Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Sunita reports from Bouchercon 2011

Despite reading romance and other genre fiction for decades, I’ve never been to a writer or reader convention. I don’t have aspirations to write genre fiction, and I travel enough to meetings and conference for the day job. But when a convention comes right to my front doorstep, it’s hard to resist. Bouchercon is a readers and writers convention for the mystery genre. It’s a fairly big event, lasting three and a half days. The panels are set up differently than I’m used to, although this may be the norm for this type of convention. Each panel time slot is an hour, and then a half-hour is set aside for the all the participants in that time slot to make themselves available in the Book Room to sign books and chat with fans.

At 7:45 yesterday morning, I took the Metrolink down to the Renaissance Grand, registered for the convention and was handed a lanyard with a hand-written name tag and a big tote bag full of books.

I had downloaded the daily program before I went and scoped out the panels I was interested in. I slipped into one in the 8:30 time slot a couple of minutes late. It was titled: “Woman trouble: Crime fiction is rife with ‘bad girl’ characters.” The participants were Christa Faust, Lori Armstrong, Karen Olson, Judy Clemens, and Lauren Henderson, with Russel MacLean moderating.

I like the format of the panels. The moderator poses some questions and then the panelist answer. It’s relatively informal, so you get some back and forth chat. In the last part of the hour, the moderator takes questions from the audience.

I wasn’t familiar with any of the authors but Lori Armstrong looked familiar. That’s because I knew her by her romance name: Lorelei James. As Armstrong she writes crime fiction set in South Dakota. Her Mercy Gunderson series is popular and her books have been nominated for the Shamus Award, the mystery equivalent of the Ritas.

It was interesting to listen to the panelists’ discussion from a romance reader’s perspective. The way they talked about kick-ass characters (their term) was similar to the way that we talk about them in romance, except that here their behavior involves killing people (although I guess that’s not so different from PNR and UF heroines). The author sub-genres ranged from noir to cozy, but all of them were emphatic about how important it was to create strong characters who could take care of themselves. As one panelist put it, they wanted men, but they didn’t need them to solve the crimes.

When the conversation turned to sex in mysteries, the conversation became a little surreal to me. One panelist stated flat out that she didn’t like to have any sex scenes in her mysteries because it took her out of the mystery. She writes “bonkbusters” (if you’re lucky enough not to have heard that term before, here you go) with lots of sex and adult and YA mysteries with no sex. It’s one strategy, I guess. I wondered if she realized that Romantic Suspense was a best-selling category. Lori Armstrong related that she had written a short but explicit sex scene in one of her books and her publisher made her take it out. Christa Faust’s main character is a porn star who solves crimes (must get one of these books) so sex was essential because it was the character’s day job, but it was still an issue.

The funniest and most infuriating anecdote came from Karen Olson, who writes cozy mysteries. She said that her publisher made her remove the word “nipple” from a scene, and it didn’t even involve sex. The character was wearing a towel after a shower, and the towel slipped, with predictable results. No matter, “nipple” had to go. Cozy characters must be nipple-free.

Lest you think it’s just about sex, though, be advised that women characters must also refrain from swearing. As Lori Armstrong put it, “we can kill people but we can’t let them swear.” Lauren Henderson said that she had to take the word “bitch” out of a YA series aimed at teenagers. And of course, cozy characters must never never swear. Karen Olson was reminded by a reader that she has a young daughter.

While there were a few references to reader preferences, it seemed to me that most of the prohibitions on sex, language, and the like came from editors and publishers, based on their perceptions of what readers wanted. The authors were frustrated by it, and as a reader so was I. I enjoyed the panel so much, and I found most of the authors so interesting and intelligent, that right afterward I bought print books by Lori Armstrong and Karen Olson. And I never buy print books anymore!

I got a chance to introduce myself and talk to Lori Armstrong after the panel. I felt like a bit of an idiot, since I don’t read her Lorelei James books and had no idea of her mystery backlist, but she was extremely gracious and warm. She recognized my name from Dear Author. I congratulated her on her Shamus nomination and asked her if she had written Romantic Suspense, since it was a clear intersection. She said her one Romantic Suspense book was her lowest-selling title, which saddened me.

I went to parts of three more panels yesterday (including one with Tasha Alexander) but then had to return to the day job. But I’ll be back to the convention today and tomorrow, and I will report again with more updates and some pictures.

Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley. She blogs as VacuousMinx and tweets as @sunita_p.

39 Comments

  1. Jia
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 12:19:36

    Christa Faust’s books sound interesting. I’m not really a mystery reader but if you do ever pick one up, let us know how they are!

