Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Cool as a Colander

by Mary

The current heatwave in many parts of the country has doubtless provided a bonanza in the form of increased sales of ice cream, soft drinks, and sun tan oil. Not to mention calamine lotion, that pink flaky stuff we wore during the hotter stretches of English summers, which despite that lying jade Dame Rumour's contention to the contrary came along now and then.

During those warm spells, since we lived in an industrial area with an abundance of concreted over back yards and no gardens -- the nearest greenery to be found was local cemeteries or parks and living in the city haymaking was not an option when the sun shone -- the heat was magnified something awful. It was excellent for drying the Monday wash strung across the back lane but us thin-blooded locals sometimes found it hard to cope with higher than usual temperatures.

We sometimes went to the coast on sunny summer Sundays, but that was not always possible. The swimming baths part of the baths and wash house not far from our street were not free, and the only other body of water near us -- across Scotswood Road at the bottom of our street in fact -- was the River Tyne. Nobody with any sense set foot in it, given at the time if anyone fell in a certain nasty procedure involving the stomach was routine treatment because of the filthy state of the water.

Aside: cleaning-up efforts have progressed very well since then as I hear salmon have returned to spawn upriver. They must have long ancestral memories or perhaps enough of them got through the various connurbations along the river to keep the Tyne tribe alive.

But to get back to what I was saying, discomfort being the mother of invention, one day my younger sister and I devised a cooling method which these days would be called green.

We lived in an upstairs flat in a terraced street, and so steps led down from the back door into our back yard. If any subscribers have seen Get Carter, they've seen this type of housing in the sequence with the hearse in the back lane, except our back steps were open to the sky rather than roofed in.

Our brainwave was to hook up a hosepipe -- it's an enduring mystery why we even had one, since there was nothing to water and no buggy to wash -- to the cold tap in the kitchen. In passing let me mention that this was the only plumbing provided in the flat until we got a water heater. The traditional usual offices were represented by the loo in the back yard although in all fairness to the landlord, the Victorian vintage clothes boiling copper was still in the scullery although in our time it was only used as a meeting place for black beetles.

Well, we tied a broom to the top of the outside staircase and from the broom suspended a colander swinging from three bits of string. Then we tied the hosepipe into the colander, turned on the cold tap, et voila, a shower arrangement was created. We donned our scratchy one-piece black wool bathing suits and took turns standing under the cool water, our feet on sunwarmed concrete.

As the neighbours may well have said, by, but those bairns thought up a canny plan.

Now when Eric says he feels too hot, I'm not being rude when I tell him to stick his head under the cold tap.

A colander is optional.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Review: The Confession by Mary Roberts Rinehart

by Mary

Once again Mary Roberts Rinehart gives us a female protagonist as narrator, but this time in a work yards away from her more frothy concoctions.

Attended by servant Maggie and cook Delia, Miss Agnes Blakiston takes a house for the summer at Benton Station. As the story opens, she is grilling the agent handling the transaction and remarks she finds the presence of three bathrooms somewhat suspicious, given its owner Miss Emily Benton, now in her late 60s, usually lives there with only two servants. However, Miss Benton has made it plain she wishes the house rented out for the summer and the new plumbing is to make the house more attractive to a prospective tenant, which also explains the "[u]nbelievably cheap" rent.

The middle-aged Miss Blakiston took the house anticipating visits from young relatives but these do not occur for various reasons. Thus at the end of June she writes Miss Benton saying she will not need the house, enclosing a cheque to cover the agreed upon rental amount. Miss Blakiston had some previous contact with the Bentons thirty years before and knows it is a highly regarded family once headed by the Revd Thaddeus Benton, father of Miss Emily. There was also Carlo, a now deceased son summed up in Miss Blakiston's narration as "hardly bearing out the Benton traditions of solidity and rectitude". Now only Miss Benton is alive, and she pleads with Miss Blakiston to stay for the summer.

