Still, it's an ill wind that freezes your plumbing. Local ponds have been thronged with ice fishermen, whose little shelters and flaring lanterns can be seen as late as midnight on occasion, even though it would surely be easier to purchase piscine portions at the grocery store. Just seeing them out there on the windswept ice made most passersby shiver.
Continuing with the theme of chilling the marrows of innocent onlookers, we now present this latest edition of Orphan Scrivener. Please dress warmly before proceeding.
However, Twofer's strange disappearance turned my thoughts to thefts in general. Some have obvious motives, such as when Les Miz's Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread for his starving nephew. In such cases the loot soon disappears, and thus we can be fairly certain those responsible for recent Italian hijackings of lorry loads of dried cod (and in one case a haul of frozen swordfish and octopus) and the light-fingered Larries who ran off with over seventy lambs belonging to a Yorkshire farmer disposed of the evidence quickly, either on their own dinner table or someone else's.
Similarly, whoever contrived to steal 32,000 pigs ears from a pet food store in Denmark this month presumably had a ready market of dog owners keen to get a few cut-price treats for their pets -- although one wonders how so many boxes could have been removed from the emporium without someone noticing the activity.
Occasionally apprehended culprits reveal unusual reasons for what might otherwise remain inexplicable thefts. Take a Russian case a couple of years ago. Two citizens went out one night and stole a set of traffic lights. Unfortunately, as they hauled them away the pair met a local administration pooh-bah so were nabbed, as you might say, red, yellow and green handed. Their motive? It seems they intended to use the traffic lights to provide disco type illumination for a party.
In the same category we might put the Thai taxi driver caught stealing road signs. Apparently he planned to sell them to a scrap dealer in order to pay his gambling debts, having bet on Korea to win the 2002 World Cup.
But for lovers of mystery fiction, it's the unknown motives for odd thefts that are intriguing and perhaps might even inspire a short story or two.
When a German monument to Stalin was dismantled in l96l, one of the workers involved kept an ear. The bronze auracular organ was subsequently displayed in a local history exhibition at a Berlin cafe, but disappeared last year and hasn't been seen since.
. Similarly, five years ago the head of Copenhagen's harbour's famous Mermaid statue was returned anonymously two days after it was removed. Perhaps those responsible were disappointed to discover it wasn't the original tete, which was stolen in the mid l960s and never recovered. Indeed, the sculpture seems to have become a regular target for vandalism since someone also sawed off one of its arms in l983.
Then there was the strange disappearance of half a dozen mercury bulbs stolen from old style thermostats during renovation work on a building at Princeton University. Or how about the burglars who broke into a German kindergarten and, ignoring computers and the petty cash, ran off with nothing but Legos -- including one used as a substitute leg for an listing alarm clock?
In closing, I should add my current favourite in the odd theft category is last December's heist of a donated Christmas tree -- its decorations appropriately including strings of red lights -- from a Dutch city's bordello district. It hardly seems in the spirit of the season, but perhaps it was intended as a protest. It was certainly a well planned operation, seeing as the perpetrator(s) could be certain there'd be plenty of other goings-on in the area to distract possible witnesses from the tree-napping.
Fourfer is a prequel, revealing details of that oft hinted-at investigation for Justinian whereby John regained his freedom and in the process set his well-worn boots on the road to high office.
It is 525 and the empire is still ruled by Justinian's ailing uncle, Justin. It's obvious that Justin is dying and while Justinian and Theodora plot in the wings, riots and terror engulf Constantinople. This bloodshed is as much the result of the actions of forces commanded by the brutal City Prefect (nicknamed the Gourd) as from those of the Blues, elegant young thugs whose escalating depredations are petrifying the city populace.
But were the Blues really responsible for the daylight murder of a wealthy philanthropist in the Great Church, or have Justinian's enemies seized a chance to pin the death on him and thus prevent his ascension to a throne that will soon be empty? The still enslaved John and his reluctant co- investigator Felix (here a rank and file excubitor, although assigned to Justin's personal guard) are ordered to unravel the mystery and find out what's going on.
Fourfer also relates how John met other familiar characters such as Madam Isis, Gaius the physician, and that rash boy Anatolius. You'll also recognise certain unnamed personages you've met before -- including one hidden under a veil during her brief appearance, and another whose circumstances are touched upon in passing in the same chapter.
The John the Eunuch novels have had a remarkable (almost preternatural) run of almost uniformly excellent reviews. Which doesn't make the occasional poor one sting any less.
With Four For A Boy, Mary and I finally garnered a *starred review* from Publishers Weekly, the veritable Holy Grail of reviews. In a demonstration of how different individual impressions can be, this heartening encomium occupied pride of place on the book's Amazon.com page for about a week until it was pushed down by a review noting in part that John spent the book going about in a pique.
