Friends and associates have been after me for a while to attend the Malice Domestic conference, held annually in Bethesda, Maryland. Malice is billed as a celebration of the “traditional mystery,” often known today as “cozies,” and regular readers are aware that cozies are not my genre of choice. Still, Bethesda is only 20 minutes down the road from Castle Schadenfreude, and I’ve been surprised by conferences before.
I could not have been treated better. Mystery conferences are known for their friendliness, and Malice is no exception. Everyone I came into contact with was a pleasure, without exception. If you’re into the world of cozies and can get to Bethesda, I’m sure you’ll have a good time. I’m not into the world of cozies, and I had a good time.
Many may disagree with my assessments. Okay, not “may;” many will. These are observations based on personal preferences. The organizers of Malice are looking at a different set of core attendees than I represent; I’m not suggesting anything should change. What I’ll note below are a few things that kept me from getting into it as much as I might have.
There were up to half a dozen rooms available for sessions at any one time. (Ballrooms were sometimes being reconfigured for larger sessions to come, or broken out after them.) With all that space, it struck me odd that about half the blocks of time allotted for sessions had only one or two of them. This left large swaths of time with nothing to do if the sole session of the hour wasn’t of personal interest. It was mentioned during the Malice 101 session that the fifteen-minute Authors’ Alley sessions for individual authors had been provided because there were more authors in attendance than could be accommodated on panels. As one of them, I could not help but notice the blocks of empty venues where other panels could have been scheduled.
The reason for this may have been the other thing that struck me. I freely admit I may be 180 degrees wrong about this, but the tone and approach of Malice panels seems much different from other conferences I have attended. What I expect from a panel is a chance to hear from authors I may not be acquainted with as they opine on topics related to writing, their approach, personal philosophies, and how their books may relate. I have discovered a great many authors who are now in the regular reading rotation because I heard them speak on a panel. (Megan Abbott, Sean Chercover, Joe Clifford, Les Edgerton, Victor Gischler, Laura Lippman, Brad Parks, and Richard Thompson off the top of my head.) The emphasis seems to be more to get to know the writer, see if he or she interests you, and then read them, or not.
The emphasis at Malice struck me more as, “Their books are here. Go get them.” The first day was spent largely on single panels, each introducing attendees to the nominees in the various Agatha Award categories. Nothing wrong with that, and the panel I saw (Debut Authors) was entertaining. It just didn’t have anything for me to take away from it. Other panels also seemed slanted in that direction, often coming across as five-way promotional interviews.
(A notable exception was Sunday morning’s “Population 2000: Small Town Sleuths.” Moderator Patsy Asher kept things moving with questions that allowed the authors to tell us how they approach things in their books while still covering a broader topic. I almost didn’t go to this one, and it turned out to be my favorite of the weekend.)
This different emphasis—assuming I am even correct in presuming it exists—is not by definition a bad thing, especially if you’re a fan of cozies looking to see what’s new and don’t want to take a lot of chances. That’s why I didn’t submit a survey: I’m not the core audience, and I’m well aware of that. (Never was that brought home more than when a woman seated in front of me stood abruptly and said, “This isn’t Paws,” and bolted for the “The ‘Paws’ That Refresh: Four-Legged Sleuths and Their Sidekicks.”) This was the 27th Malice. These people know where their wheelhouse is.
I’m just not in it. I freely admit, that’s more my loss than theirs, but we all have our own tastes. All I know was, by the time I left, what I really needed was to hear someone ask, “What does Marcellus Wallace look like?”