What seems to have been an extremely long winter has finally departed somewhat grumpily down the pike, shedding snow flurries right and left as it goes. With its departure time seems to have speeded up and now, suddenly, today's the deadline for getting income tax returns off to the IRS. It's a shame working shmoes don't have the option of paying taxes due in goods rather than with cash. True, such an arrangement would be pretty well unworkable, but the stray thought was inspired by memories of quit-rents, which are precisely that. They tend towards being useful although occasionally exotic items so that annual rents for land or a manor house might be a pair of gloves, a bill hook, several horseshoes or a single rose, the latter to be rendered to the landlord at mid-winter, an easier task to accomplish now than in centuries past.

And speaking of horse shoes, as if you haven't already suffered enough, April l5th also thunders in bearing the latest issue of Orphan Scrivener, so let's get right to it!


As if my stiffening joints aren't enough reminder of progressive fossilization, I've noticed recently that has taken to categorizing some books set in the nineteen sixties as "historicals."

My first reaction was that an era I'd so recently lived through couldn't be history yet, but then, as I recalled those days when the roads crawled with VW Beetles rather than SUVs, civil rights legislation was being passed rather than repealed, people could still advocate peace without ninety percent of the population labeling them traitors, not to mention the existence of things like bell bottoms and fizzies - well, it must all seem exotic and improbable to anyone who wasn't there.

It next occurred to me that maybe the present being tailgated by history wasn't such a bad thing for writers of historical mysteries. How much easier would it be to research the sixties than the Byzantine Roman Empire? Research? Heck, all I'd have to do was dust off my own memories.

Or so I thought, until I tried. I'd forgotten I have practically no memory.

It's true. The landscape of my past is mostly obscured by fog, interrupted here and there by dark gaps which I might label lacunae, remembering how I used to pore over the Word Power feature in Reader's Digest, not so much to improve my vocabulary (since adding words like lacunae is, arguably, not an improvement) but rather to add rare words to my menagerie.

Strange how I can remember coming upon "lacunae" but my entire year in third grade has vanished except, of course, for the momentous day our stout teacher broke her chair when she sat down.

Other people seem not to suffer this disability, to judge by the exquisitely rendered detail of their reminiscences. I've always felt that my lousy memory was actually a benefit to me as a writer. I'm not tempted to torture readers with my coming of age story. (There are six billion coming of age stories on planet earth -- this is one of them!) Whatever that involved is either too hideously painful to recall or too unutterably boring. Unless maybe I just haven't come of age yet.

I've always been forced to rely on my imagination rather than trying to dress up my own past in fictional clothing. There was a period when I emulated essayists like James Thurber, E.B. White and Robert Benchley (not to mention Lucius Beebe and Wolcott Gibbs). But even then my remembrances are mostly fanciful embroidery. Oddly, as my brother who was on the scene for most of what I wrote about once observed, readers who didn't know me well tended to doubt the few bits of truth while believing all the rest.

Memory is an unreliable witness anyway. Our pasts are undeniably linear, yet, for me at least, memory is not. Important events, my grandmother reading to me, for instance, remain near at hand and clear while more trivial and recent things, like my final law school exams, have receded so rapidly that I can deduce their existence but cannot conjure up even the foggiest of snapshots.

I always wonder about the authenticity of memories as well. Do I remember playing catch with my grandfather in the backyard when I was six or am I just recalling the photograph I was shown years afterwards? And how much of the original memory survives time? The fact that a changed person is recalling an event under different circumstances must color the memory, and to what extent is it colored further by all the other times and circumstances it has been recalled under. Don't we put more fingerprints on memories every time we take them out to look at them?

Still, I can't deny it might help my writing were I able to remember what happened in Chapter Two by the time I'm writing Chapter Seventeen. I guess Mary must've written Chapter Two.

And a sixties historical mystery might be a good idea, even if it would require some research. The detective would have to be young, naturally. We were all young then. Murder at the Fillmore East. The victim was killed during a drum solo. (Plenty of time for the perpetrator and who'd notice another comatose body in the audience?) Oh, yeah, the detective lives in a VW bus. You know, kind of the equivalent of Australopithecus to modern mini vans. And, let's se, he has a weakness for root beer flavored fizzies. Now there's something I remember. Except how they tasted, exactly. Maybe some things are best forgotten.


Recently an Orphan Scrivener subscriber jotted us a line vis a vis last issue's revelation concerning the nature of an obelist. After noting that the similar word obelisk derives from the diminutive of obelus, a spit, our correspondent was inspired to pen the following:

Ode To An Obelisk

An oboist, an obelist,
A hobo and a belle-lettrist
Obambulate the Obelisk
Observe but missed the obvious:
One marked in time, one marked in rhyme,
One marked in margins of his crime.
The oboist would obsecrate
An obbligate for his mate;
His friend preferred the obscure wit:
Belle-lettrists best obliterate
And not obsess and obstenate.
The hobo was obliged to spit.
The obelist obelized, then quit.

Your far-flung correspondent, R.O.

Consulted concerning quoting the above in OS, his go-ahead arrived in an email signed "Your obsequious observations obviate any obversion. I oblige." Needless to say, if we ever hear of a literary award for the most graceful (not to mention multi syllabled) extending of reprint permission, we intend to nominate R.O. immediately.



Speaking of awards, we're proud to announce that the folk at just honoured us with their April 2002 Author Appreciation Award For An Exceptional Web Site, the criteria for which being that sites be "informative, easy to surf, and bookaholic worthy". Since Eric runs ours all on his own, despite constant protestations of not knowing what he's doing, to him goes all the glory -- and to Myshelf thanks from both of us.


