THE ORPHAN SCRIVENER -- ISSUE # NINETY-TWO -- 15 APRIL 2015

In common with numerous others, we spent most of the last two months trundling along from day to day hoping no new fresh weather hell would erupt. As this latest issue was composed, the grip of bitter cold suddenly began to dissolve on a foggy, drizzly day with the occasional honk as returning geese passed unseen overhead in low clouds. With winter more or less gone, Orphan Scrivener now takes up its task of chilling subscribers' blood. Read on!


ERIC'S BIT OR LITERATURE FOR THE LITTLE GRAY CELLS

Although Mary and I co-write mysteries, I grew up on science fiction. As soon as I could decipher something more complicated than a picture book I rocketed straight from The Cat in the Hat to Tom Swift Junior. During my school years I explored the galaxies, traveled in time, and tried to save the earth from alien invasions. Maybe I should have been studying my algebra instead. I entered college as a liberal arts major (presumably both astronauts and mad scientists need to have passed high school algebra) and my literary tastes broadened to include genres beyond science fiction, such as mysteries. These days I rarely read science fiction and when I do it is usually of mid-twentieth century vintage.

But has my taste in reading really evolved? The exotic creatures and locales of Dr Seuss are certainly science fictional. The world on a dust mote in Horton Hears a Who -- one of my favorites -- is reminiscent of the microscopic worlds encountered by the dwindling protagonist of Henry Hasse's He Who Shrank. Mystery is not so far removed from science fiction. Both are intellectual genres, focusing on the exercise of the little grey cells, as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot was wont to say, rather than on character study. Mysteries require the protagonist to work out a murder puzzle. Science fiction often involves the puzzles posed by technological advances or alien planets and races. What's more mind bending and ingenious, a time travel paradox or a locked room mystery?

Not surprisingly a lot of authors have moved between genres. Fredric Brown is well known for both. John D MacDonald wrote sf novels early in his career. Wilson Tucker started out with mysteries before moving to science fiction. Isaac Asimov produced traditional mystery puzzle stories (the Black Widowers Club) as well as novels featuring a robot detective. Just recently China Mieville won the Hugo award for best sf novel for his mystery The City and the City, which developed an idea I encountered originally in a Jack Vance's short story Ulan Dhor from The Dying Earth collection.

What got me thinking about this connection was reading back to back And On The Eighth Day (1964) by Ellery Queen and The Chain of Chance (1975) by Stanislaw Lem.

The latter is straight science fiction. In the near future a former astronaut is hired by a detective agency to help in an investigation of a case of mysterious deaths. Several victims became mad and committed suicide during their vacation in various Naples spas, apparently without reason. Due to certain similarities in the circumstances of the deaths the case is assumed to be a serial murder by poisoning, however it is never certain what (if any) real connection exists between the victims.

The novel follows all the conventions of a detective story. The protagonist interviews people, examines physical and circumstantial evidence, and uncovers the movements and backgrounds of the victims. Nevertheless, what Lem seems primarily interested in is not murder but rather an examination of probability theory and how it affects our perception of the world. And the solution, which is perfectly fairly clued, is based firmly on a knowledge of science.

Fascinating, but not for those looking for breath-taking suspense or heart breaking emotion.

And On The Eighth Day is, on the other hand, a traditional mystery, of sorts. What else would one expect? Starting back in the twenties Ellery Queen helped shape the genre's Golden Age and also founded Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine to which Mary, by herself, and the two of us in collaboration, have sold several stories over the years. Ellery Queen was the pseudonym of two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. Dannay largely plotted the Queen novels, and most of the writing was done by Lee.

For a time, perhaps because Lee had writer's block, Dannay depended on ghost writers to flesh out his plots. Among them were sf authors Theodore Sturgeon, Jack Vance, and Avram Davidson. And On The Eighth Day was written by Avram Davidson from a 66 page long Dannay outline. As the book cover reveals:

"It was the last thing that Ellery Queen ever expected to encounter. He was on his way from Los Angeles to New York. He took a wrong turn.

Suddenly there it was, a figure standing on the cliff above him. It was a man -- an old man dressed in a hooded brown robe. In one hand he carried a crooked staff, in the other a curiously shaped instrument, something like a trumpet. As Ellery got out of the Duesenberg and walked toward him, the old man turned his gaunt profile and jutting beard.

'The Word be with you.'

And thus began one of the most curious adventures that has ever befallen Ellery Queen."

To say the story is "curious" as compared to traditional early Ellery Queen efforts like The Roman Hat Mystery is putting it mildly. Set in a secret religious community in a lost valley in the southwestern desert, the book can be read as a religious allegory, or a social or utopian novel. Dannay stated that he conceived it after reading about the Dead Sea Scrolls and noting their parallels to the Gospels.

Although the book works as a detective novel with an interesting puzzle to be solved, it's little wonder that Dannay engaged a science fiction writer for the writing.

