Not long after the last Orphan Scrivener appeared, a well-nourished groundhog was observed tap dancing across the frozen snow covering the lawn, leaving no marks as he passed. We debated whether he had intended to appear to warn us of six more weeks of winter but overslept, was looking for a mate, or had got out of bed to seek more edibles.

We soon learnt the answer, for the following week featured two minor storms back to back, followed by a ferocious nor'easter.

While Hesiod, to the best of our knowledge, had nothing to say about groundhogs, he was right on the nomismata when he advised the public to avoid fifth days on the ground such days were grim and unkind. And since the date of this newsletter is five times three, the omens would seem to predict three times as much grimness. It can't all be related to your tax returns, so as a service to subscribers we advise readers of a nervous disposition to peruse this issue no further. The rest may care to read on see if the oracle was right....


People were writing historicals practically before there was history. The Iliad was an historical. The Trojan War took place -- if it did take place -- centuries before Homer told his tale. Recently I read The Private Life of Helen of Troy, a book about the aftermath of the Trojan War (12th or 13th century B.C) as recounted in the Iliad (8th century B.C.) as seen through the eyes of John Erskine during the Roaring twenties (20th century A.D.).

A nearly historical historical about an even older historical.

The Private Life of Helen of Troy was the number one bestseller of 1926. It is available for free online at Project Gutenberg Australia. As with many bestsellers, the subject is scandal. Helen has returned from Troy with Menelaus but is unrepentant and intent on justifying her flight with Paris. The whole affair was ancient history even when Erskine wrote about it, but he depicts Helen as a modern woman -- circa 1926. As a description from the time said:

"...the amazing popular novel that had all America peeping through the keyhole of the past to get the low-down on the first flapper wife!"

Flapper, perhaps, but a philosophical flapper who argues interminably in favor of living a life of reckless abandon and passion without ever displaying so much as a spark of either. Helen's legendary beauty is mentioned but what seems more important is her ability to talk everyone in the household into submission. Let's just say Erskine's Helen is not exactly Betty Boop. The book is funny, though, if you like black humor.

John Erskine was an educator, musician, and author who grew up in Weehawken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan. I lived in Weehawken for a few months while I was going to law school. Fred Astaire and sister Adele also spent time there, none of which has anything to do with the Trojan War, although Weehawken, like Troy, is famous for its towers. Well, its water tower. You can see it here:

I wonder, did the similarity occur to Erskine? I never heard anyone mention the topless towers of Weehawken.

What surprised me more than Erskine being from Weehawken (I'm always surprised when it turns out someone is from Weehawken) was that the book could have topped the bestseller lists. It is a most peculiar novel. Aside from a couple of pages at the end, it consists of nothing but dialog, literally. There is no narrative. No description. Each chapter is pure conversation, mostly characters arguing over their views about life, society, and ethics. This was the 1920's but the style owes more to Plato than F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In 1927 the book was made into a film directed by Alexander Korda. Not surprising for a bestseller, until you consider that it was a silent film. Think about it. A silent film of a book containing only dialog. No action. People standing around having long, meandering, philosophical conversations. How do you make a silent film of that?

I suppose it is impossible to know exactly, because only 27 to 30 minutes of the original 87 minutes -- portions from the first and last reels -- still exist, preserved by the British Film Institute and unavailable to the public.

It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1928, the first year of the awards, in the category Best Title Writing. That's not a category that makes the Oscars television broadcast. Actually, it doesn't exist these days. Talkies were on the way in and that award was not given out again.

While one might imagine that those titles must have been awfully long to do any justice to the convoluted debates in the book, the reality seems to be that the filmmakers conveniently tossed out the chat and showed the Trojan War and assorted off-stage action that was only discussed from afar. Not to mention just making things up. Much more Roaring Twenties.

The Variety review from January 1, 1927 says:

"Helen [based on the novel by John Erskine] is all comedy. Satirizing ancient myth in general and Helen's affairs particularly, the titles are topical, while the music is mainly based on pop dance tunes. Wheeling the giant wooden horse inside the gates of Troy is accomplished to the strains of 'Horses, Horses, Horses', etc.

