Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee

I've wanted to go to Murder & Mayhem in Milwaukee since it was held in Muskego. I missed out by not rationing vacation days. My first was last weekend, and I assure you, I won't be missing the next one.

It's a one day convention now held at the Irish Community Center, which is a former church, so it is a literal shrine to crime fiction. The venue is now an event space that welcomes everyone, Irish or not, and I approve fully of the four taps of Guinness scattered across the building. They also serve Smithwick's and local craft brews, befitting Milwaukee's brewtown heritage. Run by Ruth and Jon Jordan, Erica Ruth Neubauer, and Penny Halle, with well-curated panels held on well-lit stage with pro audio equipment, the audience sits in pews with comfy cushions and no Catholic Aerobics are required. (I was raised in the church, and sit-stand-kneel-pray is a good warm-up before any athletic activity).
me and my panel mates
There's a pre-con party at the legendary Casa de Jordan, part of a city block the family has owned for 75 years, beginning with their historic machine shop. I was lucky enough to get a tour. I barely survived wood shop and while my old man was a carpenter and a mason (the bricklayer kind, not the ones who rule the universe) I try to stay away from drill presses and bandsaws if I want to keep all my limbs and palps. They have a machine that was once used to mill uranium for the Manhattan Project. And they've repaired and machined parts used all over the city, including the famous art museum.

But for those more interested in books, upstairs is like a library, toy store, and art gallery all in one. With a bathtub full of beers and ice, the party was the best time I've had with the crime fiction community. People talk about the Bouchercon Bar with awe, but it's stiff in comparison. Here you can relax and there are no cliques or hierarchies. Just people who love the same things, jawing and having a good time.

Me and F. Paul Wilson at Casa de Jordans

The con itself starts bright and early at 9:00 AM, and I was on a panel moderated by Shaun Harris, author of the hilarious crime novel The Hemingway Thief, which I recommend whether you love, hate, or don't give a tinker's damn about Ernest Hemingway. It's just a great yarn. Shaun made the mistake of telling me he drove to the event, so I mooched a ride off him and he found me in the lobby stuffing a coffee and bagel in my face to assuage my pains for over-indulging from the Bathtub o' Beer the night before. Milwaukee is a Beer Town. Maybe THE beer town. With thirteen breweries to slake the mighty thirsts of its people, who either work in industry or are descended from such workers, beer lovers simply must make a pilgrimage. Even if you don't like suds, you can have a blast on the Lakefront Brewery Tour, which is the most entertaining of its kind that I have endured.
Erica Ruth Neubauer organized the mass tour of the place, and thank you, Erica! Lakefront makes many great beers, from standards like River West Stein amber, to a wacky but delicious cocoa mint porter.

And most importantly they have the bottling line from the Schlitz brewery that was used in the opening credits of Laverne & Shirley, and let two lucky folks reenact the "glove on a bottle" gag while the rest of the group sings the theme song.

Erica Ruth Neubauer plays Laverne

Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hassenpfeffer incorporated! We're gonna do it....

I surprised myself by remembering every stanza. I watched a lot of L&S as a kid. I had a crush on Shirl, laughed at Lenny and Squiggy, and it was nice seeing The Big Ragu on TV when most Italian characters were mobsters. Also, I explained to the tour guide what schlemiel and schlimazel mean in Yiddish...

But back to the con... I'm schlepping from Shaun's car with a bagel & lox in my mouth in the rain when we walk into the former church, fifteen minutes to showtime, when we find out how relaxed and casual it all is. No rush. Everyone chatting, setting things up, having a good time already. Eric and Christy Campbell of Down & Out Books were there with a table selling Killing Malmon, and the Mighty Malmons and the Honorable Hackbarths were there, rightly proud of the book. And I'm proud to be in it. (Disclaimer: Bad Boy Boogie and my upcoming story collection Life During Wartime are published by Down & Out Books.)

My fellow panel-mates were Danny Gardner, whose novel A Negro and an Ofay is getting well-deserved accolades from all over, David Krugler, author of the Cold War thriller The Dead Don't Bleed, and Kimmy Dee, author of Pussy Planet and Other Endearing Tales. Kimmy's attendance was a surprise to me, I know her from Facebook and was glad to finally meet her. She's a very funny writer, and if you dig The Bloggess you should grab a copy of Kimmy's book.

