THE ORPHAN SCRIVENER -- ISSUE # SIXTY -- l5 DECEMBER 2009

The first storm of winter arrived a week back and snow lingers on as this bumper bundle issue of Orphan Scribbler is written. While we did not sing welcome to the drifting snow as Eliza Cook so chirpily suggested -- doubtless after adding a bit more nutty slack to the fire and making another pot of tea -- it is noticeable how much lighter the nights are when snow is lying deep and crisp, if drifted rather than even, and that despite December being the darkest time of the year.

While this is one of our longest issues to date the shortest day is only a week or so away, underlining even the darkest things pass, so our advice is the quicker subscribers begin reading this newsletter the swifter the dark task will be done!


ERIC'S BIT or SENT UNDER BROWN PAPER WRAPPER

Today the whole universe of books stretches before us in plain sight on the Internet. Wonder what an author wrote, and where the works can be found? Bookseller, publisher and author sites, Wikipedia, and blogs will tell us anything we want to know. (Mary and I favor Fantastic Fiction for author bibliographies). What’s more, tens of thousands of old and often obscure titles are available for free in electronic form at sites like Gutenberg and Google Books.

It's a good thing, for the most part. But I sometimes miss the days when books were treasures to be sought after. I still remember my amazement during the early eighties when I found, on the used book table in a second hand shop outside Rochester, NY, the original paperback of Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein’s A Cellar Full of Noise, his first-hand account of the band’s Cavern Club days. The book may have been in print at the time but if so I didn’t know about it.

Back in the sixties and seventies when I read voraciously, it wasn’t easy to find out that books existed, let alone find them to read. During one of my day-trips to New York City I learned about the publisher Dover Books and subsequently ordered from their catalog many of the public domain titles presented so beautifully in stiff covered trade paperback editions. I enjoyed Ernest Bramah’s tales of blind detective Max Carrados, Jacques Futrelle’s The Thinking Machine stories, The Old Man in the Corner by Baroness Orczy, and the Doctor Thorndyke detective stories of R. Austin Freeman. These books were entirely new to me. They had long since vanished from print for the most part and even from the shelves of the local library. Although Dover made a few such books available, I had no idea how many more the authors had written. Today most of what such authors wrote can be found on the Internet.(One exception is the work of popular thirties mystery writer C. Daly King whose Obelists Fly High greatly impressed me, even while I was mystified by the title.)

Years ago huge well-stocked bookstores and specialty bookstores tended to be confined to large cities. I took the bus to New York not so much to buy books I couldn’t find locally but to browse the shelves to see what delights I was missing. Manhattan stores carried New Directions trade paperback translations of Jorge Louis Borges, Louis Ferdinand Celine, Jean Cocteau, Arthur Rimbaud, and other enticingly unfamiliar foreign authors. There was almost always something different and exciting behind those distinctive black and white covers. At the time, trade paperbacks were much rarer than they are now and usually reserved for work considered, a bit too off-beat for commercial success. Exactly what I usually prefer.

Only in New York was I able to find novels by the French author Allain Robbe-Grillet, to whom I had been introduced during a college class. Although considered a literary -- or perhaps more accurately anti literary establishment-- writer, Robbe-Grillet penned a delightfully peculiar and complex detective novel (of sorts) entitled, in English, The Erasers. I have always preferred to think of the French title Les Gommes, since it evokes, for me (if incorrectly) the term gumshoe.

College was an excellent, if expensive, way to discover new books. The works of many of the authors I encountered in literature classes were available in Penguin Classic editions, but only the New York City stores had large sections of those. When I moved to Rochester, New York, I was astounded to discover that a large downtown “news vendor” also stocked books and, in particular, boasted a huge selection of Penguins. Right next to a huge comic book section. What a choice. Middlemarch or Iron Man? Okay, I blush to admit, I have yet to read Middlemarch.

One of the joys of exploring a big bookstore was that there would be far more titles by individual authors than in my local haunts. I was thrilled to find an endless supply of Michael Moorcock beyond the few Elric books with which I was familiar. What’s this? The Ice Schooner. The Fireclown. Another installment of the Elric saga I never knew existed!

