THE ORPHAN SCRIVENER -- ISSUE # FIFTY-NINE -- l5 OCTOBER 2009

Colour began creeping slowly across the landscape while this issue was being assembled, with several recent colder nights giving impetus to its spread. We estimate it will be at its full glory within a week, unless high winds strip the trees first. Today, however, under a glowering grey sky trees already sporting yellow foliage flare out against the dark green pines around them, with here and there scarlet, orange, and ruby tints just beginning to appear.

Yesterday was warmer than the previous misty, raining-like-stair-rods days and a plump groundhog took his opportunity to waddle round the back lawn sampling the remains of the wood asters. Soon he will be drawing his burrow curtains for his winter hibernation, for as Henry David Thoreau remarked this month is the sunset of the year, and November the later twilight.

In his beautifully rendered though somber painting of girls piling up Autumn Leaves at twilight John Everett Millais captured the pensive musings brought on by the closing days of fall, but this year -- this very month, in fact -- a cheery new jamboree will brighten October's darkening days.

More about that as subscribers, we hope, read on.


MARY'S BIT or 200,000 FEET AND THEN UNDER THE SEA

It was a blazing autumn morning in Florida. Fifty miles away queues were already forming at Disney World and where was I?

Under a brassy sun in a cloudless sky, travelling an otherwise deserted minor road threading a vast expense of palmetto scrub land on Cape Canaveral.

For I was on my way to launch a rocket.

A weather rocket, that is.

It was a privilege not extended to everyone and these days doubtless no longer extended at all. But back then, having passed the check at the gate, an hour or so later I found myself sitting about a hundred yards from the ocean in a block house, so small and cramped it's been described as a block cottage, in an isolated area of the USAF base on the tip of the Cape.

I had watched two white-coveralled Pan Am technicians prepare what was probably to them just another rocket in a procession of taking routine meteorological observations.

To me of course it was an extraordinary event. So I beamed on them as my dinky little rocket -- about five feet long and somewhat less than three inches in diameter -- was made ready. And though I call it a rocket, I'm reliably informed by a weather wallah that its technical name is a rocket motor. Whatever you care to call it, however, its nose was now loosely fitted with a dart about three feet long, carrying an instrument probe attached to a small parachute.

What I shall continue to call rockets are launched about once every three days or daily near the time of a major launch. They're sent on their way via an adjustable framework metal launcher resembling nothing so much as a Victorian era open-work telescope:

http://www.phy.mtu.edu/rocket/superlok.html

As a preliminary step, wind observations are made using a small balloon in order to calculate the correct elevation and azimuth to launch the rocket so its body will fall safely out to sea. Sometimes, however, they fall back onto land, usually into the scrub but occasionally into the sand between block house and launcher.

So much for the technical details. Now back to the block house.

Preparations completed, everyone had retired to the small slit-windowed building. A number of personnel were present but being familiar with the routine they were not, like me, boggling about in amazement but just stood about talking to their colleagues.

Whereas I was given a seat at the control panel along with detailed instructions about what I was about to do and how to do it.

Then we were off to the races.

First, the entire area, isolated though it was, was sealed off and then to my amusement a loudspeaker began to broadcast a count-down. It's just like the big rocket launches, I thought, and began to feel nervous. My part of the proceedings was to press the arming button and then on the ze- when zero was announced to push back the cover over the launch toggle, and on -ro pull that toggle down.

But what if I fumbled it?

Fortunately I did not.

I confess I was staring like all get out through the narrow horizontal window as I pulled the toggle on -ro, but alas I did not see my rocket rise majestically into the air as I had anticipated. They move at such speed their departure is marked only by a puff of white smoke and a whoosh. However, being faster than the eye, cameras can catch a launch and this one did, with the launcher discernible in the smoke trail:

http://www.phy.mtu.edu/rocket/lokilaunch2.html

And so my rocket reached about 5,000 feet in a couple of seconds, at which point the motor burnt out while the aerodynamically stable and streamlined dart continued upward at undiminished speed to the astonishing height of 200,000 feet. At that point a charge of compressed air pushed out the loosely sitting probe, the dart fell away, and the probe began its parachute descent, radioing temperature data to a ground station on the Cape while the parachute was tracked by radar to determine wind speed and direction during its descent.

