Monday, April 18, 2022

Celebrating the 2022 Agatha Nominated Authors for Best First Novel and Best Short Story

by Paula Gail Benson


Next weekend, after a two year absence, a group of devoted readers and writers will gather in Bethesda, Maryland, to celebrate the traditional mystery at Malice Domestic. Each year, its been a great privilege for me to interview the Agatha nominees for Best First Novel and Best Short Story. Through this message, please enjoy meeting or reacquainting yourself with these wonderful authors, and dont forget to click on the links to read the nominated short stories!


Congratulations to all the nominees and thank you for spending time with us at The Stiletto Gang!


Best First Novel
The Turncoat’s Widow by Mally Becker (Level Best Books)
A Dead Man’s Eyes by Lori Duffy Foster (Level Best Books)
Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala (Berkley)
Murder in the Master by Judy L. Murray (Level Best Books)
Mango, Mambo, and Murder by Raquel V. Reyes (Crooked Lane Books)


What has been your most unexpected experience with the publication of your first novel?


Mally Becker


The nomination of The Turncoat’s Widow for an Agatha Award in the “best debut” category is one of the most unexpected and humbling experiences of my life. I am honored beyond belief, and the nomination still doesn’t feel real.

Beyond that, I am gobsmacked by how much kindness has come my way in the wake of writing and publishing this book. There were historians and curators who gave their time gratis, authors (you know who you are) who shared their wisdom and support freely, and family, friends, librarians, and strangers who took the time to reach out and send good wishes.

Each act of kindness feels like a moment of grace, reminding me that, even in this time of discord, there is a tremendous amount of goodness in the world. That revelation has been the most unexpected, welcome surprise of all.


Book promotion has been much more time-consuming than I had expected, but what has surprised me most is the level of support I have experienced from my local community. There are huge advantages to living in a rural area. We are spread-out, but we are also tight knit. Everybody really does know everybody even if they are separated by ten or fifteen miles. I expected some support, but not like this. Everywhere I go, people ask when the next novel is releasing. I feel like they are honestly happy for me. I am truly fortunate.


Mia P. Manansala


I wrote this book after the previous novel I’d written failed on submission–Arsenic and Adobo was meant to be a book for me and my mom, who’d introduced me to the world of cozy mysteries in the first place. So the fact that something I wrote for mostly personal reasons has managed to connect with so many people is amazing and completely unexpected.


Gaining an Agatha Award nomination for Best First Novel is an absolute, unpredicted thrill. I’m so, so honored to be a part of this legacy of talented writers. I discovered an amazing community of people open to helping each other grow. I need to do the same in return.

I recently held a two-hour book talk and the joy and fun of discovering how much Murder in the Master readers were totally engaged in my characters’ lives was fantastic. They laughed and questioned and probed.

Raquel V. Reyes

I’d add that for Murder in the Master, launching the storyline with a murder in the first paragraph was a big leap. Pure instinct. Thank goodness so many readers love that opening! I also deliberated, with a whole lot of angst, about the concept of creating my squad of favorite, famous sleuths to help my protagonist investigate the crime. Readers love it.
They enjoy seeing these favorites bring their crime solving talents and uniqueness into a current day mystery. They’ve also told me Helen’s personality has struck a chord. She’s quick-witted and likes to verbally spar, especially with her possible love interest, and readers are cheering her along. Overall, I’d like to encourage other writers to get their creativity down on paper. Don’t allow, like I did, life’s practicalities to delay their writing.


In my wildest dreams, I never would have imagined that Mango, Mambo, and Murder would get a NYT Book Review.


Best Short Story
A Family Matter by Barb Goffman (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine Jan/Feb 2021)
A Tale of Two Sisters by Barb Goffman in Murder on the Beach (Destination Murders)
Docs at Midnight by Richie Narvaez in Midnight Hour (Crooked Lane Books)
The Locked Room Library by Gigi Pandian (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine July/Aug 2021)
Bay of Reckoning by Shawn Reilly Simmons in Murder on the Beach (Destination Murders)


How do you create realistic antagonists in short stories?


Barb Goffman


The process for creating a realistic antagonist is the same as the process for creating a realistic protagonist and other characters. Think about their feelings, their motivations, and their emotional needs, because it’s these things that prompt each character’s actions.

