The holiday period is fast approaching, bringing with it much bustle and making of lists. By now our subscribers probably need a bit of a break from festive activity, a quiet sit down with a cup of tea and something interesting to read. Unfortunately all we've got to offer is this latest issue of Orphan Scrivener. However, in the spirit of the season, we hope they'll read on....


This is the time year when I wonder how in the world I could ever have believed in such an outlandish idea as Santa Claus. Even a five-year old should have had enough common sense to realize that reindeer don't fly, all the toys for all the kids in the world won't fit into one sack, and a fat man in a red suit couldn't squeeze into our fireplace let alone come down the flue, especially with a sack holding all the toys for all the kids in the world over his shoulder.

If I didn't actually remember believing in Santa, I wouldn't think it was possible.

Not that I can recapture how it felt to believe. I can no longer put myself into the state of mind where reality has not quite coalesced and magic can still co-exist with day-to-day experience. Is the child's mind not fully formed or simply not fully programmed? Whatever the reason, it seems that the very young inhabit a wilder world than adults do, a place full of mystery and wonder and possibilities their elders can no longer see.

We naturally assume that kids' perceptions are wrong, a result of their immaturity. But when you consider the universe's size, age and complexity, you have to wonder how much our tiny, ephemeral brains are filtering out.

I don't think they are filtering out Santa, of course. Where are the hoof prints on the snowy roof? The satellite photos of the North Pole workshop? How would Santa get through Homeland Security? Besides, I've played Santa. I know how the scam works. I've lied to my kids.

When exactly did I discover the awful truth? Strangely, I can't recall, nor do I have any recollection of being shocked or horrified that my parents -- who I trusted more than anyone -- had foisted off on me this dreadful embarrassing hoax. It must have just dawned on me as the golden haze of early childhood gradually dissipated to reveal the cold, hard outlines of real life.

There was a period when I pretended to believe because I figured it was expected of me. How soon did my parent's realize the jig was up? For how long did they pretend to believe that they thought I still believed when they knew I didn't? None of us wanted to disappoint each other.

Christmas is a great holiday for the suspension of disbelief.

My parents didn't just prevaricate about Santa either. They also acted as if they liked the tree ornaments I brought home from school. Enormous, lop-sided snowflakes cut from thick construction paper, encrusted with glitter and white school paste, thick as icing on a cookie. Exactly what my dad wanted on the tree he tastefully decorated with subdued blue lights.

Almost as aesthetically pleasing were the jar lids wrapped in ribbons. Sometimes we would insert a crayon drawing into the center of the lid, forming a sort of cameo. In those days everyone canned. Kids were asked to bring spare lids to school. What do they use today? Hardly anyone cans and you can get a plastic angel to top your tree for the price of a jar lid.

For that matter, what do kids make these days rather than ash trays? We were always making ashtrays, not only at Christmas. Everyone needed ashtrays when I was growing up. In the unlikely event your parents didn't smoke, their friends did. They needed a misshapen lump of hardened clay painted red and green to stub out their cigarettes.

My parents put it out in the middle of the coffee table, hideous as it was, neither round nor oval, higher on one side than the other, not quite flat on the bottom. There were two large indentations in the rim, where cigarettes could sit, and so you could distinguish it from a candy dish. The workmanship was not the best. It looked like something made by a cow.

But my parents pretended it was a work of art.

Who knows, maybe they were blinded by the holiday season. Maybe they believed the ornaments and ashtray were beautiful like I believed in Santa.

I did have some scientific basis for my gullibility. I wasn't completely stupid. Santa brought me science books, after all. Christmas Eve I set a plate of cookies and a glass of milk on the coffee table and sure enough, on Christmas morning, the edibles had vanished, except for a few tell tale crumbs. Certain proof that Santa had visited.

That and the fresh cigarette butt in the ashtray.


It's a somewhat shorter length of ticker tape than usual unspooling this time around, but here's what's printed on it....


