THE ORPHAN SCRIVENER -- ISSUE # NINETY -- 15 DECEMBER 2014

As the Swan of Avon wisely observed, unbidden guests are often welcomest when they are gone. The first big snow of winter arrived a week or so ago and, in the fashion of an unwanted visitor or the pervasive odour of over-boiled cabbage, it insists on hanging about far too long. We trust subscribers will not view Orphan Scrivener in the same light. Who knows, while we do not offer cabbages, it may provide food for thought....


ERIC'S BIT or THE SCIENTIFIC SANTA

December is the time to write uplifting essays recalling old-fashioned holidays when people knew the true meaning of Christmas. Being a child of the fifties, my old-fashioned holidays meant waiting for Santa to bring the toys advertised on Saturday morning television between Mighty Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, and Sky King. I'm just being honest.

A big, glowing angel perched on top of the blue spruce with the blue lights in the living room but I was focused on the gifts that would soon be spread over the tree apron and hopefully out across the carpet to the home entertainment center. Do I dare admit it?

Do I dare to reveal that I actually believed that a fat guy in a red suit flew in from the North Pole in a sleigh drawn by reindeer? What did I know, or care? If that was the way it had to be for all those wrapped packages to show up, who was I to question? Why would I want to? Why look a gift reindeer in the mouth?

Strangely, I can't recall any of the things I longed for. With the exception of the Cape Canaveral launch center perched tantalizingly on top of the coolers in the supermarket meat department along with other goodies. From my distant earthbound perspective the towering launch gantries and stately rockets, the trucks for hauling lox and transporting astronauts, were sheer magic, in a scientific way of course! (This was the age of Sputnik). I probably still recall the play set because it was too expensive for the Santa who serviced school teachers' families and so never appeared under the tree to disappoint me in all its close-up tawdriness.

What do I remember? There were the gifts from my parents, specifically designated as such, perhaps so I wouldn't get angry with Santa, mostly clothes. They were easy to pick out, the flattish rectangular boxes a giveaway for the dreaded new shirts inside and irregular squishy packages whose gay wrappings could not assuage the insult of the argyle socks they concealed. I opened these first, quickly, with a controlled fury, saving for last the stuff I was looking forward to, whatever that was. I'm still thinking!

I remember the Christmas stockings hanging from the mantle, promisingly heavy and bulging, but alas invariably stuffed with tangerines and walnuts. Their only saving grace were the gold foil covered chocolate pirate coins stashed between the fruits and nuts.

My aunt and uncle always dropped by with something expensive and often memorable. For example, a gasoline powered airplane. We took it out to the frozen tundra of the garden behind the house and managed to get fuel into its tiny engine. I took hold of the control box to which the plane was attached by a long tether and my uncle spun the propeller. The engine roared into life with a shocking racket like a jet propelled lawnmower. Before I knew what was happening the plane had leapt into the air yanking at its tether. I yanked back and spun around. It's Mighty Mouse! No, it's Sky King to the rescue in his twin-engine Cessna! Or maybe Woody Woodpecker. Cackling raucously the plane circled halfway around me, then dove straight into the icy ground and lay there, its propeller fractured and bent at a weird angle, damaged beyond repair. (Okay, I probably just imagined it laughing at me in retrospect). The Wright Brothers got further on their first try.

The Christmas I received the plastic rocket was even colder. Snow covered the garden. We found a place for the plastic launch pad in the middle of the corn stubble and fixed the rocket in place. Fuel consisted of water and compressed air forced in with a bicycle pump. This was practically lox, given how frigid it was outside. (It's been years since I had the chance to use the word "lox" -- once a real favorite of mine -- so you'll excuse me for using it three times now). When the rocket was pressured up you pulled a string to release the latches holding it to the pad and the powerful launch vehicle would spring upwards upon a mighty whoosh of vapor, climbing majestically until it vanished into the wild blue yonder before returning to mother earth swinging from its red and white parachute. According to the box.