  2. jmc
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 12:25:58

    I like Armstrong’s Julie Collins mysteries a little more than her Mercy Gunderson books but consider both series keepers. Her Lorelei James books I can take or leave, mostly leave. Am curious about the romantic suspense in her backlist, must look it up.

  3. Isabel C.
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 12:34:53

    While I don’t read mystery much, the lack of swearing–or the downgraded swear words–bugs the hell out of me in both romance and YA. A sheltered debutante or similar, I can see, but I know maybe two people in my generation who don’t break the PG-13 rating under even mild stress.

    And yeah, the same goes for YA protagonists. More so, in fact, because most teenagers are pushing boundaries and so forth: as I recall, when I was fifteen, my friends and I were making up obscene versions of the school cheers. Some kids were milder, but none of them would say “darn” or “sugar” if they stubbed their toe or got an F on a test.

  4. joanne
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 13:29:15

    Fourty years of reading mystery books and I’ve never heard of Bouchercon! Thanks for the very interesting info and your insights.

    I absolutely want the guidelines to be followed in a mystery book so, for once, I’m going to say “Yay editors and agents!”. A Mystery can certainly have romance(s) but it’s not the same as a Romantic Suspense book.

    The cozy is a specific type of mystery. There are plenty of mystery readers who don’t care for them – but if they’re a favorite sub-genre of the reader then there are certain perimeters that exist and expectations to be met. Yes, I know that sounds out of place when we’re always asking for new and different, but almost any sub-genre book has general ‘rules’, don’t they?

    I haven’t missed having nipples in my cozies – Heh! – but if the word fits then it won’t be cause for an uprising in the aisles of Barnes & Nobel. I just think that there are so many categories for mysteries that authors can choose whichever fits them and their readers.

    I swear (and I swear A LOT) I’ve read plenty of cursing in the cozies I’ve read but I was not looking for those words and didn’t miss them if they weren’t there.

  5. Susan Laura
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 13:32:55

    What is the name of Lori Armstrong’s romantic suspense book? I am not seeing it on her backlist and since I like Lorelei James’ books I would definitely be interested in reading that one! Thanks –

  6. Keishon
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 13:45:11

    I love Christa Faust and Money Shot was an awesome read (thanks to Wendy for recommending her). I am amused and at the same time infuriated at the editors perceptions regarding sex and swearing in mysteries no less, but there have been plenty of bad reviews from readers because of the swearing and too much sex. I don’t know what world some readers live in but just because a book has swearing doesn’t equate to it being a bad book. I ignore those types of reviews and to each his/her own. I’ve been mostly reading Scandinavian crime fiction of late anyway so your report is quite interesting so thanks for sharing it. I don’t find the two issues to be a problem in the translated works from overseas but then they tend to be bleak anyway.

  7. Isabel C.
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 14:39:32

    Further note on language: I don’t actually mind if swearing is absent or elided past. (“She dropped the teakettle and swore.”) But G-rated expletives call attention to what isn’t there and would be, and it makes the hard-bitten detective or edgy punk teen come off as more naive or straight-laced than I think most of the authors intend.

    If you don’t want to use “fuck”, that’s okay. But for the love of God, don’t use “fudge” (or “frick”) and expect the reader to react the same way.

  8. DS
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 15:00:29

    Actually the Shamus awards are given out by the Private Eye Writers of American and are novels with protagonists who are professional investigators but not government employees. I don’t mean to say that winning a Shamus is not a great honor, because it is.

    Possibly the Edgars are the widest recognized Mystery America award but there are also the Anthonys (for Anthony Boucher and chosen by the attendees at the Bouchercon I believe), the Agathas and I don’t know how many others including my very favorite, the Australian Ned Kelly Award. I wonder how far an award would get in the U S named for a famous outlaw?

    Oh, yeah, and I envy you whole heartedly being there.

  9. Patricia Rice
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 15:20:07

    Hi, Sunita, pardon me for not realizing you’re in the St Louis area. I’m attending Bouchercon for the first time more because I’ve heard about this awesome conference for years and was jealous of mystery writers for having a con just about them. I only have the one ebook mystery out but I figured that justified the expense of attending since it’s in town.

    I think cozy mysteries are a category similar to the old style Regencies, where you have to write to what we called “the little old lady” audience. I assume I’m one of those little old ladies since I don’t need the swear words or the sex(heaven forbid from a romance writer!). I read for the puzzle and the characters. When Regency authors ultimately branched out, they created the single title Regency historical, but the category ones still sell extremely well in digital. There’s a market for everything.

