Unfortunately, I had to sit and eat and talk about literature. Just put me in a straight jacket. I was committed to a dinner with some HarperCollins people and a few of their authors at the Mountain & Plains show down in Denver. Author dinners can be dry affairs. The food is almost always excellent, the wine free-flowing, but the conversation can be a bit stilted. If the author's exhausted, or if you haven't read the book, the words can dry up fast.
But pennant-race baseball is always thrilling. My Phillies--yes, my beloved team that has lost a record-setting 10,000 games--was playing for a share of the National League East Division lead with the hated New York Mets. My biggest concern as I headed out to dinner was simply whether I would be able to escape to the restaurant's bar and watch some baseball on television. Or would I be stuck in between two authors discussing literature?
My co-worker--an extremely gregarious and energetic woman attending her first author dinner--and I were to meet the Harper party in the Marriott Hotel's ballroom before proceeding to Undici Ristorante a few miles away. We spotted our boisterous Harper rep as soon as we entered the room. I took a deep breath to try and calm myself down for the evening. In preparation, I'd read the first 100 pages of William Lashner's new novel A Killer's Kiss. I read it, despite an aversion to mysteries, because the Harper rep had virtually assigned it to me.
"Do me a favor, Bub," he said a few days before the dinner. "Give Lashner's book a try. He's from Philadelphia, a lawyer, you guys can talk about Philly. Besides, it's a good book. You'll like it."
Fat chance I'd like a hard-boiled mystery. I can't stand the cliched characters and predictably unfathomable plots. But as I entered the ballroom, I had to admit Lashner's opening had certainly grabbed me. I also admired the way Lashner created some of his scenes and wasn't afraid to let his characters sit in those scenes as interesting details were laid out and a natural dialogue developed. I was about as hooked as I can be on a mystery.
But really, what did any of it matter, the novel, the author, the dinner, when the Phillies beckoned? No mystery novel, nothing in literature, can match the drama, the tension of a tight pennant race. "Put the book down and watch the game!" I wanted to scream.
Immediately upon being introduced to Lashner, I told him that I was reading his book. He told me that the Phillies were up 6-0 in the fourth inning. Obviously, he'd been informed that I was also from Philadelphia and he was trying to be polite and play up to me a little. I stayed the course, refusing to get sucked into the baseball talk, and mentioned that I was about 100 pages in and had just completed the scene that takes place in a Jamaican restaurant. That didn't seem to sway him, because he was so excited he was about to jump out of his sports jacket as he related that the Phillies had taken apart the great Braves pitcher John Smoltz in the first inning.
I'd fallen into the perfect author event. Lashner is as rabid a Phillies fan as I am. Heck, he's a season ticket holder. The best I can do is listen to the games on XM radio. We soon found a bookseller with a blackberry who could constantly check the score for us. We waxed on and on about how the Phillies could tie the Mets, if only the Mets would cooperate and lose to the woeful Nationals. We spoke of our hopes that the Phils would slug their way into the playoffs and our fears that the Phils would pitch their way out of contention.
Then I noticed my co-worker. Here was her first author dinner and she was stuck with two guys who should have been in a sports bar. I quickly apologized and Lashner and I agreed that once we got to the restaurant we couldn't go on talking about the Phillies. It would drive everyone else nuts.
We actually did okay except for two instances. When Lashner found out the Phillies had won and the Mets had lost, he came over to my table and shouted it out exuberantly. A high five over a bookseller and a Harper publicity person was not enough to show our enthusiasm, we actually did a high ten. I don't think that I've done that since the Phillies went to the World Series in 1980, when I was 14.
Later, Lashner was sitting at my table with me and four other booksellers. Luckily, my co-worker was at another table where the conversation was more on books and less on baseball. My table mates and I had been told by a helpful HarperCollins marketing maven to ask Lashner about Shakespeare. In response to our open-ended question, "Tell us about Shakespeare?" Lashner talked at length about how much he admired the self-made quality of the Bard. Shakespeare wasn't college-educated; he was an outsider in London just trying to make a living and he ended up writing these amazing plays. He created art even though he hadn't set out to do so. The conversation lasted for awhile and when there was a lapse, Lashner and I just looked at each other with big grins on our faces.
The Phillies were in first place with three games to play and that was enough to bring a smile to any Philadelphian's face. "Who was your favorite player? If you had to name one guy, who would it be?" he asked me.
I thought about it. My heroes flitted through my mind in those few seconds: Mike Schmidt and his booming homers, Lenny Dykstra and his dirty uniform, Tug McGraw slapping his glove on his thigh after another Phillies' win, Bake McBride earning his nickname Shake & Bake by hustling around the bases.
I settled on my first Phillies hero. A player barely remembered by most baseball fans. He was a hot dog, flipping his bat like a baton, snapping his glove like a fly swatter at balls and just walking around the field with a swagger that captivated a seven-year old. "Willie Montanez," I said.
Lashner paused a second and told me he wasn't surprised by my choice. "After his rookie season you really thought he was going to be something. He had style. But it didn't pan out after that."
No, it didn't. They traded Montanez for the slick-fielding center fielder Garry Maddox, nicknamed the Secretary of Defense, when I was nine years old. It was a great trade. The Phillies went to the playoffs six times in eight years with Maddox in center. It was said of the speedster that "two-thirds of the earth is covered by water, the other third by Garry Maddox."
I spent the next couple of days (between ballgames) reading Lashner's A Killer's Kiss to see if it would pan out. I'm happy to say that, like this year's Phils, it delivers. Lashner's hero Victor Carl is a likable but quirky guy with some real interesting faults and he's complemented by a cast of eccentric characters including a bizarre Russian mobster, a sniveling lawyer and a man who cuckolds him, despite not having a penis.
As usual, I couldn't figure out who the murderer was and where the money was hidden until it was completely spelled out for me. It's funny, because I always complain about the scenes where everyone blabs as they are holding people at gunpoint, but the truth is I wouldn't know what the hell was happening if it wasn't for all the blabbing. Lashner has a scene like that, but mercifully, it is short and it's better written than most I've read.
In between comments about the Phillies we did talk a little about writing mysteries. Lashner told me that people don't really read mysteries for the plots, they read them for everything else. Well, I enjoyed the dialogue, the setting, and characters in A Killer's Kiss. The plot was a great bonus, except for the part when the mobster's henchman tries to cut off Vicor's nipple. But the true measure of Lashner's book is that the Phillies won the division while I was reading it. Like most baseball fans, I'm just a bit superstitious, so I'll be reading Lashner's books as long as the Phils keep winning. Hostile Witness, Lashner's first novel, is next up on my list as the Phillies take on my adopted Colorado Rockies.