Who can blame the groundhog who resides in dead fall just beyond our back lawn for not bothering to even get out of bed on February 2nd? Even before the fateful day it was obvious this winter would be more difficult for many than most.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson smote 'is bloomin' lyre and sang of snow announced by trumpets in the sky (presumably he meant the gusts howling around habitations in advance of a storm) and the frolic architecture created by the night work of a mad wind, he pretty much described the current state of a fair swathe of the east coast. We suspect sales of board games must rise incrementally in this type of weather, not least because they do not require batteries -- and while Emerson went on to picture storm-isolated householders sitting around the fire, cut off from friends unable to visit, he did not reckon on the magick of the Internet bringing this latest issue of Orphan Scrivener to your desk. That being so, read on!


Plots are sometimes difficult beasts to handle.

Writers organise a suitable framework and then start hanging on the tinsel encrustations. Provided they can be woven into the fabric of the plot without making big bumps in its smooth surface, all goes well. But what about when the writer wishes to introduce what seems extraordinary or unlikely threads into the picture?

Our method is to keep to recorded history, but in cases where there's no clear record we feel free to extrapolate from what is known, provided of course we don't violate the physical laws of the universe.

Admittedly some events in John's adventures might appear to do just that yet as we see it they are not in fact impossible.

Take the automatons playing important roles in Three For A Letter. The method of operation of certain of the wonders petrifying Peter when he visited Zeno's villa are described in Hero of Alexandria's Pneumatics, notably the automatically opening doors, the wine-dispensing satyr, the mechanical owl that gave Peter such a shock, and the archer playing a part in the rustics' jamboree. Not to mention the large water pump, that useful prototype of a fire engine fitted with hoses, when the villa caught fire.

Not much is known about Hero but since the third century CE is the latest date suggested for him our theory is his work on these unusual and striking devices was available for consultation, experimentation, and improvement by the era in which our series is set.

Nor were we necessarily clashing with the historical record. A Lombard ambassador who visited Constantinople in the middle of the 10th century described an imperial audience. He mentions that close the throne there was a gilded tree on whose branches mechanical birds twittered, while nearby a pair of automaton lions roared and lashed their tails. Even more amazing, the throne ascended and descended. If pressed for explanations we'd guess the latter operated by a system of compressed air. Instructions for making singing mechanical birds are included in the Pneumatics, although they depend upon running water but doubtless Byzantine ingenuity overcame that. Perhaps an unmentioned fountain in the reception hall would provide the key to the mystery? The mechanical lions are more problematic but someone was able to construct them!

As for the artificial working hand Zeno's artificer of automatons was attempting to perfect for his own use. A prosthetic hand is recorded in Pliny the Elder's Natural History, written some centuries before John's adventures. Pliny praised the Roman general Marcus Sergius, whose colourful life included escaping twice after being taken prisoner by Hannibal. The doughty Roman suffered a number of wounds in various campaigns, including the loss of his right hand, which was replaced by an iron imitation, enabling him to continue his military career while doubtless ruling his men with an iron fist.

We confess, however, the mechanical whale is our own invention, based on Hero's inventions and a bit of scribbling on the backs of envelopes.

Then there's the matter of John's brief flight to escape from inventor Avis' tower in Four For A Boy. We've all seen leaves falling to earth in slow swoops from side to side, part of our speculation on how such an incident could be accomplished. Beyond that the event had colourful parents. A passing reference to a suicide attempt when a Victorian woman jumped from a high place but survived her fall because her ample skirts belled out as she fell -- we take it somewhat after the fashion of a parachute -- was tied to an anecdote about scientist Archmed Celebi. Towards the middle of the 17th century he accomplished the astonishing feat of gliding across the Bosporos on artificial wings, launching himself from the Galata Tower in Constantinople. The sultan richly rewarded him -- but finding this demonstration dangerous he also exiled him to Algeria for reasons of state.

T'was ever thus.


This time around the ticker is ticking rather slowly but there's still news of import to pass along to subscribers.


