Mark Twain was right on the rupee when he remarked that in India "cold weather" was coined to distinguish brass doorknob melting weather from that which only caused them to become mushy.
Were the Twain Door Knob Temperature Index to be adopted in the US, it's safe to say manufacturers of such entranceway metal trimmings would be making as big a fortune this summer as that being piled up by purveyors of ice cream and chilled sodas. Not having had the foresight to invest in plants producing any of these items, we've instead been reduced to labouring at our tablets, most recently scribbling out this latest issue of Orphan Scrivener. Here it is, and we advise applying an ice pack to your head after reading it.
However, I suppose I should stick to what I don't like about mystery books because I don't like the idea of spending the rest of my life writing a newsletter article the length of Finnegan's Wake. Which I don't like. Actually, I started to say the length of War and Peace but since I've never read any of War and Peace I'm not sure I wouldn't like it. On the other hand I've read two pages of Finnegan's Wake, which is enough.
Anyhow, in no particular order, here a just a few things I don't like when it comes to mystery books:
Long Books. Give me intense, compact stories like the paperback originals they published in the 1950s, or Simenon's Inspector Maigret, or most of Agatha Christie. Short books can maintain atmosphere better or present a puzzle more elegantly. I don't want page long descriptions or ten page conversations. I end up fast forwarding anyhow.
Short sentences. Sometimes when the action's fast and furious you want those short sentences. Bif! Pow! But not a whole book full of them. Give me sentences that meander over comma splices, sentences that turn back on themselves, sentences long enough so you don't know where they'll end up 'til you get there. Those endless successions of short sentences you see sometimes just remind me of reading Dick and Jane. See Joe. See Joe's gun. See Joe shoot. Shoot Joe shoot. No thanks.
Graphic gore. If I want to know what someone's intestines look like I can read a medical textbook. It's a little like trying to write pornography. There are only so many ways you can describe terrible wounds. In both cases, there's a limited number of organs with which to work. And the words don't capture the visceral experience anyhow. At least for me. The most gruesome blood-spattered description I've ever read hasn't given me half the horror of a real paper cut.
Guns and cars. Spare me. I know nothing about guns, and I don't want to know. Mention muzzle velocity and my eyes glaze over. I have zero interest in the mechanics of killing although I'm sure gunmakers are clever clogs. As for cars -- they start and run or they don't. I don't care who manufactured the hero's vehicle or the vehicles chasing him, let alone their horsepower. Cars do still have horsepower, don't they?
Missing children. It's become a genre. Mysteries based on children gone missing. Is this a good trend? But, hold on, how can you not automatically sympathize? Easily, when it's nothing more than a plot device, a manipulative ploy. When only a murder won't do, bring on the children. That'll really wring their hearts. Dickens got it wrong. He should've had Little Nell go missing.
Famous people as detective. How about Attila the Hun? No, wait. Martin Luther! Hold on. How about Madame Curie teamed up with William Jennings Bryan? Or Martin Luther teaming up with Lex Luthor? Still not ridiculous enough? Heck, anyone you can think of could've been a detective. If you're not thinking straight. Even the Father of History Herodotus. Oh...Mary reminds me we've written two stories (so far) about Herodotus as detective.
Maybe that's enough talk about things I don't like about mysteries....
Having dealt with the in, now the out. And what is out is our second story with Herodotus as sleuth (mentioned in Eric's Bit above) now gracing bookstore shelves in The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits: Volume III (The Mammoth Book of New Historical Whodunnits in the US) ed Mike Ashley. Stories in this collection span three thousand years and we show up early in the roll call with an account of how a strange Egyptian ritual helps Herodotus solve a mysterious death.
Having cited an in and an out and told you what it's all about, we now suggest a short break while readers do the hokey-cokey. Just don't get into arguments about whether it's cokey or pokey, if you please.
There were also, as today, less natural deaths. A month or so ago I read an obituary relating an interesting sequence of events, which had it not been a real life tragedy would make a good basis for a short mystery story.
Late in the l890s neighbours realised animals on the farm next door were neglected. Investigating, they went around the back of the house and saw a ladder next to the window of the second floor bedroom wherein slept the farm owner. The dwelling had been ransacked and the farmer was found murdered in his room, having been strangled, shot, and his head battered.
