The Agatha Awards, two black teapots and one white teapot
Agatha Awards

Later this month, at Malice Domestic, the convention celebrating the traditional mystery, I’ll be moderating a conversation between the nominees for Best Contemporary Novel. I’ve been loving reading the books and thinking about what to ask. So I thought I’d bring you into the conversation, and let you meet these terrific women and their books.

In Wined and Died in New Orleans, Ellen Byron’s 2d Vintage Cookbook Mystery, it’s hurricane season in New Orleans and Ricki James-Diaz is trying to shelve her fears and focus on her business, Miss Vee’s Vintage Cookbook and Kitchenware Shop, housed in the magnificent Bon Vee Culinary House Museum. She’s thrilled when repairs on the property unearth crates of very old and valuable French wine. But when a dead body turns up on the property, Ricki has to help solve a murder and untangle family secrets, all while living under the threat of a hurricane that could wipe out everything from her home to Bon Vee.

In Helpless: A Zoe Chambers Mystery by Annette Dashofy, Vance Township Police Chief Pete Adams and his wife, County Coroner Zoe Chambers-Adams, must race against time and a hurricane to capture the mysterious killer, who murdered a young mother and kidnapped her daughter while leaving the only witness, the little girl’s father, critically wounded and trapped beneath a disabled farm tractor. Will Pete be able to stop a savage and cunning predator? And will he and Zoe be able to reunite a family before it’s too late?

In Case of the Bleus by Korina Moss, the secrets to an enigmatic and award-winning blue cheese may be gone forever when its creator –Willa’s former boss, Max — dies. But when the presumed heir is killed for those secrets, the hunt for Max’s Church Bleu begins. When Willa discovers that she’s the intended heir, she must decipher the riddles Max left in order to find the cheese and the killer before the killer finds her.

The Weekend Retreat, Tara Laskowski Every year, the illustrious Van Ness siblings gather at their secluded winery estate for a joint birthday celebration. It’s a tradition they’ve followed nearly all their lives, and now they are back with their significant others for a much-needed weekend of rest and relaxation, away from the public spotlight. With lavish comforts, gorgeous scenery, and indulgent drinking, the trip should be the perfect escape. But it soon becomes clear that even a remote idyllic getaway can’t keep out the problems simmering in each of their lives. As old tensions are reignited, the three couples are pushed to the edge. Will their secrets destroy them, or will they destroy each other first? And who’s been watching them from beyond the vineyard gates?

One murder. Four impossibilities. A fake séance hides a very real crime. Tempest Raj returns in The Raven Thief by Gigi Pandian, where sliding bookcases, trick tables, and hidden reading nooks hide something much more sinister than the Secret Staircase Construction crew ever imagined.

Leslie: What would you most like readers to know about your book?
Ellen: It’s funny, twisty, and loaded with the flavor of New Orleans.
Annette: At its core, Helpless is a story about friendship and priorities. Sometimes you have to put the demands of your career aside to help a friend. And sometimes, the only thing you can do is just be there to sit and listen. Zoe’s hands are tied during most of the story, yet her simply being there is the most important role in the book.
Korina: It’s a mystery with cozy shades of The DaVinci Code and Ocean’s Eleven… with cheese thrown in.
Tara: The family in the book is not based on anyone I know, especially my own family (thank god!) Their terrible self-centeredness is all the product of my imagination. But I still love them all.
Gigi: The Raven Thief is a locked room mystery, also known as an impossible crime novel, that pays homage to the Golden Age of detective fiction. I wanted to channel authors like John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie, who wrote fair-play puzzle plot mysteries, but putting my own modern spin on the genre. The puzzle plot is the key to the story-but family, friendship, and food are the heart.
With The Raven Thief, I went even further than one locked-room mystery, creating four ways in which the mystery looks impossible.

