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Thursday 2 May 2019

A Whale of a Crime

 Left Coast Crime
Report and Photos by Marsali Taylor

This year’s Left Coast Crime, in Vancouver, from 28th – 31st March, was named ‘A Whale of a Crime’ and readers and authors agreed that between a variety of activities and a starry line-up of speakers, they’d all had a whale of a time.

The convention was held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Vancouver, a very comfortable venue with a good variety of room sizes to fit the different activities, a spacious lobby and hospitality room for people to mingle, and excellent catering. Facilities included an open air pool and hot tub.

The first crime-related excursion was to Vancouver Police Museum. The trip was led by its director of the, Rosslyn Shipp, and began with a drive through Vancouver to Stanley Park. Shipp gave us a general history of Vancouver, including how it got its first policeman (needed for bar fights) and jail (one cell, with no lock, so when you sobered up you just walked out). Once we were at the park, the murders began. The first was how ‘Dead Men’s Island’ got its name: First Nation Squamish women and children were captured by a rival tribe, and the Squamish men offered themselves as an exchange, and were slaughtered instead. Naturally the Naval Base house on the island is horribly haunted ...

Shipp then moved on to a still-unsolved cold case from the late 1940s: the Babes in the Wood.  In 1953 a park keeper came across the skeletal remains of two young individuals. A police search also found a faux-fur coat, pieces of a hatchet, and two leather caps. A sketch recreation and plaster casts recreated from the skulls of two children, a boy and a girl, were posted everywhere, along with a picture of similar clothes to those found – with no result. The case was revisited in 1998, when the province’s Unsolved Homicides Unit was opened. A dentist managed to extract DNA from the skulls, and found they were two boys, from the same mother but with different fathers. The current theory is that they died around 1947, just after the end of WWII, and were murdered by their mother, who covered them with her fur coat.

A more bizarre case was one of flamingo-cide – on January 30th 1992, all the flamingoes in Stanley Park Zoo were smothered. A reward was offered, and a tip suggested one Langdon Leverage, who was arrested. An undercover cop posing as a drunk shared a cell with him, and by pretending to be a bird hater, persuaded him to confess to the crime.

A girl called Susan had also been murdered in the park, by two men, her lover and his brother. She was killed by them dropping stones on her body. She was found a year later, and thought to be about sixteen, but nobody clamimed her, until a woman phoned  - on the day of her funeral, 2nd May, 1973. The woman said she thought it might be a girl who’d run away from a reformatory. Meanwhile, an informer had passed the word that one Matt Crow had been boasting that he’d killed the girl in the news, along with his brother Guy. An officer went undercovef again and got Matt talking. The two were then arrested and interviewed separately, with cops playing them off against each other. They each claimed the other did it, but both were convicted.

We then drove on to the Vancouver Police Museum, which is in the former Coroner’s Court, with the autopsy labs above, and the forensics labs below. The police station used to be next door, so the whole justice system was in one place. Here, Roz told us of several cases considered in this court, including that of Esther Castellani, who died in Vancouver Hospital in 1955 of an illness the doctor found suspicious. Symptoms included vomiting, a sore throat and numb hands and feet – symptoms which had all we crime writers nodding knowledgeably. The doctor took samples of her hair and nails and had them analysed. Meanwhile, Esther’s husband, Rene, was giving cause for talk, looking at buying a house with his secretary, Lolly, before Esther’s death, and going for a Disneyland trip with her and immediately after her funeral. Coroner Glen Macdonald tried to have a case brought but the Crown office felt he didn’t have enough evidence for the required 98% likelihood of a conviction. Macdonald had Ester exhumed, arsenic was found, and the coroner’s inquest jury found unnatural death, which meant Rene was tried and convicted. He was scheduled for the death penalty, but it was abolished before he was killed, and he was eventually released after 12 years, still maintaining his innocence. He moved away from Vancouver and went back to working in radio, eventually starting his own station. 

Upstairs, in the morgue, there were displays on several of the cases she’d talked about, including the plaster cast faces of the ‘babes’ and their tiny leather hats. Next door were the metal tables and sinks of the autopsy room, along with a wall decorated with gruesome preserved items – sections of brain after smothering, gunshot wounds or stabbing, diseased pieces of liver, and illegally aborted foetuses.

After that we went down to the basement, which isn’t at present open to the public, but which is still virtually as it was left when the forensic scientists who worked there were moved to new premises in the 1990s. Elizabeth, the curator, showed us some of the kit they’d left behind, and told us about the work of the city’s first forensic scientist, John Vance.

The conference began on Thursday with “Author Speed Dating”, organised by Les and Leslie Blatt,  This was a wonderful event which gave 40 authors a chance to meet 140 potential readers. Authors were paired up – my pair was Mike Befeler – and we were each given two minutes to pitch our books to each table.  While one talked, the other distributed their bookmarks. My presentation included dialect word coasters, scenic postcards and a map of ‘Cass’s Shetland Islands’, which I’d had great fun making beforehand, with cut out pictures and labels of places featuring in the novels. 
 Panels lasted 45 minutes, and there was a half-hour break between them.

The first panel I attended was ‘Law Enforcement Professionals’,
moderated by Mar Preston.
Her professionals were former police officer Robin Burcell, undercover officer
R T Lawson
,  retired police captain T K Thorne, and prison officer and psychiatrist James L’Etoile.