Needless to say, Miss Blakiston agrees, although she begins to regret her change of heart when strange things begin to happen. The telephone rings at night but no one is there when it is answered, and on one or two mornings it is found on the floor. This frightens the three residents of the rented house to such an extent that Miss Blakiston develops an aversion to going anywhere near the back of the hall where the telephone stand is situated.

Certain signs show there is a nocturnal visitor creeping about the house. Is Miss Blakiston sleepwalking or are her nerves disordered and she is mistaken in believing someone unknown is entering the house during the night?

But then a confession to murder is discovered and Miss Blakiston decides to see if she can unravel the truth of the matter.

My verdict: The Confession is a novel which nowadays would no doubt be described as a psychological study of a crime and its after effects. I would not describe it as a thriller because investigation and revelation occur at a stately pace in keeping with its country setting and rural society, but it certainly has noir underpinnings. The reason for the crime is convincing, as is that for the confession of the title, and the reader may well ponder on both after completing the novel.

Etext: The Confession by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Our Handmade Website

by Eric

It's axiomatic that writers must have websites. When Mary and I saw our first novel, One for Sorrow published in 1999 we already possessed a website, left over from the mid-nineties when it was axiomatic that everyone on the Internet must have what was then called a homepage. I simply added a book cover and some reviews to turn our homepage into the required authors' page. With a few fresh coats of html paint it remains our rambling home on the web today. Visitors intrepid enough to explore dusty corridors and open creaking doors can find pages untouched in more than twenty years.

In 1995 html seemed like magic. By keyboarding simple bits of gobbledegook even a middle-aged Liberal Arts major like me could arrange images and words on a page floating out there in cyberspace for all the world to see. Who would have guessed how useful those "<" and ">" keys would turn out to be?

Do-it-yourself simplicity doesn't last. Soon frames came along and javascript. Today .css (cascading style sheets for those at my level of sophistication) look more like programming language than the html I learned to write. No doubt, a site designed by an expert looks a lot slicker and probably works a little better than one handcoded in nineties html by an amateur.

I say expertly produced sites work only a little better because I am a believer in content and it is the words and images that contain the content, not the design. But not everyone thinks like me, and I suspect that poor or old fashioned or amateurish design discourages many people from looking at content.

All this occurred to me recently when I decided our website should be spruced up prior to the release of Murder in Megara In October and The Guardian Stones in January. For several days I studied .css and decided that unless I were willing to take a course in it (which I'm not) my version of a .css site would be no improvement on the crude html we already have. So I tidied up a bit, as much as it is possible to tidy up html written in 1995 by someone who barely knew what he was doing.

But why not hire a professional? How many authors produce and maintain their own web pages? Not many, as far as I can tell.

We're not trying to pinch pennies. It's just that twenty years ago I loved the idea that anyone could put up their own web pages, without assistance, and I still feel that way. And why interpose a professional web master between ourselves and readers? Heck, we've kept plenty of personal essays on the site, most written long before we had mystery novels published. Do they give the site an amateur feel? I doubt they have any value from a marketing point of view.

Maybe our site is just my small revolt against the obsession with slick presentation and the rush to appear more professional than thou. Yes, I prefer our books -- which people pay for -- to be produced in a professional manner. But can't we meet readers on the Internet more informally?

Mary and I hope our website might be of more interest to some readers than the typical author's site. If nothing else it's a museum quality example of Grandma Moses style html circa 1995, still crammed with old stuff, an electronic attic. Who doesn't like to rummage through an attic?

Our Website

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Review: The Bittermeads Mystery by E. R. Punshon

by Mary

The Bittermeads Mystery gets off to a lively start with protagonist Robert Dunn eluding pursuit after a donnybrook (or should I say a Dunnybrook?) with a man he was following through a wood.