Unfortunately plastic and cold do not get along, as NASA sadly discovered years later when Challenger was victimized by brittle O-Rings. We didn't even make it to the countdown. In the middle of the fueling process both launch pad and rocket destructed with a resounding crack, venting water into the snow through gaping rents, damaged beyond repair. Alan Shepard was destined to get further on his first try atop that lousy little Mercury-Redstone.

But surely, considering my yearly anticipation, I must have received something terrific, some time? How could I have maintained my enthusiasm otherwise? Presumably my bikes and sleds were Christmas gifts, but although I recall biking and sledding fondly I don't remember when I got them. Wait though, there was a chemistry set one year, and a microscope, and a telescope. But none of these were gifts I had asked for and aside from the telescope they didn't interest me much. They were my parents' (or should I say Santa's) way of nudging me towards a career in science, for which I was manifestly unsuited.

Recalling those gifts reminds me of what I enjoyed much more -- Tom Swift Jr. books! Tom Swift in the Caves of Nuclear Fire. Tom Swift and His Ultrasonic Cycloplane. Science intrigued me as a subject to read about. Practicing it would have required long division. Ugh! Besides, what could be better than losing oneself in an adventure? There's never any tawdry and disappointing reality to face in a novel. Our imaginations never let us down.

Before Tom Swift Jr and other juvenile science fiction there were Little Golden Books and Doctor Seuss to lose myself in.

When we went to my grandparents' house stacks of wrapped books awaited me. Nature and science and history. Deluxe volumes, thick enough to hold both words and pictures. I could read about and peer at the inside of an ant colony or a far off galaxy. One book covered the Civil War. Its detailed maps of each battle showing the deployment of the Union and Confederate armies mesmerized me. Back then information about everything under the sun wasn't readily available on the Internet twenty-four hours a day. Those books were windows opening out onto the universe beyond my home town and even the era in which I lived.

Despite all my pining after toys whose names I can't even bring to mind, and the presents it would have done me good to appreciate more, the gifts I remember best are books.

I guess that means that the Christmases I remember are, in their own way, very old-fashioned after all.


NECESSARY EVIL or THE BSP TICKER

The ticker clicks in slow fashion for this issue, but it's probably just as well there's little news to report since it means subscribers will have more time to devote to festive matters. So grab a moment or two to read on...

NEWS OF ELEVENFER or NAMELESS NO LONGER

This past couple of months have been devoted to completing the first draft of Elevenfer, now officially titled Murder In Megara. We are currently at the stage of overpowering the epilogue so we can wrassle it to the mat, and then it's on to the polish-it-up stage before it's ready to fly through the aether to Poisoned Pen Press.

Murder in Megara's official blurb has appeared since our last newsletter and it runs in this wise:

John, former Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, has been exiled to a rustic estate in Greece not far from where he grew up, but he cannot escape mystery and mayhem. The residents of nearby Megara make it plain John and his family are not welcome and he soon finds himself accused of blasphemy and murder. Now a powerless outsider, his investigations entangle him with a wealthy merchant who spends part of his time as a cave-dwelling hermit and the ruthless and antagonistic City Defender whose position makes him both law enforcer and judge, not to mention a corrupt estate overseer, a shady pig farmer, and the criminals and cut-throats populating a seedy port. Complicating matters further are two long lost childhood friends whose lives have taken very different paths and the stepfather John hated. John realizes that this time the solution to murder does not lie in the dark alleys where previous investigations have taken him but a far more dangerous place -- his own past. Can he find his way out of the labyrinth of lies and danger into which he has been thrust before disaster strikes and exile turns into execution?

ON ORACLES or WRITTEN BY THE WIND

Mary's November 18th contribution to the multi-author Poisoned Pen Press blog was devoted to oracular devices, some of which were featured in Five For Silver -- there are more in the book itself than mentioned in her blog -- and closing with an appropriate straight line, although it's nothing to do with straight line winds. Point your clicker to Written By The Wind at http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/written-wind/ While subscribers are over there they may care to check other entries from a wide range of PPP authors on all manner of topics linked from the main news page at http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/category/news-and-blog/


MARY'S BIT or ABOUT READY TO SNAP

At this time of year Byron's sound of revelry by night comes into its own, and doubtless subscribers planning festive gatherings are pondering how many to invite to their jamboree and what gustatory delights to offer. As to which, on the first question my advice is to remember the proverb declaring guests should number no less than three and no more than nine, and on the second to keep the menu simple.