Word reaches us of Mike Ashley's latest anthology, entitled The Mammoth Book of Ancient Egyptian Whodunnits and slated to appear from Robinson this September in the UK with an American edition from Carroll and Graf following shortly thereafter. A special introduction by Elizabeth Peters kicks off the collection, which (apart from one reprint) is made up of new works by Lauren Haney, Lynda S. Robinson, Anton Gill, Paul Doherty, Suzanne Frank, Gillian Bradshaw, Marilyn Todd, Gillian Linscott, Michael Pearce, Ian Morson and several more. Its time span stretches from the third millenium BC to just before the First World War and stories featuring Imhotep, Tutankhamun, Herodotus and Cleopatra, among many others, are included. Quite a line up, to say the least!

We can now confess (so put away the thumb screws) that we're two of the many others, our contribution being a locked temple mystery solved by that colourful traveller and writer Herodotus.


While we plan to continue writing stories featuring Herodotus as time permits, John will always take first seat at the literary banquet and so needless to say we're now concentrating on finishing Four For A Boy.

It is 525 AD, some ten years before One For Sorrow. Emperor Justin (Justinian's uncle) reigns and John is a palace slave working in the office of the Keeper of the Plate. This younger John is hot-tempered and still grappling with the changes wrought in his life by an ill-fated journey over the Persian border. Fourfer will explain the way in which he regained his freedom as well as how and where he first met some recurring characters, including Justinian and Theodora, the Egyptian madam Isis (who has not long since set up her own establishment), the palace guard Felix (still a rank and file excubitor) and the youthful Anatolius. Needless to say, there'll also be plenty of shenanigans, back stabbings and other byzantine goings-on at court and elsewhere.


Since the last issue winged out into the aether, our reading guide to the John the Eunuch series (which includes a brief biography of John) has been placed on our website. Warning: before you sail off to take a look, you can avoid certain perilous reefs by noting now that over there there be spoilers! Otherwise, you can consult the guide by pointing your clicker at Since this is an ongoing project, we'll be tinkering with it from time to time, so if you've any thoughts on content, do please jot a line and let us know.


Eric's mention of exotic words culled from the Readers Digest feature and the literary banquet just mentioned in Necessary Evil remind me of a news headline last October announcing publication of The Dictionary of Weird and Wonderful Words by the Oxford University Press. The headline suggested this dictionary would be particularly useful to deipnosophists, those folk who enjoy conversation with their meals, because as one would expect it contains so many unusual or under-used words. Words such as jumentous, snollygoster, glabrous and hoddy-noddy. It would certainly be an interesting literary challenge to construct a scenario in which this particular quartet could be used without straining credulity but bearing in mind common complaints concerning the decline of modern dinner conversation, as the English say, that the very notion would merit a headline certainly takes the biscuit.

Readers of Threefer may recall that the library belonging to Zeno's neighbour Castor boasted a copy of Athenaeus' Deipnosophistae (loosely, Banquet of the Learned). A fifteen volume set -- ten have survived intact and the remaining five in summarized form -- it quotes extracts from several hundred writers, including many whose works are otherwise lost in another example of how large a role chance plays in the survival of such scrivenings.

However, when writing about John and his world, it's not so much the content of dinner conversations that causes one to reach for the basil tea as ensuring that the menu doesn't include certain foodstuffs not then known. The versatile though humble potato springs to mind, for example. A somewhat related entanglement arose recently while we were researching one Theodotus Colocynthius, Prefect of Constantinople. His nickname is often rendered as The Pumpkin but it suddenly struck us that during his time pumpkins had not yet made their journey from the New World. As a suitable compromise therefore when he appears in Fourfer he will rejoice in the nickname of The Gourd. We subsequently discovered that in modern colloquial usage gourd refers to the head (as in "smashed out of his gourd", of someone who's over-imbibed) while in Europe gourd is also occasionally (and unkindly) used of one who is slow of wit.

Hopefully however Theodotus won't take it amiss when referred to as The Gourd for he must surely have been no gourd of the intellect to have risen to such high rank in a dangerous milieu where prominent mens' enemies were commonly to be found living a lot closer to home than the Persian border. On the other hand, it's been suggested that his nickname was bestowed because he had an oddly shaped head, the Byzantines being very fond of that type of wit. If so, it seems that certain forms of humour have not changed very much since The Gourd was around, even though what most of us consume for dinner certainly has.


The way time is passing it won't be too long before the arrival of kindly June, a month that traditionally fills childrens' hands with posies. It's a welcome time of cakes and ale and long sunsets, bringing with it (for most of us in the temperate zones at least) not the draining heat of the dog days of summer but rather gentler sunny weather, ripe strawberries and the sugary scent of roses mixed with freshly cut lawns -- not to mention weekend traffic jams on roads to the beach and at long last the beginning of the school holidays.

On the other hand, l5th June will be a bit of a mixed blessing, being not only when your next issue of Orphan Scrivener is slated to arrive but also two days before the second estimated tax payment for the current work year is due. Which is pretty much where we came in, so we'll sign off now and see you then!

Best wishes

Mary and Eric

whose home page hangs out at

Therein you'll find the usual suspects, including more personal essays and an interactive game as well as an on- line jigsaw puzzle (at least if you have a java-enabled browser) featuring One For Sorrow's boldly scarlet cover. For those new to the subscription list there's also the Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned!