It’s exactly 20 years since Britain staged its first crime fiction convention, when Bouchercon, the ‘world mystery convention’ came to London, and provided me with my first taste of convention-going. Since then, enthusiasm among crime fans for conventions has grown steadily, although they are still more popular and prevalent in the US than in the UK or elsewhere.
Bouchercon is named after the American mystery critic (and capable novelist) Anthony Boucher. It was first held in 1970, and continues to go from strength to strength – this year, the venue will be San Francisco. According to The Heirs of Anthony Boucher: A History of Mystery Fandom, a definitive study by the very knowledgeable Marvin Lachman, ‘Bouchercon began in a bar’ – with a conversation which resulted in a decision to stage a get-together for mystery fans. Very fitting, too, for the bar is always the place to be at a crime convention…
Nothing (much) to do with drinking, of course! The bar and the book room tend at most conventions to be the places where attendees bump into each other, and where casual acquaintances often blossom into long-term friendships. An example of the unexpected and agreeable encounters you can have at a mystery convention is fresh in my mind. At the recent Crimefest in Bristol, Maxim Jakubowski (whom I first met at the London Bouchercon) tapped me on the shoulder in the bar one evening and introduced me to someone I’d never met, but long admired – the director of Get Carter, Mike Hodges, who was celebrating the publication of his first novel at the age of 77. A very enjoyable conversation ensued, and I shall long remember it. The following day I had lunch in that same bar with Agatha Christie’s grandson and John Curran, author of the wonderful Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. Another memory to treasure.
The US hosts a wide range of conventions. Bouchercon remains the biggest, and if you attend, you may expect there to be more than a thousand other crime readers and writers present. Venues vary and are usually, but not always, in the States – after London, the convention travelled to Nottingham in 1995, and was held in Toronto three years earlier. Left Coast Crime, another large and popular gathering, took place in Los Angeles this year, but was held on the ‘left coast’ of England four years ago, an event that spawned Crimefest. Malice Domestic, where the focus is on ‘cosy’ mysteries (but ‘cosy’ is, happily, a term with a very wide definition) is invariably held in Washington D.C. Each different convention has its own atmosphere, and one of these days I hope to sample some of the other American conventions.
In Britain, the Shots on the Page convention ran in Nottingham for several years in the 90s before morphing into Dead on Deansgate, which was held in Manchester for a while. Crime Scene, based in London, followed on from these conventions and continues to go strong. A more academic emphasis, as you might expect given the setting, is to be found at the St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Week-end, held each August for the past decade. Invited speakers give papers on the chosen theme of the year, and the group, although numbering not more than about one hundred, is always very convivial.
In the last five years or so, the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrrogate, has become the UK’s biggest convention. Slickly organised and attracting big-name invited speakers, including many international best-sellers, it pulls in members of the public in numbers that most other convention organisers can only dream of.
Reading is, in some respects, a solitary pleasure and yet plenty of readers, as well as writers, including many who do not count themselves as gregarious, thoroughly enjoy crime conventions. Of course, there is an opportunity to listen to interesting panel discussions and interviews, and to discover fine writers who were previously unknown to you. But there is also much to be gained from meeting people with whom you share a common interest. Several of those I met as a still unpublished wannabe novelist at the London Bouchercon have become firm friends, and the pattern has repeated itself at subsequent conventions, to my great good fortune.
A word, finally, for those tireless volunteers who set up and run conventions such as Bouchercon, Left Coast and Crimefest. They do it for love, not money, and crime fans everywhere owe them a debt. Do give them your support by going to a convention some time, even if you’ve never thought of doing so before. You won’t regret it.
(This article first appeared at www.bookdagger.com)