Leslie: What did you learn, about writing, life, murder, magic, or some other weird or amazing subject, while you were writing this book?
Ellen: I happened to be in New Orleans while I was writing this book and my daughter and I had to evacuate for Hurricane Ida. I learned how frightening and traumatic that experience is, and how it takes the resilience of those amazingly strong New Orleanians to move beyond it and get your mojo back.
Annette: I learned an inordinate amount of information about incapacitating an old Ford farm tractor and also, about how to fix one.
Korina: There can be a dark underbelly to the cheese world. In one year, almost seven hundred blocks of Saint Nectaire were stolen in France for the black market. In Italy, Parmigiano-Reggiano makers have started putting edible microchips the size of a grain of sand on their 90-lb cheese wheels to combat counterfeiters selling rip-offs. It’s no wonder—last year, a 4.8 lb. wheel of Calabro from northern Spain sold for $32,000.
Tara: I learn something new about my writing process every time I work on a book. It’s usually a very painful lesson, though. This time, I learned that I need to do a lot of “people work” upfront and really understand my characters and their motivations before I start writing, because so much of their actions and the plot depends on who they are, essentially, as humans. I didn’t do enough of that in my early drafts of this book, thinking I’d figure it out as I wrote, and that got me into trouble!
Gigi: At the center of each Secret Staircase Mystery is a renovation project, building magic into peoples’ homes through elements like sliding bookcases and secret doors that lead to hidden libraries. In The Raven Thief, the woman who’s hired Secret Staircase Construction hosts a book club focused on classic mystery novels, and she also requests a faux séance in the room.
To create the most fun book club room for mystery enthusiasts and a space that would work for a séance-gone-wrong, I reread many of my favorite classic mysteries with an eye towards elements I could turn into architectural details, and I learned more about how fraudulent spiritualists faked séances. I thought I knew a lot about how tricksters could fake séances, but wow there are a lot of tricks!

Leslie: What keeps you going, on days when writing is hard?
Ellen: Deadlines!
Annette: My readers. I’ll never forget the email I received very early in my writing career. A woman wrote to tell me she’d bought Circle of Influence as a Mother’s Day gift for her mom who was going through chemotherapy. Reading my book during the treatments helped her mother take her mind off her illness. I learned this mother and daughter lived about a half hour away, and at her next chemo session, I went to the hospital and sat with them, signed the book, and had pictures taken for them. It was a humbling experience and a stark reminder of the real reason I do this.
Korina: Hearing from readers, especially when my books are getting them through a hard time in life.
Tara: When I’m having a really bad writing day, I try to tell myself, “It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be there.” My wonderful agent Michelle Richter once told me, “You can’t edit it if it’s not on the page.” So I give myself permission to suck, hoping that once there are words, it’ll be easier to fix them. It doesn’t always work, but it is a kind of writer self-care, a sort of grace we can extend ourselves so we don’t get so wrapped up in our heads. And most of the time, when I go back later and re-read it, it’s not as bad as I feared.
Gigi: Connecting with my fellow book people is the best! Some of the readers and writers I’ve met since I started writing have become my closest friends. My fellow Agatha nominee Ellen Byron is one of the fabulous women in my writers group!
I always want each new book I write to be better than my last, so if I’m ever feeling stressed out that a book isn’t coming together as I want it to, I simply chat with one of my author pals or pick up one of my beaten-up old Elizabeth Peters novels to read a few pages. Either one does the trick to inspire me.

ELLEN BYRON: Winner of multiple Agatha and Lefty awards, Ellen Byron transitioned from a twenty-plus-year career writing television sitcoms to penning humorous mysteries and has never been happier. She is also an award-winning playwright but considers working as a cater-waiter for Martha Stewart her most impressive achievement.

ANNETTE DASHOFY: USA Today bestseller Annette Dashofy is the author of fifteen novels including the seven-time Agatha Award nominated Zoe Chambers mystery series about a paramedic-turned-coroner in rural Pennsylvania as well as the Detective Honeywell series set along Lake Erie. Her standalone novel, Death By Equine, won the 2021 Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award for excellence in thoroughbred racing literature.

