Friday, October 9, 2020

Jane Finnis on Why She Loves Short Stories

by Jane Finnis

Intro from Mary and Eric: We first met Jane when we both had stories included in Mike Ashley's Mammoth Book of Roman Whodunits, before the first of Jane's Aurelia Marcella novels was published. Ever since that fateful meeting, she has been writing short stories for other peoples' anthologies and has finally published a collection of her own. "I have a specially soft spot for shorter mysteries", she declares, and in this blog she explains why...

One of the most prestigious annual writing competitions has just opened up for submissions for 2021: the Margery Allingham Short Mystery Competition. This is brilliant news for short-fiction writers everywhere; you may be published or not, but as long as your entry is unpublished you can enter it online. The winner gets £500, plus two passes to the 2021 CrimeFest book convention which (fingers crossed) will be in Bristol, UK, next June. If all this makes your little grey cells tingle and your keyboard fingers itch, full details are at

Meanwhile, ignore those merchants of doom who regularly predict the demise of the short story. They’re wrong. In books, in magazines, on the Internet, mystery and crime stories of all lengths remain popular, and after all, the basic ingredients are the same whatever the word count. Margery Allingham gave a succinct definition of what those ingredients are, which is quoted each year among the guidelines for the competition she inspired:

“The Mystery remains box-shaped, at once a prison and a refuge. Its four walls are, roughly, a Crime, a Mystery, an Enquiry and a Conclusion with an Element of Satisfaction in it.”

In other words, it’s the puzzle element of a traditional mystery that hooks you. Believable characters, authentic settings...yes, they’re important; but it’s the puzzle, the whodunit and whydunnit, that are crucial, and they are directly in the spotlight in a short story.

Take one of my favourites – one of everyone’s favourites - Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle was a master of plotting. Of course the people and places featured in each short story are nicely sketched in with just a few telling details, but It’s the “what-happens-next” factor that’s important. Conan Doyle is superbly economical as he tells the tales. One of the classic examples of this happens in “Silver Blaze”, about a valuable racehorse abducted from its stable at dead of night. Holmes questions everyone at the racing stables, checks motives, formulates theories, and finally points the police inspector (and perhaps the alert reader) to the clinching detail by drawing attention to “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” This evokes the reply, “The dog did nothing in the night-time.” “That was the curious incident,” says Holmes. And “brilliant,” say I!

For me, the best thing about writing short stories is that I can let my imagination fly free, more freely than with a longer project because the time and research needed aren’t so overwhelming. A good story is like the fabled magic carpet; it can whisk you away to another reality, a distant place or time. My new anthology contains Roman-era tales, some featuring the innkeeper-sleuth from my novels, but I can steer my magic carpet wherever I fancy. For instance modern tales I’ve had published involve the shady business world of present-day London, and family secrets revealed in a peaceful (?) English country garden.

In my pipeline right now are, besides more Romans, a Cold War spy, and a murderer among settlers in a future colony on Mars. When and where they’ll see the light of day I don’t know yet. In an anthology or a magazine? Or one of them might be my next entry for the Margery Allingham 2021 competition...

Visit Jane's Website: Website:

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Review: A Pinch of Pure Cunning by Jane Finnis

Review: A Pinch of Pure Cunning by Jane Finnis

by Mary

A Pinch of Pure Cunning is a collection of short stories by Jane Finnis, author of the popular Aurelia Marcella historical mystery series. Several stories are about Aurelia, a Roman settler in Britannia, who with her sister Albia runs the Oak Tree Mansio on the road to York. The anthology also includes a couple of tales set in Rome itself. Titles are capitalised in my rundown of these diverting stories.

Aurelia relates an incident from the sisters' early days running the Oak Tree. A famous gladiator professionally known as Ferox The Wild Man -- his supporters call him WILD BY NAME, WILD BY NATURE-- arrives with his trainer Durus. They are on the way to games at Eburacum (York) where he intends to wipe the arena floor with the local champion. But Ferox is taken violently ill during the night and his trainer alleges poison is involved. Naturally the inn staff are suspected and Durus threatens to ruin the Oak Tree's reputation. Readers may think they have guessed the culprit -- until they reach the twist at the end of the story.