"The film kids the husband-wife complex throughout, the king, following the conquest of Troy, making a beeline for Helen's dress-maker to destroy the shop. Meanwhile, he has been trying to go fishing since nine o'clock. When it looks as if Helen is about to take another vacation with her second prince, the king is convinced he's going to get in his trip, and that finishes the picture.

"No battles and no slow spots. The action is lively all the way, with Maria Corda in various stages of slight clothing."

Or as the advertisements of the day put it:

"It took over a year and cost over a million dollars to bring Helen and her playmates to the screen. Hundreds of beautiful women---gorgeous clothes---dazzling pageants of breath-taking splendor..."

Believe me, in the book there are no dress shops, no talk about fishing, nowhere near hundreds of beautiful women, and the Trojan War has been over for years. Apparently the film was based solely on the book's title.

A shame. I kind of liked the idea of trying to do a silent film of the actual book. Conversation is not entirely devoid of drama. Imagine Helen's expression of horror and pity when she's told the great Agamemnon has been found dead in his own palace, murdered by his wife Clytemnestra.

Title card: "The poor son-of-a-bitch."

Did I mention they should have hired F. Scott Fitzgerald to write the titles?

I still think you need sound to film the novel correctly. I don't know enough about movies to suggest a director. Woody Allen? Diane Keaton as Helen? How about John Waters? Divine as Helen? Too bad Andy Warhol wasn't around for the silent film era. Never mind those hundreds of beautiful women. (Or Edie Sedgwick as Helen). He might stuck to the book and made the film using nothing but titles, with no pictures at all. The audience would have sat in the darkened theater and read the book. Did anyone ever try that?

Or maybe someone should just do a modern update with Helen returning to Weehawken, where she dances on the water tower with Fred Astaire.


The BSP ticker is unspooling at a vast rate of knots this time around, so let's get right to the skinny!


In the last newsletter we mentioned Blackstone Audio is issuing an audiobook of Eightfer but at the time the narrator was still to be announced. We now hear it's Simon Prebble. Although PPP is certainly unflagging in its efforts on behalf of its authors, with Eightfer currently available in hard cover, paperback, large print, tape, MP3CD, and CD formats, subscribers would be well advised to ignore Dame Rumour's tattle to the effect John's latest adventure will next appear in a semaphore edition.


Poisoned Pen Press is about to start work on Webcon II, planned for November 6th this year. If a subscriber would like to volunteer to help out, please contact Rob Rosenwald at for more information. Registration is not yet open, but we will again be helping organise this second virtual jamboree so we'll be posting occasional updates on what's going on. You Have Been Warned!


Speaking of Webcons, a number of video and audio presentations from the first event were recorded and are now archived at If you'd like pdfs of our contributions to the electronic goody bag -- the Literary Rag Bag (an e-book collection of favourite essays from Orphan Scrivener), the first chapters of Onefer, Sixfer, and Sevenfer, and/or Mary's Tom, Dick, and Harassment: Naming Your Characters essay, jot us a line and we'll email whichever you request.


We're currently trundling around the Web on our first mini blog tour, talking about topics all over the landscape. Here are our ports o' call so far:

The Story Behind The Story series on Jeff Kingston Pierce's Rap Sheet blog recently ran our essay about how John came to be, why we downplay his condition, and reflections on more than ten years of writing about our protagonist, among other topics. For the skinny point your clickers to the April 5th entry at Jeff's blog:

Early in March Janet Rudolph's Partners in Crime blog featured our co-written contribution on, well, co-writing, and all we can say is Gilbert and Sullivan would never forgive us. Tune up your piano, swing over to:


And now, sweeping open the kinema screen curtains to display trailers for forthcoming attractions....

Mary's April 26th contribution to Maggie Bishop's Guest Blogger Monday over at the Dames of Dialogue blog will reveal Mrs Beeton's snarking on the topic of curry powder, garnished with dueling recipes for same, as can be seen in a week or so at

A couple of days later Mary will pop up at Kaye Barley's Meanderings and Musings blog on April 29th with thoughts about familiar locations in films or on TV (Get Carter, anyone?), not to mention a line or two about a favourite and oft overlooked British thriller starring the lovely Jean Simmons and Trevor Howard.


