We're writing this as autumn colours leaves deep gold, rich ruby or lemon yellow and maples flare like scarlet beacons on the hills. But the sunshine is watery and the shadows lie long and blue, not only reminding us that winter will soon be here but also that the last Orphan Scrivener was issued in the brazen days of high summer. How quickly the past two months have galloped past.

Speaking of galloping, on October l5th the ancient Romans honoured Mars with the Equus October festival, during which a two-horse chariot race was held. The right-hand equine of the winning team was sacrificed to the god, a left-handed compliment to be sure, but it's been suggested that as the horse was noble, strong and newly victorious it was considered a fitting offering for Mars. In a curious postscript, teams then contested for the sacrificial horse's head, which the winners publicly displayed in their part of town. And now, changing horses in mid-stream, we'll race ahead with this newsletter.


What a wonderful sight it must have been when Zenobia,Queen of Palmyra, made her grand entrance. Resplendent in embroidered gold tissue garments sewn with emeralds, diamonds, rubies, and other jewels, set off by a lavishly embroidered green velvet trailing train decorated with more gems in a lotus flower motif -- not to mention a golden crown encrusted with diamonds, festooned with pearls and accented with ostrich plumes -- in a word, or actually three, Zenobia eclipsed Theodora.

A daring move indeed, you may be saying, especially considering new arrivals at Justinian's court were doubtless discreetly advised that it would be unwise for them to (reversing metaphors) outshine the imperial couple -- and especially Theodora, a woman of peppery temperament to say the least. Indeed, Zenobia might have lived long enough to regret her display of expensive finery, but fortunately the outfit just described was in fact donned by the Duchess of Devonshire to merely play the part of Zenobia, and that only for one night.

For the duchess was hostess of a costumed ball held at Devonshire House in London on 2nd July l897. It's fair to say that her gathering of the creme de la creme of society was one that would have competed on an equal footing with any jamboree organised at the Constantinople court -- while being much less nerve-racking for its gilded guests.

One of several hundred blue-blooded attendees at the ball was Winston's mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, née Jennie Jerome (born in Amity Street, New York, next down from Congress Street where Eric lived while attending college). Lady Jennie decided to go as Theodora and her costume was accordingly based upon the Ravenna mosaic portrait of the empress. Thus her beautifully sewn garments were just as heavily embroidered and lavishly ornamented, and look equally uncomfortable to wear, as may be seen by pointing your clicker HERE . These photos of Lady Jennie as Theodora are among images of numerous of the costumed guests, including the redoubtable Duchess of Devonshire herself, forming part of the Lafayette Negative Collection in London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

In an aside, the website mentioned also provides a detailed description of the plot of Victorien Sardou's elaborate play THEODORA, which debuted in Paris in l884 with Sarah Bernhardt in the title role. Scenes are set in and under the Hippodrome as well as at Justinian's court and mystery aficionados will be interested to hear that the play features a novel murder weapon, Theodora's golden hair-pin. Having used the hair-pin to stab a man to death, she tells Justinian she did it because the man had insulted her -- not the real reason at all, needless to say.

Returning to our muttons (as Sardou's fellow countrymen so colourfully say) I must confess that upon reading The Times' detailed description of some of the costumes I found myself wondering why the Duchess of Sutherland attended the event as Charlotte Corday, assassin of Jean-Paul Marat. Hers was a modest get-up indeed, consisting of a plain red gown and a muslin cap adorned with a tricolour rosette.

On a woo woo note, The Times reported that supper for the glittering throng was served in a huge garden tent hung with Louis XIV tapestries depicting Roman scenes. While particulars of these scenes are unfortunately not given, doubtless they were easy to see by the newfangled electric lights attached to garlands of flowers festooned around the tent walls. The gardens, through which guests strolled until the early hours of the following morning, were also illuminated, ensuring none of the distinguished revellers ran the risk of falling into a decorative garden pond -- unlike the barbaric Sir Thomas in ONE FOR SORROW.


