Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Quirks of the trade

Barbara here. Mystery people, whether readers or writers, are an odd lot. We love murder, gleefully discuss the merits of poisons and bludgeons, and the intricacies of plotting the perfect death. Some of us like our murders light and cheery, others profound and moving, some like a dash of social justice or redemption, others a recipe or two. But murder, foul or fair, is the key.

Yet mystery people are the nicest characters you'll ever meet. This is not a new observation; in fact, everyone from reporters to literary writers, both of whom may inhabit a more cut-throat world, has made that wistful comment. But I was reminded of it again this weekend when I attended a huge mystery celebration in the States. Malice Domestic is a reader/writer conference which celebrates the "traditional" mystery and which has been going strong for 25 years. About six hundred readers, writers and book business people converged on the Hyatt Hotel in Bethesda, Maryland for three days of readings, interviews, panels and book talk to explore every aspect of this mysterious world we call crime fiction. There were guests of honour, Peter Robinson and Laurie King, awards for novels and short stories, and books galore.

But the best part was the weekend spent enveloped in a world of kindred spirits. Warm, funny, and so happy to share. From the moment I walked into the hotel, exhausted from an eleven-hour drive, I was greeted by hugs and welcomes. This went on all weekend, whenever I met old friends from former conferences or was introduced to new ones. Whether they were readers or fellow authors. Everyone else was greeted by hugs and welcomes too. There were smiles, laughter, shared news of new successes or dismal failures. New writers got advice, sometimes unsolicited, from veterans in the bar, and requests to stay in touch. Famous writers like Laura Lippman and Louise Penny hung out with those who only dreamed of writing.

Oh, there were moments of gleeful gossip, of envy and competition, of self-aggrandizing stories about dinners with editors, five-star reviews, and impending film deals. No gathering would be human without those foibles. But for people who make our living probing the depths of greed and envy and revenge, there was precious little on display when we got together.  A few times I stood on the sidelines, both bemused and amused as I watched the crowds, wondering whether all this laughing and hugging could possibly be real.

I concluded that, in large part, it was. And I have a few theories about why. Two are not new. The Canadian crime writing community is well known for being friendly and supportive to each other, and I've always said, only half in jest that it's because there's no money at stake. Crime writers have tended to be the bastard stepchildren in the literary scene, with no access to big money prizes, prestigious grants or serious critical acclaim. Throw a $50,000 Giller Prize into a crowd of writers and the knives would quickly come out.

The second reason is that we get all our jealousies, hostilities and nastiness out on the page, in some sort of emotional purge that leaves us with warm, fuzzy feelings for our fellow man. But the third reason, which seemed really evident this weekend, is that we are an odd lot with very quirky thought patterns, and we love the chance to share our fascinations with kindred spirits. There are not too many people who will respond with enthusiasm to queries about undetectable poisons or perfect places to hide bodies or the latest in blood spatter. Ordinary dinner companions, even if they are family members, look at you askance.

But mystery is not just about murder and detection, it's about human struggles, justice, redemption, heroes and triumph. All the writing, all the fascination with villains and plots, is really in the service of that fundamental passion. That's what makes us kindred spirits most of all.


Irene Bennett Brown said...

Wonderful, wonderful post, full of truth. Thanks for the nice start to my day!

Barbara Fradkin said...

Thanks, Irene. It really is a warm community!