One good way to do this is to put yourself in the characters’ shoes, which will allow you to see the situation in question from their perspectives. With this insight, you should be able to have each character act and react as real people would and also act differently from one another.

In “A Tale of Two Sisters,” Robin is strong while her sister, the bride, is anxious. Robin is determined to ensure the night goes well for Emma. It’s that motivation that prompts her actions throughout the story. If Robin were anxious too, the story would have unfolded quite differently.

Similarly, in “A Family Matter,” Doris reacts negatively to the family that moves in next door, not because she’s a mean person but because she believes it’s vital that this family not bring the neighborhood down. If Doris were more low-key, like another neighbor, Audrey, she would have reacted differently to things the new neighbors did. As a result, she wouldn’t have discovered a certain secret, and the story would have had a very different ending.

So, given that characters could act differently in any situation, it’s imperative for the author to understand who each character is, what motivates him or her, and think about how those motivations come into play with every action. This applies whether the character is the protagonist, antagonist, or even a sidekick.



The same as you would a protagonist: Make them as tangible as possible. Does he have a favorite flavor of ice cream, a certain way of speaking, a pet cockatoo? Little details help the reader see them as more than just cartoony two-dimensional people. And we should know their motivations. Most of us are happy to pay rent and vacation once in a while, but what makes this person want to kidnap, murder, lie, steal, take over the world?


“Doc’s at Midnight” is fairly short, so we don’t get to hang out with the antagonists for very long, but when we do we get their motivation, and we see how it is anchored in a decades-old pain that echoes the struggle that the two main characters are going through, attempting to review and recover from the past.


Gigi Pandian


Such an interesting question! For me, in a short story it’s the puzzle itself that’s the antagonist, more than any particular person. The motive of the person behind the crime needs to be realistic, but I’m far more interested in creating a satisfying locked-room puzzle that makes the reader smile at the end of the story because the solution is both surprising and believable.



To me finding conflict between characters is one of the easier parts of writing. We’re all wired differently, all based on how we were raised and our life experiences since. The potential for conflict to arise is, unfortunately, all around us on a daily basis. My process is to think about how that character feels about a certain situation, and why they may have an issue, based on their beliefs or a perceived slight or outright injustice they feel has happened to them. It’s fun for me to think how a character might think, and have them react in a way that might be surprising in the face of conflict. 


Now, a question for all the nominees:

What shoes would your protagonist (or another character in your book or story) wear to the Agatha Banquet?



Becca will wear the kitten-heeled satin slippers that Martha Washington gave her just the other day. The shoes are cobalt blue, shot through with shimmering metallic threads and topped with silver buckles. Lady Washington, as she was known, loves shoes and occasionally gifts them to special friends. After all the unpleasantness last winter–the less said about that, the better–Becca certainly qualifies as one of those special friends.


Lori Duffy Foster


Boots, of course! Lisa would want to look good, but she would also want to be super comfortable. To settle her nerves, you know? So she would choose a pair of leather cowboy boots, probably light brown with a simple design, with about a one-inch heel. It be a pair she has worn often enough to break in, but not so often that they are scuffed or worn-looking. Lisa loves boots. She lives in them.



This is tough because my protagonist is way, WAY more fashionable than me. She favors dark color palettes and stacked heels, so I’m picturing glittery or velvety black wedges that lace up and have fun, sexy cut-outs. Her mom taught her about couture and famous designers when she was younger, but she cares less about brand names and more about the style and vibe of a design.



No question, Helen would wear four-inch heels, maybe red. She’d be taking her fashion direction from Nora Charles and Agatha Raisin, who both know how to sashay across a room. Unfortunately, for me personally, those heels have been shoved to the back of my closet. Too many years of heels for work have turned my feet into pretzels. I can hear Jane Marple tsk- tsking in my ears.


Judy L. Murray


My protagonist, Miriam Quiñones, a Cuban-American food anthropologist turned cooking show star, is on the practical side—so, probably a simple, classic pump. But if her BFF, Alma, had anything to do with it, Miriam would wear a stylish and strappy shoe with some tasteful bling to it. 



Robin in “A Tale of Two Sisters” would wear flats. At her last fancy affair, she had to wear heels and they made her evening even more difficult. It’s hard to chase a dog when you’re in heels. So, she wouldn’t make that mistake again. After all, who knows if a dog will crash the Agatha banquet too?

