I spent last weekend among old friends. I attended Magna Cum Murder, a mystery conference that's been held in Indiana for the past nineteen years. For at least its first decade, Magna was based at the Roberts Hotel in Muncie. The Roberts was a great old pile from the 1920s, with a potted-palm lobby out of an Edward Hopper painting. One of the conference legends has Mary Higgins Clark and friends singing around a lobby piano being played by Les Roberts (the PI writer, not the guy who owned the hotel). The Roberts also had the perfect bar for a small conference: big enough to hold a bunch of mystery writers and small enough to make them rub elbows. I fondly remember sitting at that bar with Ralph McInerny, watching a World Series game. Can't remember who was playing.
|View of the Roberts Lobby, Showing the Mary Higgins Clark Piano|
When the Roberts Hotel closed, Magna soldiered on using Muncie's convention center and a collection of satellite motels. But as the Bouchercon occasionally proves, it's hard to do a convention without a central hotel. This year, Magna moved to Indianapolis, to a private club older than the Roberts, the Columbia Club. Though the club is private, it was open to Magna attendees, and the result was something very like Magnas of old.
|The Columbia Club, New Home to Magna Cum Murder|
The driving force behind Magna is Kathryn Kennison, a great friend to mystery writers and book lovers in general. Kathryn set Magna's classy and welcoming tone back in 1994, and has maintained it ever since. And every year she works the miracle of drawing a big-name guest of honor to a small Midwestern conference. This year's honoree was Steve Hamilton. Our banquet speaker was Hank Phillippi Ryan. They still come to Indiana for Kathryn.
|Guest of Honor Interview: Hank Phillippi Ryan and Steve Hamilton|
A big advantage of a small conference for the writer is the opportunity to speak with a good percentage of the attendees. That's assuming you "work the room," making yourself available to fans and doing such daring things as sitting down at a table full of strangers. It's not the easiest leap for some writers to make, including this writer. Small conferences are good for the fans and for aspiring writers (as yet unpublished writers, someone called them this weekend) because of this same intimacy.
|Magna's First Panel: John Desjarlais, Albert Bell, Molly Weston, William Kent Krueger, and Unidentified Moderator|
One of the reasons I sometimes fail to work the room at Magna is that I'm too busy catching up with writers I only see there. (I'm not naming names for fear of leaving someone out.) As important as book promoting is, it's also important for me to keep in touch with writers I admire, to be encouraged by success stories and to condole over the frustrations of the writing life. This year, I even got to watch another World Series game in another Magna bar. (And yes, I do remember who was playing.)
|Two Award-winning Writers, Sandra Balzo and Ted Hertel, Jr.,and Two Distinguished|
Critics, Gary Warren Niebuhr (holding his favorite book) and Ted Fitzgerald
Next time you're on Facebook, check out the Magna Cum Murder page. You'll see some very professional photos of the attendees and of the Columbia Club (unlike the grainy group shots reproduced here, which were made with my very small camera.) And if you're looking for a weekend away with new old friends next fall, consider Magna's twentieth anniversary celebration in October. Next year's details should be available soon on Magna's web site, along with an online registration form. I'll remind you later.