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Malice Domestic's Agatha Award teapots (Photos by Jean Marie Ward)

Murder can be lots of fun. Or so mystery devotees found when they entered the world of Malice Domestic XII, May 5-7. Malice Domestic, an annual mystery convention that takes place in the Washington D.C. area, proves that one can mix murder, mayhem, authors and fans with a great deal of panache and style. 

The Nose That Knows -- Northern Virginia Rescue League volunteer Beth Barkley and Czar, the Cadaver Dog, help rescue units and police departments around the country locate missing persons and victims of violent crime.

Never been to a mystery convention? Neither had I, and I didn't know what to expect. Somehow I pictured staid, flower-bonneted, blue-haired ladies waxing eloquent on the proper method to lace a cup of Earl Grey with arsenic. Or perhaps a couple of tough guys in cheap suits tossing back beers at the Renaissance Hotel bar while they lamented the good old days of shaking down a suspect. 

Instead, a few hundred other people and I found genial authors, knowledgeable fans, hilarious panels, cadaver-sniffing dogs, fabulously inventive hats and a few Internet fan clubs celebrating long-distance friendships and love of mysteries. 

Mistress Eileen -- Wearing the little black dress that became her Malice Domestic XII trademark, Eileen Dreyer proudly displays her infamous French tickler.

Toastmistress Eileen Dreyer, author of over 25 romances and thrillers drawing on her experience as an emergency room nurse, set the tone of the convention at the opening ceremonies Friday afternoon, May 5. Wearing a feathered mask and wielding a pink French tickler, Mistress Eileen warned, "There will be no dilly-dallying during my convention." The suitably cowed guests, ghosts of honor and nominees for the Agatha Awards rushed off the stage as soon as Mistress Eileen introduced them. 

On Saturday, Willetta Heising rode herd on -- er, moderated a panel featuring the "Bad Girls" of traditional mysteries: Nancy Bartholomew, Eileen Dreyer, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, Tami Hoag, Elaine Viets. Dressed all in black, and wearing sunglasses indoors, they chatted about the trials and tribulations of writing tough heroines and what it took to get certain juicy scenes past editors and mothers-in-law.  

Women in Black -- (From left to right) Tami Hoag, Eileen Dreyer, Willetta L. Heising, Elaine Viets, Nancy Bartholomew and Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, a.k.a. the Bad Girls of traditional mystery, share their best-worst censorship stories. The audience heard about Hoag's fight over flatulence, Bartholomew's pastie tale, and how the male strippers stole Viets' hairspray. But somehow Dreyer managed to avoid telling "The Duck Story."

Tami Hoag confessed to arguing vociferously with her editor to keep a character with a distressing tendency towards flatulence. Hoag's perseverance finally wrung a grudging concession from her editor. "Okay!" the editor snapped. "You win! Pick your best fart!"  

Hoag, however, enjoyed a final victory over the recalcitrant editor. "The copy editor missed one, so I got two farts!" Hoag crowed.  

In addition, Malice affords remarkably easy access to favorite authors. Even I, hardened journalist that I am, nearly fell off my chair when one of my favorite authors, Carole Nelson Douglas, sat down next to me. I tried really, really hard not to act like a starstruck fan, but… Fortunately for me, Douglas, one of the nicest people in the mystery biz, knows how to put a body at ease. And good news for the Irene Adler fans -- Douglas mentioned the next book in the series will be published later this year.  

Malice also offers another unanticipated benefit to Web-junkies -- a safe place to meet other members of fan clubs and Internet mail lists. For example, the DorothyL list, one of mystery's first and most famous email lists, holds its own luncheons and dinners at Malice and other cons. Meanwhile, DorothyL members and members of other lists met or renewed old acquaintances as they rambled about the Renaissance. Sometimes, a person couldn't walk more than ten feet without being hailed by someone they knew live or through the shared emails of their list. 

The Gate to Chinatown -- Malice Domestic XII took place two blocks from D.C.'s Chinatown. Washington, D.C., is the sister city to Beijing, China.

"You don't feel as pressured to like someone if you meet at a convention," said one DorothyL list member who asked to remain anonymous. "Everyone has the convention to fall back on if a list friendship doesn't translate to real life." However, from the peals of laughter echoing in the hallways before, after and in between panels, a lot of list friendships translated just fine. 

Members of an email list known simply as "those purple people" also stalked the halls of Malice, sporting distinctive purple ribbon rose and silver bell pins. This rowdy and highly visible group included several featured Malice authors. 

In fact, someone called hotel security on the group during a list slumber party. A source - who I'll call Madame X -- grudgingly admitted that at one point 30 women wearing various night gear crowded into one small hotel room - allegedly to celebrate a wedding shower and the successes of various group members. 

"I felt sort of sorry for the security guard," Madame X chuckled evilly. "When the door opened, and he took one look at 30 women wearing nightgowns, pajamas, and even one well-endowed member in a corset… Well, you could tell the security guy hadn't ever faced anything like us before. He went crimson and barely managed to ask us to keep it down before he bolted." 

Madame X assured me that although the festivities incorporated mass consumption of chocolate and a curious ceremony featuring a purple feather duster, the room suffered nothing more than an excess of confetti on the floor for the maids to clean the next day. I'm sure the hotel was greatly relieved. 

On Saturday night, Mistress Eileen and her infamous tickler kept the program of the Agatha Awards banquet moving at a brisk clip. Felix Francis accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award for his father, Dick Francis. A pressing deadline for his September book kept Francis senior from attending, but the junior Francis proved an able substitute for his dad.  

The Live Side of the Mike - Malice Domestic XII Guest of Honor Simon Brett regales the audience at the Agatha Awards Banquet with tales of the writing life, English style.

Although he lacked Mistress Eileen's equipment, guest of honor Simon Brett tickled the audience's funny bones with his tales of writing and family life. Brett recalled a reading in Scandinavia where the pianist held him hostage in an empty auditorium until the pianist fulfilled what the pianist considered the terms of his contract. 

The creator of the Charles Paris and Mrs. Pargeter mystery series then demonstrated how even a trip to the public restroom with your infant son can reduce a man to tears -- of laughter.  

"There are times when everything in a person's life comes together just like a movie," Brett said. "There I was standing in the stall, facing the object which was the purpose of my visit, my head bowed as I talked to my son in the way that fathers do. 'Who's a good little boy? Issums, 'ats who… Issums is Daddy's big little man…'" 

And the gentlemen on either side of Brett turned and fled. 

A Winner and her Teapot -- Donna Andrews displays her Agatha Award for Murder With Peacocks, the Best First Mystery of 1999.

Once the luminaries said their respective pieces, and the volunteers took their well-deserved vows, Mistress Eileen got down to the real business of the evening -- handing out awards. Local favorite and Crescent Blues Senior Gargoyle Donna Andrews walked away with the Agatha Award for Best First Mystery for her novel, Murder With Peacocks. Incidentally, I found absolutely no truth in the ugly rumor that Andrew's crimson corset contributed to her winning the award. Andrews swears that she merely wears the corset for luck, not because it so admirably displays her other…er, talents. 

Other Malice XII winners included: 

  • Agatha Award for Best Novel of 1999 -- Earlene Fowler, Mariner's Compass
  • Agatha Award for Best Short Story of 1999 -- Nancy Pickard, "Out of Africa" from Mom, Apple Pie, and Murder 
  • Agatha Award for Best Non-fiction of 1999 -- Daniel Stashower, Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle 

But all the laughter comes at the price of agonizingly difficult decisions. Should you go to the panel on poisons or take in the panel on collaborative writing scheduled for the same time? Or should you skip both of those and get your favorite book autographed? And just how many books can you buy before they take away your credit card? Discussions on these and other life-altering decisions could be heard up and down the hallways of the Washington Renaissance Hotel. 

"Darn it! Carole Nelson Douglas and Daniel Stashower have that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle panel at the same time Rhys Bowen and Arline Chase are talking about the three main ingredients of mysteries! And I'm not sure that the 85 new books I just bought in the dealer's room will fit in my suitcase. What am I going to do?" 

"Bother that, have you seen the signing line for Elizabeth Peters? I'll be 80 years old and twelve books behind before I reach her table!" 

"Oh maaaan, I love both Immaculate Reception and In Big Trouble! How am I supposed to vote for just one?" 

Voting for just one posed a problem at another much loved Malice event -- the Jacqueline Boroch Memorial Hat Contest. Held during the afternoon tea marking the end of Malice, the contest offers prizes in two categories: most creative and most elegant hats. 

Nancy E. Harris won the most creative portion with her fanciful rendition of the convention's signature teacup and death's head teabag, ravens and other elements favored by mystery novels. Crescent Blues senior editor Jean Marie Ward took the prize for the most elegant hat with an over-the-top confection the size of a wagon wheel covered in black netting and featuring a very long veil. You almost expected to hear the music from PBS's Mystery when she stepped on stage. 

So if you love mystery, want to meet some of your favorite authors, find out the correct way to poison that cup of Earl Grey, finally get to meet your best friend from the Internet, or just have a great time hanging out with women in very large and very strange hats, then Malice Domestic could be the convention for you. Just don't forget that extra suitcase. 

Click here for more pictures of Malice Domestic XII. 

Teri Dohmen