Guest Post: James Ziskin on how to prepare for Bouchercon

boucherconWith Bouchercon, THE mystery convention of the United States, starting tomorrow in Raleigh, James Ziskin, author of the Ellie Stone series, offers this course for his fellow writers to prepare for it and other conferences.

This four-week course prepares authors for success at writers’ conferences, covering norms of professional and social behavior while offering insight into how to get the most out of the conference experience. Here’s what to do and what not to do at Bouchercon.

“Learn from my mistakes. I’ve done all of the things below!” – A not-so-famous writer


Week 1


Topics Covered:
1. Securing the middle seat on the panel table without throwing elbows
2. Suppressing the creepy smile
3. Monopolizing the microphone
4. Feigning interest in your fellow panelists’ remarks
5. Springing your hilarious sex joke at the appropriate moment to maximize the discomfort of your fellow panelists and the audience
6. Playing it cool after you’ve drunk from a fellow panelist’s water glass
7. Suppressing the belch
8. Slipping in your sarcastic, apropos-of-nothing digs at Fifty Shades of Grey
9. Tossing out one high-brow literary reference per panel to impress the audience
10. Bouncing back to your feet with grace after you’ve leaned back pensively in your chair and fallen off the back of the dais

Week 2


Topics Covered:
1. Avoiding and/or ditching the duds who can’t help your career
2. Glomming onto the guy buying drinks
3. Impressing that pretty young author. (The one rolling her eyes.)
4. Saying it, not spraying it
5. Pacifying the drunken, chest-poking, Whaddya-think-you’re-better-than-me? mid-list author
6. Playing down the severity of your anaphylactic shock after accidentally ingesting a peanut from the pretzel dish on the bar
7. Putting out the vibe
8. Extracting the plastic cocktail sword from your olive with panache and pimento
9. Explaining to your noir-writer friends why there’s an umbrella in your drink

Week 3


Topics Covered:
1. Cornering William Kent Kreuger to ask for a blurb
2. Stalking Lee Child and following him outside for a cigarette even though you don’t smoke
3. Gushing and fawning
4. Palming Louise Penny’s award; she won’t miss it
5. Offering title advice to Sue Grafton for Y and Z
6. Convincing yourself you’re fit to shine Tim Hallinan’s shoes
7. Perfecting your Scottish brogue to impress/baffle/insult Ian Rankin, Catriona McPherson, and Val McDermid.

Week 4


Topics Covered:
1. Shoe-horning your chair into the last space at the best table
2. Identifying your entree: vulcanized chicken, carbonized beef, or gluey pasta
3. Perfecting the discreet post-prandial pick of the tooth
4. Telling the eager fan sitting to your left to F off so you can pitch your novel to Janet Reid
5. Sobbing on the shoulder of the fan sitting to your left after you pitch your novel to Janet Reid

1. Disposing of your promotional bookmarks and postcards. Conference organizers set up convenient tables in the corridors outside the panel rooms for this purpose.
2. How low should your lanyard hang?
3. Author speed dating: for those who prefer their humiliation public

MysteryPeople Q&A with Martin Limón, author of the Sueño-Bascom Series

In Martin Limón’s latest Sueño-Bascom novel,The Ville Rat, his Seventies Korea-stationed Army detectives George Sueno and Ernie Bascome take on two cases, each of which pits the detectives against one of the toughest Army units operating on the North-South border. Limón takes a unique look at the black market and racism within the military. We caught up with Martin to talk about the book and the series, influenced by his own army experience.

MysteryPeople Scott: The Ville Rat focuses more on the Army culture than many of the previous books. What did you want to explore about military life?

Martin Limón: The public, I believe, has a distorted view of military life.  On television you see photogenic sailors and soldiers and marines droning on in a stoic manner about whatever issue they’re reporting on.  They almost seem like automatons.  The army I knew was dominated by lowlifes.  In the barracks you had to protect yourself at all times. And even among the higher ranking officers, the name of the game was survival and winning the competition for promotion.  Self-sacrifice exists in the military, plenty of it, but in a soldier’s day-to-day life that’s always theoretical.  You’re more worried about the cheaters and thieves that surround you.

