When our last newsletter winged on Mercury's sandals to your in-box, we were routinely consulting the other sort of mercury, being in the crab-like pincers of what turned into a lengthy heat wave for a fair bit of the nation. Now, however, not only has the temperature dropped but soon the foliage will follow suit. How the ancients must have dreaded these beautiful autumn days when the all-important harvest was brought in. Would there be enough food to last until spring? Would the spirit of vegetation, dying so colourfully all around them, return at the appointed time in the new year? There's something sad about these misty mornings with their thin, golden rays of sunshine slanting through flaring patchworks of orange, red and lemon-lime tinted trees strung across the landscape. Perhaps it's because this season reminds us not only that Time, as Isaac Watts so eloquently put it, bears all its sons away but also that winter is just over the horizon.

And the passage of Time, of course, also inexorably brings with it another issue of Orphan Scrivener, so here it is. Enjoy!


Research often entices the seeker down some very strange and dark byways, twisty deserted streets or dusty, oddly quiet lanes -- yet often even the most seemingly ordinary path winds at last to literary countryside so fascinating that it takes a really stern effort of will to turn back and retrace one's wandering footsteps. Many's the time when looking up odds and ends I've wanted to keep reading to see what lay around the heavily wooded bend curving so enticingly out of sight, or if you prefer plainer talk, to go on to the next chapter even though I've located the needed information.

Thus it was during the writing of Three For A Letter when the time arrived for the ever-difficult task of the Naming of Names. While it's always a good plan to avoid writing about characters with similar sounding monikers or names beginning with the same initial, this time around there we encountered an added difficulty when naming a pair of royal Goth twins.

Apart from the initial and inevitable thought of Goths as being connected with dark clothing, demon-white faces and An Attitude -- in some ways not a bad description of the twins' forebears -- it turned out that the Goths seemed overly fond of names beginning with A, such as Amalfrida, Agiwulf, Anagastes, Aligern and Aithanarid. Indeed, historical characters needing at least a nod in Threefer included Athalaric and Amalasuntha.

Added to that, many Goth names sound rather odd to present day ears and so, bearing in mind that first impressions are important when meeting new characters, the likes of Giso, Mundo, Gundobad, Patza and Hunila were quickly cast aside. Originally the siblings were to be Amalaric (male) and Amalathea (female) but finally, after much muttering and consulting of lists, they were renamed Gadaric and Sunilda respectively.

However, it's just as well that the twins appear in Three For A Letter. Had they been involved in Two For Joy, since we're reliably informed that Byzantines loved puns we might not have been able to resist the right royal temptation of giving the unfortunate lad the genuine Goth name of Tufa and then slyly dubbing his sister Joy.



Those who enjoy discussion/reading guides can leap therewith as we've have just completed one for the novels thus far issued. Since it necessarily contains a certain amount of spoilerage -- particularly for the first two books -- at this point we're not posting it to our website. However, if you'd like to glance over it, do jot a line and we'll gladly email a copy.


The sixth John story, And All That He Calls Family, is now lurking on those bookstore shelves carrying The Mammoth Book of More Historical Whodunnits, Mike Ashley's latest historical mystery anthology. (UK title: The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits: A New Collection). In this particular outing, John is called upon to solve a strange affair precipitated when a curse tablet is dredged up from a well on a country estate. Did the ill-wisher involved have any connection with the recent death of Damian, co-owner of the estate, whose shade has been seen flitting about the gardens -- and could Damian's posthumous son Solon now also be in danger?


The press is now thundering to print Three For A Letter, to be published in December. In Threefer, John finds himself embroiled in murderous goings-on at the seaside estate of Anatolius' Uncle Zeno, that scholarly old gent of eclectic credulity mentioned in Two For Joy (the pb edition of which appeared this month) and in the short story Leap of Faith (EQMM, November 1998). Among other things, John's adventures involve amazing automatons, ladies-in-waiting with agendas, a magical whale and Empress Theodora's favourite mime. Familiar characters such as the excubitor captain Felix, that hasty young man-about-Constantinople Anatolius and Senator Balbinus, last seen in Two For Joy, return. There's also a cast of assorted Goths, none of whom have names beginning with A.


Near the beginning of the movie Gladiator, General Maximus, about to lead his legions into battle deep in the forests of Germany, gives the command "At my signal, unleash hell," and before you can shake a pila it's hasta la vista barbarians.