Ms Preston opened by asking how having been a crime officer had affected their writing. Thorne hadn’t meant to write crime at first – ‘That was boring, like going to work!’ but found that as she was patrolling she was writing stories in her head. Burcell found herself weaving stories about every call-out – the backstory to the incident – and by the time she got back to the car she had a novel synopsis. L’Etoile had worked for 29 years in the Californian prison system, and found that in compiling reports on his patients, he was putting together a crime story. Thorne had spent time undercover working with motorcycle gangs, and used that to write. He wasn’t supposed to earn money from a second job, but he did articles for biker magazines as part of his cover, and got paid under his cover name. ‘The Government never knew, so they’d evidently trained us well!’

Did the authors feel that crime novels were getting more grisly? Everyone nodded: ‘We’re trying to outgross ourselves!’ Burcell, who’s now co-writing with Clive Cussler (appreciative ‘ooh!’ from the audience), said he’s very clean, but in her own books story is everything.

Where did their inspiration come from? Thorne had been brushing her teeth when she heard three words in her head: ‘You’re a hero!’ and saw a picture of a cop’s worst nightmare – standing over the body of someone you’ve just shot in the back. ‘Usually rum and coke!’ Lawson quipped (“Write drunk, edit sober,’ Burcell added), but added, more seriously, that his ideas came from deals and scams he’d seen on the streets. ‘My protagonists are good criminals who prey on bad criminals.’  L’Etoiles stories come from his experience – for example a stabbing case, where the hospital was going to harvest the dead criminal’s organs. He felt revulsion, but then a fellow professional had a child needing an organ donation, and that made him ask, ‘If I was that desperate, would I care who they’d come from?’

Are the authors still passionate about writing?
Thorne: ‘Oh gosh, yes!’ L’Etoile: ‘After the first draft the flame goes out, then revives as you keep working.’ Burcell said that Clive Cussler paid better than her own books,. When she started, like all of us, she dreamed of hitting the top league, but then she saw an advert for a co-writer for James Pattinson, and thought, ‘I could do that.’ She’s a very different style of writer from Cussler, but finds they work well together – every so often she has to pick him up on police procedure: ‘You just can’t do that!’ Lawson admitted having been talking into a non-fiction book, again under his undercover alias. L’Etoile took his hat off to historical fiction writers – ‘So hard to do!’ but is working on a paranormal thriller; Burcell also has an idea for a paranormal cop story. She found her writing therapeutic; ‘As a cop, you mustn’t unload your bad day on the family. Writing could make things that had gone wrong have a happy ending – and you could kill off the boss!’ Lawson is working on opium warlords – what makes them tick.

Had the authors meant to be cops? Burcell was an accidental cop who’d wanted to be a writer; Thorne had wanted to be an astronaut.  L’Etoile had meant to go down the law enforcement path – his father had been a sergeant on Death Row. ‘Prisons are depressing’ Lawson said. ‘They make me nervous – you walk down the corridor with these tough guys behind you, and then you go through the kitchen, with guys you put in there working with knives ...’

Did they miss the cop world? Yes, they all agreed, they missed the cameraderie, knowing that other officers would always be there for you – but, L’Etoile added, ‘the political side was miserable.’ Retiring meant they had to get to re-know their loved ones – ‘and there’s so much you have to keep from them as a working cop,’ Lawson said. ‘I tell a story at a party now, and my wife goes, ‘I’ve never heard that one.’ L’Etoile nodded. ‘My wife too.’

What pieces of their cop identity did they still have? ‘Clothes,’ Burcell said. ‘At last I’m losing some of those sensible jackets. And watching people in the street, watchin their hands, not their faces. My children say, ‘Don’t look at that person!’” ‘Whistles,’ L’Etoile said. ‘That’s the danger signal in a prison. If I hear a whistle my blood pressure pops.’ Lawson: ‘When you retire you lose your identity... you have to reinvent yourself. One thing I’ll never lose is wanting my back to the wall.’ (General agreement). ‘Try going into a bar with six other cops – there aren’t enough walls!’ ‘Try being married to one!’ Thorne added. ‘The other thing is that in an emergency you still take it for granted that you’re there to help.’

Advice for a writer to get law enforcement characters right? Burcell: ‘Read our books!’ Lawson recommended asking for the Public Information Officer at their local station. Thorne said that many stations do a ridealong programme, which gives a chance to absorb the atmosphere and language. Burcell also recommended the Writers’ Detective Agency, online, and the Writers’ Police Academy, which is expensive, but which gives you hands-on experience of stuff like driving a police car, and shooting. It takes place in a real Police Acadeny, ‘and it’s fun too!’

The Medicine and Science panel
was moderated by Lisa Preston, with participants D. P. Lyle, Alec Peche, Madona Skaff and Ingrid Thoft.

How do you research, and what curls your toes? For Lyle, the biggest toe-curler was the one-punch knockout which left the hero ‘out’ for hours, only to be revived by a bucket of water sloshed over him. ‘You’d be out only for seconds.’ Poisons act either swiftly or you die slowly later – there’s no poison with a delay button! Heart attacks do have specific indicators which can be found at autopsy. Thoft liked looking at the moral/ethical dimension, but did research meticulously. Peche picked up on federal laws being violated, and information shared inappropriately. Skaff homed in on ‘lab  stuff’ like scientific instruments doing miracle stuff they’re just not capable of. Lyle commented on the use of robotics in some books he’d read, where operations could be done by remote control – ‘It’s coming, but not yet.’