Aurelia is visited by her old friend Clarilla, sister-housekeeper of the local Chief Town Councillor. It seems some of her personal belongings and valuable pieces of jewelry have disappeared. Her household is harbouring a thief, and she asks Aurelia’s advice on how to find and prove who the culprit is. Aurelia recalls her grandmother's saying that "If the truth is hard to find, remember A PINCH OF PURE CUNNING is worth a box of brute force". And so it turns out. The motive for the thefts was a bit of a surprise although on reflection fitting the culprit.

Early one morning Valens, an officer of the Ninth Legion, arrives in great haste at the Oak Tree, enquiring about THE GOLDEN princess. This is a statue of his mother's favourite mare, intended as a surprise gift for her birthday. It was delivered to the inn the previous afternoon, to be collected this day. But the statue has vanished overnight, despite being locked into a guarded and inaccessible room. Aurelia helps solve the mystery of who was responsible and how the seemingly impossible crime was carried out.

In HIDE AND SEEK, at the court of Nero, Praetorian Guard Marius is pleading for his life. An intercepted letter from his brother predicts that Nero's plan to give a concert in Naples will be disastrous, and warns Marius not to attend. This, to Nero, is high treason. But whispers of a plot to assassinate Nero are already known to the authorities. Marius deduces there is a hidden message in the letter but has only a very short time to find and decode it to clear himself and his brother of capital charges.

THE CLEOPATRA GAME takes place In the rich Roman household of Tadius Sabinus. Rufus, bodyguard to Sabinus, is present at a banquet to celebrate the forthcoming nuptials of Sabinus' brother Marcus, to Egyptian heiress Chloe. She is fascinated by Cleopatra and insists on childishly imitating the queen in everything she does. It's a marriage advantageous to both houses, but Sabinus is not thrilled about it because Chloe humiliates his brother in public and laughs at him in private. At the banquet her play-acting leads to Marcus’ death. A clue from an unexpected quarter points to whodunnit. Another twist ending rounds off the sad tale.

Much-admired former legionary Sergius Fronto, nicknamed THE SINGLE-HANDED SOLDIER after losing his left arm while in service, now sports a wooden replacement. With winter approaching Aurelia gives him work in exchange for his keep until warmer weather arrives and he can move on. When Lady Caelia breaks her journey at the Oak Tree, a valuable piece of her luggage is stolen, and Fronto is suspected. A recent snowfall enables the thief to be easily tracked down, resulting in more than one revelation when he is caught.

As Jane Finnis observes of the times in which these stories are set, "human nature then was much as it is now, including jealousy and courage, love and hate, greed and honour, along with the feeling that justice ought to prevail. Readers of these entertaining stories will enjoy travelling the road to Aurelia's inn in a collection sure to leave them eager to read Jane's novels about Aurelia and the visitors to the Oak Tree.

Ebooks of the collection may be purchased from all the usual sellers and the paperbacks are available from a variety of different bookstores. If US readers have difficulty obtaining the print edition, signed copies are available from Jane's website

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Pandemic in the Time of Justinian

by Mary

As we all struggle to cope with the virus our Byzantine mystery Five For Silver, set during the Justinian era pandemic, has sadly become all too timely. Today we wrote about the research for this dark novel on Lois Winston's blog:

A Circumstance Such as has Never Before Been Recorded

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Dark and Stormy Beginnings

by Eric

In her latest blog, Questioning a Master? mystery author Triss Stein reminds us that Elmore Leonard famously wrote a list of writing instructions that began with “Never open a book with weather.” Triss goes on to say "that first rule has always bothered me. Here’s why: where I grew up , weather can be a major player in that game called life we are playing and writing about."

As it happens I lived for almost twenty years in upstate New York myself and when you have to deal with 130 inches of snow in the winter it makes Leonard's rule seem a bit foolish.

A few years ago I wrote an essay for the Orphan Scrivener(the newsletter Mary and I have been putting out since 2000) in which I also disagreed with the master. I'm reprinting it without change. As it was in 2008, it has been in the nineties here this week, and Mary and I have certainly not been able to ignore it.


For the past week Mary and I have tried to get a little writing done while we sweltered in 90 degree temperatures and watched bright red thunderstorms brush past us on the National Weather Service radar. Aside from a handful of half-inch bits of ice which quickly turned to droplets on the sun porch roof, the storms let us alone. The power stayed on and we suffered only from heat and distraction, which was bad enough.

I was reminded of Elmore Leonard's silly first rule of his Ten Rules of Writing -- "Never open a book with weather."

