l5 APRIL 2007

In Chapter 28 of Moby Dick, Herman Melville likens April and May to dancing, rosy-faced girls whose appearance in bosky dells encourages even lightning-blasted oaks to green up in welcome. As this newsletter is written another nor'easter is hoving into view, so it appears the great white whale winter is reluctant to sink back into the vasty deeps, leaving a slowly subsiding whirlpool composed of enormous heating bills, cough mixture bottles, and bent snow shovels to mark his lengthy stay. Thus it may be a while before subscribers (red-cheeked or not) can dance to greet the arrival of spring, although they still might like to do a few sprightly steps since this year we've extra time to submit our tax returns, that annual penance frosting everyone's garden.

The much-quoted Anonymous once pointed out tax laws and the haggis are alike in that both are bloody undertakings which ultimately produce mysterious results and the squeamish should avoid having anything to do with them. We can refuse to haggle with a haggis, but unfortunately cannot avoid tackling taxes. Still, the extended filing deadline means subscribers have extra time to read this latest issue of Orphan Scrivener, which -- although it deals with matters mysterious -- is guaranteed free of sanguinary substances and will certainly be less taxing than struggling through the Form l040 instruction booklet.


When you write historical fiction you can't take anything for granted. Even a detail as seemingly simple as cabbages rolling off the back of a cart can cause a problem.

In this case, the problem turned out to be that sixth century Roman cabbages didn't roll.

The round, hard-heading cabbages with which we're familiar today didn't grow in the Mediterranean climate. They were probably developed in northern Europe and were likely not known until sometime after the reign of Charlemagne, who died in 814.

In fact, the first irrefutable description of a hard-heading cabbage dates only to 1536, long after the final demise of Eastern Roman Empire.

The wild cabbage native to the Mediterranean consists of stalks and leaves, rather like kale, and it is cabbage of this sort which is referred to by Roman writers. Far from rolling off a cart, imperiling passerby in an chaotic avalanche of speeding produce, Roman cabbages would have just...well...flopped.

So much for the cabbage scene.

Research can suck all the drama out of your writing!

I'm relieved I looked into the cabbage matter, even if I am still peeved at the inconvenient wimpiness of Roman cabbage, although I'm not sure why I did. After a while you begin to develop a feel for things that seem obvious but might be wrong.

Horticulture is always worrisome. Everyone's aware that Europeans had never laid eyes, or teeth, on such common crops as potatoes and tomatoes until visiting the New World. Foods that are everywhere today were geographically confined in the past.

Even when it ruins your brilliant ideas, research is never boring. I learned that Cato was a great believer in cabbage for what ails you. It was, he wrote, an aid to digestion, good for colic, and in combination with various other ingredients efficacious for cleaning sores, easing joint afflictions, restoring hearing, and removing nasal polyps. Feeble children could be made stronger by being bathed in the urine of a perpetual cabbage eater.

He also reckoned if you're going to a party you should eat a lot of cabbage beforehand. You'll be able to eat and drink as much as you want.

Then there was Cato's recipe for a laxative. Mix cabbage, boiled pigs' feet, beets, mussels, snails, lentils, and a scorpion (just one scorpion will do the trick) and take with some wine. Presumably you'd have to drink the wine first to get that concoction down.

Thinking about all this I will probably never be able to face sauerkraut again. However, at least now I have proof Romans had constipation concerns, in case that might work as a plot point sometime. Otherwise you know cabbage has to turn up in one of our books or stories now for sure.


The ticker room is knee deep in tape this time around, so let's see what all the excitement is about....


Seven For A Secret will skulk out of a dark alley and into the thronged forum in April 2008 when Poisoned Pen Press publish John's next adventure. In this episode, John becomes embroiled in all manner of goings-on when he meets the woman who was the model for the little girl in his study mosaic. Add the usual mix of supporting characters (including a sundial maker who assiduously avoids daylight) and settings ranging from underground emporiums to a nunnery for reformed prostitutes, and John and his friends soon find themselves plunged into the thick of a mystery which could well result in their imprisonment -- or worse.


Poisoned Pen Press now has a British arm, meaning UK readers can order and obtain US editions from the press in a much easier fashion than hitherto. PPP UK's website is up and growing at

Meantime, the first of John's adventures, Four For A Boy, will appear over there in June. For those new to the series, Fourfer is its prequel and relates how John regained his freedom and put his boot on the ladder to his current high office. It also,reveals how John met Felix and Anatolius, not to mention Lady Anna.


