Now I realise what Peter James was doing, tapping away quietly at his laptop in the Chesapeake Lounge: blogging. At the time I thought he must be working on his next book. I lack the facilities, but I’m home now and here goes.
For mystery writers and fans – not to mention agents, publishers, booksellers and editors – this is the Big Festival. There must have been more than 600 of us; authors on discussion panels running simultaneously throughout the day, book signings, lunches, suppers, parties and a slow descent toward the bar, like sand in an hour glass. By Sunday we were all hoarse. It was damn good fun.
Mark Billingham was the MC – and who better? A first rate writer who is also very very funny, he was there with his lovely wife, Clare – his agent, Sarah Lutyens, is an old friend and we went out to dinner at Mo’s, a seafood restaurant recommended by the hotel concierge. Not a touristy place, just a homely restaurant where locals like to eat, she assured us, while picking up the phone to summon the Mo’s Restaurant shuttle bus to come to the hotel. It was fine. I had lobster. I think it was frozen and shipped down from Maine.
Another night I ate out at the Black Olive with Stanley Trollip, one half of the Michael Stanley writing partnership; we sat at a pavement table in the quiet cobbled street in Fell’s Point and later roamed the district with the irrepressible Andrew Gulli (of Strand Magazine) and Peter James. There were a thousand bars, each catering to a different crowd – redneck, lesbian, bookish, juvenile, you name it. We couldn’t find one for us, so instead we went to inspect a house where Andrew had noticed an old man sitting immobile in front of a computer. The body was gone, and the lights were doused, so we could only assume foul play. I can’t imagine why.
It was important to get out of the hotel complex now and then; I saw the incomparable Walter’s Collection, where I inspected, among other things, some truly grisly Flemish 16th century momento mori – skulls, and a tiny boxwood Death with bones rattling and worms already at work on his trailing flesh. Then over to the Lexington Market for a round of quahog clams at a stand-up oyster shack: the real thing, folks. The largest, wettest and chewiest shellfish I’ve ever had. Fabulous.
Rob and Barbara Peters took me to the aquarium – the National Collection of fish, if you please – where we gawped at sharks at close range. And to complete the Baltimore boost, there was Rebecca Hoffburger’s American Visionary Art Museum that topped my bill: a moving, amusing, instantly accessible collection of ‘outsider’ art, things done with love, passion, obsessive compulsive disorders and sweet vision by people who fell into their medium almost by divine intervention. A twelve foot model of the Lusitania done with toothpicks. A pontiac cheerily embellished with blue medicine bottles, all over, except for a shrine in the boot which included an accordion. Automata. A figure of Elvis carved in the lead of a carpenter’s pencil. Sculptures of wound wool, each containing a stolen item, done by a kleptomaniac woman with Down’s Syndrome. A robot family, complete with dog, fashioned out of old hoovers, colanders and car parts, bleeping and nodding their heads. A very happy place, and an outstanding museum never to be missed by anyone.
That was outside the Convention; inside was even weirder, as you can imagine. Alison Gaylin had a girl vomit on her shoes and nobody so much as waived her bill. Arnaldur Idradason was on my panel, explaining how hard it was to write police procedurals in Iceland where the murder rate is one in twenty five years (though that may change if the Rejkyavik mob ever get their hands on the crooks who landed them in their current mess)…