Dirty girls and bad guys

Cat detectives? Sleuthing undertakers? Jim Driver was amazed at what he found at the world's biggest crime convention

It would make a great Robert Altman movie: 1,734 mystery fans, authors and associated hangers-on descend on the Las Vegas Strip for a long weekend. Bouchercon is the world's largest annual mystery convention. Held in a different (usually North American) city every year since 1970, it honours the author and critic Anthony Boucher, whose career spanned six novels, a handful of short stories and a weekly review column in The New York Times. Boucher's real name was Bill White and his claim to fame might only have been the line, "As the ostrich observed, 'Where is everybody?'", had it not been for Bouchercon.

At 9am on 16 October 2003, Bouchercon 34 erupted at the Riviera Casino and Hotel complex at the northern - low rent - end of Las Vegas's notorious Strip. The size of three or four major British shopping centres bolted together, the Riviera is what's known as an "old style" Vegas resort, a charmless and ungainly building. Like its neighbours, the Riviera's main casino is open 24-7 and smells of 99¢ hotdogs, cheap cologne and mass disillusionment. For, me red-eyed, jetlagged and newly arrived from Heathrow, it was all a little too Las Vegas a little too soon. America's Playground, as the local Tourist and Convention Bureau has it, was fast turning into a Brit's nightmare. By the time I checked into my room I'd greased $55 worth of palms and I wasn't even trying. I made it to the Riviera at 9.30pm (local time), 19 hours after leaving home, and searched in vain for the "dedicated" bar.

"Where is Bouchercon being held?" I asked the uniformed guy at the Information Desk. "No idea, sir," he replied, turning to the next enquirer. This antithesis to the usual semi-fawning American service took a while to get used to. Author Peter Lovesey told me he rang down to hotel reception to enquire if they could recommend a dentist. "There's a Yellow Pages in your drawer, sir. Please use it." Click.

Soon everybody had similar stories to tell. Paul Charles, a Londoner by way of Northern Ireland, put it down precisely to their being open 24-7. Los Angelino Gary Phillips, easily recognisable thanks to his giant frame and garish gambling shirts, disagreed: "Hell, man, no one does anything around here unless you tip them." In a country bereft of betting shops, casinos and slot machines, Vegas is the USA's Blackpool, Soho and William Hill rolled into one. Mark Billingham and John Connolly, both up for the Best British Novel award despite Connolly being a Dubliner and as Irish as shamrock, stumbled across a barn of a bar offering "Mud Wrestling: Dirty Girls, Cold Beer", with "Bikini Bull Riding" at weekends. The upmarket Venetian recreates the Grand Canal indoors under a mock projected sky. "Gondoliers" dressed in stripy vests sing cod-opera and waiters ask if you want to dine alfresco. If you laugh, you're the one considered barmy.

The Official Bouchercon bar turned out to be a small former clothing store unit in a side corridor at the Riviera. Overpriced drinks were dispensed from a trolley draped with black velvet, with a waitress added from the second night when the cash-cow of selling booze to authors was appreciated. Americans, especially New Yorkers and Los Angelinos, were delighted at being able to drink and smoke in the same space, while non-smoking Brits wished for a smoke-extractor.

Although he lost his voice on day two, Ian Rankin was Bouchercon International Guest of Honor, with James Lee Burke his American counterpart. Ruth Rendell meanwhile was listed as "Body of Work", which a couple of attendees thought rather indelicate. As each Bouchercon is organised by volunteer enthusiasts, and American volunteer enthusiasts at that, there are Fan Guests of Honor - Ann and Jeff Smith of Baltimore, who get a four-page appraisal in the programme - a Toastmaster (Lee Child) and speeches, speeches, speeches. One fundamental difference between Americans and Europeans seems to be the former's willingness to spout off in public. In the USA you risk injury trying to stop people from grabbing the nearest mike.

