THE ORPHAN SCRIVENER -- ISSUE # SEVENTY-ONE -- 15 OCTOBER 2011

THE ORPHAN SCRIVENER -- ISSUE # SEVENTY-ONE -- 15 OCTOBER 2011

The English poet Thomas Hood wrote of autumn: Boughs are daily rifled/ By the gusty thieves,/ And the book of Nature/ Getteth short of leaves.

As this issue is written, the days are inexorably and noticeably advancing ever more early into twilight. And speaking of advancing, a further sign of autumn was spotted a day or so ago in the form of a woolly bear caterpillar inching down a boulder and off into a patch of long grass.

Woolly bear caterpillars abroad there may be, but the yellowing of the landscape only got into stride this week. Colour is arriving late this year, so as this edition of Orphan Scrivener appears, Thomas Hood's book of nature is not yet as short of leaves as it might be, and while night falls quicker each day, it's not quite time for autumnal winds to make wild music in faded woods as Wordsworth gloomily wrote.

Speaking of music, screeching violins will now begin to play as a warning readers of a nervous disposition should not read on...


MARY'S BIT or DEADLIER THAN A POKER

A while ago I saw a Craigslist advertisement for what the seller termed an Old Brass Long Fork with Bird.

I had the impression the poster, who stated they had purchased the Long Fork With Bird at an estate sale, did not realise the item offered was a toasting fork, and a deluxe version at that. It was fitted with a hanging ring and what was described as a bird head handle, which going by the photos I took to be intended to represent either a swan or a peacock with a cropped tail.

I was immediately reminded of the Reed family's utilitarian and unfortunately long gone toasting fork, a simpler, home-made artefact in the form of a trident, its points flattened and hammered into diamond shapes the better to prevent bread falling in the fire. Constructed of sturdy, thick wire of some kind welded at appropriate points, despite its lack of glamour the fork was in constant use and did a bang-up job of making toast.

The toasting fork was as much part of our fireplace furniture as the hearth companion on which hung a poker, a small shovel for removing coal ashes from below the grate, and a brush to keep the hearth neatly swept, doing double duty for sweeping up toast crumbs from the hearth rug.

One of the simpler joys most of today's youth misses out on is smashing walnuts with a poker, though I confess I found a flat iron much better for the task as presenting a broader whacking surface than the poker. Attempting to open a walnut with a poker was not very effective, given quite often the poker bounced off the nut and the unsmashed walnut rolled under the table or behind a chair. For we never began the task without placing the walnut on the floor and preferably on the mat in case we damaged the floor. It was remarkable how, depending on the power in the swing of the poker and the proximity of ornaments or pans, the attempt was accompanied by the merry jingle of the latter. Of course, we also had a pair of nut crackers, but when you have two children fairly close in age and argumentative most of the time, the pokerless one is going to get impatient to start eating walnuts and haul out the flat iron.

As it happens, while Casa Maywrite does not have a fender or a hearth companion we do have a pair of flat irons. At various times we've used them for door stops or book ends, and also on occasion have found them useful for smashing the shells of coconuts after the milk has been drained out. It's that or the hammer. Perhaps, in line with personality tests appearing in certain popular publications, the methods we use to access coconut innards tells us something about ourselves.

Speaking of flat irons, observe if you will scenes in films and on TV where a housewife is using one. I have yet to see any of them hold a flat iron with a pan holder or thick cloth to protect their fingers from transmitted heat in the handle or quickly dab a wet finger on the flat surface to judge if the iron has heated enough to do its job properly.

But I digress.

I was talking about fireplace furniture. Consider the humble fender. The three-sides-of-a-square curb several inches high, often made of brass, is probably the most familiar type to readers. If fenders happen to be mentioned in passing talk -- and stranger conversations take place every day at Casa Maywrite -- I think of literary references to this useful item of furniture in parlours wherein fresh-faced heroinnes perch on them while drinking tea or conversing with local nobs. Obviously such fenders must be of the knee-high padded sort for the sake of the heroine's modesty.

But because I am a mystery reader, I also recall that often, even in such civilized settings, the fender can be deadly -- how many times have we read about characters falling and striking their heads on the sharp corner of one (or even impaled on protruding ornamentation as in a novel read within the past couple of months) thus suffering grave injuries or accidental death -- or possibly an attempt to disguise murder as an accident?

A poker makes a deadly weapon too, and come to think of it a toasting fork with or without a representation of a bird head would do a fair bit of damage as well. In fact, with its sharp points it's even deadlier than a poker given its greater capacity for quickly inflicting multiple wounds. Indeed, it seems to me if such a fork was wielded by a determined assailant, it wouldn't be just the bread that ended up toast.


NECESSARY EVIL or THE BSP TICKER

A shortish section this time around -- who shouted hurrah? -- but nonetheless we hope of interest to subscribers.

SPOILERS PERMITTED or A CHANCE TO CHINWAG

Recently started by Jan Burke, author of Irene Kelly series, Spoilerville http://www.spoilerville.com is a new experiment in bringing readers and authors together to talk about books. What you'll find there are over 125 books (more being added all the time!) by authors who wish to give those who've already read a book a place to ask questions, make comments, and discuss their books with others who've read them.

It isn't a selling site but rather a place for reader conversations, for talking about books and contacting authors about their work. Set up so you won't accidentally see discussion without choosing to do so, there are search functions set up for titles, links to authors websites, and a way to see which of the books of a particular author are on the site.

Jan says she hopes you visit soon and return often -- and so do we!

