A reminder that winter is creeping up the pike came on a recent morning, when a backing-up bell and a loud rattling announced the delivery of a consignment of coal to a neighbour, in the process waking us at an ungodly hour.

Wordsworth was likely not thinking of the sound of coal deliveries when he talked of wild autumnal music in faded woods, which is just as well since our fall colour has been slow in starting and the woods are not yet noticeably less bright. However, after cooler nights this past week more trees have begun to change colour, particularly maples just starting to turn that beautiful scarlet so beloved by landscape painters and our northern neighbours, and whereas Orphan Scrivener might not be described as beloved by some, unlike advancing winter it's actually here so why not read on?


I must confess mazes have an eerie fascination from me, and I've loved them since the first one I saw at Saltwell Towers in Gateshead, north-east England.

With its titular towers, red brick walls with yellow detailing and bands of patterns and built to an eccentric design displaying Elizabethan and Gothic elements, what a magnificent sight the gas-lit house must have been in its heyday when the family entertained and carriages rolled up to disgorge local bigwigs and captains of industry!

William Wailes, the prominent 19th stained glass manufacturer who commissioned the house, had the maze planted to entertain his children, though they would have aged somewhat by the time the hedges were fully grown and thickened out enough to disguise the route to the centre

In the 1870s the mansion and its extensive grounds were bought by Gateshead Corporation and became a public park, from which time the hoi polloi have been able to wander round it. As a visiting representative of same, I had one or two adventures in Saltwell Park as a child. Once I fell into the lake but despite fairly deep water and the unwelcome interest of a number of exceedingly vexed swans, as you see I got safely back to land. On another occasion I was almost trapped in the Towers overnight. By then the house had been turned into a museum and still had its original arrangement of rooms, now alas no longer the case. Being upstairs wandering through what would once have been bedrooms, I did not realise the place was in the process of being locked up for the night. A promising start for a ghost story, no? But Saltwell Towers was always a favourite destination despite a long walk from where we lived near the far end of Coatsworth Road as it featured such arcane delights as a scale model of a pit head, a collection of stuffed birds and small animals, and the display at which I spent most of my time on every visit, a magnificent recreation of a Victorian living room viewed through a glass wall.

Getting back to the maze, to my eye any maze projects an other-worldly air, tinged with a touch of the sinister. Is it because it's easy to get lost in the labyrinth and an instinctive feeling of panic arises or because the arrangement of hedges changes the landscape, disorienting the treader of paths?

You might liken mazes to the intellectual puzzles of mystery fiction. Or if you won't, I will. Indeed, in Six For Gold, wherein John investigates sheep committing suicide in the Egyptian village of Mehenopolis, we present the small settlement as boasting an extensive underground maze playing a major part in the plot. So there's two mazes for the price of one. Talk about generous.

However, offhand I can only recall a couple of short stories in which mazes appear. M. R. James (pause for customary declaration that MRJ roolz!) treats of Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance, which includes a circular yew maze with a globe in its centre and lettered tiles stored in a temple in the garden. Suggestive matters indeed, ladies and gentlemen! Then there's In The Walls Of Eryx, a collaborative effort by H. P. Lovecraft and Kenneth J. Sterling, featuring an invisible maze on Venus. Needless to say, it all ends in tears.

Given my declared love of mazes, it will be no surprise to learn I chuckled when recently reading Warwick Wroth's Cremorne and the Later London Gardens. In passing he mentions a maze at Camberwell's Flora Gardens, the proprietors of which helpfully provided a guide. At the centre of the maze there stood a hermitage where lived what was described as a Chaldean astrologer. Naturally, I immediately thought of Alfie Bass in Help! playing an Indian restaurant doorman claiming to be from the mysterious east -- of London, that is.

Subscribers interested in Victorian mansions will enjoy perusing photos of the Towers at The interior view shows an elaborately carved high-backed sofa-cum-settle -- I would not care to have to dust all those ornamental incrustations -- partially blocking a small fireplace. It almost looks as if the residents, or rather their servants, were in the process of moving the furniture around when the photo was snapped. Given the obvious weight of sofa and table, I suspect more than one involved in wrassling with them would rather be lost in the mansion's maze -- or even consulting a Chaldean astrologer.


Only a short ticker tape this month, but it's all good stuff if we say so ourselves!


