Monday, May 20, 2013

Have Books, Will Travel

By Kemper

It’s a four hour drive from Kansas City to St. Louis, but when I heard that some crime writers that I like were going to be at an event for the library there, I jumped in the car and made a pilgrimage across Missouri.  I amused myself along the way on  I-70 by counting the number of strip clubs, fireworks sellers and porn stores.  (The fireworks won, but it was closer than you might think.)

The St. Louis library was hosting an annual suspense night that featured Ace Atkins, Megan Abbott, Michael Koryta, Hank Phillippi Ryan and Reed Farrel Coleman.  I showed up early to be sure I got a good seat and discovered that Left Bank Books was selling books so I was able to empty my wallet by adding to the ones I’d brought from home to be signed.

The precious treasure I got signed.
I started reading Megan Abbott's work after meeting her at Bouchercon in St. Louis back in 2011.  My friend Dan had been buying a copy of one of hers when the bookseller asked if he wanted it signed.  Dan shrugged, and the guy turned and yelled, “Megan!  You bitch!  Get over here!”

It turned out she was standing about ten feet away, and Dan got his copy signed as Megan ‘The Bitch’ Abbott.  The next day I saw her on a panel with Daniel Woodrell among others and was very impressed with what she had to say so I made a point to grab a copy of The Song is You and get it signed.  I mentioned that she had signed my friend’s book as The Bitch the previous day, but I told her that she seemed very nice.  So my copy is signed ‘And I’m Very Nice!’.

I’ve been a huge Spenser fan since my teens, and although my wife once bought me a signed copy of Robert B. Parker’s Potshot, I never met him so I was very anxious to see Ace Atkins who has take over the series following Parker’s death.  Plus, I had checked out more by Atkins including his new Quinn Colson series and discovered that he was well worth reading.

I’d read a couple of books by Michael Koryta and picked up a copy of his lastest hardback The Prophet.  I had heard of Coleman, but hadn’t read any of his work.  At least, I thought I hadn’t.  Which led to an embarrassing moment on my part.  More on that later.

I wasn’t familiar with Hank Phillippi Ryan and was slightly surprised that she was a woman because you just don‘t hear about a lot of females named Hank.  She had a very interesting story in that she’s been an investigative reporter in Boston since the mid-‘70s who started writing crime fiction fairly recently and has already won several prestigious awards.

Coleman moderated the panel portion of the event and kept things going in a breezy and informal way.  He started out by asking if e-readers and e-publishing were good or bad.  The writers held mixed views.  Like most readers, they find the ease and convenience of digital books a good thing as well as opening up new opportunities for writers, but regretted the effect they were having on book sellers and publishers.

From there questions turned to how they had gotten into writing and the influences on them. Atkins told a funny story about being a  James Bond fan and reading how Ian Fleming wrote his books in Jamaica while drinking on a beach so he thought that sounded like a great career.  Megan Abbott and Michael Koryta both cited watching old noir movies as kids as having a big impact on them.  Coleman had been a poet who took a class about mystery writers as an adult and instantly decided that was what he wanted to do.

A great deal of the conversation revolved around current events and if writers used them for their work.  Ryan and Coleman both had been inspired by stories that had caught the media’s attention like the disappearance of Chandra Levy and Governor Mark Sandford being caught in a cheating scandal.  Abbott has fictionalized real events like the murder of a B-movie actress in The Song is You while Atkins had learned of a story about a man on Death Row despite a credible witness that could have cleared him and used that for his first Spenser novel.  Michael Koryta had the most chilling story in that the disappearance of two young women in the Cleveland area had been part of his idea for The Prophet, but those women had recently been discovered as still alive and being held in a house for over a decade.

At this point, I got a chance for a question and asked if they had ever written anything that was pure fiction but had seemed prophetic later.  They all had some examples like Coleman noted elements of his Chandra Levy inspired story later turned out to share similarities to the case he didn’t know at the time.  Abbott  thought that she had entirely made up the story of a missing girl in The End of Everything in her old home town only to later find out that there was a case almost exactly like that when she was growing up.  Koryta had a story in The Ridge involving  large cats like tigers and panthers escaping from a sanctuary and this actually happened later. The real event took place near roads he had named in his book.