And while it leisurely drifted to earth, down in the block house I couldn't help grinning so widely I nigh dislocated my cheekbones.

Fortunately for Anglo-American relations my rocket behaved itself and so far as I know resides in the water off the Cape even unto this day.


NECESSARY EVIL or THE BSP TICKER

In our introduction we hinted at a cheery jamboree, and the first few feet of the issue's ticker is devoted to that very topic. Read on!

THE WEBCON HOVES INTO VIEW or OCTOBER EXCITEMENT ON THE HORIZON

Much of the past month or two has been spent lending a hand in organising the first live mystery conference to be held online.

It's not long now to October 24th, when the Webcon, co-sponsored by Poisoned Pen Press and the Poisoned Pen Bookstore, sets sail. Interested parties may check the Webcon site at http://www.ppwebcon.com for information and announcements about this international event, including the names of twenty registrants who won a chance to pitch to an editor. Orphan Scrivener subscribers may have missed the boat on that opportunity but never mind, all attendees will receive an electronic goody bag containing dozens of items donated by attending authors.

The programme will offer numerous text, live, and prerecorded audio and video presentations, panels, and interviews, not to mention broadcasts featuring GoHs Dana Stabenow, Lee Child, Kate Miciak, Adrian Muller, Tom and Enid Schantz, and Kate Stine. As residents of Luddite Corner we'll be represented by electronic ink and by contributing to the goody bag, but we do plan to drop into the day long coffee shop live chat room now and then, so perhaps we'll see you there?

MYSTERY HINTS FOR LIBRARIANS or A NEW RESOURCE

At the end of October Kris Swank's article advising librarians who wish to write mysteries will appear when Writing & Publishing: The Librarian's Handbook, edited by Carol Smallwood, is published by the American Library Association: http://tinyurl.com/yl6h9qo

Her article contains tips and examples from several mystery writers and two of them were us! Our thanks to Kris for including us in this useful resource.

RUNNING RIOT or NOT YOUR USUAL NIKAS

And speaking of mysteries, Eightfer's handsome cover has now been revealed, and it's a real corker. See the cover on Eric's blog: http://www.journalscape.com/ericmayer/

John's latest adventure is set in January 532, during a period when the mob ruled Constantinople. Against a murderous backdrop lit by raging fires, he must find those seeking to use the Nika Riots to dethrone the emperor. But are the ringleaders still in the city -- or even alive?

Porphyrius, the most famous charioteer of his time, may know more than he tells about the mysterious disappearance of two men under imperial guard. What roles are a pair of brothers with a distant claim to the throne playing? Does a headstrong young girl hold the key to the mystery? With the fate of the empire at stake will General Belisarius and his armed troops side with the rioters or remain loyal to Justinian?

The answers to these and other questions will be revealed in April next year!

STOP PRESS

As this issue of Orphan Scrivener was written, we learned that Poisoned Pen Press works are becoming available in various formats for the visually impaired via http://www.ReadHowYouWant.com RHYW produces large print editions with varying type sizes as well as Daisy and Braille versions, and we are pleased to announce that Four For A Boy, prequel to the series, is available from this source.


ERIC'S BIT or AMUSEMENT FOR INFERIOR MINDS

I'm no Sherlock Holmes. Not even Gideon Fell. Recently, when I read John Dickson Carr's classic locked room mystery The Hollow Man (also known as The Three Coffins) I made no particular effort to figure out the solution before Dr Fell. A man shot to death in his study, the only door to the room locked from the inside, with people present in the hall and both the ground below the window and the roof above covered with unbroken snow. I was stumped.