Dunn continues his nocturnal activities by sloping along to Bittermeads, the titular house, where he finds a burglary in progress. Seizing the day, or rather night, Dunn knocks the burglar out and after exchanging clothing with the unconscious man (subsequently concealed on the village common opposite the house) he enters the dwelling hoping to be discovered. An unusual ambition, you may say, but since a burglar is a shady sort he hopes to be invited to join the murky band associated with Bittermeads. His reasoning is he will not be turned him over to the police as the residents don't want attention drawn to the house. In this way he hopes to find out what has happened to his old chum Charley Wright, who was romantically involved with Ella Cayley, the daughter of the house, but has disappeared. He has another reason for his interest in joining the enemy camp, but it is not revealed until some way into the narrative.

The only people at home are Ella and her ailing mother and after tying Ella up and promising not to disturb her mother, Dunn explores the house -- only to find the murdered Charley in a packing case in an attic.

Ella's stepfather, Deede Dawson, returns home and nabs Dunn but decides to employ him as chauffeur and gardener -- not an action one would expect of an honest man. Dunn's first task is to finish nailing down the lid of the packing case without revealing he knows what is in it. But then Ella takes the packing case away in a car, thus removing the only evidence he can produce to launch a police investigation.

Then there is another murder as the plot thickens up in satisfactory fashion.

My verdict: The two matters Dunn is investigating have no immediate apparent link but ultimately are shown to be intertwined. Although the close reader may well deduce a certain hidden identity and the name of the person masterminding the mayhem, it will likely not be until fairly late in the book. The action gallops along and we have an unusual look at the romantic agony of a male protagonist as well as his internal musings as the plot develops. Although it is a fast, light read there are noir underpinnings and the whole is resolved with a satisfactory comeuppance for the egregious villain of the piece.

Etext: The Bittermeads Mystery

Friday, July 17, 2015

Waiting for that First Review

by Eric

Did you hear the huge sigh of relief coming from Casa Maywrite? It blew squirrels out of the pine trees at the end of the yard. The first review of Murder in Megara is just in from Kirkus Reviews and it's excellent.

"...combines historical detail with a cerebral mystery." -- Kirkus Reviews, July 15.

Thank Mithras for that, as our detrective, John, might say.

No matter how many books they've had published, regardless of good reviews in the past, the moment advance reading copies go out for review, authors are seized by the chilling certainty that the new book will not be liked by anyone. No, not even one reader. Not even one reviewer. Not a single person on the face of the planet. Well, at least that's the way this co-author feels. I can't speak for Mary.

After months of writing and revision, waiting for a reaction is agonizing. Like performing on stage and not knowing whether the audience will applaud or boo until weeks later.

I miss the days when I could show my handwritten literary efforts -- with full color crayola illustrations in a first edition printing of one -- to my parents without fear of a negative response.

True, my dad sometimes told me what he told his school students: "Interesting...." Meaning he didn't like it but didn't want to say so.

Mary and I are particuarly pleased to get a good review from Kirkus since when they don't like a book they usually have a lot different way of expressing it than "interesting."

So finally we can relax.

But wait! What if the Kirkus reviewer was the only person in the whole world who likes Murder in Megara? Which, now that I think of it, is almost surely the case!

Now we're on pins and needles anxiously awaiting the second review. Or I am. Mary, maybe not. She must be on pins though, surely, even if not needles too. But don't take my word for it.

Read the whole Kirkus review

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Space Exploration: Are Humans Necessary?

by Eric

Mary and I don't write science fiction but we're still excitedly awaiting pictures from New Horizons' Mars flyby.

As an sf reader during my youth I was thrilled with the manned space program leading up the moon landing but manned exploration of the solar system hasn't gone the way a lot of us expected back in the sixties.

We were supposed to be building bases on Mars by now. That's what I imagined, more than fifty years ago, when I watched Alan Shephard's small hop into space on my family's first color television set. Today the manned space program is older than television was back then and where are we? Still floating around in earth orbit and not even doing that very well.

On the other hand, the saga of the Mars rovers and unmanned missions to the planets and asteroids has been just as exciting as manned flights and probably contributed more to scientific knowledge.

