The frigid weather currently gripping much of the country reminds Mary of the oft-told family tale of the winter of 1946, when snow was piled up to the windowsills and coal was still on ration. At least the Reeds escaped having their coal stolen, as happened to a friend's parents. Folk legend has it the working class keeps their coal in the bath tub but since the terraced houses in which we grew up did not have bathrooms that would not have worked as a safeguard against nocturnal coal-pinchers. It does however raise the burning question: was it good or naughty children that winter who found a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking?
Before transmitting programmes considered to have disturbing content the BBC used to intone -- and may still -- an announcement to the effect that the following broadcast would not be suitable for persons of a nervous disposition. We would not say this latest issue of Orphan Scrivener will disturb such subscribers, but the only way to find out is to read on....
Fake trees used to be all but unheard of. My grandparents didn't always buy a tree or cut one down. When I was a kid my dad's first Christmas tree was still growing behind the house where it had been planted decades before, by then a good 60 feet tall. There was a long row of tall pines beside the garden and more than once my grandfather cut the crown off one to use in the living room. In the fifties even the trees had flattops.
My parents were particular about trees. For years we had blue spruce. Beautiful to look at but the sharp needles made decorating the boughs a less than joyful experience.
My parents' trees also had to be straight as a plumb line. Maybe that's why I remember affectionately some of the forlorn trees I've since brought home -- trees that revealed huge gaps when their limbs thawed out and came down, trees with crooked or forked trunks. Still, it seemed in the spirit of the holidays to give those poor trees a good home, to dress them up and make them the center of attention, even if they weren't perfect.
I guess I always felt a little guilty about keeping a sacrificial tree in the house at Christmas. Maybe that's why I was reluctant to dispose of them. Most years I'd leave them up until the second or third week of January. As long as they stood in the corner decked out in lights and ornaments, their browning needles covered with layers of tinsel and artificial icicles, it was easy to ignore the reality of the situation.
The reality became only too clear, at last, as the water in the tree holder was never consumed, needles piled around the base, limbs drooped and twisted grotesquely, spilling glass balls onto the floor.
One January I got up and saw a denuded skeletal object, frozen in rigor mortis, bowed under the weight of dangling strings of lights, a wooden corpse propped up in the living room.
Tree pick-up day had long passed. It cost extra to have trees hauled away after the first week of the year. If only the body could fit into a heavy duty trash bag...
K-Mart boasted a liberal return policy. If an item did not prove suitable it could be returned, no questions asked, so long as you had the receipt. Checking to make sure the car's gas gauge was not too far below empty, I drove to the store and purchased the only saw they sold, a hacksaw of sorts made in Taiwan, and set to work on the tree.
An hour later I was bleeding profusely but the remains of the tree had been dismembered and hidden in a trash bag to be picked up by the unsuspecting sanitation workers.
The saw was in only slightly better shape than the tree. I took the twisted thing and the three broken spare blades back to K-Mart.
The store was good as its word. No one asked how I had managed to run over the saw with a steamroller, bury it in a landfill, dig it up and lend it to King Kong just as Godzilla came along looking for a Taiwanese hacksaw, in less than two hours. Nor did they remark on the bloody fingerprints on the receipt. In fact, they refunded my money very quickly indeed.
It was enough to buy gas to get me home for the final end of the holidays
Given the annual rash of Yuletide articles bearing titles such as Ten Frugal Christmas Gifts or Seven Recipes For Festive Dishes, I took the wink and here are some thoughts under the umbrella heading of Reed's Reviews Of Novels Whose Titles Refer To Circles One Way Or Another And Sometimes Both.
One of my favourite films is The Lady Vanishes, featuring Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave as a young couple trying to discover how Dame May Whitty as the missing Miss Froy was spirited off a train in prewar Europe. Can anyone who has seen this film ever look a packet of herbal tea in the label again without thinking of Miss Froy? I've not read Ethel Lina White's The Wheel Spins, on which the film is based, or otherwise it would have been included in these scribbles, but I really enjoyed Ethel's The Spiral Staircase. Here's how I described it in a 2008 review:
It is a dark and very stormy night as the novel opens, for a terrible gale howls around Professor Sebastian's rambling but solidly built house, l2 miles from the nearest village. The entire countryside is gripped in terror after five local girls have been murdered, and once darkness falls few people venture abroad.
Protagonist Helen Capel works as "lady-help" to the scholarly professor, his chilly sister Blanche, who is firmly under the thumb of their invalid mother Lady Warren, who may or may have killed her husband "by accident" years before, and sinister, mannish Nurse Barker. There also the professor's son Newton, married to and insanely jealous of his flirtatious wife Simone, who has her eye on a fling with the professor's resident pupil Stephen Rice. Mr and Mrs Oates, faithful servants, round out the residents of the house, one of those rambling edifices with a warren of cellars, many rooms, and two staircases -- and not all of it fitted with electric light.
After learning of another murder committed not far from the house, Professor Warren announces that as a matter of safety everyone must stay inside and nobody is to be admitted under any circumstances that night. But just as he gives this order, there is a thunderous knocking at the front door....
As readers will have gathered, I really liked this book and indeed at the time named it my top read of the month.
Next, The Circular Study by Anna Katharine Green, concerning which I wrote the same year:
Oh joy, oh rapture! A mystery with a plan of the titular study!
What's more, the novel takes off at a brisk gallop. Octogenarian New York detective Ebenezer Gryce goes to Mr Adams' mansion after word of a crime there reaches the police department. And what does he find on entering the circular study? In the tapestry-hung, book-lined room with lighting whose colour can be changed at the press of a button, a room filled with curios and dominated by the portrait of a beautiful woman, lies a murdered man with a golden cross on his chest.
There were two witnesses: a deaf mute servant who has become mentally unbalanced by the sight and repeatedly re-enacts the murder and a talking bird described as an English starling, evidently a parrot, for it mimics speech.
Clues? Well, there's a scattering of rose leaves and several black sequins in the study, a pearl-handled parasol left behind, and a silver comb on the floor of the otherwise immaculately tidy bedroom opening off the study. Tracing whoever had been there is a tall task given the size of the city but Detective Gryce begins it, aided by Amelia Butterworth, an aristocratic and occasionally sharp tongued spinster of a certain age who has been involved in Gryce's investigations before, and his young assistant Sweetwater.
Casting an eye over the rest of the review I see the method of tracing certain persons of interest is noted as a particularly interesting demonstration of police leg work in the early l900s and that I recommended the book.
Fortunately for subscribers and the length of this newsletter I haven't yet finished Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase, though my review of The Bat, a novelisation of the stage adaptation by Mary and Avery Hopwood associated with the book, can be seen on Steve Lewis' Mystery*File website http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=125 Since Mary is credited with launching the Had I But Known school of mystery fiction, I can only say had I but known I'd be writing on this particular topic I'd have started reading The Circular Staircase sooner.
Finally, in the spirit of the seasonal lists mentioned we offer Four Extremely Frugal Gifts To Our Longsuffering Subscribers in the form of links to etexts of the novels:
The Spiral Staircase, Ethel Lina White http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0300931.txt
The Circular Study, Anna Katherine Green http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18761/18761-h/18761-h.htm
The Bat, Mary Roberts Rinehart & Avery Hopwood http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2019
The Circular Staircase, Mary Roberts Rinehart http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/RinCirc.html
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 http://home.earthlink.net/~maywrite/ 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 http://www.journalscape.com/ericmayer/