Asked about bending the truth, Peche said that she works hard to get it right. She once got a fan letter telling her the island in her books didn’t exist – so now she includes the coordinates! Skaff said she’d bend the truth for dramatic purposes, but she didn’t bend science – ‘It hurts me.’ Thoft said it depended – police work can often be boring, but you’ll lost the reader if it’s obviously wrong.’

On books centring on issues, Skaff said she had MS herself, and thought, ‘Well, why not a disabled sleuth?’ She still had to research it. Thoft liked an issue to engage the reader, get them to take sides, it meant you had readers coming from different points of view. Peche liked something difficult to diagnose, from a medical point of view, but Lyle preferred to focus on people  - he commented on Michael Jackson, and what on earth was his doctor thinking!

Asked about untapped areas, Lyle said that new research had proved that although twins were born with identical DNA, with closer testing (SNIPS) they were found to diverge as they grew older – and yes, anyone’s DNA changes as they age. You could still tell they were identical twins. Thoft commented on how something is seen as progress, then a flaw’s found – a seedy underbelly, like to the ancestry DNA testing. Peche said she was amazed how there were science variations across countries – eg in diagnosing murders. Skaff was dubious about self-driving cars – anything with a chip can get hacked. Thoft had looked at “identity” research and designer babies – this was unregulated in the US – but she had to understand it herself, then put it across: ‘If I don’t get it, nor will they.’ Lyle recokned that research was fine, but it was vital to check your research, and better still if you could get an expert to check it for you. He commented on the effect of science on characters – eg Jurassic Park – but felt the science needed to be background. Thoft felt the ethics and discussions of quality of life lagged behind the science.  Asked about a ‘violence’ gene, Lyle was dismissive. ‘It’s back to the phrenology of Victorian days – the only real way to tell if someone’s crazy is if they act crazy!’

Religion and Mysteries:
this panel consisted of Laurie R King, Ilene Schneider, Kenneth Wishnia and Suzanne M Wolfe, chaired by Steve Steinbock. The authors gave an interesting discussion on their own connection with religion, why they brought it into their books, how writing formed their own opinions and research / plot balance in their books.

The discussion began with each author explaining their connection with religion. Wolfe had written The Confessions of X (St Augustine’s concubine) and an Elizabethan crime nover set in the 1580s, a time of great religious turmoil. Her sleuth, Nicholas Holt, was a recusant Catholic in the times when that was a political act – Catholic equalled potential traitor. Schneider’s lead character was a rabbi who worked in a synagogue. People complained that she wasn’t religious enough: too nosy, too snarky, irreverent – “That’s normal Jewish!’ Wishnia quipped – but has to do Jewish things. Wishnia’s main character is Catholic – ‘She creates all sort of mayhem but still goes to Mass on Sundays.’ King felt that genre fiction can look at all sorts of traits, including religion, whether the person is religious or not. She was an academic Jew, but there were also a number of Christian figures in her books, eg the ‘Holy Fool’ Brother Erasmus. Religion was part of people’s lives.

What motivated the panellists to bring religion into their books? King studied it at University – she has a degree in the Old Testament and the Church Divinity School gave her an honorary doctorate. Wishnia said his parents were Marxist Abrahamaic Jews, but he had a Christian girlfriend, and when he read the New Testament he said, ‘I know all this – might as well be Christian!’ Schneider said you’re supposed to write what you know ... she wanted to work in a Jewish community. Wolfe grew up Catholic, in the days when that was a caste status in the North of England – Catholics were seen as lower class. The reason was that great numbers of them came over to Liverpool during the Great Famine, starving, and Manchester needed navvies to dig the canal. However Catholicism was also a northern tradition – it was harder for Henry VIII to enforce his laws there . She also commented that ‘cult’ is the basis of the word ‘culture’ – there are worse things to believe in than God. She tried to create fully real characters -human beings long for faith in something, and it’s tragic that they’re willing to kill each other over a disagreement of what that something is.

As you write, do your convictions / beliefs change? Wishina said that a multiplicity of voices was part of the Jewish faith: five Jews, six opinions! Schneider felt that she liked everything to be up for discussion, and also liked to allow minority opinions – she found that she did articulate and clarify her own views through arguments between her characters.

How do you balance research and story? For Wolfe, the plot and psychology of characters always came first. She’d write the story and make a note of things that needed to be checked, like exactly how long it would take to ride from London to Dover in winter. King agreed: ‘That’s what redrafts are for. My first  draft is always bad – I put all my ideas in, then in the redraft I keep only the little bit with good reason to be there.’ Schneider quoted one of her teachers: ‘Don’t tell everythng you know in your first sermon!’

Salish Lady
Linda McNab, William Deverell and Collen Glynn
The day ended with a Welcome Reception which introduced us to the two Convention chairs, Linda McNab and Colleen Glynn, and toastmaster Cathy Ace. After a welcome by a chief of the Salish people, the Lefty Nominees were named, and Vancouver man William Deverell was presented with the  Local Legend Award. Deverell is the author of the Arthur Beauchamp legal thrillers, and the creator of the long-running TV series Street Legal. This was followed by Noir at the Bar.

Thursday 28th March began with a lovely idea, run by Mike Befeler: a New Authors Breakfast. The hotel served up a belicious breakfast, and we joined one of 18 new authors at a table – ‘new’ being defined as having had their first book ublished within the last year. After we’d had a chance to chat , eat and fetch our second cup of tea, each new author had one minute to ‘pitch’ his or her book to us. There were several which sounded interesting, but the stand-outs for me were Amber Cowie, with Rapid Falls, and T K Thorpe with The House of Rose.