Of course British authors do not necessarily see all their titles in print in the United States and even the biggest bookstores didn’t always stock all the UK titles. So I ordered science fiction from an overseas bookseller. The British paperbacks I found when I eagerly tore the brown paper from the parcels were of a slightly different dimension than American ones, their covers much glossier, the artwork typically, to my taste, better. They seemed like books from some parallel universe.

It was also possible to buy directly from the big publishers. In the back of a paperback there would be a tempting list of titles and an invitation to send in an order. I remember when I was in high school sending away for a big stack of John Steinbeck novels. It was also possible, when making an extensive order, to happen to check off something such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the purchase of which might be problematical at the local bookshop. Maybe I should have done that.

No doubt I could have saved myself all this questing for books if I had been content to stick to the bestsellers which were as omnipresent then as they are today. However, while I do not, like some, object to bestsellers on principle (Stephen King is perhaps my favorite author) I’ve always felt that except for rare works of genius which become classics, books manage to speak to more readers by saying less to them individually. The books which most appeal to me are those which are -- or perhaps have become through the passage of time -- a bit too eccentric to find mass popularity. Jealousy, my favorite novel by Robbe-Grillet reportedly sold 746 copies in its first year after publication.

Is it surprising that Mary and I write the sort of books we do?

We’re grateful that Poisoned Pen Press has seen fit to publish our Byzantine mysteries -- books that would probably never attract sufficient readers to interest a publishing conglomerate. And we are even more grateful for our readers, who give us an excuse to keep writing. Books are easier to locate today than they used to be, but I know that you can’t always be assured of finding the adventures of John the Lord Chamberlain at the local library or of running across one of our mysteries in a bookstore. If you have read our books you have almost certainly gone to the trouble to seek them out and taken pains to order them specially, a high compliment. I hope you find a little of what I have found in the books I’ve sought out, that they are just enough different to be worth the effort.


NECESSARY EVIL or THE BSP TICKER

Like the current weather the ticker offers a mixed bag this time around so let's get dip into it right away!

MYSTERY SPORTS or YOU CAN'T PARK THAT CHARIOTEER

The quarterly thematic publication Mystery Readers Journal http://www.mysteryreaders.org/ will focus on Sports in Mysteries in Volume 25:4 that comes out in Winter 2010. The contents will include Mary's contribution on chariot racing, the first extreme sport. Porphyrius, a real charioteer, plays an important part in Eight For Eternity and while his career is outlined, she also notes such arcana as the 1907 silent version of Ben Hur, filmed on a New Jersey beach -- local firemen acted as charioteers and fire engine horses were pressed into service to haul chariots -- and the 1899 stage play, which astonished theatre goers with a race run onstage featuring chariots pulled by real horses. The January issue also includes articles on boxing, horse racing, football, baseball, golf, swimming, surfing, skiing, and other sports. Contributors to the Author! Author! section (in which authors write about why they chose specific sports for their mysteries) include Peter Lovesey, Roberta Isleib, Carola Dunn, Robert Greer, Twist Phelan, and many others.

ACORNS TO OAKS or SHORT STORIES TO SERIES

In the last newsletter we mentioned Kris Swank's article on Publishing Mystery Fiction was to appear in the American Library Association compilation Writing and Publishing: The Librarian's Handbook, edited by Carol Smallwood (Chicago: ALA, 2010). In her contribution Kris mentions several historical mystery writers and discusses the variety of ways by which they entered mystery publishing. John is among series mentioned that began as short stories. Our thanks to Kris for the nod!

EBOOK EDITIONS or YOU CAN ALWAYS ADMIRE THE ARTWORK

We are thrilled to announce our series is now available from Sony ebooks http://ebookstore.sony.com/author/eric-mayer_78395 If nothing else you can always admire the artwork displayed on the page!

ANOTHER VOYAGE or THE PPP VIRTUAL WEBCON TO RETURN

PPP's virtual Webcon took its maiden voyage in October and attendees appear to have enjoyed it greatly, though there were one or two glitches as is only to be expected with such a new venture. For an inside look at the planning and execution of the event, subscribers may like to glance over the triumphs -- and troubles -- of the voyage as described in the Rap Sheet blog by Mary. http://therapsheet.blogspot.com/2009/10/triumphs-troubles-on-webcons-first.html Organising the second Webcon will start soon and we'll pass along updates as time goes on.