KORINA MOSS is the author of the Cheese Shop Mystery series (St. Martin’s Press) set in the Sonoma Valley, including the Agatha Award winner for Best First Novel, Cheddar Off Dead. She lives in Connecticut, where she is devoted to the art of cheese.

TARA LASKOWSKI is the author of the suspense novels The Weekend Retreat, The Mother Next Door and One Night Gone, winner of the Agatha, Macavity, and Anthony awards. She also wrote two short story collections, Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons and Bystanders. Her short fiction has won Agatha and Thriller awards, and she was the longtime editor of the online flash fiction journal SmokeLong Quarterly. She lives in Virginia with her husband, crime writer Art Taylor, and their son Dashiell.

GIGI PANDIAN is a USA Today bestselling mystery author, breast cancer survivor, and locked-room mystery enthusiast. She writes the Secret Staircase mysteries, the Accidental Alchemist mysteries, and the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt mysteries.

If you’re headed to Malice Domestic this year, I hope to see you at 3:00 Friday afternoon, in Ballroom B/C, for what I know will be a delightful conversation. If not, I hope you’re intrigued by the nominated books and will pick them up for a guaranteed good read!

The Agatha Award nominations are out — celebrate with me!

cat sleeping with tea potsThe Agatha Awards are given every May at Malice Domestic, the convention celebrating the traditional mystery. It’s always fun to see the list of nominees — and to try to read as many as I can before “the con,” so I can cast my vote.

It’s even more fun to see the list when I’m on it! “All God’s Sparrows,” my first historical short story, is nominated for Best Short Story. It was originally published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, May-June 2018; it’s now available, free, on my website. The authors of the other nominated shorts have also posted their stories — it’s a tradition, because so many stories would not otherwise be available — see the links below.

In 1885 Montana Territory, “Stagecoach Mary” Fields and Sister Louisine encounter a young mother and her daughter whose plight requires an inspired intervention. Mary is a historic figure who was born in slavery in Tennessee in 1832 and moved to Montana Territory to care for the ailing Mother Superior at St. Peter’s Mission near Cascade.

I’ve got a pair of Agatha teapots, for Best Nonfiction (2011) and Best First Novel (2013) — that’s Ruff, our late kitty, lounging with them in the library window sill. But honestly, that makes me even more excited, because I know what an honor a nomination is. And I’m sure you’ll agree that the other stories are terrific — I feel like we’re all winners already.

Here’s the full list, courtesy of Malice Domestic:

Announcing the 2018 Agatha Award Nominees

Best Contemporary Novel

Mardi Gras Murder by Ellen Byron (Crooked Lane Books)
Beyond the Truth by Bruce Robert Coffin (Witness Impulse)
Cry Wolf by Annette Dashofy (Henery Press)
Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny (Minotaur)
Trust Me by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Forge)

Best Historical Novel 

Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding by Rhys Bowen (Berkley)
The Gold Pawn by LA Chandlar (Kensington)
The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey (Soho Crime)
Turning the Tide by Edith Maxwell (Midnight Ink)
Murder on Union Square by Victoria Thompson (Berkley)

Best First Novel

A Lady’s Guide to Etiquette and Murder by Dianne Freeman (Kensington)
Little Comfort by Edwin Hill (Kensington)
What Doesn’t Kill You by Aimee Hix (Midnight Ink)
Deadly Solution by Keenan Powell (Level Best Books)
Curses Boiled Again by Shari Randall (St. Martin’s)

Best Short Story

“All God’s Sparrows” by Leslie Budewitz (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine)
“A Postcard for the Dead” by Susanna Calkins in Florida Happens (Three Rooms Press)
“Bug Appetit” by Barb Goffman (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine)
“The Case of the Vanishing Professor” by Tara Laskowski (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine)
“English 398: Fiction Workshop” by Art Taylor (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine)

Best Children’s/YA Mystery

Potion Problems (Just Add Magic) by Cindy Callaghan (Aladdin)
Winterhouse by Ben Guterson (Henry Holt)
A Side of Sabotage by C.M. Surrisi (Carolrhoda Books)

Best Nonfiction

Mastering Plot Twists by Jane Cleland (Writer’s Digest Books)
Writing the Cozy Mystery by Nancy J Cohen (Orange Grove Press)
Conan Doyle for the Defense by Margalit Fox (Random House)
Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life by Laura Thompson (Pegasus Books)
Wicked Women of Ohio by Jane Ann Turzillo (History Press)

The Agatha Awards will be presented on May 4, 2019 
during Malice Domestic 31.  

