Bouchercon, like many conferences that bring together creators and fans, has panel discussions, signings and an awards dinner. But the 44-year-old crime fiction convention also offers activities unlikely to be found elsewhere, such as cadaver dog demonstrations and a walk-through crime scene constructed by FBI agents.
"Friday is sort of our forensics day," explains Ingrid Willis, the event's volunteer chair and chief organizer. The massive conference in Long Beach has about 150 panels and events planned. While some are bloody, others are downright sweet: At one panel, attendees discussing craft mysteries (yes, that's a subgenre) will learn how to sew a pincushion that looks like a cupcake.
Bouchercon attracts the bestselling authors in the genre, including J.A. Jance, Jeffery Deaver, Sue Grafton and Michael Connelly.
"It's the mystery conference of the year," says Charlaine Harris by phone from her home in Texas. Best known for her Sookie Stackhouse series, which became "True Blood" on HBO, Harris will appear on two panels, do two book signings and "catch up with all my friends," she says.
"There is a different vibe at Bouchercon because there is no barrier really between the writers and conventioneers," Eoin Colfer explains in an email. The author of the bestselling children's series Artemis Fowl who has also written two comic mysteries for adults is coming from Ireland to attend his second Bouchercon.
"To be honest, getting invited to Bouchercon was one of my motivations for writing the crime books in the first place," Colfer jokes. "I had heard the stories of the legendary parties with famous writers, and I was hoping to meet a hero or two."
The conference has good feeling in its bones. In 1970, two years after beloved mystery writer, editor and critic Anthony Boucher died, fans put on the first conference as tribute to him, and 82 people showed up in Santa Monica that year.
Since then, the conference has rarely been held in Los Angeles. Organized by fans, Bouchercon has been held in Cleveland, St. Louis, Baltimore and Anchorage in recent years. It's been 23 years since the event landed in Southern California; about 2,000 people are expected to attend this year.
Willis organized the successful pitch to bring the four-day conference — beginning Thursday — to Long Beach. "They'll tell you I plied them with wine," Willis jokes about the selection process.
A whirlwind of energy, Willis works in the entertainment industry when not volunteering to run a huge book conference. Her tasks included setting up blocks of hotel rooms, planning the event so as not to conflict with the Queen Mary's Halloween schedule and stuffing thousands of swag bags with books.
Attendees can register for the entire conference or get a day pass. The many events include discussions of specific books and genres, aspects of writing, appreciations of cover artists, publishing advice, a silent auction and a retro fashion show aimed at the historical mystery crowd.
Authors are as engaged with the many events as are fans. Colfer says, "I am doing panels. Talking as much as they will allow an Irishman to talk. I will sign anything that stands still for too long and hopefully photobomb all other crime writers so it looks like we're friends."
Bouchercon sets off at a rapid clip on Thursday with a fast-moving breakfast event: author "speed dating." About 50 authors will each join a table of readers but only for a minute or two — then they must get up and proceed to the next table. As if to make sure things keep moving, the breakfast is sponsored by Smith & Wesson.
For the kids, there's an offsite event at the Queen Mary — a special luncheon and YA fanfest featuring Colfer and benefiting the Long Beach Public Library Foundation.
With 150 authors appearing on as many panels, the entire conference may feel a little daunting, but at heart it's about creating community with readers.
"They can meet many of the best and brightest in the mystery field on a personal level," says Charlaine Harris, "and hopefully be dazzled by their wit and humor."
Bouchercon 2014: Murder at the Beach
Where: Hyatt Regency, 200 S. Pine Ave., Long Beach
When: Nov. 13-16
Price: Three-day conference pass, $195; day pass, $75; YA Fanfest luncheon aboard the Queen Mary, $65.