One of life's greatest mysteries is how quickly time rolls by, for it hardly seems five minutes since the last Orphan Scrivener was sent out into the aether. And here we are again already, turning up like the proverbial bad penny to darken your in-box.

Mind you, some mysteries eventually do get solved and one particularly vexed question has at last been clarified.

Some time ago we mentioned that we'd long been searching for the meaning of obelist as in Obelists Fly High, C. Daly King's l935 "locked room" mystery set aboard a lengthy flight. Since we wrote about the book, by the way, we've found references to a couple other obelist titles by Daly King -- Obelists at Sea (l932) and Obelists En Route (l934). Anyhow, our quest ended recently when a correspondent kindly provided the answer and we're happy to be able to pass along this fascinating piece of information. Obelists are people who mark passages they think significant in mystery novels (with an obelus, n.b) and Daly King's novel makes such people "fly high" both in a figurative and in a literal sense. As our correspondent points out, his readers should remember the appendix of clues at the end, which mark corresponding passages as an obelist would.

And now that one mystery's been cleared up, we'll proceed to jot a few lines explaining a couple of others.


As we've mentioned elsewhere, the title of John's new adventure is the third line from the fortune telling rhyme with which I grew up in north-east England. Three for a letter is its only deviation from the more traditional listing, where one is for sorrow, two foretells joy, three is a girl, four means a boy, five promises silver, six predicts gold and seven whispers of a secret never to be told -- the last line being rather sinister, I've always thought.

However, when folk started asking me whether three was really for a letter I began wondering if I had unconsciously made it up or possibly had somehow managed to misremember that particular line. Could it have been three for a setter or a debtor or possibly even a fetter? The last would certainly be appropriate for John, born a free man and then due to a whim of Fortuna's forced to spend several years in slavery -- a period that will be addressed in Fourfer, which will also reveal how (among other things) John won back his freedom and first met Felix and Isis.

But returning to Threefer, after a little research I was relieved to find that three for a letter is indeed known by others, including a writer for the Boston Globe. So apparently I'd recalled it correctly and hadn't made it up.

There were a few surprises along the way. For example. there's a ten-line version in which a hug (eight) and a kiss (nine) strongly suggest the romantic mystery sub genre as does its line for ten, which is for somebody you miss. Along similar lines, another rhyme disagrees about three meaning a letter, boldly asserting that in fact it represents a wedding.

Although the rhyme is traditionally counted out after spying crows, ravens or birds of similar dark plumage (commonly magpies) a rhyme exactly matching the one I know was mentioned in connection with counting sneezes -- perhaps a custom that originated with someone allergic to feathers?

Another variant states that a single bird foretells something bad while two promise luck -- although not what sort. It goes on to firmly declare a trio means health and four promises wealth. Seeing as it then concludes by revealing that five predicts sickness and six death, it's practically the plot for a mini mystery all by itself.

Finally, there's a version confirming three is for a letter but linking four with a beau. Perhaps they were love letters? While the source couldn't recall what five and six represented, seven was said to be for a stranger in the lane so I think we can probably agree that the suggestive juxtaposition of letters and a beau with an unknown person advancing down a lane hints at all sorts of interesting goings-on.


And speaking of interesting goings-on -- or at least we hope so -- we were recently grilled by Suite l0l's Lorie Ham. If you're interested in a few thoughts on such diverse topics as why for us writing is never just business and which are our best scrivening hours, point your clickers at and All Will Be Revealed.


I don't think of myself as a "cat person" but cats have always contrived to be part of my life and even as I type, Sabrina, our current resident feline, is balanced on my knee, competing for the keyboard. There's nothing quite like the unexpected caress of a cold, wet cat nose against the back of the hand to inspire one to write -- about cats at any rate.

Sometimes I think Sabrina wants to paw out a message but when I've allowed her to tap on the keys she generally just writes: "hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh." Maybe that means something in feline speak.

At other times I've wondered if Sabrina's encouraging us to create a wily cat detective. If so, I regret to say she isn't much of a model. Late one evening, a couple of months ago, a visiting field mouse decided to venture out into the middle of our office. Calling up all of her street smarts, Sabrina pounced directly in front of the venturesome rodent. Separated by no more than a whisker -- or less, Sabrina having unusually long whiskers -- they proceeded to stare at each other until the mouse turned its back and strolled off insolently to escape down the hole by the radiator. This routine was repeated a few more times before the mouse decided to call it a day.

While I'm not in favor of violence, I can't say that a cat who doesn't know what to do with a mouse inspires much confidence in the ability of such animals to solve murders. But then, perhaps the mouse was innocent.

Even though we haven't yet written about detecting cats, we have given Sabrina, and her erstwhile friend Rachel, cameos in our mystery novels. The mangy black cemetery cat in One For Sorrow was "played" by Rachel, who also appeared in Two For Joy and Three For A Letter as Tripod, the beggar Pulcheria's three-legged companion. Sabrina, disguised with stripes, was the small and suitably timid cat at the Inn of the Centaurs in the first book, and subsequently frequented the Great Palace grounds as well as the estate of Anatolius' eccentric Uncle Zeno in books two and three. So if you were wondering "who were those masked cats?" now you know.

If you'd like to read more about the cats in our lives, try these essays at our web site:

Jean Paul Cat --
Rachel --
It Wasn't the Cat --


A Scrivener subscriber wrote last month to tell us she had seen a set of curse tablets at the unfortunately now closed Antioch Revealed exhibition put on by the Baltimore Museum of Art. This was particularly interesting to us because one such tablet brings John to investigate odd events at a country estate in his most recently published short story adventure (And All That He Calls Family in Mike Ashley's anthology The Mammoth Book of More Historical Whodunnits). If you're curious about what these malevolent creations look like, there's a photo of one linked from Harvard Magazine's fascinating article about the exhibition (which includes a description of how curse tablets were intended to work) at

And speaking of curse tablets, the next Orphan Scrivener will wing into your in-box on April l5th -- the very day on which many US residents will be hunched over their yellow tablets trying to finish doing the calculations for their tax returns. We'll take it as read that even the most genteel will feel compelled to utter a curse or two during that ghastly process.

See you then!

Best wishes
Mary and Eric
whose home page hangs out at

Therein you'll find the usual suspects plus an interactive game as well as an on-line jigsaw puzzle (at least for those who have java-enabled browsers) featuring One For Sorrow's boldly scarlet cover. For those new to the subscription list there's also the Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned!

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