I used to think manned space exploration was vital but technology has changed my mind. It is grossly expensive, and still unsafe, to send people physically into the hostile environment beyond our planet. Given advances in computers and robotics, what is the point? Man's genius isn't what he can do with his bare hands but with tools. A human being can't scoop up Martian earth in his hand anyway. What's the difference if a man wields a shovel held by the gloves of a spacesuit encasing his hands or orders a robotic shovel to move by sending an electronic command? A Mars rover is just a shovel with a very long handle.

The only real limiting factor in unmanned space exploration would seem to be the time it takes for distant sensors to send their findings back to the human operator and the operator's response to creep back at lightspeed. How often would a catastrophic emergency arise that could not be coped with by computer intelligence, but would be solvable, by human intervention, within a few minutes? I would think in the hostile environment of space, where a spacefarer is utterly dependent on machinery and computers, such a situation would be unlikely to ever occur.

So I'm content for future space explorers to depend on tools. I can't say I'd achieve more if I tried to write without wearing my eyeglasses, let alone trashed my computer, and eschewed a typewriter, or a pencil. Part of our genius is that we invent tools to extend our abilities. .

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Review: Malcolm Sage, Detective by Herbert Jenkins

by Mary

Malcolm Sage was an accountant who was always finding "little wangles" in the books. Refused for war service by the army, he worked for the Ministry of Supply and found a much larger wangle, eventually transferring to Department Z in Whitehall. The department handled secret service work during the war and now the conflict is over and the Department is being demobilised, Sir John Dene, his old chief, agrees with Lady Dene Sage should be set up in a private detective agency.

Sage has a "bald, conical head", a "determined" jaw, and protruding ears. His keen gaze is aided by gold-rimmed spectacles and his "shapely" hands are always restless, drawing on his blotting pad, balancing a spoon on a knife, constructing geometrical designs with matches, that sort of thing. He is kind, quiet, and never smiles. Nevertheless Sage's Whitehall staff is devoted to him and it is from their ranks he chooses a handful to work at his agency. Gladys Norman will continue as his secretary and other departmental personnel engaged for the new venture are Sage's assistant James Thompson, office junior William Johnson, and chauffeur Arthur Tims.

This collection of investigations kicks off with The Strange Case of Mr Challoner, who was found an apparent suicide in a locked library. However, foul play is suspected and Richard Dane, Mr Challener's nephew is fingered as the likely culprit, having violently quarrelled with the dead man the day before.

In The Surrey Cattle-Maiming Mystery, Sage is called in to hunt down the person responsible for the crimes. There had been almost thirty going back over two years, despite villagers organising a committee to keep watch at night. Peppery General Sir John Hackblock, whose mare has been similarly mutilated, asks Sage to look into the matter since he is not satisfied with what he was told when he consulted Scotland Yard.

The Stolen Admiralty Memorandum opens with a summons to a country mansion where the Prime Minister, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and the Secretary of War are both weekend house guests -- and all are in a panic. The memorandum has disappeared and could do a great deal of damage in the wrong hands. Who is responsible for its theft? There's plenty of suspects, including over a dozen house servants and a number of other guests along with their ladies' maids and valets.

Next we have an interlude in which secretary Gladys dines with Sage's assistant Thompson. Gladys debates why the staff is so loyal to their employer, with a nice little sideswipe at expectations raised by romance novels (E. M. Hull sprang to mind!). Their conversation explains how Gladys came to work for Sage and where Thompson first met their employer, fleshing out the lives of the bureau employees as also happens elsewhere. The reader never has the impression the staff are spear carriers whose role is to admire Sage's brilliance, and learning something of their lives was an attractive sidelight.

Then it's back to criminous business with The Holding Up of Lady Glanedale, wife of margarine magnate Sir Roger Glanedale. She has been robbed at gun point in a nocturnal burglary at the family's country house. The Twentieth Century Insurance Corporation Limited calls Sage in to investigate the circumstances and find the missing jewelry.

