LITERARY CRIME REPORT (To be filed in triplicate) SCENE OF CRIME: The National Press Club, Washington, D.C. TIME OF CRIME: Oct. 10-12, 1980 Nature of CRIME: Hijacking of readership; possible murder of genre IDENTITY OF SUSPECTS(S): James Bond, a.k.a. Nicholai Hel, a.k.a. George Smiley. Many other suspected aliases. IDENTITY OF VICTIM(S): Arsene Lupin, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Father Brown, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, et. al. MODUS OPERANDI: Substitution of muscle, technological gee-whiz, secret organzations, fast action and quick sex for the slow meticulous operations of the human intellect. LOCATION AND NATURE OF EVIDENCE: Bookstores, reader surveys, Bouchercon XI. A first edition of "Casino Royale" on sale (for $13,50) in the middle of a table full of rare mystery books -- a table with a Maltese Falcon replica brooding in the middle, priced at $22.50. DESCRIPTION OF CRIME
(Reporting officer should describe situation as completely as possible in his own words. Use extra sheets of paper if necessary.)
Did James Bond murder Philip Marlowe? The question was hardly raised or examined at Bouchercon XI, a national convention of some 250 murder mystery fans held last weekend "in Washington, D.C. Where Crime Is Your Government's Business." But it hung in the air of the National Press Club, while young writers talked about the problem of getting mysteries -- real mysteries, not action-suspense -- published and editors complained about bookstores that won't display mysteries where impulse shoppers might buy them and booksellers lamented that the market is saturated with mystery fiction.
"Everybody is reading mysteries," said an enthusiastic fan. Look at Ludlum's sales figures . . . Trevanian . . . Le Carre."
Everyone is a vegetarian, if you define meat and fish as vegetables. And mysteries -- the old-fashioned kind where an individual detective pits his wits against a master criminal -- are still a staple in the American literary diet. But the mass taste changed sometime between Hiroshima and Kent State; detective stories (with a few exceptions) stopped being blockbusters and became the object of a small cult (no more than a few million), while the mass public started reading novels about disaster, superheroes and the clash of conflicting empires. Pure mysteries are not being published as often as they used to be, and few, if any, are selling some other millions, as Ludlum and some other suspense writers do routinely.
Perhaps James Bond should not be blamed -- do you hold a symptom responsible for the disease? -- but no matter whodunit, the publishing trend seems to reflect a basic change in the preoccupations of the American people. A single murder is now small potatoes, and we no longer care so much about fixing the blame for crimes already committed. (Wasn't it society, after all, that killed Roger Ackroyd -- just as it is killing Maigret and Miss Marple?) Our basic national anxiety now relates to something awful that we must stop before it happens. The name of the game is not crime and punishment; it's security.
The happy mystery fans at Bouchercon XI (which is named in honor of the late writer, editor and critic, Anthony Boucher) showed little concern for security. They attended panel discussions by such star mystery writers as Gregory Mcdonald and James Grady, listened to inside dope from CIA and FBI speakers, heard Robert D. Arscott tell about the "sting" operations in Washington and flocked to showings of such movies as "G-Men" and "Call Northside 777." Between sessions, they sipped cocktails in the Press Club Lounge or browsed the book dealers' tables upstairs, where copies of a magazine called "Dime Detective" were selling for prices up to $100, depending on what authors or illustrators were in a given issue.
Compared to science fiction conventions, which are much more frequent and considerably larger, the scene was relatively quiet. Science fiction conventions tend to be populated chiefly by college-age people who like to walk around in funny costumes, conregate in corners with a guitar to sing songs, and buy swords and capes at the dealers' tables. Bouchercon XI had a crowd that you might see at a Washington party on about GS-12 to 15 level -- bright, moderately affluent, quiet people who like to use their minds while they're reading.
One of them, a middle-aged woman, was talking to New York dealer Otto Penzler, across a table loaded with autographed first editions and a replica Maltese Falcon. She was looking wistfully through a first edition of "The Phantom of the Opera."
"How much is this?" she asked, and Penzler told her it was $65. "You'll have it at the store in New York if it isn't sold here?" she asked. Penzler assured her he would and she drifted away, replaced by a man asking if he had "anything on Basil Rathbone."
"A couple of lobby stills," said Penzler, pointing to a display of the kind of small pictures that used to lure people into movies houses. These, it turned out, were also $65 apiece. "I used to be able to buy them for a dollar or two when I began," said Penzler, "but you can't do that any more. I bought two Rathbones for $100 recently, and I've already sold one for $65."
The bottom line on Bouchercon XI was still a mystery to its two sponsors, Jon. L. Lellenberg and Peter Blau, as the convention drew to a close. "I think we'll break even," said Blau. "If there's a deficit, it's our problem. If there's a surplus, we'll send it to the people who are running next year's Bouchercon in Milwaukee."
Lellenberg seemed to be still trying to deduce how he became involved in the Bouchercon. "Peter and I were at the Bouchercon in New York three years ago, and we said it might be a good idea to have one in Washington, and they told us, 'You have just volunteered,'" he recalled. "We agreed, because three years seemed to be a very long time."
Both Blau and Lellenberg are members of the Baker Street Irregulars, the Sherlock Holmes club that meets once a year in New York. The Irregulars have a very restricted membership, but the most exclusive Sherlockian organization is much smaller according to one of its members, Ann Byerly. "We're called The Red-Headed League, we're international and a year-and-a-half old," she said. "We meet once a year in New York, along with the Baker Street Irregulars; we have a red-headed table at the Biltmore, and we won't let anyone else sit with us. There were three of us at the table last year; this year, we may have five." Membership requirements are stringent. Besides copying the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica by hand (which none of the members has done yet), applicants must have authentic red hair -- beards and sideburns don't count. This qualification is checked out in an initiation rite during which all the applicant's hairs are pulled.
At least one imposter at the convention had no prospects of joining the Red-Headed League. He was a lanky fellow who walked with a limp and concealed his features between a beard that had almost finished the transition from black to white. He would answer only to the name of "Clueless Joe Jackson" and he boasted with quiet pride that he had penetrated the meeting's security arrangements.
"I paid for my registration," he said, but I was able to walk in without showing my identification tag. When all those honchos from the CIA and FBI were up on the stage, I wandered around finding good lines of fire. If I had been armed, I could have wandered in, shot them and escaped."
That's because this convention was still dedicated to the old style -- not security, but detection. Nobody would have prevented the crime, but most of the people in the place could probably have solved it.