists with offers to sell their memberships. Many ticketholders wailed against con organizers who, according to the aggrieved ticketholders, threatened to demand "proper personal identification" for each and every registrant. (These threats did not materialize. D. Bondurant and Associates, the firm which provides administrative support for Malice Domestic, conducted registration with their usual unobtrusive efficiency.)
Except for the absent speakers, the true extent of the cancellations may never be known. However, the anecdotal evidence suggests that Bouchercon 2001 suffered from a more severe case of the millennial malaise than afflicted Malice Domestic, Dragoncon and Worldcon. Multi-awardwinning authors such as Jan Burke left immediately after they finished their panels on Friday, Nov. 2. Willetta Heising, author of awardwinning non-fiction titles and founder of the evergreen "Bad Girls of Mystery" panel, expected her Sunday morning panel to be talking to themselves.
The problem extended to the red, white and blue bunting-draped Dealers Room. Canadian bookseller Al Navis, president of Almark & Co., usually makes a killing at Malice Domestic and other mystery conventions offering hard-to-find Canadian and European titles at reasonable prices. At Bouchercon 2001, Navis's prime location next to a Mail Boxes, Etc., shipping station displayed only his computer and a sign advising customers that U.S. Customs halted his books at the border. In justification, Customs officials cited a seldom-enforced law that prohibits foreign booksellers from taking and filling orders on the same business trip. "I am taking orders," the sign read. "In order to prevent me from losing more than my shirt, please, be generous."
Anyone who lost his or her shirt at Bouchercon 2001 risked more than financial hardship. You never knew what might attach itself to your skin. Just ask Nancy Bartholomew.
As often happens in woman-to-woman interviews, the post-interview wrap occurred in the ladies restroom. "Oh my God!" Bartholomew exclaimed in the middle of an otherwise ordinary conversation. "Did you see what just fell from the ceiling?"
Since the reporter stood facing Bartholomew, with her back to the scene of the action, she replied in the negative.
"It's a giant cockroach!"
Bartholomew wasn't exaggerating. The huge insect, easily three and one-half inches long, looked like a refugee from the prehistoric displays at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum. Since the monster roach also looked very groggy, the reporter volunteered to kill it.
"Eeeew no," Bartholomew said. "You know what roach insides look like. They look like squiggly scrambled eggs. I couldn't eat scrambled eggs for years after the last time I killed a roach."
"Well, then it's a good thing I'm eating somewhere else tonight," the reporter said.
"It's a good thing I'm driving home tonight," Bartholomew agreed. Interviewer and interviewee booked, leaving the roach to recover as best it could.
You can't help but wonder if it signified that Bartholomew and her interviewer were talking about Philadelphia at the time.
Jean Marie Ward