I must confess I am biased in regard to the latter, since neither of us care to cook. At least Eric was spared the cookery lessons forming part of the curriculum in two of the schools I attended. The dishes prepared were of a simple kind -- Victoria sponge cake, Cornish pasties, rock buns, shepherd's pie, jam tarts, scones, rollmop herrings, sausage rolls, that sort of thing -- but the nadir of these efforts for me was when we created that elegant but culinarily complicated afternoon tea favourite, brandy snaps.

Brandy snaps do not include the spirit itself although I've heard of a drop or two being added to their filling. They do not seem to be well known here, perhaps because of the difficulty in obtaining golden syrup, a prime ingredient (look for a gold and green tin with a lion on the front), so I should add snaps are tubular, present a lacy appearance, and feature a piped-in thick cream filling.

The trickiest part of making brandy snaps is after the cook uses a palette knife to lift a snap from a baking tray fresh from the oven, for the next step is to immediately roll the snap around the handle of a wooden spoon. This sounds easily accomplished but being thin snaps cool rapidly, becoming crisp and easily broken. They may be put back into the turned-off oven to restore them to a warm and more pliable state should they cool before the rolling process is completed. But you don't want to do that too often.

It was an effort doomed to failure. For a start, my attention wandered and so my snaps were overcooked and darker than the pretty golden brown they should have been. Well, we must make the best of what we have, so I began the business of wooden spoon handle rolling. Alas, it was a disaster. I was not quick enough and my snaps began to, er, snap. Back into the oven the remainder went. A number were salvageable, so after they were rolled and set aside to cool I soldiered on to the next stage, to wit, whipping double cream to thicken it sufficiently to be pipeable into my little collection of burnt tubes. Against all the laws of nature and despite its original dense state it steadfastly refused to convert to the required thickness. Time was drawing on, so it had to be piped into the brittle snaps in a condition not quite as it should have been and the result was not neat little lacy golden brown tubes filled with stiff cream but what is best described as a plate displaying a semi-solid cream sea dotted with dark islands, greeted with a burst of laughter from my unkind classmates.

I've never cooked brandy snaps since nor do I intend to darken the handle of our wooden spoon with a second attempt. Subscribers may have better luck.

Not that I have missed snaps, since simpler foods have always been more to my taste, no pun intended. At this cold time of year the childhood dish that stands out most in memory is my mother's smoky-flavoured ham shank and pea soup, but the last time I had a plateful was when my sister cooked it years ago. Plain fare it is to be sure but hearty indeed, not to mention it provided the family with two meals -- first, a thick soup with a sludge of cooked peas, then next day sliced ham served with potatoes and vegetables, not to mention enough ham left over for sandwiches for my brother's bait (translation: packed lunch taken to work).

A certain French poet once claimed a warmed-up dinner was not worth much. If only he had tasted that second-day meal perhaps he would have changed his mind, but I have a suspicion he would turn up his nez at it and call for brandy snaps instead.

And he would be welcome to them.


AND FINALLY

We close this last issue of 2014 by sending all good wishes to our subscribers for the holidays and the new year. What will 2015 bring? Well, it's been said the person who guesses best is the best prophet. There's no guessing about our next appearance in your email in-box next year. The Orphan Scrivener will be there on February 15th.

See you then!
Mary R and Eric

who invite you to visit their home page, to be found 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, 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 visit Eric's blog at http://www.journalscape.com/ericmayer/ or perhaps pop over to our shadow identity M. E. Mayer's blog (largely devoted to reviews of Golden Age mysteries) at http://memayer.blogspot.com/ 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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