Also, in the very few television shows I’ve seen about the military, the writers make it seem as if the more self-sacrificing and honorable you are, the more likely the military is to reward you.  In my experience, the opposite is true.  The connivers prosper.  Those who are true blue often fall by the wayside.  That’s why I can’t watch those shows. They make me gag.

MPS: I was surprised to find out that fire fights and terrorist attacks happen on the North-South border after the Korean war. Was that a common occurrence?

ML: During the early Seventies, when my novels are set, firefights were common although most of them involved the South Korean army.  Many of them, I was led to understand, were never even reported.  At that time, the U.S. was averaging about one GI killed by North Korean fire per year.  The South Koreans more.  But that made sense because the South Korean Divisions covered four or five times more mileage along the DMZ than we did.  Also, I believe, some of the South Korean commanders were more aggressive than the Americans.

Other than the Joint Security Area near the truce village of Panmunjom, my understanding is that all U.S. forces have been moved off the front lines now.  Also, the DMZ has been so heavily reinforced with fences and night-vision observation posts and state-of-the-art land mines that there is much less commando infiltration than there was in the 60s or 70s.  Keep in mind that in February 1968, Kim Il-sung sent a 35-man commando team to Seoul to assassinate the president of South Korea.  They almost succeeded.  Later that year, over 60 infiltrators landed on the east coast of South Korea and evaded capture for some weeks.  Also, in early 1968 the USS Pueblo and crew was captured by North Korea on the high seas.  And in 1969 an EC-121 spy plane with over 30 U.S. sailors was shot down in international air space by the North Koreans.  President Nixon never retaliated.  It was a fun time to be there.

“The public, I believe, has a distorted view of military life.  On television you see photogenic sailors and soldiers and marines droning on in a stoic manner about whatever issue they’re reporting on.  They almost seem like automatons.  The army I knew was dominated by lowlifes.  In the barracks you had to protect yourself at all times. And even among the higher ranking officers, the name of the game was survival and winning the competition for promotion.  Self-sacrifice exists in the military, plenty of it, but in a soldier’s day-to-day life that’s always theoretical.”

MPS: Maybe it is because I’ve got to Sueño and Bascom over previous books, but you seem to use their humor more often in The Ville Rat and it isn’t the gallows jokes you often see in police novels. What do they (or you as the author) use humor for?

ML: In recent books, George Sueño and Ernie Bascom have opened up and are talking more.  It dawned on me at some point that many of the mystery authors I most admire use plenty of dialogue.  (Think of the late Elmore Leonard and the very active Lee Child).  Recently, I’ve allowed my characters to talk more and I let them go on even after I would have cut them off in the past.  Surprising things happen; things that I think improve the stories.  Not to mention that I hope the reader becomes closer to the characters.  As to the humor, it just happens. Especially from Ernie.  It seems that he won’t shut up until he gets a laugh.

MPS: How do Sueño and Bascom feel about The Army?

ML: They complain a lot but fundamentally they love the army.  There’s an old saying in the army that you don’t have to worry until the troops stop complaining.  George Sueño was an orphan growing up in Los Angeles County and for him the army is an opportunity to have gainful employment and to do a job that’s worth doing.  Not to mention that he is fascinated by Korea and grateful for the chance to be there.

Ernie Bascom doesn’t much care what the world thinks of him and after serving two tours in Vietnam and becoming a heroin addict, being in the army makes it somewhat easier for him not to revert back to his old habits.  Heroin, in those days, was absolutely not available in Korea (although ironically it was plentiful in Vietnam).  The South Korean government actually executed more than one drug smuggler. Ernie has replaced heroin with plenty of booze.  In those days, the military encouraged alcohol consumption.  A quart of Gilbey’s gin cost less than a dollar on base.  A shot of bourbon at happy hour in the NCO club was fifteen cents.  The brass was deathly afraid of the effect of drugs on their troops and considered alcohol to be much preferable.  Also, Ernie loves military law enforcement because of the excitement and the relative freedom they enjoy.  It beats being in the infantry.

MPS: As an author, what makes them characters worth coming back to?