Our panel was on writing violence (I always seem to get on these... I hope my craft beer Nazi hipster cat cozy will get me on a bigger variety of panels). Maybe that's because I was teaching writers how to perform Krav Maga moves on me at the party Friday night? That's how I know when I've had enough beer, when I start teaching my friends how to kill.  What made Milwaukee famous almost made a fool out of me. Or did it? Reed Farrel Coleman was calling me "Krav Maga Pluck" the next day, but I still had both my eyes after I taught Mark Rapacz how to eye gouge, so to me that spells "resounding success." For those who missed the con, who want to hit me or poke my eyeballs, drop by Rock Solid Krav Maga sometime. I usually go to the weeknight KM and BJJ classes, and the Saturday morning ones. It's great exercise and a realistic defense system.

We had a lovely discussion and the audience brought some good questions. It's a friendly environment, and there were zero of the infamous "I have a question..." questions that are actually a five minute manifesto that makes no sense. So we had that going for us. (Hint to moderators: demand, like Alex Trebec would, that all questions be in the form of a question.)

Boswell's Books was the bookseller, and Daniel, the owner, is a great lover of books, everything a bookseller ought to be. I picked up Attica Locke's Bluebird, Bluebird , Chelsea Cain's My Feminist Agenda issue of Mockingbird, Nathan Singer's In the Light of You, and the first in Reed's new Gus Murphy series Where It Hurts. I've heard plenty good about Locke, and know Singer's short fiction. In the Light of You tackles extremist groups from both sides, neo-Nazis and anarchists, so how much more prescient can you get? Reed is a favorite of mine, with a natural, compelling voice that makes him the perfect choice to continue Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone series. His Moe Prager novel The James Deans is one of my favorites.

The highlights for me were seeing F. Paul Wilson (The Keep, and the Repairman Jack series) interview by Nathan Singer, and Chelsea Cain (the Gretchen Lowell & Archie Sheridan series) interviewed by Ruth Jordan. The final Women of Crime panel was another fine conversation, and Reed's panel on craft introduced me to James R. Been, whose Billy Boyle World War 2 mysteries sound right up my alley. Not everyone goes to every panel, and there's plenty of friendly schmoozing going on. I met several new readers and AC/DC fan Keith and I talked for a while about my favorite subject, Bon Scott era AC/DC! One of these days I'll edit an anthology based on those songs.
Jon Jordan delivers unto us the pizza
After the con everyone headed to MobCraft brewing for the after party held by the mighty Jordans. Eating pizza among the mash tuns and brew kettles... how cool is that? MobCraft made my favorite Milwaukee beer of the trip, Clan MacDougall, a wee heavy scotch ale aged in Laphroaig barrels. I've had many a barrel aged beer and many a dram of Laphroaig, and this one tastes like sipping the scoosh while drinking a damn fine wee heavy. It's not canned, but if you can try some in the Milwaukee area, I can't recommend it more highly. If you also love craft beer, friend me on Untappd!

The Clan MacDougall beer by MobCraft
We experienced the legendary hospitality of the Jordans once again after the after-party, at the after-after-party at their place. Admiring Jon's Lego collection, the walls of books, the art and book covers and beer steins and just plain cool stuff while chatting with Jon and Ruth and readers and writers and everybody... it's like Christmas for Crime Fiction. Great people, one of the best genre conventions I've been to for a mix of business and reader enjoyment, in a great city that truly surprised me. I grew up in an industrial zone where we played in an abandoned paint factory, climbed on roofs, and on disused railroad trestles. So see Milwaukee keep its industrial bones as it metamorphosizes makes me want to move there.

No way, Garth! It's too damn cold! Ha. I lived for five years in Minneapolis. During El Nino. As soon as the real winter hit, I got the heck out of there. I give y'all credit for enduring those winters, but I'll come visit... no later than November!

So if you love crime fiction and live within driving distance of Milwaukee, this con should be on your radar. Me, I'll be flying there every year for a vacation with great friends. It's a can be more economical than Bouchercon hotel-wise if you choose the one closest to the convention itself. I splurged and stayed at the Iron Horse, which was amazing, and walking distance from the Jordans' and the after party. It's a boutique hotel, but compared to the big city hotels for ThrillerFest, Chicago, even Toronto, it was a bargain. Go if you can... you won't regret it.


jack welling said...

Great review. Covered the flavor and tone of the event nicely. Well done! I enjoyed it.

Looks like a dash to Murder is necessary next fall before a swing farther north to the Bois Brule for post-spawn trout.

Thanks for the great post. This one completely slipped my mind as a regional treat.

Thomas Pluck said...

Hope to see you next year!

Gerard Saylor said...

Damn. I did not know the venue had tap beer. Another reason to be annoyed I once again was unable to attend.