December's cold, grey, early-sunset days are cheered by more than one festival and of the ancient Roman jamborees, Saturnalia (whose revels begin on December l7th) is probably one of the best known -- as well as the jolliest. Commemorating mankind's long gone Golden Age, when peace and harmony prevailed under the rule of the agricultural god Saturn, Saturnalia was a time when social order was turned topsy turvy. Celebrations included gift-giving, feasting, gambling, singing and general carryings-on (sometimes of a most licentious nature). As part of the traditional reversal of roles during the week-long festival, masters waited on household slaves during meals and there's an echo of this custom even today in the British tradition whereby senior officers in the armed forces serve Christmas dinner to the ranks. Similarly, surgeons and consultants appear on the wards on Christmas Day to ceremonially carve festive turkeys (with much humorous patter about blunt scalpels and bird innards) for those patients unfortunate enough to be spending the holiday in hospital.

Although "Golden Age" means something very different to mystery fans, we believe there can never be too many festivals and since this Orphan Scrivener is bigger than usual, we'll delay you no longer -- so with the traditional shout of Io Saturnalia, let the fun begin!


Did you believe in Santa Claus?

I did. I can't remember exactly what it felt like to live in a world where a bearded guy in a red suit delivered presents with the help of flying reindeer. I do know that it was a very different world than the one I'm living in now.

It's hard to understand how I could have believed such nonsense, but then I believed in the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy too, and they're even more incredible than Santa.After all, how could the Tooth Fairy get those quarters under my pillow without waking me up? That had to be magic!

Kids aren't out of touch with reality, they just take a more flexible approach to it. Robert Kavanaugh, a professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, explored "magical thinking" in a test involving an assistant, children aged 4 to 6 and an empty box. The assistant showed the children the box, then talked about a fox who lived in the box. When the assistant left the room some of the children, even though they knew the box was empty, began to hear the fox inside it and expected the imaginary creature to pop out momentarily.

My friends and I sometimes made up our own reality, in similar fashion. I remember particularly the Indian who was buried in the mossy mound at the base of the birch tree we could just make out, glimmering in the twilight, at the edge of the small patch of woods behind our homes. It was safe to poke at the grave during daylight but if anyone dared approach at night the Indian's outraged ghost would come flying out, all misty and amorphous and horrible, intent on doing whatever unnamable things ghosts do to the poor, foolish kids they catch.

Or so Johnny and I told Tommy one evening. Unfortunately, by the time the three of us had crept to within a few yards of the tree which glowed spookily in the gathering dark, Johnny and I were more convinced in the reality of our made-up phantom than Tommy was. The phosphorescent fox fire from some rotted limbs near the mound brought our invention to full, horrifying reality and sent us running for our lives.

Adults shape their own realities too but usually more subtly. However, writers and readers still experience some of childhood's outright reality molding. I'm not talking just about creating a bit of fiction or simply reading the words. When I'm contributing my part of the Byzantine mystery novels Mary and I have been writing, I find, to be successful, I have to work with a divided mind. A part of me has to remain outside the story, monitoring the words critically. Will they make sense to the reader, do they actually convey what I want them to? But another part has to be immersed in the tale, has to believe that John and his friends are real, that the ancient streets they walk and the dangers they face exist. If some corner of my brain doesn't believe in the story I'm making up, in the same way as most of my brain believed in Santa Claus when I was a kid, I can't make the writing come to life. Of course, readers also have to be willing to suspend their disbelief, to act as accomplices in the game for a few hours. I guess that's part of the deal writers and readers strike with each other.

Now, if I could only believe in Santa Claus again.


The old year departs bowed down with the longest Necessary Evil thus far. Much Has Happened since the last Orphan Scrivener was issued, so, trying to keep things to manageable length, we'll leap right into it.


And now for an announcement! On December l7th the first interview given by John the Eunuch will be published online in the Charlotte Austin Review Ltd John was recently grilled by the Review's Susan McBride, whom you'll know as author of the award-nominated mystery And Then She Was Gone; Overkill (second in her Maggie Ryan series) will appear in autumn 200l, by the way. Now, if you haven't seen the Review you're in for a treat -- under the guiding hand of its eponymous Editor-in-Chief, it's gained an international audience with visitors from more than 40 countries, but that's not really surprising given it already offers over 550 book reviews and more than 80 feature interviews as well as 22 columns. So do drop by to read John's thoughts on topics ranging from the life he would have led had he not been appointed Justinian's Lord Chamberlain to speculation on what society will be like in 2000.


Never mind about six, at the end of December we'll be a mere two degrees away from Ellis Peters and it's all Sue Feder's fault! You'll know her award-winning Magical Mystery Tour website, which at last count featured over 900 mystery reviews. Having founded the Ellis Peters Appreciation Society, Sue says she then cast her eyes around for another writer to torment but they all hid. So (as she puts it) to get even with a bunch of them all at once, she organised the Historical Mystery Appreciation Society, whose website is incorporated in the Magical Mystery Tour -- you'll find a link to it from the Tour's home page at: The December issue of Murder Past Tense, the quarterly journal of the HMAS, brings with it an interview we did with Ellen Healey, and thus we don with pride our Two Degrees From Ellis hats. Thanks, guys!