ML: They’ve become part of me.  Not only George and Ernie but also Riley and Miss Kim and even Strange.  As I recently told an old army buddy, when I’m writing it’s like being young again, and being back there. He was envious.

The Ville Rat comes out today! You can find copies on our shelves and via

Three Picks for October

ville ratThe Ville Rat by Martin Limón

The latest book to feature Sueño and Bascom, two Army CID detectives in 1970s Korea, has the detectives assigned two cases that put them up against one of the toughest and tightest units stationed on the North-South border. Limón uses an involving mystery to look at race and politics in the military for one of his best. The Ville Rat comes out Tuesday, October 6. You can find copies on our shelves after tomorrow, or order at any time via

savage laneSavage Lane by Jason Starr

Starr plumbs the sins of suburbia with a husband and wife whose cheating on each other leads to darker crimes. Starr’s subtle style and satire make him one of the leading authors who write good books about bad behavior. Savage Lane comes out Tuesday, October 13. Pre-order now!

guise of anotehrThe Guise Of Another by Allen Eskens

A cop with a professional cloud over him catches the case of a man who died twice. As he investigates deeper he could regain his glory or lose everything, including his life. Eskens seamlessly moves from procedural, to thriller, to noir, examining his hero and the many forms of identity.The Guise of Another comes out Tuesday, October 6. You can find copies on our shelves after tomorrow, or order at any time via

7% Solution Book Club to Discuss: STRANGERS ON A TRAIN by Patricia Highsmith

On Monday, October 5th, the 7% Solution Book Club meets to discuss Patricia Highsmith’s debut, Strangers on a Train. November’s book is The Murder of Roger Ackroydby Agatha Christie. As always, book club selections are 10% off at the registers in the month of their selection. 

  • Post by Molly

strangers on a trainPatricia Highsmith, in her long career, became one of the world’s most renowned crime novelists, and was one of the first women to be accepted into the mystery cannon as a master of psychological suspense. She has stayed in print continuously, when most of her female contemporaries had no hope of a classic reissue.

Her often-filmed Ripley stories catapulted her into long-lasting fame; yet even her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, was made into a classic noir by Hitchcock with a large following to this day. While many of the greatest mystery plots have been replicated often enough that it is difficult to notice the creativity of even the original, Highsmith’s unique simplicity of narrative, especially in her debut, stands alone, and feels as disturbingly plausible today as when it was first published.

Highsmith had many obsessions throughout her life, including at times, a preference for the company of snails over that of people. In her writings, she is fixated on obsession itself, and with the violence hidden within an ordinary individual, brought out by the repressive dysfunctions of a conservative society. She concerns herself with the point at which obsession becomes compulsion, and the moment when that compulsion becomes action. Highsmith’s style is almost synonymous with the definition of noir; her novels are characterized by as much atmosphere as action; she follows ordinary people changed by violent acts, and has no easy division of character into good or bad, cop or criminal.

If noir is the moment when obsession becomes action, then Strangers on a Train is in its set-up, the very definition of noir. Two men meet on a train. One, Hugo, is plagued by his father; the other, Guy, by his wife. They agree to swap murders, for this way none could form a connection between the murderer and the victim. When one goes through with his plan, the other must decide whether to fulfill his part of the agreement, turn the other man in, or find some other way to disentangle himself.

Strangers on a Train is very much a mid-century novel. Highsmith, like many intellectuals of her generation, saw in the legacy of WWII and in the hypocritical post-war world an answer to an important philosophical quandary: Would you kill someone if you knew that no one would find out and there would be no consequences? Her answer might read: Yes, but there are always consequences.

Highsmith was the perfect 1950s writer, writing about the dissonance between a beauteous exterior and a rotten interior, in a society obsessed with keeping up appearances. Her characters reflect this – Hugo wishes to bump off his father to receive his inheritance, for he cannot abide the notion of working or of asking his father for money. Guy, meanwhile, finds his wife inconvenient because she is pregnant by another man, yet refuses to divorce Guy until after the child’s birth, and Guy plans to remarry. In each case, humiliation is equated to injustice, which then spurs malice and murder.