  10. Keishon
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 15:27:06

    the Australian Ned Kelly Award.

    Must look up titles under this then, thanks. I look to the Glass Key for award winning crime fiction written in Nordic countries. I pay attention to the Shamus awards as well. I think some of these mystery awards are a good barometer of what’s actually good out there and so far they haven’t stirred me wrong yet.

    It seems I am in the minority, the only cozy writer I enjoy is Julia Spencer-Fleming. Otherwise, I avoid them as I think they are boring. I prefer dark and angst ridden stories.

  11. Sunita
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 15:40:49

    @Patricia Rice: Hi! (waves madly) I looked for names I’d know but the list is a pain to parse and the name tags are hard to read. But I think I’m the only Sunita here so if you see me please grab me!

    I didn’t mean to denigrate cozies. I’ve read them almost as long as I’ve read romance and love them, although I cannot abide the cats who solve crimes. But I didn’t even know they were derided by some writers and readers until I read online mystery blogs. I read just about everything in mystery from cozy to gruesome. What bothered me was the expectation that they couldn’t have certain features, whether we’re talking sex or language or something else. If it’s not right for the character or the tone then okay. But that should be the criteria, not just an appeal to “rules.” A good author has my trust and I want to go where she takes me.

  12. Nicole
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 15:43:05

    Well, I read plenty of cozies. I’m a sucker for a silly hook. And put a cat in it and I will buy it up. Silly, but that’s how it is.

    I like angst, but lately just haven’t been in the mood.

  13. Sunita
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 15:44:08

    @DS: Thanks for the correction and additional info! Like Keishon I often find the various mystery awards quite helpful in recommending books and authors to read.

  14. Maili
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 16:06:30

    Lest you think it’s just about sex, though, be advised that women characters must also refrain from swearing. As Lori Armstrong put it, “we can kill people but we can’t let them swear.”

    This shocks me, actually. I can’t imagine British crime fiction without profanity from either gender. Well, not profanity in that sense. I mean profanity as part of everyday vocabulary. Hm, I’m not making Britain sound good, am I?

  15. Gretchen Galway
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 17:56:06

    @Maili – maybe that explains why I always prefer British crime fiction–even American writers pretending to be British. (And what’s with that, btw? Are there bestselling British writers pretending to be American writing romances and mysteries set in the US?)(Sorry if off topic.)

  16. Sunita
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 18:31:26

    @Maili: A number of authors said that they rarely if ever heard from their UK readers, but that they heard about language from their US readers. This was not only on the kick-ass panel, either; I attended a panel today where the same issue came up in a more general conversation. Maybe readers expect it in British fiction, or treat it as local color?

    @Gretchen Galway: I can’t think of any who pretend to be American, but I don’t pay that much attention to author nationality. There are UK writers in both genres who write in American settings and use American-English idioms and speech patterns, for better or worse. If there were a benefit to pretending, I’m betting someone would try it.

  17. Darlynne
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 18:33:35

    @Gretchen Galway: Not pretending to be anything other than his Dublin self, one of the biggest crime writers is John Connolly, whose Charlie Parker books are set in the US. I do not care for American authors who write allegedly British crime novels (why yes, I am looking at you, Elizabeth George) because they just don’t get the voice right.

    Bouchercon is fabulous and I’m so glad you were able to attend, Sunita. I went once in Nottingham and thought it was the most fun to be had surrounded by books.

  18. Merian
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 19:17:57

    @Keishon:

    Hi Keishon, If you are interested in an Australian mystery try anything by Peter Temple.

    ‘Truth’ by Peter Temple

    winner, Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2010
    winner, Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, 2010
    winner, General Fiction Book of the Year, ABIA, 2010
    shortlisted, Book of the Year, ABIA, 2010

    “”At the close of a long day, Inspector Stephen Villani stands in the bathroom of a luxury apartment high above the city. In the glass bath, a young woman lies dead, a panic button within reach.

    So begins Truth, the sequel to Peter Temple’s bestselling masterpiece, The Broken Shore, winner of the Duncan Lawrie Dagger for Best Crime Novel.

    Villani’s life is his work. It is his identity, his calling, his touchstone. But now, over a few sweltering summer days, as fires burn across the state and his superiors and colleagues scheme and jostle, he finds all the certainties of his life are crumbling.