The McMurray Mystery deals with Professor James McMurray, found murdered in a locked laboratory. It is a particularly mysterious matter because the body of the professor displays a strangely youthful appearance. McMurray's friend and philanthropist Sir Jasper Chambers was the last person to talk to the professor, who was in the habit of living in his laboratory for days on end and refusing to admit anyone for any reason. How then did his murderer get in and out and what is the role of marmalade in the affair?

A flurry of scandalous poison pen letters allege a vicar's daughter and his curate are carrying on an intrigue. Naturally these foul communications cause much distress and agitate the villagers of Gylston and its surrounding area. The Gylston Slander sees Sage called in to find the culprit.

Charley Burns is The Missing Heavyweight, who disappears on the eve of an important fight on which many have wagered large sums. Where has he gone and why? Was he taken ill, kidnapped, or did he run away, afraid to fight? This particular entry includes an excellent example of Sage's deductions from evidence, in this case a patch of garden soil. Unlike some of the more startling deductions made by Holmes, here as in other stories the detective's explanations seem reasonable and the reader is left with the impression they too could have made the same conclusions, if not as quickly.

In the final story, Lady Dene Calls on Malcolm Sage, Lady Dene arrives at the bureau with an unusual aim. To the amazement of the staff she's there to decorate Sage's office with vast quantities of red and white roses on the anniversary of the agency's founding and to present him with an antique platinum and lapis lazuli ring from her husband and herself to set off his "lovely" hand. To the astonishment of secretary Gladys and disbelief of Thompson, Sage accepts the gift -- and smiles at Lady Dene.

Verdict: Malcolm Sage is clever and yet an "ordinary shmoe" protagonist surrounded by a likeable staff. It would be difficult not to warm to him and them. No astounding leaps of deduction or parade of esoteric knowledge here! Sages uses common sense, a keen eye, and the occasional bit of psychology to solve the cases he investigates. I enjoyed this collection a great deal.

e-text: Malcolm Sage, Detective

Monday, July 6, 2015

What's a Publisher Good For?

by Eric

Publishers. Authors can't live with them and can't live without them.

Until recently.

Now, rather than simply complaining about the iniquities of the publishing industry, disgruntled writers are rushing to self-publish. They have lately arrogated to themselves the name "indie" publishers which correctly belongs to legitimate publishers like Poisoned Pen Press, which are not merely subsidiaries of the huge corporate conglomerates that control most of the entertainment industry.

Mary and I don't often talk about our publisher Poisoned Pen Press (PPP as we refer to them). I know that when I read a book I don't care who put it out. However, if it weren't for the efforts of the good folks in Scottsdale, Arizona, I wouldn't be talking to you right now since you probably would never have seen the mystery novels Mary and I write.

I think the idea that self-publishing is a good answer for so many authors is wrong. We hear about wild successes like Amanda Hocking and E. L. James but how many runaway self-published bestsellers are there from authors who are not young and Internet savvy? Building a social media presence seems more important than writing ability. The former certainly not our forte.

One of the most important things PPP does for us is alert readers and booksellers to our work, by sending out review copies for example. Next, the press makes sure those who might be interested can get hold of the books. A complicated task. PPP books are distributed by Ingram Publisher Services, and are available through wholesalers including Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Brodart. Different wholesalers can reach different markets. Baker & Taylor, for example, is responsible for our books being in hundreds of libraries.

A publisher takes care of all the details, from buying that ISBN number you see on all commercially released books, to formatting our novels for Kindle, Nook and all the other electronic flavors I can't even keep track of. PPP has the books printed, and digitized, and even recorded. They appear in hardcover, trade paperback, large print, numerous e-versions and, for the last few, in audio.

PPP also edits our work rather than sending us out into public with dirt on our chins. Even after Mary and I assiduously rewrote and copy-edited the newest novel our editor, Annette, found a number of, shall we say, infelicities. You simply cannot edit your own words. They are too familiar.

