"It's not so easy to do culinary mysteries," a writer sighs over dinner. "I mean, you just can't poison someone every time."
Welcome to Malice Domestic, a cozy gathering, if not necessarily a gathering for cozies. (We'll explain that distinction by and by). A fixture at the Bethesda Hyatt for eight of its nine years, Malice Domestic, a celebration of traditional mysteries, held its last conference there over the weekend and will move next year to downtown Washington.
The move will come because Malice, which started with 300-some paid attendees in 1989, now attracts more mystery fans, writers, would-be writers, publishers and agents than the Hyatt can hold. The 750 spaces are usually filled six months in advance; the new setting will allow 100 more to attend.
"My husband, Ron, was the driving force behind moving," says Jean McMillen, who owns Bethesda's Mystery Bookshop, just two blocks from the Hyatt. "He believes if you don't grow, you die. For myself, I'd like it to stay here. But I have to think of what's good for the fans. Nothing's forever."
Jack Cater of Carlsbad, Calif. -- named this year's "fan guest of honor" along with his wife, Judy -- worries that Malice has lost some of its characteristic intimacy. "A lot of the publishers and agents didn't think much of Malice when it started, so the authors and their fans had dinner together. Now the writers are being drawn away from the fans and can't mingle with them as much.
"Of course, writers are fans, too," he adds. "Even agents and publishers can be fans."
Founded in 1989 by a group that included Frederick writer Barbara Mertz (aka Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels), Malice Domestic is often defined by what it is not.
Not huge like Bouchercon, another mystery fan convention that moves every year. Not hard- boiled, but not exclusively cozy (a term used for mysteries that shy away from graphic language, sex and violence). Not filled by best sellers, but beloved mystery writers who are idolized by their fans. In fact, "not everybody's cup of tea," as the logo proclaims, a tea bag with a skull and crossbones.
Only nine writers have attended all nine Malice conventions and it is safe to say that none of them feels any nostalgia for the first site, a Silver Spring hotel whose name must remain a mystery here.
"The food was inedible, [author] Marlys Millhiser's toilet was broken and the maids left notes telling us to be as neat as possible, because they didn't have time to clean our rooms," recalls Beth Foxwell, this year's chairman. "But it bonded us."
Wherever Malice is held, the event is expected to continue delivering its peculiar pleasures, pleasures not unlike the books it celebrates -- eccentric characters coming together in a single location to unravel important mysteries. Is Margaret Maron going to win another Agatha? (The Malice literary awards named for Dame Christie and, yes, the North Carolina writer took home another Agatha teapot -- for "Up Jumps the Devil" -- to add to her shelf of awards.) What's your theory on the JonBenet Ramsey case? Should we have Mexican or Afghan for lunch?
And, most importantly: What's the next hot trend in mystery writing, anyway?
Malice's growth has paralleled a remarkable growth in mystery-writing. An estimated 1,200 mystery titles are published in this country each year and there is dark talk of gluts and saturation. Female private investigators are out, male P.I.'s are back. Historical mysteries are hot. Hard-boiled -- which is not a type of culinary mystery -- is staging a comeback.
Tamar Myers of Rock Hill, S.C., writes two series -- her latest book is "Gilt by Association" -- a feat not uncommon among Malice authors. Over dinner, she shyly shares the fact that it took her 23 years to publish her first book; she now has five out and another expected this fall.
None of this discourages the fans who are also writers -- pre-published writers in the genteel vernacular preferred here. Marcia Talley of Annapolis, for example, has written a book set at the Naval Academy, where she happens to be a librarian. She has received a lot of encouragement and is hopeful she will attend the next Malice as a published writer.
"It's meeting people," she says, when asked what she gets out of Malice. "Networking, schmoozing. I find the panels that help me the most are the ones on forensics."
Agent Ellen Geiger of the New York-based Curtis Brown literary agency was also networking, albeit in reverse. "It reminds me of who the readers are," she says. "With mysteries, there's a lot of activity on the Internet and Malice is becoming a place where people can cement on-line relationships."
She adds, as almost everyone does: "I do hope it doesn't get too much bigger."