The day before, the farmer had reportedly quarrelled with his housekeeper, who left in a huff to reside elsewhere. There had also been some trouble between the farmer and the housekeeper's son, who at one time also resided in the house but was now working at a nearby location. Two days after the murder, the son was arrested and a hearing set for the beginning of the following week.
According to a war injury census taken eight years before the farmer died, he was suffering impairment to both hearing and sight as well as some paralysis as a result of military service in the Civil War. In his mid-60s at the time of his death, he was described as being a peaceful, honest person -- although with a bit of a taste for liquor.
It was established that not long before he died, the farmer had travelled to a nearby settlement where a large debt owed to him was settled in cash. It seems he foolishly exhibited this money during a visit to a saloon on his return home.
The farmer was fairly well off, and his will, made about six months before he died, left all he possessed to his brother. The obituary ended with the strange comment that this will was likely to be contested, but the reporter did not say why or by whom.
Supposing this outline formed the basis for a fictional account of a crime, its writer could certainly point out a few clues. For example, placing the ladder next to the bedroom window demonstrates some knowledge of the layout of the house, for most burglars would surely creep in downstairs. On the other hand, they might decide to enter the house in that fashion if they knew the farmer was incapacitated as described above and the downstairs windows and doors were securely bolted. This suggests someone who knew the man.
Alternatively, there is the possibility the murderer was someone who was not a personal acquaintance, but had seen his display of wealth at the saloon, followed him home, waited until he retired, and then entered the house and (going by the dreadful injuries) tried to force him to tell where he had hidden the cash. It appears he did not reveal its whereabouts since the house had been ransacked, and it seems unlikely it would be searched and the ladder only then put in place.
On the other hand, while the person responsible could hardly have arrived with a ladder, it was a fair bet one could be found on a farm. It may be the ladder was set by the window as a red herring, since the farmer would surely welcome a visit if someone he knew came calling that night and there would be no need to enter the house by the window -- or was it used as a means to *exit* the building? Was the money located and taken away? No mention is made of any being found in the ransacked house.
There is also the distinct possibility the quarrels and the departure of both the housekeeper and her son was common knowledge locally, and the way gossip travels in small settlements it's fairly certain a fair number in the area knew this elderly, semi-paralysed man who had come into a large sum of money was currently living alone.
Then there is the odd hint someone might challenge the will. According to a census taken some 50 years earlier, the brother named as sole heir was the first born child, two years older than the farmer. Was there someone with a closer relationship who could challenge his inheritance?
The murdered man's closest relatives appear to be his siblings. The farmer was the second child, and there were three younger children -- a brother and two sisters. There may have been others born after the census was taken, of course. The parents might have still been alive, but it's doubtful given by the time of the murder they would both be in their lower 90s.
Is it possible there was an unknown wife and/or child(ren)? The obituary stated that the farmer had been born on the farm and always lived there. This is not to say that a wife and family could not also have resided with him, but no mention is made of either. Even if there were such relatives and they came forward to challenge the will, it does not seem likely they would prevail if the will was correctly drawn up and witnessed. And then one might well ask what information was known to the reporter to lead him to state that such a challenge was likely? Why was the housekeeper's son arrested for the murder? What caused the quarrel with the housekeeper the day before the farmer died, and what was the nature of the trouble between him and the housekeeper's son? How many knew about the large sum of money the farmer had at the time? Could there have been other motives for the crime?
I wish I could tell you the answer to these questions, but I haven't been able to find further information or establish the end of this strange story.
And speaking of appointed rounds, William Cowper described the postman as a whistling, light-hearted wretch bringing grief to thousands and joy to a few. The same could well be said of the electronic mail server which will bring you the next issue of Orphan Scrivener on l5th October. But never mind, you still have time to move or at least change your email address. Otherwise, we'll see you then.
Mary R and Eric
who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line at http://home.epix.net/~maywrite/ There you'll find the usual suspects, including more personal essays, a list of author freebies, Doom Cat (an interactive game written by Eric), and a jigsaw featuring the handsome cover of Five For Silver. There's also an Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned! Intrepid subscribers may also wish to pop over to visit Eric's blog at http://www.journalscape.com/ericmayer/