Then there are the covers...PPP's production guy, Pete, discussed what we wanted, suggested an artist, whose work we loved, then sketched out a design based mostly on the title, a big trend today, but one I wasn't aware of until he pointed it out. Sure, we could have done our own cover. And as cover designers...well, we're good writers.

If you're with a publisher, professionals do everything but the writing for you. If you self-publish you either have to pay professionals or do things which are outside your expertise -- and probably do them poorly.

There's a lot more PPP does, for instance publicizing its books in various ways, such as attending trade shows and offering writers advice and support on promotional efforts. No doubt there are plenty of services I've forgotten or don't even know about.

Sure, there are novels and circumstances where self-publishing is appropriate but despite what you might read on the Internet lately, with rare exceptions, publishers -- including real independent publishers -- remain as important to writers as ever.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Welcome to Our Blog

by Eric

It took more than one book to change our name to Eric Reed.

Well, okay, it only took one book, The Guardian Stones, out in January, and we'll still be Mary Reed and Eric Mayer on our Byzantine mysteries. Except for the Head of Zeus UK editions where we'll remain M.E. Mayer. I think that's it. Except in a few households where our name is Mud. Live long enough and your name is bound to be Mud someplace.

Live too long and you begin to have trouble remembering your pen names.

We all (for values of "we all" equaling the authors and editor Barbara Peters) figured it would be a good idea to differentiate our upcoming World War II historical from those set in the sixth century. We don't want to scare off readers who don't care for the Byzantine period. However, if you do read our Byzantine mysteries we'd love for you to check out our new effort.

Before Eric Reed debuts, however, Mary and Eric return in October with the eleventh John the Lord Chamberlain mystery, Murder in Megara. This time John finds himself and his family exiled to a rural estate near where he grew up. To solve a murder, the former Lord Chamberlain needs to venture into territory he usually avoids -- his own past. More about that in future posts.

This is going to be a joint blog. We're not sure exactly what we'll post aside from anything that strikes our fancy. Mary will be posting a review of an older mystery novel every week on Golden Age Sunday. If you like that sort of mystery -- and we consider our mysteries with their fairly clued puzzles as direct descendants --be sure to look for her posts.

I don't have any concrete plans right now but, hey, you will note that according to Hollywood poster conventions, Mary gets top billing here.

Golden Age of Mystery Sunday

by Mary

We intend to feature a review of a Golden Age or classic mystery each Sunday, and here's the first to kick off this new feature.

The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow
by Anna Katharine Green

Set in 1913, the novel opens with the death of a young girl on an upper floor of a New York museum. She's been killed by an arrow and even stranger, while the museum has arrows aplenty, no bow is anywhere to be seen.

Detective Ebenezer Gryce, now 85, and his assistant Sweetwater arrive to investigate. Was the death an accident or murder? But who would be foolish enough to loose an arrow in a museum? On the other hand, what motive could there be for doing away with a girl barely in her mid teens?

After Gryce arrives everyone in the building is sent to stand in the same spot as they were at the time of the incident. Suddenly an extra man appears. Where has he sprung from?

The plot immediately begins to thicken. How does an English visitor, a stranger to the victim, know her name? Why has the girl's travelling companion hastily left their hotel without leaving a forwarding address? For that matter what was this well-bred young lady doing going about without a chaperone? Where is the bow? How could the arrow have been shot without someone in the open galleries noticing?

Readers will need to refer to the floor plans more than once, because the plot is very dense and the movements of those in the museum at the relevant time are vital in solving the mystery. Time and again the investigation comes to a screeching halt, only to be picked up again after a bit of cogitation and/or legwork by Gryce, Sweetwater, and others. The real problem is linking the various prime movers to each other and particularly finding the motive. Sweetwater's use of carpentry skills aids the investigation in an unexpected way!

E-text: The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow