Unraveling bar’s appeal

Special to The Times

A bunch of jet-lagged crime writers were standing around drinking beer in a failed clothing store in a back corridor of the Riviera Hotel. The space was empty, but the brass fixtures and faded gold letters on the window were still visible: “Marshall Rousso,” the poor sap.

The racks were gone, they’d tacked some black cloth around a couple of tables, thrown in some oyster crackers, and called it “the official bar” of Bouchercon 2003, the annual World Mystery Conference.

“It’s the crossroads of the mystery world,” observed author Michael Connelly, known for his dry wit. Not exactly a shadowy dive in Chandler’s Bay City, but the writers, editors, agents and fans who gathered last week for the event named after mystery critic Anthony Boucher were doing their best. By 4:30 in the afternoon, the air was heavy with smoke from delirious Angelenos who never get to do this at home.


Smoking and gambling seemed to rank high among illicit pleasures anticipated over a weekend of panel discussions, book signings and attempts at personal contact with more than 1,200 attendees.

A crowd had gathered around author Gary Phillips -- either because he was wearing the Las Vegas gambling shirt (dice rolling past a royal flush) or because he was handing out free cigars.

So what is the draw of the Bouchercon bar?

“You can smoke and drink,” Phillips said, grinning at the obvious. “It’s a place to keep up an image that’s not true.”

Others were not as bubbly:

“Nobody’s picking anybody up,” complained David Corbett, who received an Anthony Award nomination for his novel “The Devil’s Redhead.” “Everybody knows I’m a flirt,” he added inconsolably.

But Uglytown publisher Jim Pascoe, dressed in slim, minimalist black, remained a believer. “Bouchercon is about the bar,” he insisted. “It’s a worthwhile investment to come here, a chance to schmooze retailers, fans and peers. These are the tastemakers of the mystery industry. When a buzz gets around, that’s priceless.”

So who are the tastemakers here?

Standing, he took a moment to survey the room. “It doesn’t have the same kind of power circles and eddies, like Hollywood parties, where you know that group in the corner is talking about something important and you’re not invited.” He sounded disappointed he wasn’t invited.


Clearly, there were no tastemakers. Or publishing industry power brokers. They were all back in New York, drinking good wine.

“There’s Otto Penzler,” Pascoe said hopefully.

Penzler, the elegant founder of Mysterious Press, was sitting at a table for two in an alcove that once held women’s suits. His eyes were positively sparkling and not because of the chance to attend a panel called “Laugh or You’re Dead.” His eyes were sparkling because he was there celebrating his 2-day-old engagement to Lisa Atkinson.

Dining on popcorn shrimp and drinking Coronas, the couple agreed the Bouchercon bar was the perfect setting for the occasion. “I have an enormous amount of friends in the mystery world,” Penzler said, “and I love introducing Lisa to them. They all say how beautiful she is and look so happy for us.”

Night had fallen and time was running out. A meeting with fellow Knopf authors Peter Spiegelman and Dan Fesperman was drawing near, but the secret of the Bouchercon bar had yet to be cracked. Was it simply that misery loves company?

“Everyone’s looking at what everyone else has,” speculated Spiegelman. A former Wall Street analyst, he should know. “You’re hoping someone will give you the glass slipper.”

Soon enough, a rumor popped up that Walter Mosely (who does not drink and skipped the bar) had just won $700 at the tables, triggering a creative discussion on how to beat the odds.

Applying astute psychological skills, a group of novelists drinking martinis was plotting how to get the dealer to “play along with you unconsciously.” They also agreed that if computers could spit out nickels like slot machines, literary output would doubtless increase.

Near the TV, an argument was breaking out between hockey fans and baseball fans over which was “a noir sport.” The only real noir sport is promoting your book, this sleuth thought with uncharacteristic cynicism -- but then, out of the crowd, there was Ian Rankin.

Rankin, International Guest of Honor at the conference, wrote 10% of all books sold in the United Kingdom last year. Talk about magic in the air. Instantly, the circles and eddies began to shift around the lanky, self-effacing star. I hadn’t been talking to him more than 30 seconds when two literary agents materialized at my side proffering invitations to crash private parties.

The spillover attention was dizzying. But the 43-year-old Rankin, with his endearing ‘60s haircut, T-shirt and running shoes, was unperturbed, as an intense Scotsman should be. He sipped a Beck’s and thought about the differences between this bar and the Oxford bar in Edinburgh, where he and his fictional protagonist, Inspector Rebus, are regulars.

“Booze is cheaper in Edinburgh, “ he mused, then paused before delivering a classic Rankin observation: “The bars are small, and dark, and full of disappointed men.”

Now I understood why Ian Rankin sells all those books. He goes to the right bars.


April Smith’s most recent novel in the FBI Special Agent Ana Grey series is “Good Morning, Killer” from Knopf.