When I first saw the movie that line didn't bother me. Ever since Dirty Harry wanted his day made, quick thinking action heroes have had to come up with memorable phrases prior to inflicting mayhem. It isn't a bad convention, for those of us who take some vicarious pleasure in imagining ourselves as the hero. Even if I were able to engineer the bloody dispatch of an army of ruthless Germans I would probably have emerged from my tent one morning, weeks later, thinking, "The Furies take me. I should've said, 'At my signal, unleash hell,' instead of 'At the count of three, go.'"

However, slow-witted as I am, I have recently wondered about the use of the word "hell." Why would a Roman general exhort his troops to bring down upon the enemy a banned religious cult's idea of what the afterlife holds for those who fail to adhere to their religion's decidedly non-Roman precepts? Certainly the typical Roman did not believe in the Christian idea of hell and if Maximus' men did hold beliefs differing from those of the average pagan of the era, they were likely Mithrans since that was a soldier's religion.

To be fair, historical fiction always presents translation problems so it may be that the word "hell" was meant to be an understandable reference to the Roman's own conception of the eternal wrong side of the tracks reserved for transgressors. After all, "At my signal, release Tartarus," just doesn't have much of a ring to modern ears.

Tartarus, where the judges of the dead sent wrongdoers after the latter had been ferried across the Styx to the underworld, wasn't much like Hell. In fact, most souls sent there wandered as pale shades in meadows of asphodel. It is hard to imagine why Maximus would urge his army to unleash fields of asphodel on the Germans, or what military objective such a tactic might achieve, except perhaps to sow confusion, presuming the Germans were as uncertain as I am about what an asphodel actually is.

I have read that some Roman dead were punished by the Furies, so maybe that was what Maximus had in mind, but if so, why didn't he just order the unleashing of the Furies?

Even if one argues that the reference to hell is anachronistic does it matter? It's a good line. It certainly conjures up the proper images, and probably does so better for a modern movie-goer than some more realistically Roman reference could. I suppose it is a question of the writer's taste in translation.

When Mary and I write our Byzantine mysteries I always feel as if I'm translating our characters' words from the ancient Greek or Latin. We tend to be conservative, literal, translators. So while the adolescent court page, Hektor, might show his contempt and disrespect for John by barging into the Lord Chamberlain's home and issuing impertinent orders, he won't soon be addressing him with "Hey, old Chamberlain dude," although that is probably what he'd be saying if he were living today.

The use of modern, idiomatic expressions might make it a little easier for the present day reader to relate to characters, or at least makes it easier for the writer to present those characters. But I believe that in any historical novel, one of the main characters, perhaps as important as the protagonist, is the setting, and anachronisms in the mouths of other characters makes the setting less believable. It is hard enough to convince readers to imagine they are walking down the Mese in ancient Constantinople without constantly reminding them that this is a book written in the twenty-first century.

We try hard to make sure no anachronisms slip into the John the Eunuch series, but it's hard to avoid and sometimes occasionally tempting. While writing Three For A Letter, we were sorely tempted to play a bit fast and loose with the language. The Byzantines, as Mary mentions above, were very fond of puns. Unfortunately Byzantine puns only make sense in Latin or ancient Greek. I'm not sure how, or if it is possible, to translate a pun. Nevertheless, Anatolius, considering himself a wit, would likely have been prone to puns and in one scene as originally written he got carried away and made one involving goats and Christianity.

On reflection and after a bit more research the chroniclers of the adventures of John and his friends decided that particular bit of word play only worked in English and would've made no sense in ancient Greek, so it was removed. Besides, it was dreadful, not to mention possibly upsetting to people of nervous disposition. Anyway, if you want to hear that pun I guess you'll have to wait for the out-takes on the DVD.


Since we're approaching 2,000 words and try to stay around that figure so as not to overload your e-mail, we'll now scurry about and close down this issue. As usual, we'll be back in two months so look out for the next Orphan Scrivener in mid-December, that time of jolly jamborees across both the ancient and modern worlds.

Best wishes to all.

Mary and Eric

whose home page lurks about at

Therein you'll find the usual suspects plus more personal essays, an interactive game and an on-line jigsaw puzzle (at least for those who have java-enabled browsers) featuring One For Sorrow's eye-catching scarlet cover. We also now have a work-in-progress, to wit, a page listing mystery- related newsletters (print and email). If you have such a newsletter and would like to be listed, let us know. And finally, for those new to the subscription list there's also the Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned!

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