(Picture of “Stagecoach Mary” Fields courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.)

Celebrate, celebrate!

Untitled-4Celebrate with me, friends! Death al Dente has been nominated for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel! The Agatha Awards are given at the Malice Domestic convention — a celebration of the traditional mystery — in early May.

Congratulations, too, to all the other nominees. http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2014/01/agatha-award-nominees.html (Sorry — still haven’t solved my linkage problem!)

Thanks for all your support — including your readership, your encouragement, and your word of mouth. Writers need readers and I’m so grateful for each of you.


Malice Afterthought

Indulge me, please, in one more photo blog:

Six Guppy Agatha nominees: Daryl Wood Gerber (Best Short Story), Kaye George, Janet Bolin, and Rochelle Staab (all for Best First), Krista Davis (Best Short Story) and me (Best Nonfiction).



With Beth Groundwater and Liz Zelvin




With three other Best Nonfiction nominees: John Curran, AB (Barbara) Emrys, and Charlaine Harris. Michael Dirda joined us Saturday for the panel discussion and awards dinner.

(Thanks to all the friends who shared photos of such a memorable weekend: Dana Cameron, Janet Bolin, Liz Zelvin, Robin Templeton, Gigi Pandian, Sandra Parshall, and Dru Ann Love.)

More Malicious Photos

We’ll get back to the law next week. Meanwhile, it’s all about me — and Malice Domestic.


Celebrating with my Guppy sisters, Kendel Flaum, Hank Phillipi Ryan, Diane Vallere, and Gigi Pandian.  





Six of the nine Guppies nominated for Agathas: Avery Aames (aka Daryl Wood Gerber), Kaye George, Krista Davis (in front), Janet Bolin, Rochelle Staab, and me.


                                         With Debra Goldstein. 




With Chris Grabenstein, winner of the 2011 Agatha for Best Children’s/Young Adult, who also presented the Best Nonfiction Award.







With Jenny Milchman and Robin Templeton.

An Agatha Award Winner!

Now I know why so many people love Malice Domestic, the annual convention celebrating the traditional mystery.

From start to finish, a terrific con — and yes, I thought that even before the Agatha Awards! I was truly stunned to win. With such an amazing group of nominees — Charlaine Harris, AB (Barbara) Emrys, John Curran, and Michael Dirda — I’m deeply honored. 

A big thanks to everyone who’s read, bought, reviewed, and talked about Books, Crooks & Counselors. Your support means the world to me. Come on by, and I’ll pour you a cup of tea from a very special pot.


(Thanks to Liz Zelvin for the photo.)

Bidding time — Brenda Novak Auction for Diabetes Research

May 1 brings the start of NY Times bestselling author Brenda Novak’s Annual Online Auction for Diabetes Research. Bid on literally hundreds of items for readers and writers, including a signed copy of Books, Crooks & Counselors, the 2011 Agatha Award winner for Best Nonfiction, and two hours of legal research for a manuscript or two hours of manuscript review by the author of said Agatha winner, aka me.

Join the fun for a great cause!


Books, Crooks nominated for the Agatha

It’s official: Books, Crooks & Counselors has been nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. The Agathas are one of the premier book awards, and are given at the annual Malice Domestic Convention, held in Bethesda, MD April 27-29 — and I’ll be going, for the first time!

Here’s the full list of all awards and nominees.

Join me in celebrating — with a cuppa whatever!