I learned long ago that trying to solve locked room puzzles is a fool's errand, at least if I'm the fool reading. Nevertheless I enjoyed being perplexed and anticipating the explanation. It's rather as if I watched a magician cut his lovely assistant in half and reassemble her and he then took me backstage and revealed the trick boxes, screens, and mirrors used to create the illusion. When Dr Fell described the "trick" behind the murder I was impressed by the author's ingenuity.

In our writing collaborations Mary is usually the magician in charge of creating the trick that will, hopefully, fool the reader. Which is odd. By all rights, she ought to be the lovely assistant. I'm not really the lovely assistant type, although I guess I do tend to supply a lot of the scenery and misdirection to hold the reader's attention while Mary's working the apparatus.

Not surprisingly, Mary is also one of those readers who actively competes with the detective and delights in reasoning out who the murderer is before the author reveals the guilty party.

But I am not alone, as a reader, in preferring to leave the brain-work to the detective. In his Notes on the Mystery Story, Raymond Chandler, author of classics like The Big Sleep, says "I, in the role of reader, almost never try to guess the solution to a mystery. I simply don't regard the contest between the writer and myself as important. To be frank I regard it as the amusement of an inferior type of mind."

I'm not sure I would agree with the last sentence, and I suspect Mary would take umbrage, but it is good to know that I at least read mysteries like Raymond Chandler.

As a writer I like the whodunit puzzle because it creates the basis for the mystery format which offers an excellent framework on which to hang some writing. Finding a murderer gives the protagonist something to do, a chance to visit interesting places such as dark alleys, and to talk to fascinating people. Murder suspects are always interesting, aren't they? Finding a murderer gives the protagonist a compelling goal, and it isn't hard to introduce an element of danger when dealing with some unknown person who has already killed.

A disadvantage of the mystery genre is that the circumstances and events leading up the murder are often more interesting and dramatic than the investigation can be. Yet it is the investigation which is front and center, while the drama of the murder is only revealed retrospectively in bits and pieces. In addition, the murderer and the victim are usually strong characters. Yet we can know the deceased victim only second-hand and since the murderer cannot be revealed until the end, he or she occupies far less of the book than the character's role as instigator of the whole story actually warrants.

R. Austin Freeman provided a way to get around these weaknesses when he invented what he called the inverted detective story in his 1912 collection of short stories The Singing Bone.

"Some years ago," said Freeman, "I devised, as an experiment, an inverted detective story in two parts. The first part was a minute and detailed description of a crime, setting forth the antecedents, motives, and all attendant circumstances. The reader had seen the crime committed, knew all about the criminal, and was in possession of all the facts. It would have seemed that there was nothing left to tell, but I calculated that the reader would be so occupied with the crime that he would overlook the evidence. And so it turned out. The second part, which described the investigation of the crime, had to most readers the effect of new matter."

Freeman's In the Shadow of the Wolf, an example of such a mystery, begins with a murder on a yacht at sea -- what the killer imagines to be a perfect, undetectable crime. However, he has not reckoned on the crime-solving skills of the medico-legal Doctor Thorndyke who employs both Holmsian reasoning and up-to date (for the early twentieth century) forensic analysis.

It was fascinating to watch him in action. But thanks to the inverted format I also got a full portrait, through the entire narrative, of the killer and the motivations for a crime which is rooted in complex personal and psychological relationships worthy of Georges Simenon.

And all without having to beat myself over the head for not trying to spot clues and being unable to out-think Thorndyke. A perfect sort of mystery format for readers like me.


AND FINALLY

Sir Walter Scott once observed that the dark and gloomy days of December take away the joys of autumn. However, now they've read this far there's two months of joy left for subscribers before Orphan Scrivener returns to cast a pall over their December days, for the next issue will not flap into their in-boxes until the 15th of that month.

See you then!

Mary R and Eric

who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line that is the web at http://home.earthlink.net/~maywrite/ 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 our growing pages of links to free e-texts of classic and Golden Age mysteries, ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural. There's also an Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned! Intrepid subscribers may also wish to pop over to Eric's blog at http://www.journalscape.com/ericmayer/


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