Aside from bar schmoozing, the main Bouchercon occupation over its three and a half days were "panels". From 9am to 5pm, there'd be six competing one-hour events. The format, tried and repeated at fan conventions all over North America, is for five or six authors/"experts" to talk around a given topic for 45 minutes (each of them managing to plug their own book at least a dozen times) before members of the audience are let loose, asking questions on topics that have usually been exhaustively covered, but giving the panellists one last opportunity for a blatant self-commercial. After a 45-minute LAPD dog demonstration in which two slavering beasts showed how to rip the stuffing out of a "bad guy", one questioner asked: "Do you take your dogs on family outings?"

Panel topics included "Five of a Kind: PI-dom's Women" (female private investigators in fiction), "Care and Feedin' o' a Series" (the difficulties of writing a second novel with a series character), and "Journalists Who Write: Practitioners Make Perfect". For American authors, self-promotion is an industry within the industry and it is not unusual to be handed a postcard with "How to Write A Book" on one side and a full-colour advertisement for a book on the other. California's Joyce Krieg writes a series of "Talk Radio Mysteries" that are published by one of America's biggest publishers, but she's not alone in producing regular fan newsletters. As one writer confessed: "If I don't tell you about my book, who will?"

The highlight at 9am on the first morning was a panel featuring myself and four others discussing the highs and lows of independent publishing. I am editorial director of The Do-Not Press, an independent publisher in downtown Lewisham that specialises in cutting-edge crime fiction; I was joined by two self-published authors (one a former CIA operative), and a woman who set up a publishing house with her mother. The audience of 60 or so consisted largely of hopeful authors clutching well-thumbed manuscripts.

Very few Bouchercon "members", as we were called, would admit to being mere readers or even fans. The organisers reckon that of the 1,734 people attending, 475 were published authors, 47 were publishers, 73 editors, 141 booksellers, 68 reviewers and 26 were literary agents, and there's plenty of crossover. Jim Huang from Kalamazoo, for example, is an author and critic who runs a bookstore and publishes reference works. A good proportion of the other attendees like to be known, tautologically you'd have thought, as "pre-published authors".

With upwards of 500 pre-published authors tearing around, you might assume that a publisher - even an "indie" from London SE13 - would find himself pursued 24 hours a day by hopefuls intent on pursuing their right, as defined under the Constitution, of getting into print. But most would-be American authors really don't care if they sell a million copies in Europe. They'd much rather shift five copies in Kalamazoo and make the local paper. British publishers at Bouchercon are treated much like Klingon actors at a Star Trek convention.

Packed into every Bouchercon attendee's large red goodie bag came a roll of quarters, a name-tag and a dozen free books, including eight no sane person should ever consider buying. Top of that list was "Cat in a Midnight" by Carole Nelson Douglas. To quote its cover blurb: "Feline PI Midnight Louie prowls the alleys of Las Vegas, solving crimes and romancing runaways like a furry Sam Spade." Yes, Midnight Louie is a cat.

The contents of the 30 or so dealer's tables in the Book Room showed that Midnight Louie isn't alone as an unusual - or even as a cat - mystery protagonist. Lillian Jackson Braun has written her cat series for over 20 years and there are maybe a dozen more examples of this peculiar genre, ranging in style and content from the twee to the merely excruciating. Dog detectives exist by the score and in America every occupation and pastime has its sleuths: from undertakers and cooks to sewing-circle members and bed-and-breakfast owners.

The truth is that the people who write and read these books are the beating heart and soul of Bouchercon. Although Bouchercon has twice been held in Britain - London in 1990 and Nottingham in 1995 - it is a phenomenon best suited to North America. Anyway, the near future is already mapped out: Toronto, 2004; Chicago, 2005; Madison, 2006; and, Anchorage, 2007.

Websites are surprisingly underused by Bouchercon committees, but anyone hankering after attending one of these should be able to find links at www.bconvegas2003.org.

PS: Despite being set in Maine and written by an Irishman living in Dublin, John Connolly's The White Road won the 2003 Barry Award for Best British Novel. And no one was the least bit surprised.

Jim Driver is editor-in-chief and publisher of The Do-Not Press (www.thedonotpress.com) and has been writing his debut crime novel for approximately 13 years. He hopes to finish it with the aid of postcards received at Bouchercon 34.

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