A blasphemous ritual and the theft of a holy relic by demons kicks off Ten For Dying. Matters go rapidly downhill from there, and ambition, intrigue, treachery, and murder soon take centre stage. With John sailing into exile in Greece, will he be able to assist Felix's investigations from afar? One thing at least is certain -- we're happy to announce Tenfer is now available for pre-order from PPP and Amazon as well as the usual suspects on and offline.


Notices of John's adventures occasionally pop up in unexpected places and such was the case of Hygienists In Print, Lois Hirt's column for the Los Angeles Dental Hygienists' Society. Lois focuses on references to teeth and related matters in fiction and non fiction, and three quotes from Seven For A Secret appear in her September column. Point your clickers to for links to her column as well as previous entries.


Want to a handy listing of John's adventures? Fortuna smiles as that handy info may be conveniently consulted at the website of Poisoned Pen Press at and for overseas readers at the page devoted to our shadow identity M. E. Mayer at Head of Zeus

In passing, HoZ has also published Three Great Historical Mysteries, a compendium composed of MEM's One For Sorrow and novels by fellow PPP authors Bruce Macbain (Roman Games) and Priscilla Royal (Wine of Violence). Details at


Our backyard, pressed up against the woods, does not seem to be on any wildlife routes, or at least not on the routes of wildlife that travels by daylight. Who knows what may pass by our door in the darkness -- raccoons, possums, bears, skunks? Well, occasionally a skunk leaves its redolent calling card. And we did once see a black bear in the middle of the afternoon.

Generally, we have only sporadic visits from our forest neighbors. This autumn several turkeys blundered briefly out of the shrubbery, scratched the moss a bit before vanishing again. Then we saw a family of deer, six in all, does, partially grown fawns and a young buck, with just nubs on his head, who stood watch near the house while his charges nibbled at bushes.

Mostly we see squirrels and chipmunks and cats. For years there was, in particular, a white cat with black spots. There's nothing like glancing out the back window and seeing a cat with the squirming hind legs of a chipmunk hanging out of its mouth. Now we often see the neighbor's cat, a flabby, disreputable looking black creature with dirty brown blotches.

We are definitely on the Cat Trail. They nearly always follows the same route: across the back yard, behind the shed, along the perimeter of the yard next door where the grass meets the woods, then through a gap in the pines, onto the next property and down past the side of the house there, vanishing from our sight in the direction of the road. She returns along the same route exactly. There might as well be cat road markers pointing the way.

I wonder has this been the cat highway since time immemorial? And why? Because it takes them past the best hunting spots? Does it intersect a chipmunk thruway? If the cats are merely on the way somewhere, it would be faster to simply cut straight across all the yards. Then again, even in a house cats like to skirt the edges of things. Maybe that's why I like cats since I too prefer to stick to the periphery rather than plunging into the center.

When I was growing up there were ant paths worn into my grandparents' front yard. They had obviously been located intentionally. In several places they led from the flagstone walk to the big, partially hollow maple trees in front. The paths were no wider than a child's finger, but distinct. How many ants and how many years does it take to wear a tiny rut from which no blade of grass emerges? The paths were always busy. The ants hurrying toward the sidewalk were unburdened, those returning to the maples, where they must have had colonies, carried bits of leaves, or maybe a dead aphid or even a cracker crumb. If you dropped a twig on their road the ants would quickly congregate to remove the obstruction.

I once lived in a house where generations of mice had gnawed a gap in the corner of a plank door. An indentation had been worn into the floorboards where a procession of mice had scurried through the gap on their way along what was no doubt a well established route.

I suppose most of us tend to take familiar paths. Do we do so for a reason or from habit? It's comforting to have a path to follow. Whether it is always good or not is another question. Sometimes the path ahead looks obvious. Other times less so. It depends on where you are going and what you are about. Cats are looking for chipmunks, ants need to carry aphids home, writers think about writing.


Speaking as we were of leaves, we'll now take ours and fade away quietly after reminding subscribers the next Orphan Scrivener will fall out of the aether into their inboxes on December 15th.

See you then!
Mary R and Eric

who invite you to visit our 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, our bibliography, 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 or visit our shadow identity M. E. Mayer's blog at And just for the heck of it, we'll also mention our noms des Twitter are @marymaywrite and @groggytales. Drop in some time!

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