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It's no mystery why fans, authors gathered for Bouchercon in St. Petersburg

MARK LENNIHAN   |   Associated Press (2015) Lee Child is one of the world\u2019s bestselling thriller authors thanks to his Jack Reacher novels
MARK LENNIHAN | Associated Press (2015) Lee Child is one of the world\u2019s bestselling thriller authors thanks to his Jack Reacher novels
Published Sep. 11, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG

Last Wednesday through Sunday, the Vinoy Renaissance Hotel teemed with people who write and read about bloody murder.

It was a remarkably friendly and cheerful crowd. Detroit novelist Stephen Mack Jones had an explanation: "Writing about murder is very cathartic. It's like psychotherapy without the co-pay. I killed my seventh-grade gym teacher, and I can't tell you how good it felt."

The 1,500 authors and fans (some from as far away as Japan) were in St. Petersburg for Bouchercon 2018, a.k.a. the World Mystery Convention. The annual gathering (named after influential mystery writer and editor Anthony Boucher) began in 1970 and is now one of the biggest mystery conventions in the world.

This was its first stop in St. Petersburg, with approximately 600 writers of crime fiction and true crime on hand to meet and mingle with fans, with many of the top names in the genre strolling the Vinoy's halls. The event's special guests were Mark Billingham, Sarah Blaedel, Sean Chercover, Tim Dorsey, Ian Rankin, Karin Slaughter and Lisa Unger. Other luminaries included Ace Atkins, Lawrence Block, Alafair Burke, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman and Sara Paretsky.

Unlike many cons, Bouchercon has no pay-for-play autographing — convention attendees can (and do) get bags full of books signed, and many authors chatted casually with eager fans after panel discussions and interviews and at parties. Child, whose Jack Reacher novels have made him one of the world's bestselling thriller authors, said, "I'm so happy to be here. These people are my tribe."

In on-stage interviews, bestselling authors talked about why they write. Atlanta writer Slaughter said, "My father always told us stories. He had all these stories like 'The Little Girl Who Touched the Thermostat and Died.'"

English writer Billingham has been an actor and comedian. He started writing mysteries after his own brush with crime: Three masked men ambushed him in a hotel room and held him hostage for hours while they used his ATM card to clean out his account.

After that, Billingham said, "I wanted to write about the victims. Every crime writer I respond to is writing about what violence does to people."

Scottish author Rankin said of the first of his acclaimed John Rebus series, now up to 21 novels (with a new one coming in December), "Knots and Crosses was conceived as a one-off. I gave (Rebus) a very convoluted history, and I wish I hadn't. I had no idea it would be a series. In the first draft he died at the end."

During the charity auction on Friday evening, the biggest draw was a character name in Rankin's next novel. (Many novelists auction naming rights for charitable causes — fans can see characters named for themselves in a favorite author's book.) A bidding war between Child and Slaughter ended with a proposal that they both win — for a donation of $5,000 each.

The auction raised a total of about $25,000 for Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, which provides free books to preschool-age children. Founded in 1995, the organization has given away more than 107 million books.

On Saturday night the Anthony Awards, voted on by Bouchercon attendees, were presented. (The red ceramic awards were made by local clay artist Wendy Duran.)

During an interview earlier that day, Block had said, "I met Sue Grafton when she published B Is for Burglar, and she said she was going to write 26 books about Kinsey Millhone. How in the hell did she know?"

She almost made it. Grafton, a frequent Bouchercon participant, died in December; her final book, Y Is for Yesterday, won the Bill Crider Award for best book in a series.

Bouchercon's members have been concerned in recent years with bringing more diversity to the organization's membership and awards. Strides were made Saturday, when three of the top awards went to African-American authors.

Gary Phillips won the best anthology award for editing The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir. The best novel award went to Attica Locke for Bluebird, Bluebird, her story of murders connected to white supremacists.

Kellye Garrett, a former television writer, won best first novel for Hollywood Homicide. In her acceptance speech, Garrett talked about statistics for female and minority crime fiction writers and said, "We need to stop treating diverse writers as a trend and start treating them as status quo."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or
(727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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