What? Never open a book by mentioning the element we're all swimming in? Weather affects how we feel physically and can color our outlook too. Of course, reading what I write, someone might suppose I was a frustrated meteorologist. There's a weather report every other page of our books and if it's not already teeming, rain is in the forecast. My Constantinople tends to be a dark and stormy place.

No doubt what I write reflects my personal preoccupation with the state of the atmosphere. I tend to be very aware of the weather. It affects my moods and changes my perceptions. The world of a cold winter morning is a far different place than that of a humid summer afternoon, and certainly important enough to mention at the start of a book.

Or is that just me? What about other writers? I opened up some books close to hand at random. Here are some first lines I came across in a few minutes:

"On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge." -- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

"To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth." ---John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

"The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting." -- Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage

Well, Okay, so what do all those old time writers know? How about someone newer:

"A big noisy wind out of the northeast, full of a February chill, herded the tourists off the afternoon beach, driving them to cover, complaining bitterly." -- John D. MacDonald, The Quick Red Fox

Glancing through Travis McGee books it struck me that every other one began with a reference to the weather. How about something totally different, though -- a fantasy written recently:

"Thunderstorms were common in Sarantium on midsummer nights..."-- Guy Gavriel Kay, Sailing to Sarantium

See, someone else thinks thunderstorms are important.

To be fair, as soon as Leonard stated his rule he admitted he was blowing hot air. "Never open a book with weather," he said. "If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want."

Don't start with the weather unless it has to do with the story or you can write brilliantly enough to get away with it. That's probably good advice, generally, but it applies to anything. Not just to weather. And besides, I still think most of the writers I quoted broke Leonard's rule because most of those first lines strike me as being mainly for the sake of atmosphere.

My rules of writing are more concise than Elmore Leonard's:

Rule 1 -- There are no rules.

Oh, and let's not forget that Mike Hammer makes his first appearance coming through a doorway and shaking rain off his hat.

I could use some rain on my hat right now. The office is stuffy. Hot weather makes me curt and cranky. Not that I ought to write about it.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Hunting for Plot Ideas in Odd Places

At Anastasia Pollack's Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers Mary talks about where some odd places she's found plot ideas. Read The Eyes Have It.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Review: Mr Treadgold Cuts In by Valentine Williams

by Mary

MR TREADGOLD CUTS IN is a fitting name for a collection of short stories, by Valentine Williams, relating various investigations carried out by elderly tailor Horace Bowl Treadgold of Messrs. Bowl, Treadgold & Flack in London's Savile Row. Founded during the reign of George III, the firm's proud boast is one of its principals measured the Prince Consort for a pair of nankeen pantaloons. Treadgold's favourite leisure pursuits are stamp collecting and the study of crime and this collection -- related by George Duckett, the firm's legal adviser -- showcases Treadgold's amateur investigative skill as well as his knowledge of Tristram Shandy, from which he quotes at the drop of a hat.

Duckett happens to be visiting when Major Cobbey arrives to consult Treadgold. It seems the major runs the Cleremount Abbey Estate in Surrey, once the estate of the Earls of Cleremont and now the site of upscale bungalows and an eighteen-hole golf course. Recently three women have been attacked on the estate but fortunately escaped their assaulter. Treadgold agrees to visit and look into the matter but a couple of days later the major rings up to announce a young woman who lived on the edge of the estate has been stabbed to death. The culprit was glimpsed but just who is THE RED-BEARDED KILLER and what is his motive?

One evening Duckett is invited round to Treadgold's rooms, where he finds a young American, Olivia Rawle. Her now deceased father was a client of the New York branch of Bowl, Treadgold & Flack, but she now lives in Somerset with her ailing grandfather Colonel Charton. Olivia is there to consult Threadgold on a strange matter. When her uncle informed her her grandfather had been immobilised by a stroke she returns to be with the old man, but it is the uncle who dies six weeks later. Her grandfather's male nurse and housekeeper both claim they heard the noise of THE SINGING KETTLE the night he died, but she does not believe it until she too hears the same thing. The solution to the strange affair reveals particularly dark doings in the family abode.