Since I've been contemplating literary genres that primarily engage the little grey cells I should probably try to tie things together and reach some conclusions. But the only conclusion that occurs is that despite everyone today clamoring for "character driven fiction" there remains such a thing as "idea driven fiction", and as often as not that's the sort I prefer.


NECESSARY EVIL or THE BSP TICKER

A mixed budget of news this time around and here it is!

REVEALING A COVER or TRUNDLING ALONG THE ROAD TO PUBLICATION

Every Friday Poisoned Pen Press posts cover reveals on its blog, and the one for Murder In Megara appeared there on 3rd April. Point your clickers here for that and further details of our protagonist's eleventh adventure:

http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/poisoned-pen-press-cover-reveal-friday-april-3rd-2015/

Printed ARCs are now going out for review. Those who prefer a digital ARC will not be overlooked, being as it will also be uploaded to Net Galley in due course. Stay tuned!

BEAUTY IN THE EYE OF THE WRITER or DEEP-SET EYES AND A PERFECTLY SHAPED HEAD

And speaking of the Poisoned Pen Press blog, Mary's next contribution chunters on with a few thoughts on how older novels unconsciously record contemporary ideas about feminine beauty. Here's the URL, which will leap into life on 18th March at:

http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/deep-set-eyes-perfectly-shaped-head/

Before then, and indeed afterwards, subscribers may care to check the PPP blog for musings on all manner of topics by numerous Poisoned Pen authors, linked from PPP's news page at:

http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/category/news-and-blog/

STILL RABBITING ON ABOUT BLOGS or THE SHADOW REVIEWS

Our shadow identity M. E. Mayer also has a blog, largely devoted to reviews of Golden Age and classic mysteries. Its most recent post concerns The Paternoster Ruby by Charles E. Walk, in which Inspector Knowles Smith remarks he believes "the reader will unhesitatingly admit, by this time, that the Page affair presented many remarkable aspects". As indeed it does. MEM's thoughts may be perused at:

http://memayer.blogspot.com/2015/04/review-paternoster-ruby-charles-e-walk.html

FREE ETEXTS AHOY! or RECENT ADDITIONS TO OUR GOLDEN AGE LIBRARY

At the beginning of April we added another six novels to our Golden Age library, which offers links to free collections and mysteries of that ilk, as well as to classic mysteries and the occasional thriller. This latest batch included three Ashton Kirk titles and another Dr Thorndyke novel, making over 600 available via this page:

http://www.home.earthlink.net/~maywrite/golden.htm


MARY'S BIT or A PEBBLE IN THE WELL

As a city gal living in the country it took me a while to come to grips with the dark mysteries of septic tanks and personal wells.

In fact, the first time I heard the noise of the water pressure being adjusted -- the pressure tank lives behind the fridge, itself tucked under the stairs -- I was startled, but now its regular cycle has faded into general background noise. Except during bitter cold spells when lack of its sharp click on and off means the water line has frozen. We only had one episode of that this past winter, but it meant Mr Maywrite had to be in the crawl space with his heat gun, unfreezing the line at two in the morning and a wind chill in the minus low 20*s.

Living in a city, the only time I recall the Reed household losing water was in childhood, a problem solved by fetching water in a bucket from a standpipe situated in a courtyard in the next street. However, a few years ago we had no water on tap for two days and it was not the result of the occasional loss of power when the well pump cannot work.

Thoreau declared water is the only drink for a wise man and I say that's all very well, but first the wise man has to have access to a source of Adam's ale.

So we called in a wise man, which is to say a well wallah, who established the well pump had just up and died. Normally restoring our water would have been a one day job but he arrived in a vehicle with superstructure so tall it could not pass under our power line, so he had to return the following day with a smaller lorry. Even then it only just cleared the line. Indeed, when it left it took a few branches away with it, caught from trees grown sufficiently over the years to overshadow the well head.

For the benefit of British subscribers I should mention such wells are nothing like the traditional type featuring a wall around the mouth and a hand-turned windlass to raise and lower the bucket, reminding me of the much larger and therefore donkey-powered well in that rattling good yarn Moonfleet. No, local well heads are discreet, being a length of capped pipe sticking up a foot or so, with their electrical doings lurking out of sight in their watery depths. In some ways a bucket and windlass would be a better arrangement as it would continue to provide water when the electricity went off since it wouldn't have a pump to conk out or indeed a line into the house to freeze, but there it is.

At one point during operations our wallah dropped a tiny pebble into the well and then, by listening for how long it took for a small splash to be heard, told us he estimated its depth to be about a hundred or so feet. And once the old pump was hauled up he was able to reveal by consulting the coding on it was approximately thirty years old. They certainly built them to last in those days!

Let's hope the new pump lasts as long.


AND FINALLY

Speaking of dark mysteries, the next issue of Orphan Scrivener will cast a shadow on subscribers' in-boxes on June 15th, by which time we shall probably be complaining about the terrible heat.

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 pop over to our shadow identity M. E. Mayer's blog (largely devoted to reviews of Golden Age and classic 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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