    Truth is a novel about a man, a family, a city. It is about violence, murder, love, corruption, honour and deceit. And it is about truth””

    I have ‘Truth’ as an ebook from Kobo

  19. Keishon
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 19:32:02

    @Merian: Thank You Merian. I have Truth in my digital library and have heard terrific things about his books. I will read it soon.

  20. Gretchen Galway
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 20:04:59

    @Darlynne:

    LOL, I was thinking of Elizabeth George. She’s a great writer and has a huge pile of books to enjoy…but once I found out she was an American she lost my…whatever that is…my buy-in as a reader. I was seeking out the British crime fiction for a reason, to get away from my home, and somehow I just kept wondering if she got this and that right. Once I started wondering, I couldn’t let go and enjoy. I really wish I could.

    For some convenient reason, I don’t care if my historical romances feel English. I feel like we’ve traveled so far from Brighton and Bath in 1808, it’s silly to pretend anything written now in the genre is realistic. That said, Jo Beverly and Mary Balogh are two of my favorites because they don’t feel so American.

    And now I think I’ll try John Connolly…

  21. Darlynne
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 20:09:42

    @Maili: The sub-genres in US mystery/crime fiction are as strict, if not worse, than romance categories. Reader expectations for behavior, language, sex (that would be non-existent) in cozies are almost militant; I mean, break the taboos if you dare. That, at least, was my experience working in a mystery bookstore.

    When Minette Walters came to our little store after publication of The Ice House, I mentioned how the book’s cover led me to think I’d be reading an English cottage-type mystery, until the first paragraph:

    “Fred Phillips is running.” Anne Cattrell’s remark burst upon the silence of that August afternoon like a fart at a vicar’s tea-party.

    Ms. Walters said her choice of words was deliberate because she wanted to immediately set a tone that wasn’t cozy, for all the book’s countryside setting. Certainly “fart” isn’t much of a four-letter word, but it’s indicative of the care she took to stake out her territory. She is wonderful, btw.

  22. Sunita
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 20:15:28

    @Darlynne: Great anecdote! And it reinforces the impression I’ve formed from my brief exposure here.

    John Connolly is here. I haven’t heard him yet but his author signing line was quite long.

  23. Carolyn
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 20:27:22

    I’m a regular reader of mysteries and I can think of quite a few series that have swear words and sex, including Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak mysteries, and the Fergusson/ Van Alstyne series by Julia Spencer Fleming. Interesting that these authors are getting this feedback from editors.

  24. LVLMLeah
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 21:36:50

    I went to Bouchercon in 2009 and really enjoyed it. There were a few discussions about romance and sex in the mystery genre and what was nice was that several authors on those panels were somewhat crossover. Meaning, they include some romance in their mysteries and they talked about it on panels.

    Charlaine Harris attended that one and talked about the romantic/sexual angles in Sookie’s life as well.

    What was interesting was that I chatted with a few women who were romance readers/writers in progress and there was a certain unmentioned and mentioned feeling that discussing romance and sex within the mystery genre was a bit taboo. The women seemed to be a bit embarrassed that they were writing romantic suspense and such.

    Although, I didn’t feel the topic of romantic suspense dissed as a subject on the panels during reader question time.

    I’d definitely go to another Bouchercon. I liked the easy set up and ease of mixing with authors. And topics of the panels were really interesting.

  25. Josh Lanyon
    Sep 17, 2011 @ 11:07:57

    The no sex thing is something I really struggled with when I turned to writing my particular brand of m/m mystery-romance. That feeling — the view that too much romance (let alone sex) will distract from the main plot — is prevalent in the mystery community. Romantic suspense, though enormously successful (you’re so right!) is often viewed as not *quite* the real thing by most mystery afficiandos.

    It is difficult – almost impossible — to write sex (romantic sex) and be taken seriously as a mystery writer by the mystery community. I don’t understand why that should be, but I find it so interesting.

  26. Keishon
    Sep 17, 2011 @ 12:34:11

    @Josh Lanyon:

    It is difficult – almost impossible — to write sex (romantic sex) and be taken seriously as a mystery writer by the mystery community. I don’t understand why that should be, but I find it so interesting.

    That is true to a certain extent. I’m a romance reader and a mystery reader, so obviously I don’t mind the sex but for some mystery readers, but if you write more than one sex scene then you’re really pushing it, and your mysteries will be labeled with “tedious sex scenes.” This is just from my experience and I certainly don’t speak for any majority.

  27. Sunita
    Sep 17, 2011 @ 15:24:46

    The sex-as-problematic issue has come up in a number of panels here at Bouchercon. Some of the attitude is attributed to editors, some to readers. I hadn’t really thought about it before this Con, since like Carolyn I’ve read mysteries with sex scenes in them.