Most unusually for her time, Highsmith did not to bother restore societal order with her endings. Her cheerful serial killers walk off into the sunset, a la The Talented Mr. Ripley. The Price of Salt, her tale of obsession and love between two women, was the first novel to be published featuring a lesbian affair and a happy ending (previously, novels with gay characters in relationships had to end tragically in order to be published). Highsmith writes society as if it is only a thin veneer, a smear of oil on the surface, covering our deep and instinctual need for chaos, violence, revenge, and individual expression.

The Seven Percent Solution Book Club meets Monday, October 5th, at 7 PM up on BookPeople’s 3rd floor to discuss this noir classic. If enough folks show up, we might even screen the Hitchcock film after our discussion! You can find copies of Strangers on a Train on our shelves and via Want more Patricia Highsmith? Come to the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club on Tuesday, October 20, at 2 PM, for a discussion of Highsmith’s great novel of love and obsession, Carol, or, The Price of Salt, soon to be released as a motion picture. 

Crime Fiction Friday: “Play Date” by Mike McCrary


We’re very happy to have Mike McCrary, author of Remo Went Rogue joining us Tuesday, October 6th, for our Noir At The Bar at Opal Divine’s. He’ll be reading alongside Jesse Sublett, Stuart Neville, and Gabino Iglesias. Mike has a cinematic eye and ear as well as one twisted sense of humor. Here’s a bit of nastiness that appeared on Shotgun Honey.

“Play Date” by Mike McCrary

“Charlie smirks, “It’s a game.”

Trish gulps, wincing in pain as if she swallowed a wasp, “I don’t want to play.”

“You liked playing with me a few months ago. Different game, but you wanted to play then.”

Read the rest of the story.

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND by Stuart Neville

Stuart Neville joins Jesse Sublett, Mike McCrary, and Gabino Iglesias for our upcoming Noir at the Bar. Come by the Penn Field Opal Divine’s this October 6th at 7 PM for books, booze, and readings from each author, plus some murder ballads from writer-musician Jesse Sublett. Those We Left Behind, Stuart’s latest novel, is our October Pick of the Month here at MysteryPeople. 

  • Post by Molly

those we left behindStuart Neville is one of the major voices in Northern Ireland’s new wave of crime fiction, dubbed “Ulster Noir” by the Guardian.  The whole of Ireland has become a power-house in crime writing over the past few decades, producing some of the best in international crime fiction from such voices as Ken Bruen, Lee Child, Tana French, and Adrian McKinty, and earning a reputation for Scandinavian-style dark, atmospheric tales. Neville’s latest novel, Those We Left Behind, is our October MysteryPeople Pick of the Month. Neville joins us for our bi-monthly celebration of books and booze, Noir at the Bar, this upcoming October 6th.

Stuart Neville’s many novels have run the gamut in subject matter. The Ghosts Of Belfast and Collusion are steeped in the legacy of sectarian violence and use mystery conventions as an approach to truth and reconciliation. Ratlines explores the lingering effects of Ireland’s semi-neutrality during WWII, while The Final Silence uses a mystery trope – a serial killer in the family – to explore how sectarianism opened the way for casual violence and perpetuated a culture of secrets. The Northern Ireland of The Final Silence, more-so than his previous novels, is one influenced by the past, but as much concerned about contemporary, general European issues as with problems specific to Northern Ireland.

Neville’s most recent novel, Those We Left Behind, follows the pattern of The Final Silence, his previous book, in its depiction of a modern Northern Ireland, beset by both historic and contemporary difficulties. British institutions continue to clash with Northern Irish citizens, but in modern, individual ways. In Those We Left Behind, a young man is released from prison to be reunited with his psychopathic brother. The two had murdered their foster father long before, and their former foster brother is out for revenge. A police officer and a probation officer try to prevent violence as the three men grow closer to an explosive confrontation.

Meanwhile, the policewoman also investigates the untimely death of a beloved friend from her cancer support group. The detective suspects her friend’s daughter may have more of a role in the deaths than just as grieving victim. She must confront the indifference of her superiors, unconcerned with the early death of an already-dying woman, in order to solve her case, and risks her job in doing so. The reader gets a sense of enormous goodwill, colossal bureaucratic hurdles, and tremendous, almost insurmountable, personal issues existing in the same small space.

Stuart Neville’s novels thrill, not only because of their pacing, but also because a crime novel, with its expectation of resolution, is the opposite of Northern Ireland’s history of sectarian standoff. Each fictional crime solved by Neville rails against ideological dehumanization to showcase a society fraught, but functioning. Although his novels acknowledge the legacy of history, they have contemporary settings, rather than historical.

Historical crime novels set in times of oppression or civil war tend towards the “sane man in an insane world” or “detective solving a small crime in the midst of a large crime” set-up. Neville, with his contemporary settings, restores the right of his murderers to be ruthless, damaged, psychotic people, disrupting a generally functional society, albeit with some kinks to work out. By embracing the police procedural as a genre, Neville shows his faith in a post-Troubles Northern Ireland, one in which government workers are not symbols of a repressive state but small parts of a functioning community.

Stuart Neville joins us October 6th at Opal Divine’s for Noir at the Bar. Neville will be speaking and signing his latest, Those We Left Behind, with additional readings from Mike McCrary, Gabino Iglesias and Jesse Sublett. You can find copies of Neville’s latest on our shelves or via Books for the signing will be available for purchase at the event. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Nathan Ward, author of THE LOST DETECTIVE: BECOMING DASHIELL HAMMETT


Nathan Ward’s The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett is a great look at the early and productive life of the father of hard boiled fiction. We got a hold of Nathan to talk about the book and his subject.

MysteryPeople Scott: What drew you to Hammett’s early years?

Nathan Ward: I came to write this book because it did not yet exist and I wanted to read something about what kind of detective had Hammett been before he wrote some of the iconic detective books of the 20th century; the best reason to write something is, as Thomas Berger answered when asked why he wrote novels, “Because it isn’t there.”

Hammett has what in comic books is called an origins story: once a real-life detective, he nearly died from Tuberculosis, then while flat on his back with the disease he began sending out crime stories. The rest is supposedly history. I wanted to test this myth and find out more about his incredible transition, especially to learn what kind of real detective he had been, if possible.

 “My theory was that if I focused primarily on the formative years, did a sort of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Pinkerton, I would have room enough to explore his unique transition.”

The various biographies over the years have had so much else to cover between his birth, early family life, fame and boozing, imprisonment and death, that they could only devote a few pages at most to this important but murky period in his life as a Pinkerton. My theory was that if I focused primarily on the formative years, did a sort of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Pinkerton, I would have room enough to explore his unique transition. When he stopped publishing books in the mid-1930s my story would end. Although it made less of a scoop for my book, I was impressed to learn that the myth had been basically true, while individual stories he told were sometimes lore.

MPS: Besides authenticity, what else did his stint as a Pinkerton give to his writing?

NW: In addition to giving him a subject, working for the Pinkerton Agency taught Hammett how to study people and, of course, it attuned his ear to street slang and criminal nicknames, later giving us recognizable characters such as the Dis-and-Dat Kid, “who had crushed out of Leavenworth only two months before” and Snohomish Whitey, “supposed to have died a hero in France in 1919.” These are not much of a stretch compared to the colorful crooks Pinkerton ops were encouraged to collect for their working files. The Pinkerton method of “assimilating” namelessly among the criminal class could not have been further from the Sherlock Holmes genius style of crime-fighting, and it turned out to be how crimes were actually solved.

Also, because the operatives had to submit reports that were often edited by their supervisors, the Pinkerton job taught Hammett about writing itself, not unlike the way a cub reporter gets schooled at a newspaper. And he saw some of the world, or at least the underworld, while traveling around as an operative. The kind of crime story Hammett invented in the early twenties, I argue, evolved directly from the style and form of those dozens of operative reports he wrote first; he just transformed it from a species of company memo into literature, although he might not have liked that word.

MPS: One thing that you covered, that many of his biographers have glossed over, is his time in advertising. What importance did that period serve?

