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Magna cum Murder History

From the Director, Kathryn Kennison

It was not a dark and stormy night, but it might have been. As I recall, it was a beautiful crisp October morning back in 1993, and the note I found in my mailbox at the office didn’t seem particularly menacing even if it was from the dean of the School of Continuing Education. “See me,” it read, “about a special project I want you to work on with Joanna.”  How threatening could that be? Joanna Wallace, the Associate Dean of Continuing Education is smart, informed, charming, lovely, and canny -- all without being insufferable -- and I always enjoyed working with her.

According to the dean, a recent survey of Ball State alumni indicated that they would like the university to sponsor more weekend events. It was Joanna's idea to do a mystery weekend. Joanna knows that I am an avid reader with a special interest in mysteries, and she herself is a consummate plotter and planner, so the whole idea immediately took on a life and vitality of its own.

When we planned the inaugural Magna cum Murder, we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. Worse, we didn’t realize that we didn’t know what we were doing until we were too far along to bail out. Thinking that we were planning a sedate little weekend get-together for maybe 65 Ball State alumni (if we were lucky) with appearances by maybe three or four authors (if we were very lucky) we were bowled over by the response. Within weeks of announcing the convention we had commitments from 14 top mystery writers, including notables such as Ralph McInerny, Sharyn McCrumb, Joan Hess, Nancy Pickard, and Michael Z. Lewin. When the dust finally settled and all the figures were totaled up, we found that we had 265 guests, including over 40 authors coming for this "sedate little weekend affair." I, personally, was terror-stricken, but Joanna is made of far sterner stuff. Before I knew what was happening, she had everything listed, charted, and catalogued and the rest is, as they say, history.

A unique characteristic of Magna cum Murder is the academic track. While this festival is definitely geared to crime fiction readers, we do offer academic roundtables and academic papers are presented at each conference. The quarterly newsletter, Pomp & Circumstantial Evidence, often covers academic topics, as well as news, essays, reviews and updates on the activities of Magna's distinguished “alumni.”

Undergraduate students from Ball State get involved, too. Honors College students, and students from the English department volunteer to serve as guides and registrars.

Planning subsequent Magna weekends has been much easier in many ways. We have contacts we did not have before and we have the best audience in the world. We also have the finest, most knowledgeable steering committee ever assembled. The success of Magna cum Murder is largely the result of this group's generosity, enthusiasm and talent.

Brian Foust, Margaret Foust, and all the rest of the Arsenic and Oolong Society in Indianapolis have promoted and pitched in from the very beginning. Jane Ellen Syrk and Don Newhouse whose wonderful mystery bookstore, Murder and Mayhem, is sadly no longer in there in Indianapolis, also helped set us firmly on the road to success. I have often said, and it must be repeated here, that Host Emeritus Don Sandstrom, in whose name the Spirit of Magna award is given each year, was living proof that there is, indeed, a special Providence that watches out for fools and babies. We could never have done it without him, and every single Magna cum Murder that ever occurred, or will occur, is a memorial to our beloved friend and mentor.

Then, of course, there are all the wonderful people who come year after year--fans, authors, vendors, publishers, publicists, agents, etc. There couldn't be a Magna cum Murder without their support and goodwill. They’ve been the best advertising and public relations department anyone could hope for and they’re the reason our numbers have increased with each passing year.

We can't wait to see each and every one of you each October!