My first panel of the morning was Vancouver Noir, looking at the Vancouver book in this excellent series of city noir anthologies (several have been reviewed for Mystery People). 

 The panellists R M Greenaway, Dietrich Kalteis, Linda L Richards, Robin Spano, Timothy Taylor and
S. G. Wong,  
all contributors to the 14-story anthology, and it was chaired by the editor, Sam Wiebe. 

What was the genesis of your story? Spano had found it hard initially, as she was in a sunny place at the moment; she just played with the West Vancouver she kew until something dark came out. Richards used part of a novel she was writing, set in a fantasy alternate 1930s, and moved it to Vancouver. For Kalteis, it was an idea he’d had, parts of which found its way into a novel, but the story was present day, though the novel went back to the 70s. Taylor explained how he’d always wanted to be a writer, but had become a banker instead. He’d had an impossibly Bohemian friend living on Turner Island, and he and others went there at weekends. His friend came to meet him in Vancouver one day, carrying a briefcase – filled with someone else’s money, which he had to deliver to a third person ... and that was the inspiration for the story.  For Greenaway, the story had been kicking around for a time, inspired by photography. It centred around memory loss – someone thinking they were still living in the 1970s.

Why that area? Greenaway found waterfronts fascinating, the noise and the energy, and she loved the harbour, which was an ideal place for photography. Taylor said he needed a beach and a pub for his plot. Kalteis loved the contrast between the postcard city and the dark side. Wong grew up in Chinatown – just a bus ride away, but totally different. Linda was born in the west end. Spano had focused on the amount of money in west Vancouver  - ‘Take a protagonist who doesn’t have money, and see what happens.’

An audience member asked Why not the mean streets? and the panel became surprisingly defensive. Taylor said he wanted the plush life for his story, but that wasn’t to devalue other areas – what really struck him about the ‘mean streets’ was the pride people there have in their community, and the sense of connectedness. Spano said the point was to show variety. Wiebe said that he didn’t want to do a stereotypical poor neighbourhoor. Wong felt that the mainspring of noir was that you chose ‘everyman’ characters who are losers who made wrong decisions.

The final question asked for recommendations of Vancouver books. Suggestions were Invisible Dead by Sam Wiebe, Eyes like Mine, The Lost Ones or It all falls Down by Sheena Kamal, Needles by Bill Deverell, On the Up by Shiloah Jones, and the author Laurence Gough.

Each block of sessions ended with a Guest of Honour interview.  The LCC Canadian Guest of Honour was Maureen Jennings, interviewed by Robin Agnew.

Jennings didn’t publish her first novel until 1997 – before that, she told us, she’d written two plays. An actor friend had needed a mystery play for a small company – ‘Why don’t you try it?’ It had taught her about structuring, and how much work you need to do on characterisation. ‘Actors really live their characters. They want backstory, they want to know where they go when they exit – even though they’re not on stage, the author needs to know what they’re doing somewhere else. You’re here, but you’ve come through time and space.’

For her Murdoch series, set in Victorian Toronto Jennings literally walked the streets to find out what they had been like. She’d deliberately made Murdoch a Catholic because she knew it would cause problems for him – stop him rising up the ranks. She remembered the huge ..controversy when President Kennedy was elected. Many historical writers look at the rich and titled, but she felt it was important to look at the ordinary working class. ‘It’s the job of crime novels to talk about social issues. The turn of the century is both depressing becuase of what hasn’t changed, and inspiring becuase of what has.’ The Murdoch series cover the years 1895 – 1936 – ‘I love stories that tell that background: war, then once again on the cusp of war, strikes, union movements. The English country was crippled by WWII – my own father was killed in it. We;re now aware of the ripple effects of those terrible conflicts, and also what happened to returning soldiers – it’s still happening, but now we’re aware of the trauma.’

Asked about the TV show, with which she’s closely involved, she said the first acotr was fair, with blue eyes, ‘but fair doesn’t photograph well’. The second (Yannick Boisson) was darker, as in the books, but the TV company wouldn’t let him grow the moustache worn by every Victorian gent. ‘They said people don’t trust a man with a moustache.’   The show now features celebrity cameos, including Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, William Shatner, and Brendan Coyle, Mr Bates from Downton Abbey: ‘President Trump was offered one, but he turned it down unless he could write the script.’

There were unexpected hazards to avoid in script-writing. The bath story in the picture on the screen took several takes, with Murdoch having to get into a new suit before each immersion. She’d written an episode which began with a storm and rain, and the producer explained at a meeting that this was very expensive-  cameras get wet! There was a man on the lightning box who was enjoying himself hugely – the lightning worked overtime in that storm! She was delighted to announce that the 14th season of Murdoch had just been confirmed.
Jennings mentioned her series starring forensic profiler Christine Morris. After that she wanted to write about the war, 1941 England, and with Murdoch, a book set in 1917.  ‘Writing that book impacted on me most – we know about the carnage, the loss of life, but I felt so much respect for the people involved, their courage, honour, determination.’ She also wrote a 1926 book with a female protagonist – “That was fun.’

An audience member asked her about Paradise Cafe. It had come from a dull party, where someone had mentioned that starving WWI soldiers in a prison camp used to spend hours describing meals they had loved.  ‘As a writer you have to follow what strikes you ...’ so in the story they come back and start the cafe. They all dream of a place where people know your name.

