II. “I was strongly in favor of a convention honoring the traditional mystery, for it seemed to me that this part of the genre had not received the respect it deserved… Critics tended to dismiss such books as ‘froth,’ awards committees considered them frivolous and unrealistic, and publishers weren’t publishing them in sufficient numbers.”Elizabeth Peters, “Malice Domestic I”
In Malice’s formative years, the traditional mysteries – often, though not exclusively, written by women – were getting short shrift, not only from the big awards committees, but from publishers and critics as well.
The critics were not always kind to Peters herself. In 1988, Peters had released “Deeds of the Disturber,” an Amelia Peabody mystery set in London. Kirkus Reviews said the “bizarre plot” lacked “credibility,” adding, “Amelia’s ever-increasing smugness is getting to be a bit of a bore.”
And traditional mysteries had never featured heavily in the history of the Edgar Awards, widely considered the most prestigious mystery awards, author Dean James said. Cozies in particular came in for special disdain within the industry.
“The convention started out of [Peters being] very disturbed by the fact that essentially mysteries by women were not being recognized with award nominations or awards,” author and mystery fan Elizabeth Foxwell said. “[She] was really appalled at the situation. What tended to get the awards and the recognition were hardboiled works, which mostly were written by men. Cozies… were often sort of slapped around and regarded very dismissively, perhaps because they’re usually written by women.”
So in 1988, Peters and her small band of collaborators began to divvy up tasks. Peters quickly took to sorting mail and writing to all her author friends, including Mary Higgins Clark, to get them to come.
“What started out as a fan convention – for mystery fans with a few writers – very quickly became a convention of writers,” co-founder Mary Morman recalled. “We just put out notices, and Barbara wrote all her friends, and they sent us money. It was absolutely amazing.”
Peters was deeply involved in Malice’s launch. She took on many of the more tedious tasks herself.
“Barbara was doing nitty gritty things for Malice such as going to the post office box, picking up the checks and registering people,” Foxwell said.
It was quite the undertaking. But Peters hosted meetings at her old Maryland farmhouse, and the whole crew sat at her wooden kitchen table, eating her famous soup, as cats prowled the stone floors beneath them. And slowly, the convention began to take shape.
“As I got to know Barbara better, I knew that when Barbara was determined to do something, it was going to get done,” James recalled. “She was a force of nature in so many ways.”
James and Morman had corresponded. Eventually, she told him to introduce himself to Peters at an International Crime Writers’ Congress meeting in New York. James did, and that was the beginning of his involvement in Malice.
They put him in charge of the Agatha Committee as soon as they decided to give out the awards. There were three committee members total.
“I was the chair of the Agatha Committee for the first three years,” James recalled. “And I served two more years after that as a member of the committee.”
The first Malice convention took place in 1989, with the first Agatha Award for Best Novel going to Carolyn G. Hart for her 1988 mystery “Something Wicked.”
There were four original categories for Agathas: Best Novel, Best First Novel, Best Short Story and Best Nonfiction. Since then, Malice has added several categories.
They deliberately named the Agathas for a woman, noting that all the major mystery awards were named for men. Foxwell said she believed Peters had it in her mind all along to honor Christie by naming the award after her.
Foxwell herself got roped into joining that original group when she went to a book signing in Georgetown. It was a different era in many ways, when networking happened face-to-face rather than over Zoom.
“There was no way to get together and talk to people, unless you came to a convention or you had a local mystery club, perhaps,” Morman said. “But so much that we do now online you simply could not do.”