Doris from “A Family Matter” would wear shoes with a narrow, pointy toe and a tall heel. They were the stylish choice for women in the spring of 1962, and Doris is all about projecting the right image, which means she must wear the right thing.


Great question! Well, the protagonist of “Doc’s at Midnight,” is actually a character from the 1961 movie West Side Story, Chino, but he’s older now and not flush with cash. So I think he would wear something that harkens back to his past, but not expensive—so, Capezio lace-up dance shoes in faux leather featuring one-inch heels with suede-covered bottoms for shock absorption. In black. Used, but buffed to a shine.

Richie Narvaez


Sanjay would be wearing his signature tuxedo and bowler hat, which he wears when he performs on stage as The Hindi Houdini.



Sabrina Westfall, the protagonist in my story, is a former beauty queen, so she would wear heels, but she’s also very sensible and practical, so they would be modest and elegant, much like her. She’d also have an updo and be wearing a lovely gown, chin up and toe turned out for photos (she’s media trained!). 


Shawn Reilly Simmons


Mally Becker combines her love of history and crime fiction in mysteries that feature strong, independent heroines. In addition to being nominated for a 2022 Agatha Award, The Turncoat’s Widow has also been named a Mystery & Mayhem finalist in the Chanticleer International Book Awards. The next book in her series will be published in June 2022 by Level Best Books.


Lori Duffy Foster

Lori Duffy Foster is a former crime reporter who writes fiction and nonfiction from the hills of Northern Pennsylvania, where she lives with her husband and four children. She was born and raised in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, where a part of her heart remains.


Mia P. Manansala is a writer and book coach from Chicago who loves books, baking, and bad-ass women. She uses humor (and murder) to explore aspects of the Filipino diaspora, queerness, and her millennial love for pop culture.

Judy L. Murray is a real estate broker with a not-so-secret passion for deals, divas, and danger. Her passion for mysteries began with smart girls like Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, grew deeper with not-to-be-ignored women like Miss Marple and Nora Charles, and finally evolved into her own gutsy heroine - Helen Morrisey.

Raquel V. Reyes writes stories with Latina characters. Her Cuban-American heritage, Miami, and the Caribbean feature prominently in her work. Raquel is a co-chair for SleuthFest.

Barb Goffman, a short story author and a freelance crime-fiction editor, has won the Agatha Award twice and has also taken home the Macavity, Silver Falchion, and 2020 Readers Award given by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. She’s been a finalist for major crime-writing awards thirty-five times for her stories, including sixteen Agatha Award nominations (a category record), and multiple nominations for the Anthony, Macavity, and Derringer awards.

Richie Narvaez is the award-winning author of the collection Roachkiller and Other Stories, the gentrification thriller Hipster Death Rattle, and the historical YA mystery Holly Hernandez and the Death of Disco. His latest book is the collection Noiryorican

Gigi Pandian is a USA Today bestselling mystery author, breast cancer survivor, and locked-room mystery enthusiast. Gigi is a co-founder of Crime Writers of Color, and she writes the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt mysteries, Accidental Alchemist mysteries, and Secret Staircase Mysteries, beginning with Under Lock & Skeleton Key—which came out in March 2022.

​Shawn Reilly Simmons is the author of seven novels in the Red Carpet Catering mystery series featuring Penelope Sutherland, chef-owner of a movie set catering company. She’s also written short stories which have been published in various anthologies. Shawn serves on the Board of Malice Domestic and is co-owner/publisher/editor at Level Best Books. 


  1. Congratulations to all the nominees!

  2. Thanks for the interviews! Can't wait to see everyone there and to vote.

  3. Congratulations to all! It's fun to learn more about the nominees!!

  4. Paula,
    I always find your nominee composites insightful and fun. There is always a twist I never expect behind how some of the books were written or the analysis that went into them.

  5. I loved hearing from these fabulous authors! Congratulations to all!

  6. Thank you so much to everyone who stopped by and to all the fabulous nominees. I appreciate and learn so much from the opportunity to interview them each year. Best wishes for a wonderful time at Malice Domestic!

  7. Thank you, Paula, for giving me and the rest of the nominees this chance to speak with your readers. And thanks, everyone, for supporting us. I'm looking forward to seeing many of you at Malice.


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