What was Jennings reading? She’d gone back to English writers, the re-issued  Penguin ‘Specials’ were fantastic, with names like George Orwell and C S Lewis.

What next? The second book in the Heatwave series, where in 1936, bosses used spies to keep tabs on their workers – the issue of Unions was huge.         

Another lovely feature of Left Coast Crime was the Author Reader Connections, where an author offered a stated number of readers a chance to meet informally. The first of my Connections was at lunchtime – a walk in the sunshine down past (and inside) the gorgeous Art Deco Marine Life building, on to Canada Place and along the waterfront with Judy and Vallery, talking nineteen to the dozen all the way. 
Policing in Modern Times
was discussed by panellists Brenda Chapman, Catherine Mairisi and Barbara Nickless, chaired by Corey Lyn Fayman. 

They launched straight into the differences between 30s policing and modern crime: forensics and the changes in how crime is approached; the police characters more fleshed out, especially in series; the changing role of the cop in the real world, with technology and the way the relationship between the police and the community has gone really sour. Chapman felt there was a difference between US and Canadian police in the way that they deal with minorities and mental health and Fayman agreed that the police have to do a lot more now, with handling all sorts of people, and social work. All police now need college degrees..

How did you come up with your main character?  Chapman’s heroine is 1930s indigenous. She’d been working with case histories and indigenous lawyers, and her writing came out of her frustration with what she was seeing. ‘I gave her a Swedish partner – I don’t know where he came from!’ Nickless had done an interview with a former marine, now suffering from PTSD, and based her protagonist on her. Mairisi began writing as a challenge to herself. Her Chiara Corelli took years to evolve – ‘At first she was too good to be true, but I went back to the book over the years, and  as the world changed, so did Chiara – she saw Iraq, the World Trade Centre.’

One modern theme is more women, even though they’re still marginalised within the force, and their character aspects enhance this. How do they feel about the force? Nickless had made her character a railroad cop because that was seen as a lesser breed, and being female made her bottom of the heap, with nothing expected of her.  She’d found a railroad cop who’d work with her – an amazing beat of  11 fot wide and 3000 miles long, with no state lines, a hobo sub-community and a whole fascinating culture. Chapman’s character breaks rules too, a loner who’s developed over the series. Mairisi’s Corelli’s PTSD made her ostracised.  All agreed that their characters’ police work was part of the therapy for their traumas: Chapman felt her trauma had made her more compassionate to others – ‘She sees the police as helping others.’ Nickless agreed: ‘Yes, it’s about standing on a wall protecting people, whether you’re in police blue or soldier khaki.’

Are partners often antagonists?My tec’s partner will certainly never become her love interest! said Nickless, and Mairist agreed: ‘Corelli has Parker and they really don’t want to work together – Corelli dumps her anger on him.’ Chapman created a lazy misogynist, who’s becoming more layered now.

Another modern theme the panellists saw was that male cops were becoming more layered, allowed to show a vulnerable side. Mairisi pointed out that police and firefighters were given counselling after the World Trade Centre – ‘that’s a big modern thing.’ 

Running throughout Friday and Saturday in a small side room were ‘One Shots’, where authors read the first 800 words of their novel, and ‘You had me at...’ where authors delivered a fifteen minute talk on a topic of interest. The half-hour break between panels meant people could drop in on these. I had a dozen people for the first pages of Death on a Longship and was delighted to get a full house for a short talk on ‘Shetland – a hotbed of Crime?’ in which I looked at current day crime statistics, and recounted a Victorian baby-murder case.  

On Friday evening I had another Author –Reader connection: dinner at theWater Street Cafe with Cafe is a bit of a misnomer – it’s a lovely restaurant, right opposite Gassy Jack, the Victorian steam clock which plays the Big Ben tune on the quarters. They do delicious seafood., and I had a really lovely meal with Roni, Suzanne and Barbara – two writers and a reader and reviewer.

After that we came back to the hotel for Movie Nighta special screening of a Murdoch Mystery prequel, which looked back to his relationship as a boy with his mentor, Father Keegan, played by Peter Outerbridge who also played Murdoch in the early episodes.
Saturday morning, and after a continental breakfast as part of the conference, my first panel was The Ecology Panel featuring Dave Butler, Robert Lopresti, Mark Stevens and Gregory Zeigler.  The moderator was Sara J Henry.

This began with a short reading from each author, then each explained why they’d chosen their environmental theme. Lopresti’s issue was fracking – he’d been a librarian in an environment school, and was ‘in awe of the work these kids were doing.’ His fictional mogul was prepared to throw money at climate change, so he asked three professors what they might say to someone wealthy but new to the issues.     Butler’s issue was a new ski area being built, and how such developments can often separate communities in half, with good and bad guys on both sides. He liked to start with an issue and then build a crime around it.  Stevens’ protagonist was a hunter and guide, who was protective of her area; his issue was the growing of illegal marjuana, which still makes a better profit than legal.  Zeigler’s book centres around people stealing water from the protected Colorado river, and he quoted Steinbeck: ‘Place where folks live is them folks.’

What’s your best or worst feedback?  Stevens said that as a boy he shot rats, not deer, and he got letters from readers saying he’d got details of that wrong – he understood that could take them out of the story. Butler loved it when readers recognised places. Zeigler’s major mistake was killing a dog – ‘We’re inured to violence against people, but don’t kill an animal!’ Lopresti had put a body in the wrong burrow in a New York park.

