Contemplating the winter weather advancing over the horizon reminds us of a question hotly debated in cold months: why don't more writers scribble paeans to sultry days to warm us up a bit during the forthcoming frigid season?

Not a bad idea you may say, unless you live in tropical climes, yet so often creative quills seem to dip into lower temperatures as well as ink pots. For example, James Thomson valiantly upheld the Scottish reputation for dourness when he wrote about sad, sullen, stormy winter and yet went on to welcome its gloom and hail its horrors -- although the latter was not perhaps meant in the meteorological sense.

Emily Dickinson declared winter afternoon light seen at a certain angle oppressed after the fashion of sacred tunes, a statement which many would hotly deny. William Wordsworth might not be among them, being of the opinion winter loved sounds akin to dirges, while Philip Larkin took up the theme of the death of the year by observing the winter season closes around us after the fashion of a shroud.

Still, it won't be too long now before the days again start to lengthen, and with that in mind, perhaps we may be so bold as to venture a paraphrase of William Shakespeare and whisper the current winter of discontent may briefly be made glorious summer by this latest issue of Orphan Scrivener -- or at least a bit warmer if you print out the text, roll the pages up, and utilise the result to weatherstrip around draughty doors and windows.


Last week after I had spent a couple hours nailing down patches on the sun porch roof, I found myself writing about a sixth century stylite who will appear in our seventh Byzantine mystery.

Pillar saints were holy man who sought to mortify the flesh and commune with God by retiring from the world to dwell atop columns. The practice originated in the fifth century with Simeon who, according to Evagrius in his Ecclesiastical History, lived atop a 60 foot high pillar (40 cubits) for thirty years after having spent several years on shorter columns. Others soon followed Simeon's example. Saint Alypius reportedly stood upright on a column for 53 years until his legs gave out, and then spent the last 14 years of his life lying down.

Walking around a roof would seem like good preparation for imagining what it must have been like to perch on a pillar, and although I didn't stay up there for nearly as long as a stylite did, since I'm afraid of heights it seemed like forever. Writers are supposed to draw on their own experiences, after all, and this particular one seemed apt.

However, when I began to ponder what I might have learned on the roof that could be transferred to my fictional holy man I encountered difficulties. True, I felt rather more exposed to the breeze than normal and the ground certainly appeared to be a long way down. But I didn't have to actually get on the roof to realize things of that kind.

Then too, I'm not a hermit, let alone the particular example I was trying to imagine. In fact, a Byzantine holy man who disliked heights as much as I do would probably have chosen a less elevated form of self abnegation -- cave dwelling, for instance. On the hand, I could also see how he might decide to torture himself with fear for the glory of God.

But having to guess rendered the whole roof exercise worthless.

It may be I was not sufficiently observant while up there. I didn't pay enough attention to my emotional reaction or look hard enough for telling details. I was too busy keeping an eye on the location of the edge of the roof to do that. It would certainly have been a telling detail if I'd lost track, even if I may not have lived to tell about it, which certainly would've saddened me.

Maybe I could really get inside a stylite's head if I stood on my chair for a week. It would probably make the cat nervous, though. And if I stood on the roof for that long the neighbors might get nervous.

I once listened to a short woman who had written a fantasy novel about a tall hero explain how she had carted a stool around her house and kept standing on this stool while going about her business to see how it would feel to be taller.

That seems like overkill. I wonder if she actually had any revelations a few inches off the floor that she couldn't have reached by a simple thought experiment?

I guess I'm lazy. There are writers who won't set a book in a locale they haven't visited and if they have to vacation for weeks in exotic lands -- well, it's a tough job but someone's got to do it, even if only part of the expense comes off their taxes.

But since the sixth century Constantinople Mary and I write about has been obliterated by the passage of time and buried beneath yards of rubble and new construction, there isn't any question of traveling there. I have lived in New York City and so I imagine Constantinople circa 542 was somewhat like New York City circa 1979, but with horses rather than taxicabs, hot dog vendors rather than purveyors of grilled fish, and stylites rather than Hare Krishnas.

Come to think of it, I suppose the top of a stylite's column had the same olfactory character as the 42nd Street subway station.

There'd be no chance I'd ever find myself in the same kind of spots John does. The closest I've ever got to an imperial banquet was to have high tea at the Trump Tower. And John will insist on venturing down dark alleyways. Never mind authorial responsibility, I draw the line at dark alleyways.

Sometimes it's best just to use your imagination.


A couple of snippets to ring out the old year....


We were honoured to be interviewed a few weeks ago by The Motivated Writer, whose motto is Where Inspiration and Determination Meet. The topic was setting and its effects on story and you can read our thoughts on this subject in the November issue of TMW at Our thanks to Su Kopil for extending her invitation to participate in the discussions.


The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries, edited by Mike Ashley, has now appeared. Content includes such puzzles as how a man -- on his own while clearly visible in a glass phone box -- was killed and in what fashion a bullet fired *two centuries before* finds its mark in a man sitting in a room alone. As lovers of locked room mysteries we're particularly happy to have contributed a story to Mike's collection featuring our Mongolian protagonist Inspector Dorj faced with solving a locked circus caravan murder -- a crime with no lack of suspects and motives.


Some years ago I laboured as secretary to a fellow whose political views were, well, quite different from my own. Thus when I trotted into his office to take dictation, we'd often get into really lively discussions. On the other hand, he enjoyed J. R. R. Tolkien's fiction -- we talked more about that at my job interview than anything else -- and would occasionally go so far as to make the office coffee.

