Dorothy L: A Mystery Community For More Than 20 Years!

Jan 31, 2015 | 2015 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Terry Ambrose

In a world filled with social media sites including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and a nearly endless supply of others, one small mailing list has remained popular for more than twenty years. Known as “DorothyL,” the list began after a 1991 meeting between two librarians, Diane Kovacs and Ann Okerson.

bookThe mailing list is, in technical terms, called a “listserv.” Kovacs and Okerson chose the name “DorothyL” to commemorate the works of Dorothy L. Sayers, whose first mystery was published in 1923. In a 1998 Mystery Review article by Joseph Scarpato, Kovacs described how the list began. “We were joking about how cool e-mail was and what we could do for fun and relaxation. We were torn between a ChocolateL (for chocolate lovers) list and DorothyL for mystery lit, both things we love. I set up DorothyL and Ann provided moral support.”

Ms. Okerson soon realized that helping to launch an online community via a listserv was more work than she’d anticipated. She was soon replaced by Kara Robinson. Later, Diane Kovacs’ husband Michael took over management of the list because he wanted to continue the thriving community Diane and Kara created. He added, “It helps that I like the people.”

logoIn the early and mid 1990s, email and listservs were a novelty and most of the world’s social media developers were still in elementary school. DorothyL, however, was catching on with mystery lovers. It became a place where writers and readers could meet, talk about books, the genre, good writing, and more.

One of the new writers of the time was Jan Burke, whose novel, Goodnight Irene, was nominated for the Anthony Best First Novel Award in 1994. Burke said, “I attended an American Library Association winter meeting in January 1994. While most will remember the earth-shattering event of that meeting to be the Northridge earthquake, I will also remember it as the first time anyone mentioned DorothyL to me.”

bookNow, with Agatha, Edgar, and Macavity Awards under her belt (not to mention her Anthony and Barry nominations), Burke said that DorothyL got her on the internet. “Among the librarians were a few from CSULB, who helped me to set up an account and showed me how to access Usenet, which was then how you read DorothyL. A slow, screeching modem connected me, I logged on, hoped the connection would hold–and I was off and running.”

Like many others, DorothyL gave Burke a reason to tolerate a squealing modem, snail-paced email, and helped her to engage with writers and readers from around the world. “I could hear the thoughts of some of the most devoted readers of the genre, and as a fan of the genre, this was a delight. I became aware of authors and books I might otherwise have missed. Readers in Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US, as well as other parts of the world connected. The discussions were a mix of the erudite, the silly, the impassioned, the questing.”

Diane Kovacs also remembers those days with fondness. “My memories of the early days are all wonderful. People were so enthusiastic. Moderation was the key to maintaining flame free environment and I believe is why we still exist as a community.”

The community did thrive into the beginnings of social media. By the time Facebook was founded in 2004, followers of DorothyL were committed to the list. One of those followers in DorothyL’s second decade was mystery author Betty Webb, who said she loved the back-and-forth on various subjects and also learned what she should, and shouldn’t, do in her own writing.

book“Writing is a lonely business,” said Webb. “It also kept me clued in to other folks’ attitudes about various writing issues. For instance, I never kill an animal even in my darkest Lena Jones mysteries, because I learned on DorothyL what a big no-no that was. I remember someone writing, ‘ Kill the men, kill the women, kill the kids–do a wholesale slaughter, I don’t care. But whatever you do, don’t kill the kitty!’”

DorothyL is still a place for writers and readers to hang out and discuss the topic of mysteries. There are also frequent announcements about book reviews, launches, and all things related to crime fiction. As with any online tool, some view the list as their personal platform for blatant self-promotion. Burke summed up how most readers feel about overzealous promoters. “At times, the unchecked narcissism of a few of my fellow authors made the list unbearable to me– more scrolling than reading. But, try as they might to crowd the frame, they were never the whole picture.”

That whole picture is about community and friendship, things that are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain in a sound bite-driven world. Webb said, “DorothyL made some people aware of my books, and maybe I sold a few more because of DorothyL, but that was never the reason I loved it. Writing is a lonely business, and DorothyL really helped make me feel less isolated.”

Jan Burke agreed that she enjoyed the sense of community. “I formed friendships that have lasted decades. Some of these friends, I am sad to say, have been lost. One painfully shy but lovely fan of ‘Due South,’ Marcia Whipple, invited me to a party she held at her home in San Diego. Holding a party was an act of bravery on her part, and I was honored to be included. We all had a lovely time. Her bravery was later employed in a battle with cancer, which she lost, but I will always remember her.”

What began as a cool experiment with the new technology of email grew into a full-fledged community of friends with a common interest. Much like its namesake, DorothyL appears to be withstanding the test of time.

For more information:
To learn more about DorothyL or to join the list, visit

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.

Click on this link to purchase any of the books mentioned.

Terry Ambrose is a former bill collector and skip tracer who now uses that background to write mysteries and thrillers. His debut mystery Photo Finish was a 2013 San Diego Book Awards Finalist. You can learn more about Terry on his website.


  1. Good looking books. I have not read any of Betty Webb’s books for a while. She came to Nashville years ago and spoke at our local Sisters in Crime group and I bought Desert Noir. I believe it was her first book. I understand she is doing well and even one of her books (or more) has become a TV series. The other authors are new to me.

    • Hi Linda, Jan Burke is an excellent writer and her “Irene” series is terrific if you’re looking for series writers that are new to you. Dorothy L. Sayers remains popular today long after she has passed on. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Interesting. I wonder if they’re as friendly as SMFS? One way to find out. Thanks for the link.

    • Hi Maddy,
      If you decide to try it out, I hope you find it helpful.

  3. DorothyL was there for me when I was an aspiring–I mean, an emerging, as DL favorite, Louise Penny, once coached me to say–writer; there when Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day got off the ground, thanks to many list members; and there as I went out into the world with my first book. It’s a warm, avid, interesting and intelligent group. I hope this nostalgic look back brings new voices to the mix–I think I can promise that you’ll be glad you came!


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