Alan J. Bishop, owner of the Criminal History website in the UK, has published the first review of Nine For The Devil. In his November edition, Alan says he found it one of the darker novels in the series and "far more complex than a whodunit". Check out the full review by pointing your clickers at


Speaking of somewhat shorter lengths, Mike Ashley's collection yclept The Mammoth Book of Historical Crime Fiction features a dozen novellas spanning four thousand years of criminal history. Kindle and US editions are now available, and as we noted a newsletter or two back, contributors include Peter Tremayne, Charles Todd, Steven Saylor, Anne Perry, and Maan Meyers. The ink-stained wretches at Casa Maywrite also lurk within with Eyes of the Icon, the dark tale of a Byzantine icon painter, suddenly out of work when icons are banned, who becomes embroiled in a case of deception.


We've mentioned Mary now blogs each 18th of the month on the collective Poisoned Pen Press blog. Her contribution for 18th November was The Ladder At The Window, dealing with highly suggestive elements of an historical murder. On the 18th of this month she will be offering A Christie For Christmas, her recreation of The Mousetrap after the style of Gilbert & Sullivan. Both blogs -- as well as contributions from a number of PPP authors working in various genres -- can be reached via the PPP blog page at


The shortest day is hoving into view and grateful contemplation of the ensuing gradual lengthening of daylight hours turns my mind to sundials, a favourite artefact.

I'm always happy to see sundials popping up in my reading, especially in those occasional cases where they play important roles. Maurice Leblanc's The Sign of the Shadow revolves around a painting of a sundial, in which a hidden clue points to the location of a fortune in diamonds. Then there's Mr Pottermack's Oversight, wherein R. Austin Freeman's Dr Thorndyke admires the titular character's sundial motto -- 'Hope in the Morning, Peace at Eventide' -- having realized just how darkly appropriate it was. On the supernatural side, in The Sundial R. H. Malden relates some very strange goings-on beginning after a sundial is erected in a country garden.

Strange that these pleasantly ornamental yet useful features so intimately connected with sunshine would accrue such dark shadows!

And not just by way of this method of telling time. No doubt subscribers have noticed the mottos carved on sundials are often melancholy in nature. Perhaps this is not so surprising when we consider the fleeting nature of time telling by the dial, but I confess such inscriptions inevitably remind me of the Rubaiyat verse describing humanity as shadow-shapes moving around the lantern held by the Master of the Show.

Examples of these inscriptions include 'Short is the Life of Man', 'Swiftly It Passes', 'From The Last Hour Begins Eternity', 'Rising Portends Setting', and 'Every Hour Shortens Life', all of them likely to depress the reader even on the sunniest of days.

For all that, sundials have appeared in a couple of John's adventures. They made a brief cameo appearance in One For Sorrow, which made passing mention of a sundial in the centre of the Patriarch's garden. The Patriarch, who is examining a flower bed displaying only a few green shoots, remarks to John that "The dial reveals the hour, the flowers reveal the season."

Sundials received a lot more ink in Seven For A Secret, given one of its prominent characters is Helias, a maker of sundials. When John first meets Helias, the craftsman shows him a silver sunburst of the ornamental medallion type used to fasten a cloak at the shoulder. Helias is still working on it but demonstrates how the sunburst opens up to reveal a folding sundial. Commissioned by a silversmith, the artefact was to be inscribed 'All My Silver Will Not Purchase Another Hour'.

Despite the nature of his profession, Helias' workshop is located underground because his heartless creators afflicted him with a hatred of sunlight. This means that, while as has been engraved on sundials, 'The Sun Shines For All', for Helias sunshine is a constant source of torment. As he puts it, he works with shadows every day and regards his creations as shadow- or time-traps. Thus he cannot help noticing the sun crossing the sky, pulling shadows behind it, and as a result he is unable to stop calculating the hour by the position of his shadow.

Readers might think Helias would find it easier to be out and about at night, but unfortunately for him, shadows swarm when the moon is up....


Speaking of sundial mottos and Josephine Tey notwithstanding, a particularly appropriate example with which to close is 'Time, Father of Truth', for it's certainly true to say in two months' time the next issue of Orphan Scrivener will cast its shadow into subscribers' in-boxes.

Well, not unless the Web suddenly fails.

Otherwise, 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 There you'll discover the usual suspects, including more personal essays, the Doom Cat 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 and/or visit the Poisoned Pen Press blog at

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