MARY'S BIT or UNLUCKY FOURTEEN

A while ago I read J. M. Barrie's Shall We Join The Ladies? in Black Cap: New Stories of Murder and Mystery, compiled by Lady Cynthia Asquith http://www.archive.org/details/blackcapnewstori00asquuoft

Being a fool to myself, I took no notice of the introductory note stating Ladies was the first act of an unfinished play. Having found the playscript intriguing I decided to take a stab at a possible solution.

As the curtain rises we discover a number of upper crust people at dinner, the final meal of a week-long house party before it disperses. It is realized there are thirteen diners, portending "something staggering" will happen to one of them. The butler, Dolphin, reluctantly counteracts this possibility by sitting briefly at the table to make fourteen, and then resumes his duties.

Just as dessert is passed around host Sam Smith reveals one of those present murdered his younger brother Dick two years before in Monte Carlo.

Dick Smith was certified as dying of natural causes but Sam looked into the matter, ultimately establishing his brother drank poisoned coffee, that an English speaker was responsible, and that this person had been gambling at Monte Carlo on the evening of the murder. Having made exhaustive enquiries he reveals his suspects are now sitting round his table. In a further outrage to hospitality he admits to secretly examining the contents of his guests' trunks and read their letters.

It's suggested the culprit was a woman dressed as a man and the murder revenge for being scorned. The house party had played charades, during which women guests dressed like men, permitting their devious host to ascertain who could carry off such a sartorial deception. On the other hand, Smith minutely describes his brother's wallet and mentions a large sum of money had disappeared that night, so theft was another possible motive.

The host announces the ladies will not go to the drawing room after dinner as usual but rather will assemble in Dolphin's room, where the men will join them later. When outraged guests try to leave they discover a policeman stationed at the door.

More than one present has something to conceal. As the act progresses two ladies drop wineglasses and another faints, the host tells a guest's supposed sister he knows this is not the case, a lady who denies knowing Dick Smith is trapped into betraying she did, a male guest is revealed to be a doctor struck off the register, and therefore one with knowledge of poison.

After the ladies depart Smith reveals Dolphin had been his brother's servant and to aid his new master has taken the guests' fingerprints from their wineglasses, and sent the dabs to Scotland Yard. Then just as the men are leaving to join the ladies a terrible female scream is heard from the direction of Dolphin's room....

The curtain falls.

A couple of points occurred as I mulled over possible solutions, assuming there was one and Barrie was not just having us all on. For example, why did the host insist everyone go to a servants' room? Since he had already searched their luggage, was there something there he wished them to see? Why didn't the outraged guests complain to the policeman on the premises, or were they afraid of scandals coming out?

It is my contention Dolphin was the murderer.

Since Dolphin was Dick Smith's servant he would know about the large amount of cash on the premises. Sam said the culprit spoke English and was sitting at the dining table. These both apply to Dolphin, if we bend the latter point in that he had only briefly sat at the table a short time before.

Even the best butlers gamble and a large sum of money was stolen that night. As butler, Dolphin could poison coffee and invent a caller to deflect suspicion elsewhere. He sent fingerprints to Scotland Yard, allowing him to omit his own. Then there's the female scream from the direction of his room. Had the woman who initially denied knowing Dick Smith recognised his wallet lying say on Dolphin's dresser? Did the older Smith employ Dolphin in order to bring the crime home to him?

After the scream is heard Dolphin reappears with a look of mingled horror and appeal -- horror at being found out, appeal for mercy from Dick Smith's brother? But will it do any good, given "something staggering" was bound to happen to someone in Sam Smith's house that night?


AND FINALLY

Tennyson exhorted the happy bells to ring out the old year and ring in the new across the snow but John Greenleaf Whittier's somewhat sinister lines about a wave breaking ashore and the echo of a chime fading as the shadow moves across time's dial-plate are more appropriate since a month or so after we've stepped through the gate of the year the next Orphan Scrivener will fly out into subscribers' in-boxes on 15th February.

We close with good wishes for the holidays and new year. 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/