Professor Webber possesses one of the best private collections of Egyptian antiquities in the country. He arrives to privately consult Treadgold about the theft of THE BLUE USHABTI, a glass representation of the hippo-headed god and an artefact said to have been the amulet of a great queen. It has been replaced by a replica and, embarrassing to relate, it appears the deed was done by one of his guests at a recent dinner party. Thus the professor is reluctant to bring the matter to the attention of what he terms the more regular authorities. Threadgold and Duckett begin their investigation...then the ushbati reappears. The person involved and the reason for the theft is unexpected, although subtly clued for the alert reader.

Inspector Manderton consults Threadgold on a case involving a rich man's double life. The coroner's jury's verdict was married stockbroker Dudley Frohawk was murdered by his lover Leila Trent, who subsequently committed suicide. The press christened the affair THE DOT-AND-CARRY CASE after the name of the roadhouse where the couple were found dead. The girl did not have a good character, having been involved with Paul Morosini who ran with the dope peddling crowd in France. Despite how it all looks Mrs Frohawk is convinced her husband had not strayed, so this time Threadgold's assistance serves two purposes: to establish the truth about the deaths and to confirm Mrs Frohawk's faith in her husband was warranted.

Manderton calls in Threadgold in his capacity as tailoring expert in connection with the suicide of a man found on the permanent way of the Great Western Railway. Although his face is mangled beyond recognition, papers on his body identify him as Axel Roth. Other items he carried include an envelope containing a scrap of black cloth shaped like a letter and a notebook with a page listing six colours and one or two other words. In this complicated affair which Duckett dubbed THE CASE OF THE BLACK "F" (which, to my delight, features a cameo by Major Francis Okewood of the Secret Service) there is much to be unravelled.

Duckett happens to be at his club when Sir Hector Foye appears and tells him one of his tenants, a close friend of his wife, has gone missing. Thus is the reader introduced to THE STRANGE DISAPPEARANCE OF MISS EDITH MARLESS. Miss Marless had been living in the West Lodge on the Foyle estate and on a couple of occasions a young man was seen leaving or entering the lodge in the middle of the night. Has the missing woman eloped with him or is there a more sinister reason for her absence? Sir Hector also suspects she was blackmailing his wife but what hold could Edith possibly have had over her?

Threadgold and Duckett are spending a couple of days in Paris after a Mediterranean cruise. Jack Danesworth, an American lawyer practicising in France, visits to ask Threadgold for help in finding a princess who has disappeared. She was in France to claim an inheritance, including a ring in which DONNA LAURA'S DIAMOND is set. It comes with a curse: whoever wears it will die by beheading. Threadgold consults the Club St. Pierre, whose members are the head porters of leading hotels in England and on the continent, and thus a clearing-house for confidential information about hotel guests. Their participation provides leads to those responsible for the kidnapping.

Manderton is investigating THE MURDER OF BLANCHE MEDLOE, found dead in a somewhat disreputable block of flats. She arrived the night before with a male companion, now nowhere to be found but who may have been Bruno Aldinia, an Italian adventurer with whom she had recently been seen around town. Threadgold is called in to assist Manderton by again providing an expert analysis, this time of the man's dress clothes left behind in a crocodile dressing case. Or was it a pigskin kit-bag as Mrs. Argyle, manageress of the flats, insists? They have another clue to the culprit's identity: the sleeve (cuff) link found in the dead woman's hand.

The housekeeper at Acacia Lodge finds her scholarly employer Dr Alexander Reval dead of head injuries in his study. Money is missing from his wall safe. Christopher Kendrick, whom Duckett has known since he was a schoolboy, is arrested for murder and robbery, much to the distress of Tatiana O'Rorke, assistant to Dr Reval. The old story of the amorous employer had reared its head, leading to a violent scene in which Kit was heard threatening him. But was the culprit THE MAN WITH THE TWO LEFT FEET (a Holmesian title if ever I saw one!)? The effort to find him leads to an unusual advertisement in the agony column in the Times and justice dispensed in a non judicial way.

Duckett is in America for business reasons and he and Threadgold attend a house party on Long Island Sound. The story opens with their hosts and other guests listening to the Roden Radio Hour. Duckett had procured an invite for Threadgold, who wishes to meet Marcia Murray, singer on the show who will join the party after the broadcast. The atmosphere at the house is tense, with quarrels and sniping between various characters. It is regrettable but not surprising in the circumstances that HOMICIDE AT NORHASSET follows and there is a rich field of suspects when Marcia is strangled in her nearby bungalow.

Etext: Mr Treadgold Cuts In

Wednesday, February 13, 2019