It's hard to make sense of reviews sometimes. Characters one reviewer praises for being well-rounded and life-like, another will describe as cardboard. The problem, I think, is that there are truly no objective measures of writing, but we all have a temptation, borne perhaps of modesty, to put critical clothes on our personal likes and dislikes before sending them out into the world.
On the other hand, negative reviews can sometimes be thought-provoking. Last year, an Amazon.com customer referred to Sunilda, the Goth girl from Three For A Letter as "...the most unrealistic child figure since Macbeth's son." I suppose it's practically a compliment to be insulted by being compared to Shakespeare, but blush to admit since I had no recollection of Macbeth's son I wasn't sure exactly what we were supposed to have done wrong.
In my defense, the one experience I've had of Macbeth, which overrode all else, was thirty years ago, when I saw Christopher Walken play the role at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. Every seat in that little place is practically on top of the stage in the center, and the power emanating from Walken's Macbeth as he stomped around on the metal grating that was about all there was to the stage set was palpable. At the time I had no idea who he was and, having witnessed that performance, I have to say I am amazed his later career has not done justice to his talent.
Perhaps Macbeth's son was edited out of that particular production or was just not memorable compared to Walken's embodiment of his father. I did some research and found the boy described at the University of Victoria's Internet Shakespeare Editions (http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/) as typical of Shakespeare's children, "precocious...simply miniature (slightly naive) adults." Since we had had one of our other characters describe eight year-old Sunilda (who regularly writes eloquent if peculiar letters to her Aunt Matasuntha in Ravenna) as a "monstrosity of precocity" I suppose this is what the reviewer found objectionable.
However, as the Shakespeare site points out, childhood as we know it did not exist in older times. Children matured faster, most especially children of high rank. So it is entirely possible the Bard knew what he was doing.
Certainly people grew up fast in sixth century Rome. Scholar James J. O'Donnell writes that Cassiodorus, whose Gothic History figures in Three For A Letter, might have been as young as eighteen when he became quaestor to the Italian Ostrogothic King Theodoric. It was the quaestor's job to draft laws and answer petitions, to put the desires of the monarch into words as effectively, eloquently and correctly as possible. When we read that Cassiodorus had attained this skill before he was out of his teens -- and had already worked for some time as a legal aide to his father, the praetorian prefect -- we decided it was not a reach to allow the royal hostage Sunilda to write well-composed letters to her aunt, as well as acting in a rather adult manner.
This explains why we appreciated Gene Stratton's remark in http://www.reviewingtheevidence.com/review.html?id=2223 that "One of the most interesting characterizations...is the young royal heir...Sunilda. A precocious child, wise beyond her years, Sunilda could be a model for Lewis Carroll's Red Queen in the Alice stories."
So as you can see, bad reviews can be educational, but having brought the subject up I have to say there are bad reviews and then there are, well, *really* bad reviews. At our website we link to practically every review of our books. I've begun to post excerpts from the most recent on the site's first page, but I will admit (to newsletter readers at least) I do draw a line as to what I will go out of my way to draw attention to, let alone maintain a permanent link for. If you really want to find a bad review there's always Google. Insert any author's name and search terms such as "cardboard", "stereotype", or "cliche" and then click.
As an *Orphan Scrivener Exclusive* I'll leave you with a recently received email critique, here reproduced verbatim and in its entirety:
"And for what it's worth, Mister Big Short writer, you're writing sucks."
However, if we were indeed bumping down such a staircase, the Roman era would not be that many steps up behind us and on the subject, you may recall we mentioned in the last newsletter that Emperor Constantine's father died in York in 306. A Constant Correspondent wrote a few weeks ago noting that Emperor Septimius Severus also died there in 2ll and inquiring if a statue commemorating the departed ruler could be found in that fair city. So far as we've been able to ascertain, unfortunately there isn't. However, as a small consolation prize readers might like to glance at Canaletto's painting of the Arch of Septimius Severus at http://www.abcgallery.com/C/canaletto/canaletto53.html
Constant Correspondent's second question queried whether the Ebur Handicap was still run at York. Indeed it is. Founded in l843 and with a moniker preserving Eburacum, the Roman name for the city, this year's race will be held on 20th August. In his younger days Felix would doubtless have enjoyed a modest wager or two on the result!
Finally, whereas T. S. Eliot opened The Waste Land with his oft-quoted observation that April was the cruellest month, we now hasten to close this much less poetic offering by noting that while he obviously wasn't thinking of the double catastrophe lying in wait for American subscribers to Orphan Scrivener two months hence, his words are prophetic. For l5th April is not only the deadline for the timely filing of those annual two-aspirin headaches, IRS Form l040 and its supporting schedules, but is also the very day upon which our next newsletter will show up on your virtual doorstep.
Once you've wrassled your tax return into the postal system, therefore, you may wish to mentally fortify yourself for the next appearance of Orphan Scrivener in your email in-box on l5th April. See you then!
Mary and Eric
who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line that is the aether 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!