NW: I was just as puzzled by how he became a writer as by how he then could take a break from it. In both cases the answer may have been mostly economic: He first sent out stories for extra money, and he began working for Albert Samuels to make much more money for his young family.

Hammett was not a college man. He left school at 14 to help his family. He did not approach the working world with the cynicism some of better-educated writers: Advertising was just another challenging way of working with words, which he found he was good at, and he gave it his all when he found he could not support his family on just his stories and disability pension. If his health had not crashed, he might have gone on a few more years as a successful ad man. But, most practically for his literary career, this experience introduced him to his wonderful boss, the jeweler Albert Samuels, who forgave Hammett his excessive drinking during the workday as long as he produced, and became a kind of benefactor, making him the loan that Hammett used to move to New York in 1929. He dedicated his second novel, ‘To Albert S. Samuels.’

MPS: What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research?

NW: The most fun I had in researching was also the most surprising—the days I spent in the Pinkerton archive in Washington DC, sifting through hundreds of actual op reports, log books, office memos, mug shots, and agency wanted posters. While it was a well-known sad fact that no one had ever turned up Hammett’s actual Pinkerton reports (They may have been kept by the clients, or lost in a fire, or both) reading the many by others on file gave me a vivid idea of just the kind of work he would have been doing for the agency. It was easier to imagine him as an op when I read what these guys typically did, and got to know the report form he jumped off from to create his stories with his fictional Continental Op.

MPS: If there was only one Hammett you could suggest to understand both the man and writer, which one would it be?

NW: I learned the most about Hammett when I read his stories. His biographer Rick Layman had advised me to read Hammett’s stories in the order he wrote them as a way of understanding how a man could teach himself to write and do it so well. Therefore, I would recommend the Lib. Of America collection Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings to watch Sam Hammett, sickly ex-Pinkerton, become Dashiell Hammett, great American detective novelist.

“The kind of crime story Hammett invented in the early twenties, I argue, evolved directly from the style and form of those dozens of operative reports he wrote first; he just transformed it from a species of company memo into literature, although he might not have liked that word.”

Of the novels, obviously The Maltese Falcon is the most famous and most beautiful to read. It also contains the visual style that later influenced Film Noir. (His early description of Sam Spade rolling a cigarette is one of my favorite paragraphs in all his work.) But Hammett’s own favorite novel was The Glass Key, which stars a tubercular political fixer with a gambling problem, in a town very like Hammett’s own Baltimore. And that tells you something about him that he favored this one. It was his attempt to write a political novel rather than another straight-up detective novel, but the protagonist still ends up investigating a murder, so it’s not as far from his others as he may have hoped. But it’s really good. My own favorite may be Red Harvest, his first, which is bleak and bloody as well as very funny. It has so much energy and he was still full of street knowledge from his Pinkerton service. But I can be talked into re-reading any of them.

MPS: What do you think is more incredible, the output of work he did in the short period of work in the time you cover or the lack of published work in the decades that followed?

NW: I have never thought he owed an explanation to anyone for not publishing in later years. How many writers can match what he did writing those five novels (Red Harvest, Dain Curse, Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and The Thin Man) between 1929-34?

He just couldn’t finish later works to the high standard he had established: He also wanted to be considered not a mystery or detective writer but a ‘real’ novelist like Hemingway, who also wrote about tough guys but was not considered a genre writer by critics. This led Hammett into kinds of writing he wasn’t as suited for.

I started doing this book as a work of restoration—everyone now saw Hammett through the sad lens Lillian Hellman had put over him in her memoirs, of a silvery mentor/companion who used to write books, when in fact she missed most of his active career and only saw him write The Thin Man first hand. The mystery of Hammett had become why he stopped instead of how did he become a writer in the first place. The story of what he’d done before the celebrated decline had languished under Hellman’s telling. I wanted to see how he accomplished all that he did—as a Pinkerton shadow man and then as a writer of peerless crime stories– in the crowded years before Lillian met him one night at a Hollywood party, when Hammett was already famous and 36 years old. To my mind, she came in pretty late in his story. It was those first 35 years I became interested in.

You can find copies of The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett on our shelves and via