Does anyone think they’re in your books? Stevens’ protagonist was based on a real, amazing guide he’d met, full of knowlege, and a bit of a legend in her area. Lopresti said, ‘No, they’re all criminals!’

The panel are all men, but three protagonists are women – why? Zeigler began with Jake and Sue, but Susan took over. Stevens’  met the woman who inspired his character, and  he felt there was a natural conflict between a women and a bunch of stupid men with guns up in the woods.  Lopresti’s characters were male – ‘The Mob’s not an equal opportunities employer!’ – in fact when a woman wants to become the Mob boss, one cop asks, ‘Is that legal?’ Butler said that his original hero was too much like himself, so he flipped to being female – ‘She’s my outspoken alter-ego.’

Activism? Stevens said, ‘We’re at a really important time. Our own connectino with the world, staying in our rooms, has become artificial – if you sit and watch a fire for a bit it alters your brainwaves. We need to  sway people to act now.’  Zeigler paid tribute to the high school warriors, striking to wake us up.  Butler comes from a forestry background, and felt he knew the issues from both sides – it’s never straightforward.

Do readers’ reviews matter? Definitely, but please don’t give away the plot!

The next panel I attended was Writing in the #MeToo Era,
with Ian Hamilton, Kelly Oliver and Laurie Rodenbeck,
moderated by Dara Carr.
The authors began by talking about their main character. Hamilton’s Ava Lee is a small woman whose skill in martial arts means she can take down a big man. ‘I toned down the violence, but readers complained – women love the idea of a woman being able to look after herself.’ Women sense the underlying sexual threat in male violence. Oliver’s Jessica, like Oliver herself, works on a university campus. Oliver wanted to raise issues like campus rape; ‘The theme of violence towards women is important. I didn’t want it just to be a headline grabber – I wanted to include strong women working together to make things change.’  Rodenbeck wanted to show the reality of lives of street kids, and decided to use a PI, so she went to college: ‘I am a qualified PI!’  She’s also a volunteer in the court of special advocates, representing children in the foster system. One big job was dealing with sex rings, where she got to know kids forced into prostitution – a very different thing from her dominatrix character.  Hamilton  wanted his protagonist to train in martial arts, and found an obscure one, Bak Mei, which is very secretive, handed down from father to son, ‘The least pretty of the martial arts.’ Ava’s ‘Phoenix-eye punch’ is a real move.

Is the #MeToo movement changing what’s acceptable? Oliver felt it is. ‘What used to be the norm was that the boss had access to all women. A ‘perk’ of being a university lecturer! Complaints were ignored, and harassment of complainers was common. Now there’s a lot more accountability.’ She knew of several guys on campus who were losing their jobs or sent on unpaid leave, or being under investigation. All the stuff that was considered a nomral part of growing up for women is no longer acceptable – we’re on our way to a new normal, which will change the whole environment for women. Imagine being able to get into an elevator with a lone man in it! Romance writers will need to rethink – is Fifty Shades of Grey an acceptable role model now? It could provide exciting new taboos for crime writers too.

Rodenbeck’s main character is a former sex worker, and she’d talked to professonals – there was a huge difference between forced sex workers and the adult decision to become one, and earn $300 an hour. Under 18s are not prosecuted, over 18s are.

Will there be a changing perception of men? Hamilton said that from day 1 his Ava had been strong and determined, not going to put up with anything. The reality of Asia was nothing like the ‘docile’ perception – ‘Women run most of Asia! ‘ He cited a woman senior civil servant who ran Hong Kong, but in an article she was portrayed getting up, putting toothpaste on her husband’s brush, polishing his shoes and preparing his lunch before going to work. He’d also been at a senior business meeting where there were a number of girls in the background, and the westerners assumed they were decoration, but on the final day, as decisions were agreed, they were told, ‘Talk to the girls.’

Oliver said she’d always wanted to write fiction, but had never had time, so when she was given a sabattical year, she told herself, ‘Just do it!’  She went to a Killer Women convention, and learned about crime writing, then went home and wrote Wolf. Her new character was based on a niece who’s a stripper in Vegas! (‘Wow!’ said Rodenbeck, ‘I have a niece who’s a stripper in Reno ...’ ‘I feel left out,’ sighed Hamilton.) Now Oliver wants to retire and write fiction all the time.

Rodenbeck recalled when she and two other women joined a new, otherwise male, workplace. To introduce them, her boss, ‘Let’s call him Dave’, sent photos of three nude women – not them! – round with their names on.  Challenged, Dave was really confused, and said, ‘I thought it was funny.’  Their boss simply said, ‘Well, what do you want me to do about it?’

Hamilton said that for his first six books he used people he worked with, and did horrible things to them – it was very soothing. ‘As I’m writing , I’m laughing.’ Then he’d send them an e-mail, tellling them their charcter’s name.

Do you think crime novels should have trigger warnings, as self-published romantic suspense is now doing? Hamilton: ‘I don’t know what that is!’ Rodenbeck said that in crime fiction you expected bad things to happen, so she wouldn’t put a trigger warning on her books. Oliver said that trigger warnings are big on campus, even when the violence isn’t graphic. She felt romance novels are moving towards the sweet and wholesome – she’s never heard of publishers asking for a trigger warning.

Did Rodenbeck and Oliver feel they were treated differently from male authors? Oliver promptly said yes. ‘Read the statistics in terms of pay, status, awards.’ Women used initials to hide that they were female, changed their Amazon picture .... it had changed a bit in the last ten to five years, as the publishing world embraced diversity. Rodenbeck directed the audience to the Sisters in Crime comparison tables, and commented that men are also reviewed more.

