Scott Montgomery is the crime supremo at Book People in Austin. After the gig, he suggests eating Texan. Will it be TexMex or BBQ? We opt for the meat, and good it is.
Scott’s organizing this year’s bumper crime fest in the US, known as Bouchercon, in St Louis. The Western Hemisphere’s only Ottoman garden is in St Louis.
Lonnie and Sandy, two fabulous Austinites who have travelled the world (I mean, the world: Lonnie had his nose broken in a storm off the Antarctic, and they have lived in France), are determined to break our resistance to Tex Mex, and invite us to lunch. Bill Clinton ate here, as president, so there’s no question that this is the best of its breed.
I wish I could say that the scales fell from my eyes and I let Tacos into my heart. It isn’t the flavour. It is, I think, the texture. The crackly corn chips, the runny sauces, the chewy wraps. But we had a great lunch and then L and S took us on a whirlwind tour of Austin, culminating in a trip to the University to see a Gutenburg Bible and the world’s first photo. It’s not a very clear photo after all this time, but it was taken in France in 1829, seven years before my first historical detective story, The Janissary Tree, opens. It’s hard to imagine.
We stayed in a rockstar hotel in Austin. The St Cecilia has a sister motel just around the corner, on the achingly cool strip of Congress where the vintage stores and the food caravans are; both hotels are funky – but St Cecilia is for grown-ups, sort of. The word SOUL is reflected in the pool in neon lights. There’s a main house and around the house are these groovy Ottoman kiosks with wide spreading eaves and cunningly devised suites which you can stay in. The floors are covered in huge turquoise tiles, the shower is a wet room, and you can borrow records from the library. You can pretend you’re the only people there or you can go and hang out by the pool.
The babes checked in the day we checked out, but never mind – the hotel got us a reservation to eat at Uchi, said to be the best sushi in the South – and don’t even mention California. Yashim would not have approved, but the belly pork in a cornmeal crust was, as they say, melting.
St Cecilia melted us. Izzy said it was the coolest hotel he’d ever stayed in and I, veteran of those particular wars, could only agree.
We took 290 out of Austin, after popping into Wholefoods to buy a picnic. Actually you don’t pop into Wholefoods. It’s like the Food Halls at Harrods, but redone as a chromium ’63 Pontiac by the cast of Holiday on Ice. It sparkles, it twinkles, it stacks and it fillets and chops and roasts and grills; choose a bread, take the brisket, mustard with that? Wanna juice, have a grill, chat back, pick up some chocolate…
It’s like being a greedy little silver ball in a gingerbread pinball machine.
Grazing on our dripping roasts, like goats nibbling low branches, we rolled down 290 towards Houston, stopping to buy pecans, pronounced here perkahns, and admiring the ranch entrances, the cattle in the grass, and the beautiful oaks. Rolling country makes the heart ache.
In Houston, my gig was at Murder by the Book, a phenomenal store run by a glamorous girl with a name to match – McKenna Jordan, who also happens to be a virtuoso violinist. She is also responsible for republishing Crossroad Blues. Out of the Texan glare it is cool and comfortable, and the store is crammed with books, a few of them mine.
After the gig, we are treated to a magnificent dinner at Haven. Without making eye contact, Izzy and I go for the steak. It’s Texas, after all. But not Joe Lansdale’s Texas: this is the swanky Texas that belongs to the nation’s fourth largest city, and our host, Ken Tekell Sr, is a notable lawyer and my neighbour at table a world-class neurologist.
The steak is pretty good too.