Dark Streets, Green River: The Murder and Mayhem Conference in Chicago

It’s a funny thing to go to a mystery conference and discover that everyone on the streets outside is drunk at nine o’clock in the morning, while everyone inside the conference is stone-cold sober. But that’s what happens when a conference—the second annual Murder and Mayhem in Chicago—is held on St. Patrick’s Day in the Windy City.

All this came to pass after Dana Kaye (of Kaye Publicity) had the idea to bring Murder and Mayhem to Chicago, as a sister conference to the one held annually in Milwaukee. As she told me:

Chicago is filled with talented crime fiction authors, and when our local mystery conference closed its doors, I was determined to replace it. Too often, publishers view Chicago as a flyover city, sending authors to the coasts and skipping over the middle of the country. This conference demonstrates that the Midwest is filled with enthusiastic readers, librarians, booksellers, and authors.

Her partner in this endeavor, Lori Rader-Day (award-winning author of The Black Hour, The Day I Died, and Little Pretty Things) explained:

I was excited to help out because it gave such a great platform for local crime writers and also gave a tour stop for writers from outside the Midwest. Chicago is such a great city for crime writers, it needed its own conference.

MMC drew an audience of about 250 crime fiction lovers and consisted of five panels featuring crime fiction writers, industry professionals, and experts in crime. Eric Beetner, author of 20 novels, proved once again to be a witty and capable Master of Ceremonies. Joking about the “formidable lineup” of the day, he commented that Jeffery Deaver (current president of Mystery Writers of America) “wrote a text last night that’s already outsold all my novels.”

From the debut panel—moderated by Heather E. Ash, current president of the MWA-Midwest chapter—I learned that “pirate noir” is a thing (Steve Goble), that “Pitch Wars” is not as scary as it sounds (Kristen Lepionka), and that it is important to be graceful after a stumble (Danny Gardner). Alexia Gordon and JD Allen also shared what they did after “getting the call”: Alexia did a happy dance at home and then put on her “doctor face” and went back to work; JD was fortunate enough to have been at the Bouchercon bar when she heard the good news. (I’m sure a lot of us would love to be at that conference’s bar when we get great news like that!)

Top row, L-R: Susanna Calkins (Mod), Raymond Benson, Carrie Smith. Bottom row, L-R: Jess Lourey, Nick Petrie, Patricia Skalka. Photo Credit: John Thomas Bychowski

I had the fun of moderating the second panel, “Crafting a Thrilling Series,”featuring Raymond Benson, Jess Lourey, Nick Petrie, Patricia Skalka (current president of the Sisters in Crime Chicagoland chapter), and Carrie Smith. If I worked it out correctly, these amazing authors have written about 70 or 80 books among them. (Note to self: Write faster, Calkins!) Most interesting advice—think about character and story arcs as occurring over three books at a time (in case, you know, you plan to write at least 12 books in a series).

Julia Borcherts moderated “True Tales from a Life in Mystery” with Jamie Freveletti, Michael Koryta, Mary Kubica, Isabella Maldonado, and Lori Rader-Day. They all spoke about how important a keen sense of place is for storytelling, whether it be a broad international view (Freveletti), small-town Indiana (Rader-Day), or Maine (Koryta). For Kubica, writing about a place—particularly where the bad things happen—will change her feelings about that place. Although, Maldonado—a retired police captain—just shrugged. “I’m used to knowing where the bodies are buried.”

Adam Morgan moderated “The Winding Path to Publishing” with Eric Beetner, Terri Bischoff, Cheryl Reed, Andrew Shaffer, and Jessica Strawser. Following this was a panel moderated by Tim Chapman, called “True Tales from a Career in Crime.” The panelists—Thomas Halloran, Adam Henkels, Marcella Raymond, Luis Santoyo, and Cynthia Woods—are all “crime experts,” including forensic scientists, a forensic artist, police officers, and a crime reporter from a local Chicago news station.

I found both of these sessions to be fascinating, and my thoughts were echoed by Cynthia Pelayo, a first-time attendee and aspiring crime fiction writer:

“I was blown away by the number of resources, networking opportunities, and fun made available to writers. As a native Chicagoan, the conference was the ideal combination of the perfect location with useful content. The biggest takeaway for me, as a writer aspiring to go the traditional route from the independents, is that the writing process is the same for everyone, but not. It's the same in that everyone, even New York Times bestselling authors, struggle to write. It's different for everyone in that everyone has a different process and you just have to find what writing process works for you.”

Personally, I really enjoyed learning more about how Gillian Flynn became a writer and her approach to writing in different formats. Over a lunch sponsored by Sisters in Crime Chicagoland, Patricia Skalka skillfully interviewed Gillian Flynn, probing her thoughts on women and violence. Flynn explained that she’s always pushed back against the idea that women can’t be violent. “Own the darkness,” she said, as a reminder to the writers in the room.

Jeffery Deaver (L) and Gillian Flynn (R). Photo Credit: John Thomas Bychowski

I was also amused by the quick-witted banter between Gillian Flynn and Jeffery Deaver in the headlining of the day. As they bounced through topics, they seemed to discover a lot in common, which was fun to see unfold. (“We’re like Luke and Leia,” Deaver suggested, prompting Flynn to reply, “Yes, we’re both a little creepy.”) But they also agreed that there are basically two kinds of people in the world—those who are willing “to look under the rock” and those who won’t. To me, that idea pretty much sums up the difference between people who enjoy crime fiction—either as readers or writers—and those who may not. It also showed me that I want to hang out with both of them for non-creepy amounts of time.

The day concluded with Gillian Flynn receiving the Sara Paretsky Award from none other than Chicago’s own Queen of Crime Fiction and founder of Sisters in Crime herself. The award, as Lori explained:

“[I]s to acknowledge Chicago crime novels as well as novels set more broadly in the Midwest. Gillian Flynn is an obvious choice because of her giant success [even, as MC Eric Beetner said during the introductions, with only three books]. Her books are set in Kansas, in Missouri, places that don't often get to be part of blockbuster books—and yet, so many readers live in these places. They definitely like to see books set where they live, too.”

The unheralded presence of Sara Paretsky was, I think, genuinely exciting for many. As attendee Raquel Garcia commented—well, gushed:

“One of the many highlights of the day was meeting Sara Paretsky, the inspiration for my second novel, a murder mystery based in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Sara was kind enough to sign my copy of her book Indemnity Only, which I serendipitously had in my backpack. Her appearance was a complete surprise to audience members. After such an inspirational experience I plan to be back next year!”

As I will too. Hopefully, as long as the River flows green and the streets flow red, there will be Murder and Mayhem in Chicago…

See also: Murder and Mayhem in Chicago: Conference Co-Founders Lori Rader-Day and Dana Kaye Discuss Chicago’s Vibrant Crime Fiction Scene


Susanna Calkins writes the award-winning Lucy Campion Mysteries for Minotaur/St Martins. The first in her new series—set in Prohibition-era Chicago—will be released in summer 2019.

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