Readers make selfish friends. We demand that the writers we like keep to their keyboards and produce new novels for us on schedule, and we pooh-pooh any impediment that might keep them from their allotted task. Writer’s block, car accident, snow, sleet, dark of night — all are dismissed by the loyal reader with a lofty wave of the hand and the clucking admonition to “Get back to it.” (Just look at how people have fussed at poor J.K. Rowling for letting a little personal happiness — and oh yes, a baby — delay the next Harry Potter installment.)
So when local mystery author Elizabeth Daniels Squire died unexpectedly from illness in 2001, her fans experienced a peculiar brand of shock: “Does this mean she’ll stop writing mysteries?”
So it would seem. Yet with the publication of The Liz Reader, which will be officially released by Overmountain Press under their Silver Dagger imprint on Dec. 1, readers will have the pleasure of re-meeting the author all over again. Yet there are also plenty of surprises in this slim volume, such as accounts of Liz’s battle with dyslexia and her penchant for palm-reading. For many readers, the sensation of reading The Liz Reader will be akin to learning that the friend you thought you knew so well had all sorts of different tricks up her sleeve.
Edited by her husband, C.B. Squire (known to family and friends as “Chick”), the collection brings together early short stories, pieces of journalism and memoir, as well as some nonfiction pieces written about Liz’s most famous creation, Peaches Dann, the affable and memory-addled detective who, over the course of seven novels, beginning with Who Killed What’s-Her-Name?, demonstrated an equally unhappy propensity for forgetting her car keys and stumbling across murdered bodies in Western North Carolina.
Luckily, Peaches was as ingenious at catching the murderer as she was at developing coping tricks to aid her faulty memory.
The Liz Reader also gathers four short stories featuring Peaches, including “The Dog Who Remembered Too Much,” for which the author won the prestigious Agatha Award in 1995.
The book’s introduction was written by friend and fellow mystery writer Margaret Maron, and other reminiscences of friends and colleagues are interspersed throughout.
As Squire writes in the preface, “This is a celebration of the life and work of Liz throughout the years.” In a recent interview, he described how the idea for the collection grew as he cleaned out Liz’s office at their Weaverville farm last year. For many years, he’d acted as a sort of at-home editor of many of the Peaches Dann mystery novels.
Still, as he cleaned, he came across piece after piece of writing that was completely unfamiliar to him. This work had been written by Liz during the first part of their married life, as she worked as a journalist in Connecticut (and struggled to get her fiction published) and he commuted to a job as an editor in New York. One by one, the pieces had been tucked away in files and forgotten.
The hunt was on. With the help of several of Liz’s former assistants, Squire managed to unearth yet more stories, nonfiction and poetry. Liz’s old high school in Charleston, S.C., even managed to dig up stories and poems written during her time there. The poems are a special treat; as her husband fondly puts it, they’re “hilarious and gruesome at the same time.” Death is their subject, teenage their mood, and taken one after another, they are enough to make even the collected works of Sylvia Plath look positively cheerful and life-affirming.
As he put the collection together, Squire faced a quandary. “It was very difficult,” he says. “There are a lot of things as an editor that I saw [in the pieces] that could be greatly improved. But on the other hand, [Liz] was very critical of some of my editing because she said it was destroying her voice. … A lot of times she overrode my editing. I could sense that she was looking down on me saying, ‘Don’t you touch any of this!’ “
But he also knew that Liz, herself, wouldn’t have sent these pieces out into the world as they were. His wife, he notes, “was a big reviser … never really satisfied with anything she wrote.” Any of her mysteries went through several strenuous revisions before publication.
Whatever gentle editing happened to ready these pieces for publication, Liz’s voice — bright, funny, genteel and self-deprecating — is happily present in these pages.
Recalling a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, she writes, “As I was about to enter, a young priest whispered to me that any prayer I offered at the tomb would be answered — guaranteed. I entered, crouched low, and asked God to make me a better person. I stood up and hit my head on the ceiling!”
Yet one of the insights of The Liz Reader is to show readers how hard-won that voice was, and to put in poignant context its lightness and humor.
Her father’s family had founded The Raleigh News & Observer, and her grandfather was its longtime editor. Her father was press secretary to President Truman. She had a maternal aunt who was a Broadway playwright, and Eudora Welty was a family friend. That a young woman would grow up in a family like this wanting to be a writer is no surprise. That she would succeed while struggling with severe dyslexia (undiagnosed until she was well into her 30s) is. (The stratagems and pluck that Liz, as a young woman, must have used to learn to read and make sense of the written world shed light on the memory-challenged Peaches’ own ingenious coping techniques.)
Then there were the setbacks that any writer faces, dyslexic or not: the inability to find an agent, the mailbox full of rejection letters. Liz’s first mystery, Kill the Messenger, inspired by her grandfather’s life as a newspaperman, wasn’t published until she was 63.
The Liz Reader is the best sort of writer’s autobiography: a story of a life told through the writer’s own writing.
After her death, Liz’s husband and three sons chose this thought from her writing to mark where her ashes are buried in Buncombe County: “Respect the real deep-down differences in the way people’s minds work, including your own. And if some folks think that’s outrageous, so be it.”
By tracing Liz’s voice from the beginning, The Liz Reader gives us both the picture of a woman who would believe such a thing — and the experiences that helped her earn the wisdom to say it.
The Liz Reader
is available at Malaprop’s Bookstore.