Friday, October 23, 2009

Bouchercon IX: Death during wartime

The funniest moments of my Bouchercon came during Reed Farrel Coleman's Saturday panel on "Dark Books for Dark Times." Coleman's swift dispatch of long-winded audience members helped, as did Duane Swierczynski's laugh lines and the fortuitous tension between Larry Beinhart (an atheist) and Michael Lister (a prison chaplain).

I was having too much fun to take thorough notes, but I did note a consensus among the panelists, who also included J.T. Ellison, that the putative restoration of order at the end of a crime story is illusory (Coleman) or, at best, temporary (Ellison).

Nothing impresses me as much as intelligent people who think deeply and seriously about what they do, so this panel was one of the conference's highlights. "I find nothing funny about murder," Coleman said, and he quoted with approval the pronouncement that "A cozy is a book in which someone gets murdered, but no one gets hurt."
***
I found a similar seriousness earlier Saturday at "War Crimes: How war shapes characters and crime novels." The four panelists set their novels during or between wars.

"War creates opportunity," said moderator Suzanne Arruda, a suggestion immediately endorsed by the panelists. James R. Benn, author of the Billy Boyle World War II mysteries, noted the immense attraction of military supplies for black marketeers, but also a loosening of social structures and inhibitions that allowed black marketeers and others to act in ways they never would during peacetime.

Martin Limón noted the dreadful toll of the Korean War and the country's current success as a robust, if sometimes spectacularly fractious, democracy. The intervening years, he said, offered "tremendous conflict of gangs, the black marketeers ... In the interim there was a lot of room for crime." Limón, who served twenty years in the U.S. army, said there was much to admire about that institution. Nonetheless, he said, "the military does not talk about crime unless it has to." And that sounds like a superb source of tension for a crime novel.

The seven deadly sins are with us at all times, said Charles Todd, "but war magnifies it. ... War is a tremendous opportunity to make money."

And what about the odd, poignant task of a wartime crime novel: to single out one death as pivotal amid the deaths of hundreds and thousands? Perhaps the surrounding carnage makes a murder victim's killing all the more tragic. "I do think that once you've waded through death, said Rebecca Cantrell, "you don't want to see any more of it."

Said Benn: "It is a grave offense for someone to be murdered when they could have survived the carnage of war."

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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15 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

"the military does not talk about crime unless it has to."

I have to agree with him.

Kinda like another large bureaucratic organization, the Roman Catholic Church.

I've been affiliated with both at different times in my life, and I've observed the silence.

October 23, 2009  
Blogger Dana King said...

I forget which panel I attended instead of the Dark Times one you refer to here; it sounds like I missed a good one. (I sure hope it wasn't Creating Woman Characters. What a mess.)

I agree with the panelists. I can't stand cozies, and feel that the best crime fiction have bittersweet or melancholy endings. Someone's dead, and the ripple effects of that aren't put right just because the bad guy has been caught.

October 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, you might like Martin Limón's writing, then. His lengthy military service gives him special credibility, I think.

October 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, you'd like Reed Farrel Coleman's approach, then. The panel rejected the notion that there is any such thing as closure.

There's a place for cozies, I think, as long as they are not offensively flippant about death.

The organizers did a fine job of programming. Several slots offered conflicts between panels I'd have liked to attend, including my own.

October 23, 2009  
Blogger Barbara said...

Dana, you must be referring to panel I moderated, Telling Women's Stories - the longer title being Politics, Feminism, and Telling Women's Stories Through Mysteries. It certainly didn't go in the direction I expected, but many of the panelists acquitted themselves well, I thought.

October 23, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

"A cozy is a book in which someone gets murdered, but no one gets hurt."

Gold, sir. Indeed, sometimes you don't even need the former.

October 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Barbara, that's an intriguing assessment. What direction did it take?

October 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, I wish I could remember to whom Coleman gave credit for the remark. It was another author, I think.

October 23, 2009  
Blogger Barbara said...

I'm guessing that we had two problems: one, fifty minutes doesn't give one much time to talk about the authors and their books AND dig deep into some significant issues and two, what in writerly terms would be called a problem of defining the audience. Are people in the room there to be entertained and cheered up, or do they really want to hear people grapple with serious issues in thought-provoking terms that might not always be upbeat and happy? We ended up not really accomplishing either, I'm afraid.

To avoid the dreary "here's a question, all of you take turns answering it, and then I'll give you another one to pass down the line" I gave each writer a question specific to their recent books, then some more general ones, the first about why serial killer stories featuring women as numerous and mostly only-there-to-be-excitingly-dead victims had become such a potent metanarrative for our times. The second had to do with the Sisters in Crime organization. I had others, but there wasn't time.