Recognised by Family PC Magazine as one of its Top l00 family sites, it's only been about four years since BookBrowser, The Guide for Avid Readers, was launched but already it's reached over 5,500 "pages" with (at last count) almost 5000 reviews from 25 reviewers -- not to mention reading lists and info on series and forthcoming titles. So we were honoured to be grilled recently by well-known mystery fan and reviewer Doris Ann Norris for BookBrowser (see: ) Appreciative thanks to BookBrowser owners Janet Lawson and Cindy Orr, as well as to Doris Ann, our interrogator.


And speaking of Doris Ann, her other hat is as Director of the Kaubisch Memorial Public Library in Fostoria, OH. This November the library's Youth Services Department held its annual Children's Book Week (celebrated from the l2th through the l8th). As part of the event, various officials, celebrities and authors were asked to contribute a few thoughts on a favourite book from childhood, why it was their favourite and what reading has meant in their lives and careers. Mr Rogers and a number of authors of both children's and adult books were among those who responded. We were lurking among them and our essays boldly revealed that our favourite childhood books were Little Women and The Wind In The Willows -- ah, but who chose which title? You'll have to check: to solve that particular mystery!


We've certainly been haunting libraries this past month or so, as One for Sorrow was discussed in December by a Philadelphia reading group, to whom thanks are also due. "Readers of the Lost Ark" has been in existence for five years now. Their particular interest is anthropological, archaeological or early historical mysteries. Meetings are the third Monday of the month, September to June, in the library of the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at 3260 South Street, Philadelphia, PA l9l04- 6324. Members include librarians, chemists, art historians, and teachers and cyber-members are welcome, although they'll miss out on lively discussions and the guilty pleasure of refreshments (usually candy and cookies) that are normally a forbidden activity in the library! The next meeting is on December 18. If you'd like to attend, contact Anita Fahringer at or (2l5) 898 l024 for details.


In closing, we'll mention that Twofer has received some really great reviews, (collected for perusal at:

Having already been asked once or twice, yes, we've begun writing the third novel, which will rejoice in the title of Three For A Letter (from the variant counting rhyme with which Mary grew up).It will be set partly on the country estate of Anatolius' Uncle Zeno. Zeno is an elderly scholar but also (as John has observed) a man of eclectic credulity. Alas, he has the misfortune to be involved in a celebration attended by the empress, during which things go very badly wrong -- and so John must undertake another investigation.


Speaking of eclectic credulity, this section is devoted to what interior decorating mavens always term an eclectic mix, or as others might say, it's a cornucopia of creative conceptions.

Ladies first, then. Since Lady Jennie Churchill costumed as Theodora was mentioned last time, it's only fair this time around to see that Justinian gets his due. Tayfun Oner has created a computer-generated portrait of the emperor, based upon the Ravenna mosaics. This is the younger Justinian, looking enigmatic but there's a harder edge to his gaze as well. See if you agree -- it's at: Justinian's portrait is part of the Byzantium l200 website, which is devoted to reconstructions of the architectural bare bones of Byzantine buildings in Istanbul in l200. While this was several centuries after John's time, there are a number of places and edifices he knew, including the Chalke, the Milion and various forums. There are also several photos of a very impressive scale model of the Great Palace at: which gives an idea of the crowded landscape through which John, Anatolius, Felix and the others moved.

Constantinople's ever present stylites (some of whom play unfortunate although important parts in Two For Joy) were not of course able to move very far, reminding me that I was recently pointed towards Tennyson's poem about St Simeon Stylites

More than somewhat gritty, it describes Simeon's doubts as to his worthiness and along the way mentions the mortifications of the flesh he practiced before ascending his pillar. It would be interesting to discover why Tennyson wrote a poem about this saintly stylite, so if anyone has a clue, do let us know..


200l is not far away now, with the turn of the year hoving ever more rapidly into view. As it happens, we keep up the New Year's Eve custom of first- footing, and so it has been years since my brother has actually seen the new year in indoors, for being a dark-haired man his is the mandatory foot which must be first over the threshold after the new year has been rung in. So he's always thrust outside a minute or so before midnight tolls out the old year, and then (carrying a lump of coal, a coin, and a piece of cake to represent good fortune for the coming twelve months) he's let back inside as soon as January lst has safely arrived.

But it's a good job the First Footer doesn't have to hang about outside until the first Orphan Scrivener of 200l shows up, since it will trundle into your email in-box on February l5th, somewhat late for New Year celebrations. However, February l5th was the date upon which another festival, Lupercalia, was anciently observed by the Romans. The Luperci (male youths dressed only in the skins of recently sacrificed goats) raced through the streets as part of ceremonial purifications carried out during February (februare, to purify or expiate). As they went about, they struck female passersby with strips of goat-skin in a traditional fertility ritual, apparently in connection with, or inspired by, the goat's lecherous reputation.

While this issue of Orphan Scrivener will mercifully arrive sans goats, unfortunately it cannot cross your cyber thresholds clutching coal, coin or cake. Nonetheless, it does carry with it our hopes for a good new year for you all. May it be healthy and happy -- and we'll see you again in February.

Best wishes
Mary and Eric
whose home page lurks about at:

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

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