Any thoughts on portraying women in historical crime? Oliver thought the important thing was the characters’ attitute towards the plot events – many men and women in history didn’t take the status quo for granted. She felt you could do a lot with exploring contemporary issues through a historical lens.

The final session of Saturday morning had the American Guest of Honour, C J Box being interviewed by Ingrid Thoft. She began by highlighting his many awards and described his ‘compelling characters, plots, sense of place and ‘everyman’ Wyoming  game warden hero Joe Pickett.’ I hadn’t come across this very popular author before, but hearing him talk abut his books made me want to read them.

Did Picket evolve over the series? Yes – that first book, Open Season, was meant to be a stand-alone focusing on the endangered species act. A colony of black-footed ferrets was found, but nobody made the call, though everyone knew they were there. Once they were declared, people began hunting them – it was an example of a well-intentioned law going wrong. I didn’t want a dark guy with a past, or problems, and I wanted it to be authentic. I hd an agent – this was back in the old days, I sent him a typescript – and when I phoned to see if anything was happenning, he said, ‘If anything was happening, I think I’d call you.’ So I waited for four years – I was discouraged, but I was used to being discouraged – then I went to a Colorado conference, and pitched to another agent. I expained I had an agent already, and she said, ‘You don’t know he’s dead, do you?’ He’d been dead for six months! The story went round th econference, and an editor at Putnam came to talk to me – so I had a publisher before I had an agent! Putnam wanted this book and two more, so I mined old manuscripts for the next two books.

Tell us about research: how do you decide which issues you want to talk about? I listen to ideas overheard in the press ofice, and keep clippings. For each book I take several things that interest me greatly, and research them. Gradually they start to connect, and then I create a story to hold readers. I go to the places, and interview people from each side of the issue, to put both sides across in the book.

Readers invest in the Pickett family. Did you set out to age them realistically? It evolved, but I really enjoy showing them grown. I didn’t know how old Jim Pickett was -  I had to work it out! or stuff like texting, I consult my own daughters: ‘Dad, you’d never say it like that in a text!’

Do you have a favourite character? Missy, Joe’s mother-in-law ... Mebel Monalski ... choosing bad guys, they have to be fully formed, you have to make them real people with a backstory and a point of view.

A favourite book? I have a sot spot for Blue Heaven. My least favourite is Trophy Hunter, about cattle mutilations, something out of the X-files – I didn’t like that because it’s a real mystery and I couldn’t solve it!

What’s your writing room like? I imagine an enormous picture window ... Actually, my office is in the barn, and a particularly got them to make the windows high up, so I couldn’t look out!

What’s your daily word count? I do a bullet-point outline, then write on top of it, a miimum of 1000 words daily. Each day, I edit first, then push forward. My average book is 90,000, so in theory, I should be able to write a book in 3 months. My dream book is a historical Western set in the mountain area – so far my publisher isn’t keen, but one day ...

How about a film? Paramount’s bought the Joe Pickett books, and a script’s in development. Robert Redford’s company was interested, but he wasn’t loyal to the book, and so we talked it over and I decided no – so you could say I’ve fired Robert Redford!

Jamie Clark
The afternoon began with a moving tribute to Sue Grafton: M is for Memories, hosted by Cathy Ace, who’d also prepared a powerpoint show of covers right through the alphabet. Grafton’s youngest daughter, Jamie Clark, gave a series of memories beginning ‘My mother taught me ...’ Grafton sounded like a real life Kinsey Milhone – and yes, the uncrushable black dress hung in Grafton’s closet! Trbutes were paid to her by Kelly Garrett, the convenor of Sisters in Crime, Ovidia Yu, James Liskin, Maureen Jennings and Barbara Peters, who was a personal friend. The tributes were followed by a question and answer session with Jamie. 

The Great Outdoors panellists were
Ellie Alexander, Christine Carbo, Owen Laukkanen and Margaret Mizushima,
moderated by Dave Butler.

Butler began by asking Alexander, Is Meg Reid really you? ‘Yes! I got interested in mysteries in that territory when I was a young, bumbling journalist. I was out hiking, and this car stopped with 5 big Oregan men and a twenty-something girl dressed all in hot pink. I was so intrigued by this that I followed them to the trail head.

Best location?  The top of hills,’ Carbo said. ‘There are so many places an ‘accident’ could happen – like the girl who pushed her husband six days after marrying him, or the Mafia man found dead in the Glacier National Park. ‘It’s important to get it right,’ Laukkanen said, and the others agreed. Mizushima said the worst location she’d sent Deputy Mattie Cobb and Robo to was Burning Ridge – it was a great title for book 4, her publishers said, a forest fire was great, but they wanted other things burning too ... bodies? ‘That works for me!’  Laukkanen has always been drawn to the Pacific North-West – he moved to the plains as a child, but returned. He wanted to evoke the soulfulness of this region, the rain, the sea, the challenge to establish a place in the wilderness.  ‘Colorado’s what I know,’ said Mizushima. ‘Hiking in the iwlderness area nurtured my soul. I feel like there can be so much done with mountain settings in mysteries – things that can be done there, and places to hide bodies.’ Carbo felt, ‘Setting is character – the place shapes who people are. If you love a place as I do, then that’s really good material.’ Alexander agreed: ‘It’s a gift for us, pulling you into our landscape. People ask me ‘Is it really that beautiful?’ Well, yes, it is! There’s a lot of rain in my books, though ... the yearly average is 180 days with no sun. I htought I loved rain until I moved to Ashland, where they have 350 days of sun a year, nd found I don’t miss rain after all!’

