“I’m proud to have been one of the founders of Malice Domestic, for I believe it is achieving the objects I hoped for in the beginning—greater respect for the genre, greater financial and critical success for the practitioners thereof… and a lot of fun.”Elizabeth Peters, “Malice Domestic I”
To understand the appeal of the Malice Domestic mystery convention, it helps to know what the publishing industry was like for traditional mystery writers around the time that Malice began.
The year was 1989. Authors like Dean R. Koontz, Tom Clancy and Elmore Leonard were topping the New York Times Best Seller List. Thrillers with a dash of horror and spy novels were the order of the day.
Bouchercon – short for the Anthony Boucher Memorial World Mystery Convention – was the primary mystery convention on the scene. The organizers of Bouchercon presented their first annual Anthony Awards in 1986.
The awards were named for Anthony Boucher, a mystery author and a critic for the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. His books featured supernatural elements and science fiction themes. He died in 1968.
In 1989, the Anthony Award for Best Novel went to Thomas Harris for “The Silence of the Lambs.” The novel famously involves both a gruesome serial killer and a psychopath who ate his victims. Kirkus Reviews called the book “a tour de force of suspense, dark and polished as onyx.”
Even the Edgar Awards, presented by the New York-based Mystery Writers of America, were hewing to those trends. In 1989, the Edgar for Best Novel went to the hardboiled Cold War mystery “A Cold Red Sunrise” by Stuart M. Kaminsky.
But what about lighter fare? Books that abstained from gore and raunch in favor of the intellectual puzzles pioneered by writers like Agatha Christie?
It was in that atmosphere that a small band of mystery aficionados hatched a plan to launch their own convention and dispense their own award.
The convention came to be called Malice Domestic, so named for the personal nature of the crimes in their preferred mysteries (no serial killers, terrorists or hit men). And the Malice Domestic award was christened the Agatha, after mystery doyen Agatha Christie.
Spearheading that small group – it was anywhere from five to eight people at first – was Elizabeth Peters, a.k.a. Barbara Mertz, best known for her Amelia Peabody mysteries.
Mary Morman, author of the Friends of Elizabeth Peters newsletter, brought together the group that launched Malice. Peters credited her with the idea for the convention. Morman later said that she just wanted to make Peters happy.
“There were many people who were not interested in those [hardboiled] kinds of mysteries and didn’t like the fact that people who liked different kinds of mysteries were talked down to,” Morman explained. “It was a matter of respect.”
Peters was adamant that the world needed a forum to celebrate the traditional mystery. Moreover, as she noted in the foreword to Malice Domestic’s first anthology, Malice Domestic was not just for cozies. The convention “celebrates the traditional mystery in all its forms,” she wrote. “These forms are diverse and nonexclusive.”
Cozies are mystery novels that omit graphic sex and violence and typically feature an amateur sleuth. They traditionally take place in a small village. And the detective is often, though not always, female.
“So many writers who write books like I write are not taken seriously,” said New York Times bestselling author Miranda James, a.k.a. Dean James. “And Barbara understood that, and she was determined to do something about it.”
So Malice became a forum for cozies and other types of the often overlooked and maligned traditional mystery novel. And Peters and her merry band of enthusiasts overcame long odds to bring the convention to fruition.
“Part of her feeling about starting this convention was that cozies, or traditional mysteries, are often in a lighter vein,” Agatha Award-winning writer and longtime Malice attendee Elizabeth Foxwell said. “One of her tenets was that this is a legitimate form of literature. People enjoy it. We should recognize it. And why isn’t it recognized?”