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Pleasure Motive Apparent at Mystery Writers’ Convention

Times Arts Editor

Whatever it may reveal about the society, the making and consuming of mystery writing are enjoying boom conditions. The 19th annual Bouchercon, an annual convention of mystery professionals and their fans--named after the late critic Anthony Boucher--drew a record turnout of nearly 900 here over the weekend. The organizers had to stop accepting applications and establish a waiting list as early as last June.

For a gathering steeped in murder most foul, Bouchercon could hardly be more cheerful and serene. Its chief characteristic is the friendly and informal contact between fans and the authors they admire and among the authors themselves.

“We come here to be fawned upon,” the English writer Robert Barnard (“Death in a Cold Climate”) told one of the convention sessions jovially. “Everybody loves flattery.” Barnard was toastmaster of the Bouchercon banquet and one of the convention’s honored special guests, along with the veteran Charlotte MacLeod.

Mystery writers might seem to be competitive, one with another, but in fact they appear to be fans themselves, seeking out such senior figures in the field as Dorothy B. Hughes (“The Fallen Sparrow”), who is 84.

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The crime writers take heart when one of their number breaks out of the pasture, so to speak, and finds a wide public audience. That happened a few years ago with Elmore Leonard, and it has now happened with Tony Hillerman, whose latest book, “A Thief of Time,” was a Book of the Month Club selection and has outsold his earlier titles by at least fourfold. Hillerman was a celebrity among celebrities at the Bouchercon.

On the evidence of Bouchercon, writers of crime are self-deprecating, as if they acknowledge (but may well not accept in their heart of hearts) that they are not to be compared with “serious” writers.

“We write O’Hare books, to be read while circling O’Hare Field,” said Conrad Haynes (“Bishop’s Gambit Declined”), a newspaperman who writes funny mysteries in Oregon.

But Haynes and other writers noted that the mysteries provide a large and accurate slice of social history and, at their most light-hearted, serve as comedies of manners.

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Haynes said, “That business the stewardess tells you. ‘If anything goes wrong with the aircraft, a thing will drop down from overhead. Put it on and breathe normally.’ Normally ? Somebody’s got to say something about that.”

Sharyn McCrumb (“Bimbos of the Death Sun”), who writes satirical mysteries about the politics of culture, says, “Of course it’s social history. Read Agatha Christie and you’ll know exactly what to wear to a dinner party in 1930.”

Two items are continuous at Bouchercon: panel discussions and autographing sessions. Authors in batteries of a dozen sign endless copies of their works, on sale from two dozen dealers, and authors stand patiently in line to get each other’s autographs. “I love to see that,” I heard a fan say.

The panels explore such topics as whether the traditional private eye is dead or alive or well (doing OK but in search of freshness) and whether there are rules for the detective story.

The rules seemed to boil down to playing (relatively) fair with the reader. Most of the previously announced rules of the game have been soundly violated. One of them said, “Only one culprit,” which Agatha Christie violated wonderfully. Another said, “Only one secret passage,” but secret passages are out of place in condos anyway.

Bouchercon’s emphasis is on the mystery rather than hard crime. “Nobody cares who killed the drug dealer,” Sharyn McCrumb said, “but when the leader of the Girl Scout troop bumps off the Unitarian minister, that’s interesting.”

“I’ve done more than 2,000 post-mortems,” said Jonathan Gash, an English doctor who writes funny mysteries. “Believe me, there wasn’t a giggle in the lot. Reality is what we shun.”

The appeal of the mystery is variously explained. The best of them now as always are stylishly written, often with wit and psychological insight. As one of the writers said, the mystery as a form is less interested in the murder itself than in the ripples that flow from it and the tensions that led to it.

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But even in a permissive and ambiguous time, the mysteries suggest that there is order in society and discernible values of right and wrong, and in the end the sleuth, whoever he or, increasingly, she may be restores order from disorder, cleans up the mess and reasserts the values.

The rising popularity of the mystery may simply be a feeling among readers that tidiness, values and a general sense of the fitness of things are harder and harder to find outside the mystery. That lends new meaning to the mystery as escapist fare.

This year’s fan-voted Bouchercon awards went to Tony Hillerman’s “Skinwalkers” as best novel; Gillian Roberts’ “Caught Dead in Philadelphia” as best first mystery; Robert Crais’ “The Monkey’s Raincoat” as best paperback original; “The Big Easy” as best film; and the PBS series “Mystery” as best television.

The 1989 Bouchercon will be in Philadelphia, the 1990 meeting in London.


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