Writers on the Road

Stephen Booth, Donald Hale and Danuta Reah hit the mid-west

Danuta Reah, Stephen Booth and Donald Hale

It was Kathryn Kennison’s idea. It was one of those late evenings in the bar at Magna cum Murder, and she started talking about a mid-west tour for British writers, sometime in the spring.

Ten-thirty and three Coronas into the evening, it all sounded like a good idea, which was how Don Hale and I came to be landing in Columbus, Ohio on a windy May evening, nervously watching the wings of the plane yawing recklessly as it skimmed a few feet above the ground.

“It’ll come in on one wheel, flip over and land upside down,” was Don’s prediction. “Wingtip landing, cartwheel, die horribly,” was mine. With five pounds sterling running on the outcome, it was probably not too surprising that the plane landed with little more than a bounce and deposited us at the terminal. Ooo! Skyscrapers! We were in the US, and the tour was about to begin.

Don and I stayed for two nights in Columbus. Our hotel seemed to cover a vast acreage, but had a certain magical quality, to wit: it didn’t matter which direction you walked, if you kept going for long enough, you ended up back in the lobby. There was a pool, a bar, a dining room, staff, but — apart from a wedding party on Saturday night mdash; no visible guests.

Small digression here: Every hotel room has a shower, and every shower works differently. The guest is faced with a row of buttons, taps and levers which can be pushed, pulled, turned, yanked, twisted or pressed. If the correct manoeuvres are carried out — in the correct order — a shower can be obtained. NB: Jumping up and down and shouting ‘shit’ doesn’t — usually — work. My strategy is to push, pull, turn, yank, twist and press everything in sight until something happens. To date, I have managed to get a shower in every hotel I have ever visited (apart from the Jubilienya in Minsk, but that’s another story.)

The showers at the Columbus hotel offered something called a ‘massage’ facility. My shower strategy failed to find this, but it did find the police riot-control facility. This hit me amidships with a jet of water, pinned me to the back of the stall and efficiently removed about six layers of skin before I could fight my way back to the controls and switch it off. I didn’t consult Don about his experience with the showers (a lady does not ask a fellow traveller about his bathroom habits) but I did notice that he, like me, looked exceptionally clean and a little subdued.

Monday, 5th May, and Kathryn Kennison arrived to take us to our first venue, Foul Play Books in Westerville, Ohio. We went to the airport to pick up Stephen on the way. (Ooo! A parking lot!) We swept into the arrivals hall a good fifteen minutes early, and waited by the baggage check for half an hour, while Stephen, whose plane had got in early, waited by the passenger pick-up point about five yards away. Crime writers don’t like to concern themselves with minor details like the exact location of a meeting — we like to use our instincts. That was the verdict of Don, Steve and me anyway. Kathryn’s verdict was possibly a tad more pungent.

Foul Play Books was in a street of those houses that look indisputably American to the English eye — wood, painted, with gables and a porch. It was just the way an old bookshop should be — tiny rooms lined with shelves and the numbers and kinds of books that give you an ache in your credit card. The evening was warm, and we sat outside the shop in the yard for the event, with a group of keen mystery enthusiasts who listened to what we had to say, laughed in all the right places and asked a lot of good questions. It was a good start to the tour. Dick and Kathryn then drove us to Muncie, our base for the next three nights.

At this point I would like to propose a vote of thanks and a minute’s respectful silence for Dick who drove from Muncie to Dublin, Dublin to Columbus airport, Columbus airport to Westerville, and Westerville to Muncie, with no complaint.

Tuesday 6th May was Jim Huang’s shop at Carmel — Mystery and Company. Another book-fest and more damage to the credit card. The shop is very new — it has only been open a few months, but Jim’s enthusiasm for and knowledge about crime fiction is already attracting good audiences to his events. Dick and Kathryn sat through the talk they’d heard the night before (the minor details might change, but we tended to tell the same stories) maintaining an appearance of being interested and alert. While we are into votes of thanks, I will just say here that they sat through two more events with that same look of enjoyment. In my book, we’re into medal territory here.

Stephen and I had started, inadvertently, competing for the best Yorkshire Ripper story, as we both had tenuous connections with that particularly unpleasant serial killer. Don, as a journalist, was soon able to join in with this, so there was a Yorkshire Ripper element to the rest of the tour

Wednesday afternoon, Kathryn took us shopping. (Ooo! Wal-Mart!). I didn’t think I had bought much, but by the time we came to leave Muncie, we all seemed to have added a few house-bricks to our cases.

Brief digression: if you ever want to breed house-bricks, pack a suitcase and go on a long trip. A pair of house-bricks will be nesting before day three. They will be raising quintuplet grandchildren by the end of the first week.

Wednesday 7th, we did an event at the Ball Centre in Muncie — a beautiful old house that was once a family home, with Tiffany glass and chandeliers and inlaid floors — a lesson in gracious living.