It may sound odd but until we see the first review of a new novel we tend to be somewhat anxious. But once we've seen it, good or bad, we're happy to take the lumps of the literary life. In the case of Eighter, however, we were thrilled to see Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, whereupon we tap danced in delight around the office, much to the surprise and horror of the cat. Interested subscribers can read the review on this page:


Speaking of Eightfer, Blackstone Audiobooks are issuing it in tape, MP3CD, and CD formats. While the reader has not yet been announced, other details of this new offering from Blackstone can be perused by pointing your clicker at


We have learnt the Playaway Library is offering Blackstone's audiobook of Seven For A Secret as a preloaded digital audio player with earbuds, so you can take it with you when you're out or enjoy it at home without disturbing anyone else! Info about this edition is at


This winter has seemed particularly long. Is it because the snow and cold have synchronized perfectly to keep us housebound or just because I'm older? Perhaps there is a symmetry to it: when we're kids the summers seem to last forever. When we're old it is the winters that stretch out.

The temperatures have not been as extreme as they can get, although last month we endured back to back nights of zero and one degree below Fahrenheit. Too cold for me.

I've never got along with cold. Maybe it's because I'm skinny. I have no insulation. You've heard the expression chilled to the bone? Well, the chill doesn't have very far to go to get to my bones.

When I was growing up I only enjoyed winter in short spurts. Building a snowman in the yard was fun because I could race inside in a moment to get warm. And I needed to get warm and to dry off too. I think I ended up wetter from making snowmen than I did from swimming.

Ice skating, on the other hand, was torture because the pond where we usually skated wasn't near enough to the house for me to periodically thaw out. I could skate, if you define skating as being able to stay on your feet for ten seconds at a time. I would never have qualified for the Olympics, unless they started scoring fancy contortions executed on the way down to a perfect two-cheek landing.

Saying on my feet for ten seconds might have been enough of an accomplishment for me to enjoy skating but unfortunately I couldn't feel my feet for much more than nine seconds. As soon as I stepped onto the ice the cold climbed straight up into the metal blades of the skates and through the leather soles right into my flesh. And then my feet vanished, replaced by a vaguely swollen nothingness.

My fingers disappeared, for all intents and purposes, soon after my feet did. It's no fun trying to glide around the ice without feet, or to break your inevitable fall without hands. It was funny how I could see my gloves, apparently filled, yet I had the sensation that if I pulled the gloves off there'd be nothing there. Like the invisible man. Anyway, once I went down a few times I lost my knees too.

Then the wind started to gust. It's always windy in the middle of a frozen pond. And that was the end of my ears, no matter the muffs and woolen cap and hood. Oddly, I felt my ears burn before they froze off. They left in their place a throbbing headache. After that my nose started running, even though it didn't seem to be on my face any longer. I'd try to wipe my non-existent nose with a phantom hand. Naturally I'd miss, and there went my cheeks.

Once I was back home, in the warmth, all my missing body parts were gradually reattached, sewn back on, or so it felt, by thousands of stabbing needles of pain.

At least I know the recipe for perfect hot chocolate. Practically freeze to death, then add instant chocolate to steaming hot water.

These days my only winter sports are the downstairs run to the thermostat and freestyle shivering. You won't see those in the Olympics. I no longer lose my extremities but the propane bills make dollars vanish from our checking account so winter is still not entirely painless.


Speaking of bank accounts, the next issue of this newsletter will skulk into subscribers' in-boxes on April 15th, tax return day for American subscribers and so already a dark blot on their collective calendars. We're thinking of getting up a petition to have the ghastly date named Misery Loves Company Day.

See you then!
Mary R and Eric

who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line that is the web at There you'll discover the usual suspects, including more personal essays, lists of author freebies and mystery-related newsletters, Doom Cat (an interactive game written by Eric), and our growing pages of links to free e-texts of classic and Golden Age mysteries, ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural. There's also an Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned! Intrepid subscribers may also wish to pop over to Eric's blog at

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