It was drizzling, the temperature was in the 40s, and the event wasn't scheduled to begin until 4 p.m., but they started lining up at 2:15 p.m., wrapped in blankets and perched on soccer chairs.
Mystery novels may have a smaller audience than romance, but there's no mistaking the passion of the whodunit readers. Not if the attendance and expenditures recorded at the 13th annual Festival of Mystery in Oakmont Monday is any example.
Sponsored by Mystery Lovers Bookshop, the festival drew more than 350 readers and 49 mid-list writers to Oakmont's Greek Orthodox Church. Readers came from as far away as Indiana, Ohio, New York and West Virginia. Writers, most of whom paid their own way, journeyed from "many states and three from Canada. They're from Chicago, New York, South Carolina, Maryland, New York and Illinois," said Richard Goldman, the store's co-owner.
Goldman and partner Mary Alice Gorman turned away 30 to 35 authors who had attended earlier festivals to make sure readers who return year after year would meet new ones. This year there were 21 fresh faces, and everybody was busy selling -- and signing -- their books.
"This was the best year. ... We sold five books per minute or an entire SUV full," Goldman and Gorman said in an e-mail. "We know this because we transport and set up a whole bookstore for this event."
Vicki Delany, a writer from Picton, Ontario, Canada, called the festival an "extremely unique" event. She has just published "In the Shadow of the Glacier," the first book in a police procedural series in British Columbia.
"The energy is wonderful ... [so are] the large number of writers, the really keen readers," she said of the only store-based mystery festival in the nation.
Several of the writers, as well as Goldman and Gorman, noted that the crowd was younger than in previous years.
Two of the youngest were Kiki Gordon, 14, of Saxonburg, Butler County, and her 11-year-old sister, Alice. They came with their mother, Liz, and an aunt.
Before filling their tote bags and arms with books, they spent some time "finding a series clean enough that all of us can read," Liz Gordon said.
Among their purchases were books by three authors who attended the festival: Ellen Byerrum, whose protagonist is fashion columnist Lacey Smithsonian; John J. Lamb, author of "The Mournful Teddy"; and Sharon Short, author of the Stain-Busting Series featuring laundromat owner Josie Toadfern.
Julie Pietsch, 23, of Enon Valley, Lawrence County, came with her mother, Karen, 51, and together they had two totes just about filled to the top.
"Most of those are hers," Karen said. "She's got between 500 and 700 books stacked up in her room.
They're not all mysteries, said Julie, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, but many are.
"It's a challenge," she said of the mystery genre. "I also read a lot of historical mysteries. I was a history major. And the humorous ones, I like to read them, too."
Among the writers were five from the area: C. William Davis III, who has just published his second book featuring Sheriff Clive Aliston; Kathleen George, author of three Pittsburgh-based suspense novels; Kathryn Miller Haines, whose second World War II novel is due out soon; Nancy Martin, author of the Blackbird Sisters series; and Heather Terrell, a Pittsburgh attorney whose debut novel, "The Chrysalis," was about artworks looted by the Nazis.
Another local writer was cookbook author Mary Jo Rulnick.
Pohla Smith can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1228.