We were recently honoured to be listed in Willetta Heising's Mystery Series Week 2000 pocket calendar -- we're lurking about in the entry for October 5. Over three hundred mystery series linked to more than a hundred historical events are mentioned in its eighty pages, and it's stuffed with interesting facts and trivia. And there's more! Title lists are given for every author appearing therein. You'll find the calendar in libraries and bookstores and you can also download it HERE

Willetta tells us that authors, publishers and readers are welcome to suggest a historical event with a mystery series tie-in for the 200l calendar by sending an e-mail to Next year's Mystery Series Week dates are October 7th to l3th.

The paperback edition of ONE FOR SORROW is available now from Poisoned Pen Press or your favorite bookstore. Its striking scarlet jacket provides a nice contrast to the lush green and gold cover of TWO FOR JOY, which will be out in a week or three.

In Twofer, John and his friends find themselves embroiled in a strange web of events that begin when a stylite spontaneously combusts atop his pillar. John's investigations into the matter are hampered by his old philosophy tutor and a heretical Christian holy man whose ultimatums threaten to topple Justinian and destroy the empire. The cast includes a runaway wife, not to mention servants, soldiers, and mendicants as well as the venomous court page Hektor and a wealthy landowner or two -- plus John's bete noire, Empress Theodora. Old favourites Isis, Felix, Peter, and that headstrong young man Anatolius also play important roles. You can read an excerpt on .


Most readers and writers would probably agree that the history in a historical mystery should be accurate. If your mystery plot depends, say, upon Oliver Cromwell, Jack the Ripper and Gertrude Stein being contemporaries (heaven forbid!) then you're writing alternative history. Unfortunately the question of accuracy is rarely so simple. The historical record, not to mention common sense, would indicate that Queen Victoria didn't hunt Jack down in her spare time, let alone by posing as a member of a traveling circus, but then again maybe the historians missed that. The trick to writing imaginative historical mysteries is keeping just under the radar of the historians.

There is definitely some flying room there. A little research, especially reading the footnotes, quickly reveals that historians sometimes don't know quite as much as it appears. What looks like a detailed drawing often turns out, on examination, to be a few scattered dots of facts connected into a coherent pattern by the historian based on his general expertise and personal theories. Another historian might connect those same dots into an altogether different picture. In TWO FOR JOY we mention the pagan philosophers who fled to foreign shores when Justinian shut down Plato's Academy. The story is often alluded to, but is actually mentioned only briefly in a handful of sources.

But sources also can be untrustworthy. Consider Procopius who, while in Justinian's service, wrote panegyrics to the emperor but in his posthumously discovered SECRET HISTORY excoriated him as a rapacious demon without a face. As a writer, when faced with such inconsistency, I prefer to choose whatever suits my purpose! That might sound like cheating but, I suspect, historians do much the same thing in a somewhat more sophisticated way.

It must also be remembered that surviving records can be spotty. (Not surprising after l500 years -- I have a hard enough time keeping track of the mailing list for this newsletter for two months). Much of what we know well, we know by chance and what survives is not always what we would expect. During the life of Justinian, Cassiodorus wrote a massive GOTHIC HISTORY. Strangely, those twelve volumes have vanished but a short abridgment, THE GETICA, by Jordanes, probably made during Cassiodorus' lifetime, survives.

I'm not arguing that historical mystery writers have a license to be inaccurate but rather that they should take advantage of the many available opportunities to be creative. To put the matter into legal terms, the fiction writer's burden of proof is the opposite of the historian's. Historians must prove what they say is true while historical writers are allowed to say just about anything that can't be proved false.


We'll now run amuck and mix civilizations and eras to close by paraphrasing James V of Scotland's gloomy prophecy concerning the future of the Scottish crown -- we arrived wi' horses and we'll depart wi' horses. That's because the next Orphan Scrivener will trot in on December l5th, the later of two Consualia festivals (the other was observed on August 2lst). Honouring Consus, Roman god of underground grain bins and later of secret counsel, it featured mule races -- although working horses got the day off. So enjoy your days off and we'll thunder into your email box in eight weeks.

Best wishes,
Mary and Eric

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