    I’m finding it so interesting that mystery readers seem to have as many specifications about what they want to read (and don’t want to read) as romance readers do. It must be something about genre reading.

    I should also emphasize that the panelists’ comments were not necessarily critical of readers when they brought up this topic, but more treated it as a fact of life.

  28. John
    Sep 17, 2011 @ 16:14:23

    I will be keeping up with this, Sunita. We have such similar tastes, and I have to admit I do occasionally read some crime fiction (although the only pure crime fiction I’ve read is indeed a cat who solves a mystery – but Lillian Jackson Braun wrote a pretty cute book, all things considered.)

    Also, I am SO happy you mentioned Henderson. Just realized she wrote the Scarlett Wakefield series. I got a copy of the fourth book and found the idea of a teen thriller fun. Of course, I need to read the first three. Not many authors write teen thrillers anymore. The trend kind of peaked in the 90’s.

  29. Sunita
    Sep 17, 2011 @ 16:23:29

    @Susan Laura: It’s called Running With the Devil and it’s written under her Lorelei James name.

  30. Darlynne
    Sep 17, 2011 @ 16:55:40

    @Keishon: But you’re absolutely right. The lines are clear and nearly inflexible for many readers (can’t speak for editors).

    As an aside: Man, I miss introducing people to books/authors I know they’ll like. It’s the best possible kind of matching making service.

  31. Out of date author websites | Shuffling Through A Bookless Desert
    Sep 17, 2011 @ 18:40:21

    […] reading Sunita’s report about Bouchercon, I went to Lori Armstrong’s website to see what’s coming next.  I was thinking that […]

  32. Darlynne
    Sep 17, 2011 @ 19:04:19

    @Darlynne: Oh, lord. Match making. Sheesh.

  33. Robin/Janet
    Sep 18, 2011 @ 21:53:56

    @Josh Lanyon: It is difficult – almost impossible — to write sex (romantic sex) and be taken seriously as a mystery writer by the mystery community. I don’t understand why that should be, but I find it so interesting.

    I’m guessing it’s an almost reactionary desire to be distinguished from the literary slums of Romance and Romantic Suspense, but I could be wrong about that.

  34. Chicklet
    Sep 18, 2011 @ 22:43:51

    I’m guessing it’s an almost reactionary desire to be distinguished from the literary slums of Romance and Romantic Suspense, but I could be wrong about that.

    That was my first thought, too: That mystery readers like to think of the genre as more cerebral (and therefore more literary) than “low-brow” genres like romance. (I read mysteries — almost entirely at the “crime novel” end of the spectrum as opposed to the “cozy” end — but I’m not active on mystery-reader forums or websites, so I don’t know that this attitude exists.)

  35. Sunita reports from Bouchercon 2011, Part 2 - Dear Author
    Sep 19, 2011 @ 04:00:26

    […] other responsibilities this weekend (why does everything always happen at the same time? Argh).  [Check out Sunita's report from Friday] Unfortunately I had evening commitments both days, so I couldn’t hang out at the bar (which […]

  36. jmc
    Sep 19, 2011 @ 08:07:34

    @Sunita: Hmm. I would not have thought to look for romantic suspense in the backlist of Lorelei James, and I would have missed it on release because I assume that all releases under that name are erotic romance and don’t keep track of them. On the other hand, Armstrong’s mysteries are autobuys. I’m curious about the branding and marketing decision there, and about howuch crossover there is between readerships.

  37. Sunita
    Sep 19, 2011 @ 11:05:49

    @jmc: I didn’t ask Armstrong, but I would hazard a guess that Samhain was more open to Romantic Suspense than her NY mystery publisher.

  38. Sunita
    Sep 19, 2011 @ 11:08:43

    I want to reiterate that not all mystery authors are opposed to having sex in their novels; several talked about the usefulness/importance of sex scenes in character development. And the double standard in both the amount and type of sex allowed for male v. female characters was mentioned by both men and women authors. But it was a repeated theme that both editors and readers (particularly US readers) objected to sex and profane language in their mysteries, and not just in those which were clearly in the cozy category.

  39. Bad Language in Crime Fiction
    Sep 28, 2011 @ 03:02:20

    […] aren’t representative of me and vice versa. I will direct you to read reviewer Sunita’s conference notes from her attendance at Bouchercon this year where authors voiced their frustrations about this very thing. Lest you think it’s […]

%d bloggers like this: