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Attending a Crime-Writing Convention: "New York State of Crime"

Last year’s crime-fiction convention was held in Cleveland, Ohio. This year’s convention was hosted in Albany, New York, which is fitting: compared with the rest of the US, the crime rate here is more than double.

by Shane Jones
Oct 31 2013, 6:20pm

Crime fiction on display at Boucheron 2013. All photos by Erin Pihlaja

I was permitted a press pass to attend the crime writing convention under two conditions: one, that I wouldn’t take up a seat in a crowded room, and two, that I wouldn’t eat the treats.

Last year’s convention was held in Cleveland, Ohio. This year’s convention was hosted roughly two miles from my apartment in Albany, New York. Having Bouchercon (named for crime-fiction writer Anthony Boucher, who co-founded the Mystery Writers of America) in Albany is fitting: this town has one of the highest crime rates in America. (Fittingly, this year's theme was "A New York State of Crime.") At the same intersection near my apartment I’ve seen a robbery at the CVS, a hit-and-run accident, and a movie theater’s windows get shattered. Corrupt Albany politics is perennial front page news—in the past seven years 32 state politicians have been indicted or convicted of a crime. Our most well-known author, William Kennedy, who still resides here, has been writing an ongoing series of high-brow crime novels, aptly called the Albany Cycle, for nearly 30 years. The Empire Plaza hotel, which Bouchercon called home for three days, is frequently cited as one of the biggest architectural crimes in the country due to its aesthetically displeasing design of detached gray buildings. There are few places to sit and the entire place feels extremely alienating. It also cost more than a billion dollars and displaced 9,000 people when low income neighborhoods were demolished.

On the day of the conference, the weather was sunny and perfect, the type of LA weather Albany experiences twice a year. Walking into the Empire Plaza, everything dimmed and became mall weather. “Everyone is alone, no one is with anyone else,” I said to Erin, my photographer, as we approached the registration table. A panel had recently ended and dozens of people were spilling out from a small side room. 

The convention center inside the plaza is a massive, intimidating room. Toward the back wall two dozen authors sat at blue-skirted tables signing books. Framing the room, on the highest level, vendors with backdrops of oddly hung books slung crime fiction. We were told by the woman at registration (I believe her name badge said “B. G. Ritts”) to buy from “Mystery Mike.” On the lower floor, people sat at white banquet tables eating McDonald's and drinking soda. (Was shitty McDonald’s the "treats" I had been warned not to eat?)

The initial vibe was relaxed but depressing, like that of a farmer’s market at peak “I’m hungover” time on a Sunday, when everyone is there just to be not at home, but not sure exactly why, or if, they want to be. Authors who had no lines at their signing tables stared blankly ahead. About 50 people walked slowly around, glancing at book covers and faces. Most seemed comfortable and strolled at a leisurely living-room pace. The lights were alien bright. Combined with the four alternating levels and carpeting it felt a little like being in a flipped Aztec temple, done up by an interior decorator from the 80s.

A stranger standing next to me who resembled Steve Buscemi asked if I wanted anything. “What?” I said. “You need one of these?” he said, and pulled books with blue bookmarkers from a gray canvas bag. I said I didn’t think so. As he explained what the books were (some kind of crime fiction map books, I think) he pointed out Harlan Coben, one of only three crime fiction writers I recognized on the list of authors. Harlan was a big guy—bald, extremely friendly, and wearing Chucks with no laces. He’s won lots of awards and is highly respected in the crime fiction community. He’s a New York Times bestseller and currently on your grandparent’s bookshelf.

“Hey, no laces,” I said after introducing myself and asking how he was doing. “Oh, these, yeah, they are just really comfortable,” he replied. I immediately felt stupid for asking about the laces. Steve Hamilton, also a New York Times bestseller, glanced at my name tag. I asked Harlan if he liked Albany and he said he hadn’t seen much of the city itself. When you're at an event held at the Empire Plaza, you feel trapped, totally cut off from the city itself. Exiting the plaza you are immediately hit in the face by marble-coated office buildings and wide open wind-swept spaces. When I asked Harlan about his plans he said he was looking forward to cocktail hour that night.

After a full lap around the room, Erin and I found ourselves talking to two volunteers working the event. I mentioned that Harlan Coben was looking forward to getting drunk and one said many of the roughly 1,500 Bouchercon attendees come to drink.

As the room cleared out for dinner, we noticed an empty table with a bottle of wine and Jack Daniels directly next to Mystery Mike, who seemed to constantly have a steady line of people. Mystery Mike is a regular at Bouchercon known for his rare books and via his website has already publically announced he will be at Bouchercon 2014 in Long Beach, California (theme: "Murder at the Beach"). Erin and I began doing shots and an author named Sheila York, sitting alone at the end of the table seemingly doing nothing but staring up at the lights, said to go right ahead, drink up. I invited her for a drink. She combed her hair while looking into a small pocket mirror. She smoothed her blouse and posed for a picture. We cheered to crime fiction. Sheila, who serves as treasurer for the New York State chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, said something about her forthcoming third novel, Death in Her Face, and handed me a flyer with the book’s cover.

Bouchercon, like any event that brings together introverts who share a fringe passion, is a strangely touching place. Besides being an event to buy and sell books, it’s a place for people with a common interest to gather and feel less alone. The people I spoke with were genuine and heartfelt, if maybe a little out of it. A woman said she had sold “a lot” of books.

More on fiction:

Windows That Lead to More Windows: An Interview with Gary Lutz

What Your Favorite Writers Put in Their Mouths

Marie Calloway on Her New Novel and Being Called "Jailbait"