V. “One of the most exciting developments in mystery writing over the past decade has been the broadening of its boundaries and the breakdown of formerly rigid categories.”Elizabeth Peters, “Malice Domestic I”
After the surge of cozies in the early 1990s, the pendulum swung back the other way for a bit.
“There was this real fluorescence of women writers, and publishers – as usual – it kind of got out of control,” James said. “They published way too many and eventually by the late 1990s, there was a correction in the market.”
Still, from the 1990s to the present, Malice has continued to grow in popularity. “From the beginning, it certainly seemed to fill a need, and has thrived,” Stashower said.
And in the process, Malice has expanded its definition of what constitutes an Agatha Award-worthy book, to the point where Foxwell said it became almost indistinguishable from Bouchercon. Last year, the Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel went to Ann Cleeves for “The Long Call.” The novel is dark detective fiction – a mystery for sure, but not exactly a cozy.
“In the early years, we were always careful with that definition, so we would have a unique identity,” Foxwell said.
In the 2010s, traditional and cozy mysteries enjoyed another resurgence. Reissues of Golden Age mysteries and publications of cozies took off again. Joseph Knobbs, the crime buyer for Waterstones, told the Guardian that the subgenre had become “massive” for them.
Meanwhile, the publishing industry has heeded Malice’s call to publish traditional mysteries in greater numbers. By 2018, publishers like Kensington, Crooked Lane Books and Sourcebooks were reviving cherished cozy mystery series and releasing new ones, as author Amanda Flower noted in Publishers Weekly. Berkley also has widened its selection of mysteries. Authors like Ellery Adams and Kate Kingsbury have risen to popularity amid the cozy mystery publishing renaissance.
And by 2020, Kirkus Reviews had even run a defense of cozy mysteries. It argued that “once you agree that crime fiction is literature, then slotting cozies into a lesser category feels arbitrary and quite likely based on gendered, dated, or unexamined notions.”
“What I hear a lot, especially during this pandemic, [is] people have run like crazy to cozies, to Golden Age mysteries,” Foxwell said. “They’re comforting, they’re reassuring – they’re a formula, sure – I have really seen people stampeding like crazy to cozies.”
The notion that traditional mysteries are the red-headed stepchild of the publishing industry has now been broadly challenged. But the question remains: did Malice change the industry, or did the industry change Malice?
“I think in some ways Malice was a victim of its own success,” James said. As the convention became profitable, organizers could afford to bring in more high-profile authors and pay their way. And they eventually ran out of traditional mystery writers to honor, so they started to look outside of the subgenre.
“I mean, I love Sara Paretsky to death, I think she’s a tremendous writer – no one has more passion for what she does than Sara – but Sara’s not Malice Domestic, and she would tell you that,” James explained. “And they gave Sara a lifetime achievement award. And Sue Grafton and Tony Hillerman and Dick Francis – those are not traditional mystery writers. They’re all terrific writers, but they didn’t belong at Malice. When that started happening, I thought ‘Malice has changed.’”
Morman said the convention grew more formal over time. Convention organizers also raised the cost of membership from $25, which is what it cost in the early years.
And for all the positive publicity that traditional mysteries have received in recent years, they still lag the darker fare in industry recognition.
“In terms of awards, still these days, you don’t see very many traditional mysteries being nominated for Edgars,” Foxwell said. “The Edgars still have shall we say a bias toward the darker, the thriller, the ‘serious’ book.”
Indeed, the fact that cozies still need to be defended suggests that Malice has yet to fully achieve its original aims.
“Barbara really did put her imprint on it, although I don’t think that she really has ever gotten full credit, because they still think these books are – you know, anything written by women for women can’t really be good and serious,” James said. “But kudos to Barbara, because our genre of books ‘don’t get no respect,’ as Henny Youngman used to say.”
And in the meantime, the mystery world, like the rest of publishing, has been transformed by the growth of the Internet and the rise of self-published writers.
“Things are different today,” Stashower said. “There is still of course the traditional publishing path, but there are other [avenues]. In the same way that the music industry has diversified, there are other ways to put books out there. Obviously, there’s self-publishing, there are small independent publishers, there is all kinds of stuff happening online. It’s a very different landscape now.”
Still, Malice has become one of the crucial stops for denizens of the mystery scene, whether their novels are traditional mysteries or more hardboiled fare.
Stashower said Malice today is “energizing, because there are so many people who are coming into the community” these days. And the convention is more popular than ever.
Indeed, last November, Mystery Writers of America announced that Malice Domestic had won its Raven Award for outstanding achievement in the mystery field beyond the realm of creative writing.
“Malice did establish a fairly high profile in the mystery world,” James said. “And I know newer writers coming along always wonder, ‘Should I go to Malice?’”
Thank you for following our series highlighting the beginning of Malice Domestic, along with fond memories of Barbara and others from that time. AND CHECK OUT THIS YEAR’S EXCITING ON-LINE EVENT: “More than Malice”!