AN UNUSUAL TRIO or MURDER, MYSTERY AND MITHRAISM

As readers know, our protagonist John is a practicing Mithran holding the high religious rank of Runner of the Sun. Mary contributed a blog about Mithraism, shedding light on John's beliefs, to Jessica Williams' Novel Reaction website in mid September, as part of Jessica's month of Murder and Mayhem. Interested parties may view it here: http://novelreaction.com/2011/09/mary- reed-and-eric-mayer-guest-post-mithras-religion/

THE PPP BLOG-O-RAMA or HIST-MYSTERY AUTHORS APLENTY

In our last issue we mentioned Poisoned Pen Press now hosts a blog for its authors. In September Mary's contribution was (I've Got A Little List of) Pestiferous Posters, inspired by Gilbert & Sullivan's wickedly pointed patter song. Current contributors to the PPP blog include fellow historical mystery writers: Vicki Delany, Bernadette Pajer, Larry Karp, Ann Parker, Ken Kuhlken, Martin Edwards, Aileen Baron, J. M. Hayes, and Donis Casey, not to mention a number of other PPP authors writing in various sub-genres in the field, so there's likely to be something of interest to just about any reader. Point your clicker at http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/category/blog/ for the latest blog and archived entries.


ERIC'S BIT or WHITHER HISTORICAL WEATHER

It seems as if it hasn't stopped raining here since last spring. Coming into September we were far above the historic precipitation average for the year and then the remnants of Hurricane Irene drenched us with three inches or so and Tropical Storm Lee drowned us with over nine inches. And it is still raining, even as I type.

By contrast, during the period between June 12 and June 21, 1941 in the southwest part of Shropshire in the UK there was no precipitation at all, according to the Met Office. That was a relief because Mary and I have spent a lot of time writing there, working on a new book. I know....you don't usually go to the UK -- even in your imagination -- to avoid rain.

The lack of rain back then does pose a challenge to me since I am from the dark and stormy night school. As far as I'm concerned, nothing says drama like a good frog strangler, as Mary calls it. I have to be careful or I find my fictional clouds opening up every time trouble looms. With this book I'll have to try and create atmosphere more subtly rather than simply pouring it on.

Mary and I decided that since weather records were available for the era we might as well be accurate. But is it really necessary to take historical accuracy in fiction to such lengths? Does the historical backdrop against which the fictional characters act out their imaginary story need to take account of every passing shower or lack thereof?

Certainly the writer of non-historicals, of novels set in the present, more or less gets to make up suitable weather. How many houses in which a murder was committed, or is about to committed if a lurking maniac has his way, have found themselves isolated by snowstorms?

Or so I believed, as I read David Goodis' Black Friday, a contemporary, at the time, crime novel published in 1954. It starts out with a man on the run in the snow-covered streets of Philadelphia finding shelter, of a sort, with a gang of professional thieves.

You'll notice the snow. On the day of the big burglary at book's end it is also snowing and so cold the getaway car nearly refuses to start.

Nothing remarkable there, but since I had weather accuracy in mind I immediately noticed when the protagonist read a newspaper headline about a British airliner crashing in the Mediterranean. Googling quickly revealed to me that such a crash had indeed occurred on January 11, 1954. Having put an exact date to the narrative, my next impulse was to check the weather. Yes, it had indeed snowed in Philadelphia on the day the book began and it snowed again and was bitterly cold the day of the burglary. Exactly as depicted.

I was startled, to say the least. Are authors really that picky about the weather in contemporary books? Or, I wondered hopefully, had Goodis perhaps begun the book during the January snow and having committed himself that far, decided to maintain the accuracy? Or had he pulled a Georges Simenon and written the whole short novel during a few days-- the same days on which it took place -- and simply used the weather outside his window?

Such were my thoughts when I began reading A Time to Murder and Create, a 1976 mystery by Lawrence Block. Aside from a mention that it was spring, the action wasn't dated. Until PI Matt Scudder sits in a bar, drinking and watching the Knicks lose the fourth game of an NBA playoff series to the Celtics. The next day he survives a knife attack mostly because it has been raining. Uh oh.

I couldn't resist, even though I didn't really want to know. It wasn't hard to discover that the Knicks had been eliminated from the playoffs by the Celtics on April 24, 1974. It was with a sense of dread that I looked to see what the weather had been like April 25, 1974 in New York City, when Scudder's assailant slipped on the wet pavement, his knife missing its mark. I always knew good writers like to get their facts correct but is there no limit? Would I have to abandon forever my penchant for tossing in dark and stormy skies to meet my atmospheric needs?

I clicked to the right historical weather chart and looked down the rows of statistics. Precipitation...

Zero!

And it hadn't rained on April 24th, or the 26th either. Despite what the book said, it had been dry all week.

And all I could say was thank goodness! And thank you Lawrence Block!


AND FINALLY

While we've no desire to rain on anyone's parade, in closing we'll reveal the caterpillar mentioned at the beginning of this newsletter appeared to have no striping. Given folk wisdom has it the width of such stripes predicts the severity of winter weather, their absence is suggestive, but whatever the temperature turns out to be two months hence we trust subscribers won't give the cold shoulder to the next issue of Orphan Scrivener, which will hotfoot it into their inboxes on December 15th.

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, Doom Cat (an interactive game written by Eric), and our growing libraries of links to free e-texts of classic and Golden Age mysteries, ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural. There's also the 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/ and/or the Poisoned Pen Press blog at http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/category/blog/


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