I didn't know what to expect of Baltimore, known in the US as Charm City. I'd read a couple of Laura Lipmann's books and had a sense of tension: this seemed to be a place where people from different races, backgrounds and religions, the wealthy and the very poor, co-existed a little uneasily.
In the end I loved Baltimore. I arrived 3 days before Bouchercon, the USA's biggest mystery convention, after spending a night with my old friend, Joni Langevoort and her family in Virginia. I'd been a fortnight on the road, staying in hotels, living off sandwiches and it was wonderful to have a relaxed Sunday with home cooking and good company. And perhaps talking to Joni's son Jackson about the pressure on High School kids to perform and conform gave me a better understanding of American politics too, went some way to explain that intense patriotism that Europeans just don't get.
My first impression was that Baltimore was scruffy. Washington had been grand and clean, but scruffy suits me better. I arrived just in time to sit in on the dress rehearsal for BROUGHT TO BOOK in the Pratt Library. The suspects were all staff and in the end gave one of the best performances of the event that I can remember. Kathy from Murder Loves Company took time out from her hectic preparations before Bouchercon to sell books. The following evening was my last Elderhostel programme. My old friend and Murder Squad colleague Martin Edwards had arrived in town early and I persuaded him to take over the lecture on the history of the British crime novel. It was as good as I knew it would be - witty, informative and dead to time.
Then Bouchercon. Friendly British faces - within minutes I'd bumped into Stuart Macbride and Zoe Sharp - and the chance to catch up with old acquaintances, British and American. The highlights? Talking about books with real enthusiasts - with booksellers Marilyn and Lisa from The Moonstone Mystery Bookstore, Flemington New Jersey, with Carolyn, Pari, Kathy-Lynn and Martin during our panel on sense of place, with Janet Hutchings from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine over a good lunch. And with the readers, the enthusiastic, money-spending readers, who are so overlooked at these huge conventions. They pay our wages and often we treat them with too little respect.
I had my fan moments too. It was a delight to meet Arnaldur Indridason. I've loved his books since I first read Jar City and he was affable and relaxed, even as the Icelandic banking system was collapsing and he had no idea whether he'd be able to retrieve enough cash to get home. And although I didn't pluck up courage to speak to her personally I enjoyed hearing Laura Lipmann talk about her home city. After all, she'd introduced me to it through her books and gave me a sense of its complexity and its charm.
The joys of slumming it
Not that I am slumming it, of course. Not at all. Elderhostel has found me some lovely city hotels and on Tuesday, after the event in Athol, thanks to the friends of the library, I stayed in the Clamber Hill Inn in Petersham; that was simply gorgeous - a huge old house in the middle of trees with polished wood floors, rugs and open fires, even in the bedrooms. Deni and Mark were great hosts and the food was stunning - if you go, make sure you ask for the sour cream and raspberry pancakes for breakfast! You can check the Inn out at www.clamberhill.com.
But that's what my friend Sandy said when she saw I was catching the T back to Boston from Porter Square in Cambridge: 'You're slumming it then? Not taking a taxi?' We'd just had lunch. I was on my way back from the event in Athol and from signing stock in Kate's Mystery Bookstore. Sandy and I have been friends for years, since she wrote an article on British crime writers and came to chat to me.
It was raining and perhaps a taxi would have made sense but I like public transport. There's always the possibility of unintended adventure. It can pose a challenge, especially if you have lots of luggage - and despite the earlier post, I haven't managed to do the travelling light thing this trip. The New York subway is scary. It seems to have a completely random system involving letters and numbers, no maps on the trains, no intelligible announcements. And below ground the platforms look like the set of a horror movie. But the passengers are so cool... The Boston T is OK, with friendly staff and Washington, where I am now, has a clean and efficient metro.
I've done proper trains too this trip - most recently the commuter rail out to Fitchburg to go to Athol and the long distance train - as in nearly 8 hours - from Boston to Washington. Perhaps because I'm on my own I like the chance encounters, the overheard conversations, the social contact. Waiting in South Station, Boston yesterday, Senator John Kerry appeared, surrounded by aides and press people. He looked tired but just as he does on the television, set up his stand on the concourse and made a speech. I'd never have heard that if I'd been in a car.
Monday is Baltimore. I plan to arrive in time for the dress rehearsal (Dress rehearsal? Does that mean costumes? Fabulous!) of Brought to Book, which will take place in Central Library Baltimore at 6.30 on Tuesday. If you're in town early for Bouchercon, do join us!