Ghosts of Malice Past

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. Malice Domestic, a gathering of mystery readers and writers, has just wrapped up its thirty-fifth conference in Bethesda, Maryland.

Although I would encourage anyone who writes mysteries, especially in the traditional and cozy genres, to attend, I was not there this year, nor have I been since 2019.

The two reasons most writers give for attending a fan convention are that it provides an opportunity for self-promotion (panels; signings; a fan lounge with tables for promotional materials; a bookroom with several bookstores represented; a bio in the program book) and an opportunity to meet, face-to-face, not only with readers and other writers, but also, in many cases, with editors and agents. Those were my reasons for starting to attend Malice Domestic, although I have to admit that socializing with writer and reader friends was the biggest draw.

Kathy and Lea Wait at Malice Domestic 28

Sadly, far too many of those friends are gone now. Some have died. Others, like me, have physical challenges that make it difficult to be comfortable traveling far from home, especially if that travel involves negotiating airports and large hotels. I was sad not to be able to attend this year’s Malice, and to make up for not going, I took myself on a nostalgia trip to the twenty-five past Malice Domestics I did attend. Some of the best memories of my career as a writer took place at those gatherings.

“You’ve Got Mail” panel in 2014

My first Malice was the third, back in 1991 at the Hyatt Regency in Bethesda. Among other highlights, I met with my editor, Carolyn Marino, and pitched what became a three-book deal with Harper Monogram. I made new friends and strengthened friendships formed at other, earlier conferences. I met Martha Detamore and the good folks of the Arsenic and Oolong Society, who for several years hosted a pizza party for those who didn’t want to attend the awards banquet. They also had cold pizza on hand the next day for snacking in their suite. But the memory that sticks with me most is the takeover of the stage during the banquet by Joan Hess, Dorothy Cannell, and Sharyn McCrumb to present a new award, the Whimsey. The Agatha is a teapot. The Whimsey was a stuffed groundhog in a dress. It was presented to Sarah Caudwell, who somehow managed to get it through customs and back to England. As far as I know, it is still there.

Such hi-jinks continued for many years, culminating in a final tribute to Barbara Mertz/Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels that featured Sharan Newman, Parnell Hall, Dan Stashower, Joan Hess, and Dorothy Cannell in leading roles and used the curtains from Margaret Maron’s hotel room to make one of the costumes. The skits, often a roast of the Guest of Honor, ended after Barbara’s death. It was the following year, 2014, that I was Guest of Honor and Joan, Dorothy, and Margaret were joint Lifetime Achievement honorees. I didn’t get a skit, but I came close. During my banquet speech, I was heckled by the irrepressible Joan Hess. That was definitely a Malice highlight!

Margaret Maron, Joan Hess, and Dorothy Cannell 2014

At Malice Domestic in 1998, thanks to Anne Murphy, head of volunteers and a friend since Malice 3, I ended up getting my name and a quote in a USA Today article. That was a highlight, too.

The years around that were also the formative ones for the American Crime Writers’ League, founded by Barbara Mertz. One memorable meeting was held in the hotel room shared by Joan Hess and Sharan Newman.

ACWL meeting attendees 1997

For several years, when I was writing historical mysteries, I became “the Face Down lady” at Malice. Fan girl moments had their place, too. Where else would I have met Anne Perry in an elevator and compared notes on the weather in Maine vs. the weather in Scotland in that particular April? And the British contingent were regulars in the past, especially Edward Marston and Robert Barnard. Then there was the year Malice shared a hotel with Lewis Farrakhan and his many bodyguards. That was certainly . . . different.

short story finalists panel Malice 2015

I won the Agatha Award for best mystery nonfiction in 2008 (presented in 2009) and was nominated for the best mystery short story Agatha Award in 2015. For those years and all the others, attending Malice was like coming home. At the best of the hotels used for the conference, the Hyatt Regency, there was a great lobby bar where it was easy to connect with friends both old and new. Unfortunately, the hotel was sold and the new owners took out the lobby bar. The current hotel, elsewhere in Bethesda, is nice but not nearly as cozy.

In many years, I traveled to Malice a day early and stayed until the day after, partly to avoid crowded travel but mostly for extra opportunities to visit with friends. Those of us not flying home until Monday morning would usually get together for dinner on Sunday night, a lovely, relaxed finale to a packed weekend.

I would still know some people if I had gone to Malice 35, but out of several hundred attendees, more or less evenly divided in number between authors and non-authors, there were only about a dozen people I would have expected to spend time with. I always looked forward to hanging out with Dina Wilner, Anne Murphy, and Chris Cowan, and I know I’d have caught up with Steve Steinbock, Vicki Thompson, and Marcia Talley, as well as with most of the team responsible for organizing Malice and some of the New England contingent. In past years, though, there would have been three or four times that many people I’d have made it a point to look for, and dozens of others who would have rated a hug and a hello. The last few years I attended, I traveled from Maine with Lea Wait and we roomed together for the last two.

It’s natural that things change. And natural to move on. I hope Malice Domestic will thrive for many more decades. I’m just sad that so many of the people who made it special during the years I attended are no longer there, myself included. So today I am missing and thinking fond thoughts of those friends who are gone, especially Lea, Margaret and Joe Maron, Carole Nelson Douglas, Joan Hess, Parnell Hall, Sheila Connolly, Sally Fellows, Doris Ann Norris, Joyce Christmas, Sue Feder (who would come to Malice dressed as Brother Cadfael), and Martha Detamore, and those who are still with us, but who, like me, no longer make the annual trek to Bethesda: Sharan Newman in Ireland, Eve Sandstrom/JoAnna Carl and Carolyn G. Hart in Oklahoma, Dorothy and Julian Cannell here in Maine, Charlaine Harris in Texas, and Miranda (Dean) James in Mississippi.

As Bob Hope used to sing, “thanks for the memories.”

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published others, including several children’s books. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Her most recent publications are The Valentine Veilleux Mysteries (a collection of three short stories and a novella, written as Kaitlyn) and I Kill People for a Living: A Collection of Essays by a Writer of Cozy Mysteries (written as Kathy). She maintains websites at and


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14 Responses to Ghosts of Malice Past

  1. kaitcarson says:

    What lovely memories!

  2. John Clark says:

    Amen to all you said. I just returned from my first New England SCBWI conference in Springfield, MA. I’ll post about it later this month.

    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Looking forward to it. I attended a couple of SCBWI conferences back in the day, one in CT and one in Lewiston, Maine. Good people!

  3. Beth says:

    Thanks for sharing the memories. Loved the column.

  4. Brenda Buchanan says:

    A post full of beautiful memories. Thanks for getting my day off to such a nice start.

  5. Norway reader says:

    Sounds like the setting for a dandy mystery!

    • kaitlynkathy says:

      As it happens, I used Malice and other small conferences as inspiration for one novel (SCOTCHED, in which the fictional Maine Cozy-Con is held in Moosetookalook, Maine) and one short story (“Death in the Dealer Room”) although both are only loosely based on the real thing. One of the nicest things about fan conferences is that those attending get along so well.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Seeing this year’s pictures made me so sad not to be there.


    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Me, too, but I would have hated flying back last night or this morning with all the rain and flooding!

  7. Anonymous says:

    Doggone, Kathy, way to start the waterworks! What a lovely tribute.

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