While it's nothing to do with triremes being rowed at high speed around the Mediterranean, we reckon it's one of the biggest advances in publishing since Gutenberg first test drove his printing press. Intending reviewers can now obtain electronic ARCs of Poisoned Pen Press books via NetGalley by going to and signing up. Once approved, they'll be able to access PPP ARCs. Can't say fairer -- or get galleys faster -- than that!


Conversations at Casa Maywrite often take odd turnings off the main highway into narrow, rutted side roads leading to strange destinations best avoided after nightfall, even if you're caught in a heavy shower and the car's just broken down within sight of a mysterious mansion where the master is having one of his jamborees.

In this particular instance a shower was involved, though of the indoor type.

Preparing for same and reading the label on my brand new bottle of soy and almond milk body wash I observed to Eric I'd like to know what was wrong with calling it liquid soap, given that was essentially what it was. Admittedly liquid soap seems to suggest that raw, reddish, carbolic chunky stuff put through a mincer and water added, the whole vigorously stirred -- well, it suggests it to me anyhow, but then I was the gal in English class who leapt from oranges to William Shakespeare in four moves.

In any event, since the topic had been raised the burning question was since industry strives to be efficient, why not use coconut milk? Just puncture the shell et voila, a good substitute ingredient. Saves all that messing about grinding bushels of tiny almonds. Would not the time and motion wallahs be thrilled?

"'ery 'ikely" Eric agreed around his toothbrush

"Ever considered how useful coconuts are?" I mused. "Is there any other tree giving so much? It's a one-stop natural rival to those enormous box stores springing up all over the place. Why, it even provides people with invisible horses!"

"'You mean by banging half shells together to get the sound effect of galloping hooves?" came the reply.

"Right! And that's not the half of it. When you stop to think--"

"It's not a herd of runaway horses then?"

"I shall ignore that remark. As I was saying, when you stop to think about it, coconuts are more versatile than a tap dancing Broadway chorus!"

Eric pointed out coconuts were a lot less noisy as well.

By then I was well away, although not on an invisible horse. "I can see it now! You may get sick of a monotonous diet, but so long as you have a grove of coconut palms, you've got coconut water to drink and its flesh to eat or dry for later consumption -- hmmm, I could just eat one of those chewy coconut haystacks of our childhood! And you could use the shell's fibre to make matting and sacks and ropes, not to mention those old fashioned doormats so hard to find these days."

"Especially on a tropical island." Eric agreed, putting away his toothbrush.

A few minutes of ablutions and further thoughts occurred. "Mentions of doormats reminds me you could build a house with a bit of good will and a lot of blisters. See, you'd have coconut wood for construction and furniture and quantities of coconut palm fronds for thatching."

Eric looked dubious, but then he dislikes heights as much as I do.

"The porch -- you'd have to have a porch to sit on to admire the tropical sunsets -- could be decorated with half-shell hanging baskets or bird feeders. What about knick knacks carved from coconut wood? You could display them on a whatnot of the same material!" A pause. "No, maybe not. They'd be dust catchers par excellence."

"And would the residents of Casa Coconut dine and drink from bowls made from coconut shells, provided those imitating invisible horses hadn't just up and galloped off into the tropical undergrowth?" came the question.

"I shall ignore that comment as well," was my response. "But now I think of it, I once read oil of coconut is used in the manufacture of soap. M'lud, I rests my case!"

And with a triumphant flourish, I snapped shut the sneb of the liquid soap, er, body wash bottle.

Subscribers who have reached this far may be wondering how I leapt from a citrus fruit to The Swan of Avon in four moves. My thinking ran in this wise: oranges -- Nell Gwynn -- theatres -- William Shakespeare.

According to legend, on his deathbed Charles II, whose mistress the orange-selling Nell had been, pleaded "Don't let poor Nelly starve". What a shame Nell had not sold coconuts in the theatre rather than oranges, as otherwise this scribble could have ended on a more appropriate note, to wit, the eerie sound of ghostly hooves disappearing into the distance. Whereas the sound of oranges squelching as they bounce away is more likely to suggest the passage of some amorphous horror best avoided by the dwellers under the coconuts.


This has been a longer newsletter than usual so we'll keep this section brief and merely observe that, speaking of horrors, the next Orphan Scrivener will creep into your email inbox on 15th June.

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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