How do the laws of nature and the landscape impact on your characters?  Carbo felt we have self-imposed laws to create an orderly society – sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Certain animals have social norms too – our system is so close to the wild, with man drifting in – however death and destruction and handled differently in the wild, and that impacts my story. Characters that come out of my area suffer a lot of stress, poverty and crime. Laukkanen said, ‘The law of nature is that you survive – it’s the same out on the frontiers. Laws aren’t necessarily relevant.’ He added, darkly, that he’d heard several fishing boat stories where unpopular guys didn’t make it home. Mizushima felt that people in rural parts of the country are fascinating in themselves – she grew up near a very tiny town, and you have to be so self-suficient and resilient. ‘But,’ Laukkanen said, ‘the wild tends to attract people on the run, or who don’t fit in elsewhere.’ Mizushima said there had been lots of murders in that little community – for example a biker who had ridden through, and a long time later his skeleton was found. Alexander felt that living in the wilderness made you more conscious of the invasion of ‘wild’ into ‘city’ – for example she remembered seeing a bear and two cubs in the middle o the road. If you’re hiking, it’s cougar country – she’s working that into a story.

Is the great outdoors an antagonist or protagonist? Alexander always starts with the setting. She’s hiked Angel’s Post five times – she feels a responsibility about getting nature right. Carbo loves to dive into the characters first, and think about how they interact with the place, whether they’re a native or an incomer, whether they’re born here or runnning here. It can be beautiful or terrifying, very imposing or stark and bleak. Laukkanen felt that in real life nature was both a character and an antagonist – in real life it’s a grim fact that if you can’t take care of yourself, like in a blizzard, you will probably die. Mizushima likes to use the setting as an antagonist – she had a blizzard in her second book, and had Maddy stay to guard the body, way up high in the mountains, only to have her editor tell her, ‘Hey, there’s no snow in Timber Creek!’ She had to explain to him about altitude and snow lines ...

An audience question asked the panel which of them was the toughest, which would survive longest out in the wild? ‘Not me!’ said Alexander instantly. Carbo said it was difficult hiking in grizzly and cougar country – she used to go hiking more, but less now, and never goes alone.  Weapons? ‘A big dog!’ Alexander said. Carbo takes a pepper spray – ‘You want to be prepared.’ Mizushima said she was more afraid of humans than animals, and carried a pistol. Laukkanen takes his dog, but said dogs can also be grizzly bait – he takes bear spray too.

Another audience member asked if they’d ever thought of writing about southern wildernesses. Mizushima said she lived in Texas till she was 13, and the plains can be very beautiul, but she just couldn’t set a book there. Carbo said her characters come rom New Jersey and other places, but she couldn’t set a whole book there. Laukkanen has friends in North Carolina, and was inspired by southern noir – he tries to write Pacific NW noir, but couldn’t do that with the south.

Your favourite adventure writer:  Alexander: Nevada Barnes – Mizushima recommended Mark Steven, and Scott Graham’s National Park Mysteries, and Pamela Beason; Laukkenen reads a lot of non-fiction, but he recommended Wilbur Smith. Carbo agreed about Pamela Beason, and also recommended James Lee Burke, and The Wolverien Way by Doug Chadwick.


That evening, Saturday, was the Gala Awards Dinner, and I was co-hosting a table with Ovidia Yu, from Singapore – we were the convention’s furthest travelled authors, and we’d had great fun beforehand deciding on what to give our guests: a book of course, and postcards, Shetland bookmarks, and I found coasters with Shetland dialect words on them, while Ovidia brought chocolate Singaporean money and pens. I thought our table looked good – everyone’s did! -  and we had a lovely evening with our guests.

After the dinner, Cathy Ace thanked everyone involved in making the Convention such a success. Carol Newman gave a short presentation on One-to-One, the literacy programme sponsored by this year’s convention, and then there was a live auction for it, with donations like book baskets, a visit to the set of Murdoch, your name as a character in a novel by Cathy Ace and C J Box, and a week at a villa by the sea. Between the silent auction which had been running all weekend and this one, the convention raised $7,770 for One-to-One.

The Lefty Awards were presented by past, present and future convention chairs. The Best Humorous Mystery went to Catriona McPherson for Scot Free.  Sujata Massey got the Best Historical Mystery for The Widows of Malabar Hill. The best Debut Mystery went to Dianne Freeman, A Lady’s Guide to Etiquette and Murder.  The Best Mystery was Lou Berney’s November Road.

The panel I was on was Not so traditional traditionals, at 10.15 am on Sunday morning. My fellow panellists were Becky Clark, Ingrid Thoft and R E Thomas, and we were moderated by Anne Lousie Bannon. We talked about what made a novel ‘traditional’ and how our own work did and didn’t fit that description, where we’d created our characters from, and the importance of setting in our work.

 The final panel of the convention was the Guests of Honour  panel,
with Cathy Ace, C J Box, William Deverell, Maureen Jennings, and Don and Jenn Longmuir
being interviewed by Matt Coyle – and then, sadly, it was all over.

Time for me to say goodbye to a host of new friends, shoulder my rucksack, and head for home. 
 It had been a wonderful experience. Huge congratulations to Linda, Colleen, Stan, Lucinda and all the volunteers of the committee for their organisation and hard work – it was indeed a whale of a festival!

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