Indeed he's gone even further than that, for he is now an MP representing a certain UK constituency in the European Parliament.

Having received his latest newsletter this very week, I began thinking about politics (megaphone voice off: stand back, this could be dangerous!) and found myself remembering No Job For A Lady, the British sitcom about a new woman Labour MP played by the wonderful Penelope Keith, and from there meandered on to recall Yes, Minister and its natural successor Yes, Prime Minister.

The life religious has not been neglected either. A handful of older sitcoms poked kindly fun at the other sort of minister. All Gas And Gaiters featured several clerical gents connected with St Oggs Cathedral, including an archdeacon who was fond of a wee tipple. The misadventures of a hapless novice monk at Mountacres Abbey enlivened Oh Brother! and its titular character advanced in the church hierarchy to later star in Oh Father! Arthur Lowe also donned ecclesiastical garb, going from his role as Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army, the much-loved WWII comedy series about a unit of the Local Defence Volunteers, to portray a Roman Catholic priest in Bless Me, Father, a sitcom set in London about five years after the war ended.

There've been a number of British sitcoms involving various professions, although most of the ones I mention are now in the vintage production category. There were several based upon the popular Doctor novels by Richard Gordon, in which medical students created havoc at St Swithin's Hospital. Then there was Don't Wait Up, in which father and son, both in the throes of divorce and both medical men, share a flat. May To December, a particular favourite of mine, was set in a solicitor's office. Its gentle humour arose from a romance between a middle-aged partner in the legal firm and a teacher in her 20s who consulted him for advice on her divorce.

Although not a situation comedy as such, I'd nominate All Creatures Great And Small, with its stories of vets working in the Yorkshire Dales in the late '30s and early '40s, as straddling the line between series dealing with professional lives and those concerned with working schmoes. In the latter category, one of the first was The Rag Trade. Its setting was the workshop of a fashionable attire company, and usually featured various run-ins between management and their unionised workers. This naturally resulted in constant summons to strike, announced by a blast of the shop stewardess' whistle and cry of "Everybody out!". Harried foreman Reg Varney subsequently reappeared as the driver of a double-decker in On The Buses, always at odds with the local bus inspector while casting a hopeful eye on the possibility of romance with one of the company's pretty clippies.

We must not overlook the scurrilous, grubby crew who were The Dustbinmen. Trevor Bannister, who portrayed a character who fancied himself a ladies' man and was therefore known by the unforgettable nickname of Heavy Breathing, rose in the world to become junior assistant selling gents' ready-made clothing in an old-fashioned department store in Are You Being Served? He and his fellow workers from that floor of Grace Brothers' store changed occupations again a few years afterwards when they took over a country house, Millstone Manor, in an attempt to run it as a hotel, having learnt their Grace Brothers pension fund had been used to purchase it so there was nothing left for them. Alas, Grace & Favour (broadcast in the US as Are You Being Served Again?) departed from the TV landscape before we saw the end of the story.

The lesser-known sitcom Room At The Bottom revolved around maintenance men working at a factory, episodes underlining the undoubted ability of such workers to cause a great deal of trouble within a company, while Brush Strokes painted a humorous portrait of the life of a painter and decorator, not least his various romantic entanglements.

Then there was penny-pinching Mr Arkwright, proprietor of a Yorkshire shop which was Open All Hours, or at least a fair number of them. Other representatives of the working class were rag and bone men Steptoe and Son, always quarreling yet bound together by familial ties, and two tailors of different faiths who worked together in Whitechapel, east London, in Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Width -- not to mention The Likely Lads (and its sequel Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?), relating the adventures of a pair of friends working in a factory in my home area of northeastern England.

Service industries also provided comedic possibilities. Bootsie And Snudge were ex-servicemen who worked in London's Imperial Club. I should perhaps make it clear this was a club for gentlemen of the retired general and landed gentry type rather than...another type of club. A French cafe in occupied France was the centre of inept cloak and dagger operations in 'Allo 'Allo, which poked even-handed fun at various national stereotypes in such a broad fashion as to overcome an initial controversy over a comedy largely based on sending up Resistance work. And of course few will have forgotten John Cleese's classic hotel sitcom Fawlty Towers, with its lanky proprietor harassing guests and staff alike while himself living in fear of the tart tongue of his diminutive wife.

But, you may ask, haven't there been any TV comedies with writers as characters rather than, well, writing the episodes? Well, the only one springing to mind -- today at least -- appears as costar of As Time Goes By. Geoffrey Palmer plays a Briton who had run a coffee plantation in Kenya who,intending to write his biography, returns to the UK. Having arrived there, he engages a secretary from a temp agency to handle the typing of his manuscript. As it transpires, the secretary's mother is Judi Dench, the girlfriend with whom he had lost touch some thirty or more years before; the opening titles show this estrangement came about because a letter from one or the other went astray.

Hopefully that won't be the fate of this newsletter....


In about fortnight or so the old year will totter offstage into welcome retirement and we'll all be tooting our horns, throwing confetti and streamers about, singing the chorus at least of Auld Lang Syne, and generally mafficking about to welcome the arrival of another twelve-month of pristine leaves of life awaiting everyone's scribblings. However, the human condition being what it is, 2007 will doubtless have its bleaker moments, which for our subscribers will include contemplating the next Orphan Scrivener will arrive to peek out coyly from their in-box on l5th February.

But for now we'll close by wishing everyone a happy holiday, whatever they celebrate, and an even better year in 2007 than they had in 2006.

See you in February!
Mary R and Eric

who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line at There you'll discover the usual suspects, including more personal essays, lists of author freebies and mystery- related newsletters, 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