Thursday 8th, it was time to leave Muncie and move on to Kokomo. We were appearing at the South Branch library, a light and airy building with huge windows. Once again the indefatigable Kennisons drove us, and Dick and Kathryn listened for a fourth time to our Yorkshire Ripper stories, Stephen’s tales of how he got his non-reading parents enrolled in the library and reading fiction, my tales of scary people in deserted railway stations and Don’s tales of burned out cars and Mafia heists.

We said our farewells to Kathryn and Dick at this point. The following morning we picked up our rental car. (Ooo! Automatic transmission!). British cars mostly have manual transmission, and it takes a little getting used to a car that does most of that work for you. Also, in my view, Americans don’t bring their machines up to have a proper respect. The car we rented was extremely demanding and refused to go unless we complied with all its requirements. It was prone to beep complainingly if it had a minor disagreement about driving methods (though in fairness I suppose Stephen shouldn’t have attempted to drive it with the hand-brake on).

It was a blazing hot day as we set out for Ann Arbor. I’ll correct that. It was a blazing hot day by Brit standards. (Ooo! Sun!) It was probably a temperate day by US standards. The drive was easy enough, though it is sobering to drive for four and a half hours and realise how little of the map you have covered. In the UK, four and a half hours covers a substantial amount of it. Don and Stephen shared the driving, and I, as non-driver, put my feet up in the back.

We swept up to the Campus Inn at Ann Arbor in style, and stopped at the entrance to get our bags out. The bellhop asked Don to move the car to one side, and it was at that point that the vehicle got the bit between its teeth. It shut Don in the car and refused to move. In desperation, Don tried the shower technique (push, pull, twist, yank, press, jump up and down and shout shit) to get it moving or to persuade it to let him out, while Steve and the bellhop offered conflicting advice from the outside and a yellow cab helpfully sounded its horn. Steve and I cravenly scarpered, and Don retreated to park the car (and, incidentally, beat the living daylights out of it).

We had planned a half hour’s rest before we meandered along to the shop, but we’d forgotten that we’d crossed a time-line. We had just under half an hour to dump our bags and get to the shop. I have never put my make-up on so fast. If you hear about Krusty the Clown having made a recent appearance at Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor, that was probably me.

At Aunt Agatha’s (more aargh! from the credit card), we were joined by Alan Gordon, writer of medieval mysteries. We adapted our routine accordingly — a good thing, as we were all getting a bit familiar with each other’s stories. The audience was lively, chatty and interested, and we had a really good evening, but as it ended, we realised that the tour was almost over.

The drive from Ann Arbor to Milwaukee was the longest. The internet said it would take us about five and a half hours. People in Ann Arbor gave us estimates that varied from six to eight hours. We set off at eight the next morning, so our experience of Ann Arbor was a brief view as we drove in, a race to the bookshop, a stroll around a café and bar area, and a bleary-eyed morning departure. It looks like a pretty town, and I would like to see it again in a slightly more leisurely way.

In the event, five and a half hours would have been about right, if our exit to Milwaukee hadn’t been closed. The detour took us into an area that got more and more boarded up, more and more littered with abandoned vehicles, and then dumped us in front of a large ‘We mug dumb Brits and steal their cars’ sign.

We beat a hasty retreat, and then drove round aimlessly for a while. Steve swore he wasn’t lost, and somehow or another, we ended up outside Mystery One. Luck or an unerring sense of direction? You can be the judges. The store was full of familiar faces from RAM, and the tour ended with a party at the Jordans’ — good company, good food, good beer, good margaritas. We staggered back to the hotel after midnight.

Brief digression: I am a notoriously unlucky traveller. Delayed flights, stolen credit cards, road rage chases — they all happen to me. This time, as I proudly told Annie and Sandi at the party, nothing bad had happened. The jinx was broken. Oh, yeah?

Don and I were to fly back together. We had a short hop from Milwaukee to Chicago, with a brief wait before we boarded out flight to Manchester. The timing was maybe a bit tight, but what can go wrong between Milwaukee and Chicago? We took the hotel bus to Milwaukee airport in time for a two-hour check-in, put our bags through X-Ray, had the bags opened, and then checked them in. Then we took ourselves through security. We took our laptops out of their cases, put everything into plastic trays, sent it all through X-Ray, went through the metal detectors, got patted down, retrieved our baggage, put the laptops back in their cases and were in the departure lounge in time for coffee and bagels. No problem.

Ten minutes before take-off, the Chicago flight was cancelled. Aaargh! Back through security, bags out of check-in, bus to Chicago, into the airport, bags through X-Ray, bags opened, bags checked in. Security, laptops out, bags through X-Ray, us through metal detector, laptops in, marathon sprint to gate. We chased the plane down the runway and grabbed its undercarriage as it took off. (Actually, I’m lying, but that’s what it felt like)

Tour summary: High points: too many to mention. To pick out a few — so many friendly people, seeing Lake Michigan, visiting the Ball Centre, the party at the Jordans’, Ruth’s apple pie. Low points: the tea. What’s so hard about pouring boiling water on tea-leaves, you guys?

So, home, jet-lagged but happy. It was a good tour, and we will be back.