As a long time lover of Golden Age detections, I recently worked up the brass nerve to take a stab at reviewing some of these wonderful novels. The reviews are hosted by Steve Lewis on his Mystery*File site which I recommend for its eclectic mix of news, interviews, reviews, and bibliographic research into the careers of mystery writers of all genres and all eras. My thanks to Steve for the opportunity to put a few thoughts about a favourite type of mystery out online.


And speaking of Golden Age novels, we've just started yet another project on our own site. We're constructing a page of links to e-texts of Golden Age or earlier mystery novels and short stories. So far we've listed about six dozen and would be happy to add links suggested by subscribers who are fellow fans of these works. Credit will be given unless contributors wish to remain anonymous. If you're interested in taking a look at the library shelves, point your clicker at


The Newgate Calendar alias The Malefactor's Bloody Register first appeared in l760. This and later editions provide a fascinating compendium of the fates of defendants ranging from footpads to titled personages. Crimes represented include arson, burglary, coin clipping, highway robbery, receiving stolen goods, assault, forgery, ship scuttling, theft, high treason, and fraudulent solemnization of marriages. Jack Collet was in the habit of wearing stolen clerical robes when working as a highwayman. Where he obtained his initial set of garments is not revealed, but he lost them to playing dice. Not long afterwards, he held up the carriage of the Bishop of Winchester and thereby obtained replacement canonicals. Collet came a cropper when he was involved in the theft of items from a London church, leading to the charge of sacrilegious burglary for which he was hanged in l69l.

Numerous executions are mentioned, such as those of John Bishop and Thomas Williams (murder and body-snatching, l83l), cook Eliza Fenning (poisoned dumplings with arsenic, l8l5), bankrupt James Bullock (defrauded his creditors, no date), and seventeen year old Thomas Chalfont (theft of a bank bill, l800).

Lighter sentences were passed on Joseph Moses (fine and unspecified jail time for receiving skins from slaughtered royal swans, l8ll), Richard Corduy (two years for stealing six pieces of wood from the royal forest at Waltham, no date), and Charles Fox alias The Flying Dustman (three months for assault, arising from his unauthorised collection of household ashes, l8l2).

Desperate lives are on display. In an undated case fourteen year old Patrick M'Donald was convicted of stealing a jacket. The emaciated boy burst into tears after telling the court of having gone hungry for two days. Touched, jury members each gave him a shilling and asked for mercy after reluctantly finding him guilty. He was sentenced to be taken care of until a situation could be found for him. The judge stated he would see about a pardon, and spectators in the court provided more money for Patrick's needs. Hopefully the lad went to a good master and thereafter flourished.

Robert Powell, self-described professor of the sidereal science, was less fortunate. Convicted in l807 of obtaining money by false pretences through the practice of astrology, despite magisterial sympathy to Powell's starved appearance and plea his physical weakness, a lunatic wife, and three famished children left only theft, imposture, or starvation open to him, he was convicted. His sentence is not given, but I cannot help wondering what happened to his family.

Then there was Margaret Dixon, remarried not long after her execution in l728. Becoming pregnant in her husband's absence, she was hung for the murder of a newborn infant found near where she lived. While being taken to burial she sat up in her coffin. Under Scottish law she was exculpated although her marriage had been automatically dissolved since the sentence had been carried out. Her former husband remarried her in a public ceremony.

Also connected with marriages but at the other end of the social scale, an undated account relates the prosecution of the Countess of Bristol, found guilty of committing bigamy. Her trial was attended by the queen and other royals and revealed scandalous details included attempted blackmail, a secret marriage and birth, theft (and subsequent return) of a vital page in a marriage register, bribery, and other glimpses of low goings-on in high society.


Novels of detection featuring recipes are popular with many readers and in the spirit of obliging same, we'd like to provide instructions for that British dish known by the mysterious nomenclature of bubble and squeak.

Few meals are simpler to prepare: fry a mixture of cooked cabbage and potato. Its name is onomatopoeic and is said to derive from the bubbling during the initial boiling of the ingredients followed by (admittedly needing some effort of the imagination) the noise made as they are cooked in your frying pan.

In the l800s bubble and squeak was also applied to something showy which actually had little or no value. We trust this usage didn't immediately put you in mind of our newsletter, the more so as the next issue of Orphan Scrivener will be trundling into your in-box in June.

See you then!
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

| Home | Eric's Stuff | Mary's Page | Our Fiction | BSP Page (News) | Links |