Clues to the treasure

Who says there’s no such thing as an attack dachshund?

A certain Yankee editor, that’s who, Weaverville-based mystery novelist Elizabeth Daniels Squire revealed in a recent phone interview.

“She had less of a sense of humor than some,” relates the writer delicately (Outcome: The tragically misunderstood wiener dog stayed in the story). Irony, says Squire, is an ingrained hallmark of any Southern writing. And a decidedly direct use of colloquial language is another side to the Southern mystery.

During one mystery-writers’ conference, Squire recalls, a Northerner approached her with this wistful praise: “Oh, you Southern writers are so lucky. Your writing is already concrete,” alluding to the colorful phrases that are naturally woven into Southern-speak. And Squire had to agree.

Recently, one of Squire’s friends described a woman, saying, “She was so dumb she couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time.” Reports Squire, “I hurried to write it down, and I may use it in this short story I’m writing.”

Squire long ago decided on a “real” career as a newspaper reporter because, she declares, “I always wanted to write fiction, but of course, no one is going to pay you [a living wage] for fiction, and reporting was a way I could use my writing and still make a living. … It’s been terribly helpful to me in my work now. I saved my [reporter’s] notes from a flood I covered, which appeared in my first mystery. And I learned how to interview people, which is an important part of a mystery story.”

Even her more distasteful assignments proved ample fodder for future fiction. Squire believes that it is important, nay, necessary, to good writing — and bearable living — to be able to mine the humor out of any situation.

“I covered murder trials in Madison County, which can be very funny,” she says lightly. She remembers one case in particular, wherein a man reported — a hefty amount of years after the fact — witnessing a murder. The man’s mother, when asked on the stand whether it was indeed likely that her son had actually seen the alleged act, replied that he had never told the truth in his life, and furthermore, “I don’t see why he would start now.”

Likewise, Squire’s gibes are often more inherently than purposefully humorous: “People will say to me, ‘Oh, that was so funny,’ and I’ll think, ‘But I didn’t write it to be funny’,” she notes with a puzzled laugh.

Where There’s a Will (Berkley Press, 1999) is the author’s latest installment in a six-book series featuring a forgetful, scrappy amateur sleuth named Peaches Dann. Squire explains that she eschews structure in her novels. “[What happens as the mystery unfolds] always surprises me,” she relates. “I know the beginning and the end, but I can’t write an outline.”

Squire’s unusual heroine must employ memory tricks to help her decipher clues. Peaches’ keen observational skills, however, require no aid. In describing Winnie, a sourly self-righteous heiress (and one of seven troubled relatives who’ve all received a $15 million windfall, with murderous results), the sleuth ponders wryly, “I thought about the Winnie I remembered — asking me for money for good causes. … She always emphasized the horror story. … And something in her manner always suggested she had a lot in common with those victims, though she never said so. So [I wondered], how was she coping with good luck?”

Squire allows that she has some of herself invested in the witty Peaches. “People tell me that I’m absentminded, if that’s what you mean,” she answers, when asked about direct parallels between her heroine and herself. “But I think writers put a lot of themselves into every character. … You have to have some empathy, even in your most ghastly characters.”

Where There’s a Will is set partly in Western North Carolina and includes many familiar sites. What, then, sets a Southern mountain mystery even further apart from the pack?

“Well, the way you murder people is different,” notes the Raleigh native smoothly. Referring to a scene where a luckless heir is found — apparently shoved to death — in the bowels of Linville Gorge, she deadpans: “You would not be able to do that so well in the Piedmont.”

But seriously, “Asheville is a wonderful place to set a novel,” she continues. “There are so many different kinds of people here. You’ve got the back cove people … retired CEOs, the New Age people who come in and can tell the future … every kind of person. And they’re fun to write about.”

This Sunday, Squire and three other Southern mystery writers will discuss their recently released novels at Malaprop’s and attempt to answer the question, “What makes Southern mystery writers different?”

Remembering her manners, Squire insists on the input of her fellow novelists.

Of her recent novel Cuttings (Dell Press, 1999), Horseshoe, N.C.-based mystery writer Anne Grant notes, “[The book] explores the ways in which murder in an urban Southern city like Charlotte is different from murder in other large cities. … Of course, we Southerners [always] have to feel we’re unique.

“Mean, dark streets — like those found in Chicago and New York City crime novels — have never really existed in the South,” she continues. Grant obviously espouses the famous “write what you know” credo: “[Southern mystery writers] don’t deal in thrilling espionage or sophisticated robberies. When we try, we usually fail miserably. We stick to what we know best. We kill only those people we know well enough to find irritating. And that’s how the good Lord intended it to be.”

Thriller writer Evelyn Coleman, from Atlanta, delves into the question of what sets Southern mysteries apart with a sense of personal mystery.

“A non-Southerner might say, ‘Don’t touch me.’ But a Southerner says, ‘Touch me, and like a delicate butterfly I will not soar in the skies ever again,'” she mused in a recent written statement.

“For me, being a Southern writer means I respect the relationship of life to every living creature — and bathe in metaphor in the mornings,” she continues. “It also means I recognize the nuances in a city like Atlanta. In my book, What a Woman’s Gotta Do [Dell Press, 1999)], I introduced colorful characters that were uniquely Southern and presented places that most people don’t imagine are in the South. There are many subliminal wonders in being a Southerner, [which] I continue to explore in my work. … I say to others who don’t know the South: In the South, if you spit, it will evaporate before it hits the dirt; in other words, it’s hot — and, in more ways than one, it is an absorbing process just to breathe [here].”

Toni Kelner, author of Death of a Damn Yankee (Kensington Press, 1999) closes the matter with the same mix of common sense and sass she exhibits in her novels: “Even though I’ve lived in Massachusetts for 12 years now, my mysteries are set in Byerly, an imaginary North Carolina mill town. . … Sometimes I wish I could set my books in Boston, just to make the research easier, but it just won’t work. First off, my character Laura’s best sources for clues is her Aunt Nora, who knows, or knows of, everybody in Byerly. But nobody knows everybody in Boston! Laura spends a lot of time with Byerly’s police chief, who knows all about town crimes and bends the rules now and again. In Boston, it would be a different police detective every time, and I don’t think any of them would be likely to spill the beans, even when bribed with sausage biscuits.”

@boxtext:Elizabeth Daniels Squire, Anne Grant, Evelyn Coleman and Toni Kelner will appear at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe (55 Haywood St.) on Sunday, Aug. 8, at 4 p.m. to discuss their recently published mystery novels and explore the Southern connection in mystery writing. The event is free. Call 254-6734 for more info.

The annual Southern Mystery Gathering will take place Aug. 6-8 in Greenville, S.C. this year. Call Betsy Shoolbread at (864) 967-4058 to register or for more info.


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