The "different direction" was that Sara Paretsky said some things that were apparently meant to be ironic but what people heard was "feminism is over, don't bother, I've given up on change of any kind since I've been at it for a long time and it hasn't happened yet; if I couldn't pull it off you may as well forget about it." (Said while dressed oddly in a sexy costume that had a message I couldn't quite decipher. It was either a critique of the way women are portrayed in popular culture or possibly a statement about what a stupid panel topic she'd been stuck with. I think it was the former, but I couldn't be sure.)

Liza Cody is a wonderful writer and an interesting person and I wish she'd been able to say more. Kate Flora was articulate and entertaining. Mary Saums was passionate and had some pointed criticism of developments in the writing community that I would have understood better if I were more of an insider. I'm assuming it has to do with many women writers abandoning the idea of solidarity that Sisters in Crime is about in favor of success on male terms - that if violent, hard-hitting, and sexy books are where it's at, they won't want to be part of an organization that admits cozy writers or unpublished writers because they won't be taken seriously; they'll risk being thought of as so old-fashioned as to care about equality, which is so seventies, get over it already; instead they'll band together with successful thriller writers and avoid the stigma of being ... well, women.

If anyone came to the panel thinking it was on how to write women characters, well ... we didn't do that. Sorry. I interpreted the assignment differently.

To follow up on the discussion here, I'm not a cozy fan, but I don't think it's useful to characterize an entire part of the spectrum of crime fiction for being "too violent" or "too soft." There are two kinds of books: good and bad, and they're all over the spectrum. Where you read on the spectrum is a matter of choice and personal taste. Mary Saums writes good books in a part of the spectrum that doesn't personally appeal to me, but I'm glad she writes them and so are her readers.

"Someone gets murdered but no one get hurt" is a statement you could make about the fast-food serial killer stories that are so popular. They're so removed from reality and so unengaged with human experience - just popping one homicide victim after another like amphetamines for the rush - that they are just as offensive to me as books on the cozy side in which victims are a convenience.

October 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's not a comment, that's a symposium. I'll answer in parts.

I didn't attend that panel (though I did read a report on it). It's easy to imagine Sara Paretsky's comments as a version of the old Bob Dylan song "My Back Pages," where Dylan rejects the strident, easy idealism of his youth. You may recall the refrain: "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."

My procedure as moderator was the same as yours: a specific question for each panelist first, then a mix of general questions, questions particular to two or three panelists, and specific questions.

In the matter of Bob Dylan, by the way, I read that Mary Saums worked with him (and many other musicians) during her days as a recording engineer.

October 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Of course, Dylan was in his mid or early twenties when he wrote the song, so what the heck did he know?

October 24, 2009  
Blogger Barbara said...

Good one. Sara didn't sound younger than that, though, just weary and bitter.

Mary did work with Dylan and others. When I introduced her though, I got stuck on Dylan. DYLAN! Holy cow.

Another thing I found interesting was how many people reacted to the word "feminist" in the panel title as if it were an archaic usage and inserted the adjective "angry" automatically. Well, if people looked strangely at you as if you'd been reanimated from the Jurassic period because you identified yourself as someone who thinks racism still is a problem, you'd probably be pissed off, too. Humph.

Barbara
Still a feminist, but only annoyed when you think that's old-fashioned bra-burning nonsense. ("You" in the generic sense - not you, Peter.)

October 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps there is a hint of the archaic about the word "feminist." For one thing, I suppose its meaning is probably no longer as clear cut as it once may have seemed.

In any case, I can sympathize even more with you than with other moderators and panelists about having just fifty-five minutes. You could have used a double session.

October 24, 2009  
Blogger Barbara said...

I'm just really sorry I arrived too late for your panel and then was against another one I wanted badly to go to, Murder at the Edge of the Map." But at least I got to chat with you a couple of times.

October 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wanted to go to the sessions at the Eiteljorg Museum and at the Indiana Statehouse, both of which were scheduled at the same time. Instead I went to neither, because "Murder at the Edge of the Map" was in the same time slot.

That was only the most spectacular of several such conflicts, and that's a tribute to the organizers, who put together a good program.

First time we met, I was going up the escalator, and you were heading down. That was not the only such meeting over the four days, I think. Ali Karim used to ride up and down the escalators waving and greeting friends in all directions.

October 24, 2009  

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