“The best I ever read. That’s tough. I have favorites, but it’s hard to pick the best.”
“I know, but this is how we begin. You gotta put your money down and place your bet. What’s the best mystery ever?”
“Let me just check what we’re betting on—what’s the best mystery book ever, as voted by attendees at this week’s conference? Not my personal favorite? Is that right?”
“Right, but you can name your favorite or what you guess the group is going to pick, but whatever you choose you’re going to be wrong because I alone know the answer.”
“You’re so full of it. You alone know the answer? You’ve seen the future and you know how the three hundred-plus people here are going to vote?”
“You got it. Want to bet on it?”
I was hooked. How about you? You want to take the bet?
I was in the registration line at the Mystery Writers of America’s annual conference in Las Vegas. It was 1984 and the guy in front of me was telling his buddy he knew which mystery book the group would name best ever.
We could all come up with some contenders. The Maltese Falcon, And Then There Were None, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Big Sleep, Murder on the Orient Express … and the list goes on. But to know which one would get the nod is sort of like knowing who’s going to win the Oscar. You know the nominees, but you never know how the voters will be swayed year to year.
I usually don’t like know-it-alls, although I can be a bit of one myself. They say in the therapy world you don’t like in others what you don’t like in yourself. But the guy in the line, with his safari jacket and smug attitude was winning my annoyance all by himself.
I wasn’t buying the man’s clairvoyant skills, but I know that in a town built on gambling, some people know how to work with the odds to get the results they want.
If you’ve been to any conferences before with me, you know it’s a good bet something untoward is going to happen, and that I’m going to get involved.
Monday, August 6, 1984
I’ve been down this trail before, I said to myself as I packed my car and headed out to Vegas. I don’t know if you’ve been there, but it’s all those things you think it is and worse. And not always for the better.
Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have gone to the Mystery Writers of America’s annual conference. First, I’d have had to become a member—perhaps not be a bad idea given that I’d written a few Lesson books. Second, it meant spending a week in Las Vegas, which was five days too much of something that was already too much. Third, I wasn’t sure I wanted to pal around with a bunch of mystery writers. I was just learning how to talk mystery, let alone walk it.
But, as fate would have it, I was attending in my capacity as a therapist. My client (whose name I’ve obviously changed) asked me to accompany him. You’d know him by his books. He gets very nervous when he has to speak to large groups, and was due to give a sixty-minute presentation as well as participate in a panel. He wanted me there to help him through. He also had some concerns involving his new girlfriend, who was along for the trip.
I’m a therapist with an office where I see people. I also see them out of that space—in their homes, at family meetings, work gatherings and on plane trips. I even accompanied one to a music festival. I charge by the hour so these extended therapy sessions are costly. I used to charge much less so more people could afford to hire me out, but I’ve garnered a bit of a reputation and, now as the child of capitalism, I’ve raised my rates.
Bennett is a very successful mystery writer. He’s always got “New York Times Bestseller” stamped on the front of his books. He isn’t my mystery writer of choice, but he’s on a lot of people’s shortlist. Being a shrink, I tend to like the mysteries where the protagonist does some self-reflection and struggles with their humanity. Bennett was more a bang/bank, shoot ’em up, move it along cliffhanger to cliffhanger type of writer. Which is why his books are on the bestseller lists and the ones I like need to be discovered at the bookstore.
The conference was running for seven days, starting Monday evening, August 6th. Bennett and I had gone over the schedule and roughed out one for ourselves. I would meet him for an hour or so every morning, then again in the afternoon, as well as any other time he needed. His panel was Wednesday and the presentation on Friday. I’d make myself available to him for both of those full days, even though he wouldn’t want me with him the whole time.
I reviewed the schedule to see if there were any workshops or panels I wanted to attend. There were some authors I wanted to hear speak and a couple of workshops where I could learn a thing or two about solving mysteries. I penciled them in. From previous experience at conferences, and despite my initial good intentions, the events of the moment tend to limit my attendance. At the last conference I’d gone to, in Santa Barbara, I just managed to squeak in enough workshops to earn my continuing-education credits.
Since my meter would have been running for a full week, Bennett and I had settled on a flat fee. Plus, he’d pick up my hotel bill, expenses including food and transportation, but not gambling losses. It was a good deal. I don’t particularly like Las Vegas but if I’m going to go it’s better to come home a winner.
Of course, going in, that’s what everybody thinks.