Sleuthfest is one of the great writers conferences. Held in Deerfield Beach, Florida, I have been to it four times, three as writer wannabe and this past Spring as published author, panelist and moderator. Back in 2008 Lee Child was the what I call the ‘headliner,’ but maybe that’s a little too Vegas-y, so let’s just call him, Special Guest of Honor. Lee is not only tremendously articulate and funny, but a very nice, down-to-earth guy. The last night of the conference, there was an auction for naming rights for a character in one of Lee’s upcoming novels. The bidding was fast and furious and, in the end, I was the one left with my paddle raised. And now seven years later, Major Susan Turner is a cohort of Jack Reacher, living on in immortality in three of Lee’s novels.

With that Sleuthfest history, I drove down to Deerfield Beach, filled with anticipation and eagerness, not to mention a little stage fright–having never been either a moderator or a panelist before. Well, turned out the Sleuthfest organizers had a special job picked out just for me, the rookie moderator. I was moderator of a panel called The Art of Embalming. With words like lividity, rigor mortis, cadaver and formaldehyde dancing in my head, I met the presenter, George Rafaidus, and a few minutes later introduced him. Turned out to be one of the most fascinating forty five minute presentations I’ve ever attended. The audience was totally into it and George was informative, well-prepared and, believe it or not, really funny. I walked away with a souvenir, too, a bottle of embalming fluid. I still haven’t figured out what to do with it.

The next day, I went to my panel, which was entitled Laughing at Death. It was about humor in the face of death and destruction in the respective panelists’ novels. I was the last to speak and I was awestruck at how smooth and silver-tongued my fellow panelists were. The moderator lobbed me what he thought, no doubt, to be a soft-ball question: “So, Tom, tell us about a funny scene in your novel,Palm Beach Nasty. I read it and thought it was jam-packed with good ones.” I totally froze. If you asked me where my novel took place I wouldn’t have known (clue: it’s in the title.) I wanted to say, “Okay, Mr. Moderator, bail me out here…  give me a clue about one of those scenes you thought was so damn funny…” I guess I muddled through  it okay, ’cause at the end the moderator came up to me, shook my hand and said, “great job, Tom.”

“You’re kidding,” I thought.

After a nice lunch that day, I eagerly approached the next event: signing books for my adoring readers. The drill was there were long tables which eight or ten authors sat behind looking out. Readers then came up with books they’d just purchased at the adjacent book store which authors signed. I was seated next to the son in a well-known mother-son writing team. He never deigned to turn to me and acknowledge my presence, maybe because he was so busy signing books.  I got exhausted watching him inscribe book after book. Ka-ching, ka-ching, I remember thinking as I sat there twiddling my thumbs. After about twenty five minutes and no adoring fans, I was about to flee. Find a bridge and jump. But then, finally, a timid woman approached. “Hi, I really liked Palm Beach Nasty, would you–” 

Would I? Are you kidding? I almost kissed her.


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