IV. “It is now  one of the big events of the mystery year, and the Agatha is one of the most coveted of mystery awards.”Elizabeth Peters, “Malice Domestic I”
[Photo: Charlotte MacLeod, Barbara Mertz, Patricia Moyes, and Sarah Caudwell]
Malice’s heyday arguably corresponded with a boom in traditional and cozy mystery books in the 1990s.
“Into the early ’90s, there was a sudden flourishing of women writers,” Dean James said. “Publishers became aware that there were women out there who were looking for something besides the… loner private eye, the divorced police detective and all that kind of stuff.”
“Barbara really was at the leading edge,” he added. “She deserves real credit for that.”
As for Malice, it grew and grew. In 1992, Malice incorporated as a nonprofit. Since then, a volunteer board of directors has run the convention.
The event itself recovered from that disastrous first year and went on to become a popular and (mostly) smoothly run convention.
“After the first year, we knew we needed a new hotel, no question,” said Elizabeth Foxwell. “So we went to Bethesda… We were at the Bethesda Hyatt for a long time. And we were one of their top clients. The liquor sales were huge, to the point where one year the hotel actually ran out of liquor. So the Bethesda Hyatt really loved us.”
Malice organizers finally had to leave their beloved hotel in Bethesda after eight or nine years because the ballroom couldn’t fit all the people who wanted to come. So they moved into D.C. But the hijinks continued there.
Foxwell said Peters was a sort of godmother figure at Malice. “Through her presence, through bringing her friends in, through staging some wacky occurrences throughout the convention, she helped create the culture,” she recalled. “When Barbara was around, there were always some shenanigans.”
One example cited by several Malice attendees was the time Dan Stashower, Edgar Award-winning author of “Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle,” among other books, handcuffed himself to British mystery writer Penny Moyes.
“When I got there, I had no idea about what it would be like or what I would find,” Stashower said of attending the convention early on. “But right away I was meeting people like [Peters], Sarah Caudwell, Penny Moyes, Joan Hess, and people like that.”
Hess was reportedly behind many of the shenanigans along with Peters. Soon enough, Hess was recruiting Stashower to participate in some of her more outlandish stunts, including the handcuffing incident.
“[Hess] thought it would be funny if we were pretending that we were all squabbling with each other,” Stashower recalled. “And somehow it got from there to me handcuffing myself to Penny Moyes. At a remove of more than 20 years, I no longer remember how I got there. But I remain grateful that Penny Moyes, this figure of legend, took it in good humor when I came out into the audience and handcuffed myself to her wrist. And somehow, I dragged her onto the stage… and then started doing a bit where I’d raise my hand, and then her hand went up.”
Moyes handled it in stride, laughing and cracking jokes as they went along. And as Hess had promised, it turned out to be quite funny.
“I felt like I had found my tribe,” Stashower said.
Then there was the time when Hess, Sharyn McCrumb, Dorothy Cannell, and Margaret Maron decided to give out the W(h)imsey Award for comedy in mystery. (Lord Peter Wimsey is the hero of a series of mystery novels by Dorothy L. Sayers.) The award was a stuffed muskrat in a skirt and hat.
“And they called out the nominees, and the nominees were themselves, and then they said, ‘And the winner is – Sarah Caudwell,’” James recounted. “And then Sarah stood up, and there was this gabbling, and she comes up to the stage, and she was so excited. She tried to take it home with her. And the customs people didn’t want to let her. She eventually had her way, and that thing is somewhere in England, I guess.”
The convention was a success, no question about it. And many of the attendees forged memories that they cherish to this day.
But even then, critical acclaim remained elusive. The same year that Peters dubbed the Agatha the “most coveted” mystery award, the New York Times declared, “One would like to think that our best authors are immune to the relaxation of technical skills that the cozy mystery has made possible.” The Gray Lady charged cozy mystery writers with an “aversion to plotting” and went on to praise hardboiled authors and mystery writers outside Malice’s purview.
“There are people out there who still denigrate the cozy and the traditional mystery, who feel like the only good mystery is a hardboiled mystery or something that is extremely dark,” Foxwell said.
Contrary to suggestions otherwise by the Times, Mary Morman noted, Malice has never been an advocacy organization. It began as an appreciation society but became a forum for industry workshops over the years.
Stay tuned for Part V, our finale!