After the talk, there was an auction to benefit the library, and if I would have understood the rules better, I’d have characters named after me in an upcoming novel by Atkins or Abbott.  I had not know there would be an auction and thought it would require cash so had to drop out early.  I only found out after the fact that I could have used a credit card. It’s probably for the best because I probably would have ended up in divorce court after explaining to the wife that a lifetime of debt was a small price to become a character in a book.

While they were signing books, I got the chance to speak to Megan Abbott for a couple of minutes.  I follow her on Twitter, and we’d had a few exchanges including one conversation that had brought up the possibility of Marlon Brando performing a back tuck flip.  I also told her that I’d given a copy of her Dare Me to my fifteen year old cheerleading niece and this made me either the greatest uncle in the world or the worst  She seemed to find that amusing but wasn’t sure which way to lean on that question either.

Ace Atkins was nice enough to engage my Spenser fan boy tendencies.  When I told him that I loved the True Grit homage he’d done in Lullaby, he surprised me by saying that I was only one of three people who had ever brought up the reference to him.

“And one of the other ones was Megan Abbot,” Atkins said pointing at her.

I was pretty shocked by that since I‘m not that clever, and it had seemed pretty clear to me. He agreed that he thought it had been pretty obvious and was puzzled that he didn‘t get asked about it more.  He explained that since Parker had incorporated a lot of western influences into the Spenser books, he wanted to touch on that and had come up with the True Grit touches.

I also asked if he had ever considered doing a full reboot of Spenser and taking the character back to his younger days.  Atkins said that it had been considered, but that since Parker had essentially put the character into this kind of timeless state, it didn’t really seem necessary although it was possible that he might do something along those lines at some point.

It was at this point that I made an ass out of myself with Coleman because Atkins had been signing my copy of In Pursuit of Spenser, a book of essays by mystery writers about the character that he had contributed too.  Atkins set it aside to pick up the next book and Coleman grabbed the essays and opened it with his pen as if to sign it too.  Without thinking, I said, “Oh, did you write one of those?”

‘Uh, yeah.  The one about Jesse Stone,” he said.

I was extremely embarrassed that I hadn’t caught that, but Coleman played it off and made a joke about it.  I still felt like a jackass and hoped I redeemed myself by handing him the copy of Gun Church I’d bought.

That was the end of the author adventure and I headed back to the hotel so that I could get ready for Phase 2.
I didn't need these books, but I wanted them...
I was meeting my  buddy Dan for lunch the next day. We rendezvoused at a Home Depot parking lot somewhere in the wilds of Missouri, and I was slightly disturbed that he had a pair of gloves fit for corpse disposal on the floorboard of his car.  I hoped that there was no plastic sheeting and shovel in the trunk.

We were both starving, but our immediate plan to consume beer and tacos was thwarted when the restaurant wasn’t open yet.  To kill some time, Dan took me to a used book store he frequents and apparently has something like a half-million dollars in credit.  Despite having a bag of freshly signed books in the trunk of my car, that didn’t stop me from buying enough to significantly add to the To-Read pile.

After that we went back to the restaurant and discussed many weighty matters like how Midwesterners don’t have accents, Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, why Dan had ridiculously given two stars to The Shining, if Ace Atkins will ever kill off Susan Silverman and much more.

Eventually he had to go meet his girlfriend for a surprise that turned out to be him riding on one of those mystery trains, but sadly he didn’t get to fight anyone on top of one of the cars.  I made the long journey west to return home with my precious treasure of signed books.  After getting back, I made a late discovery and now I wish I would have read Michael Koryta’s The Prophet before the event because it’s an excellent book, and I would have loved to pester him with questions about it.  Maybe next time….


  1. Those Carter Brown mysteries seem like the real treasures in all of this.

  2. How did I miss this? Very awesome, I continue to choke on my envy. Quite the impressive haul of reading material too