The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Eight

I've got a new blog up at the Tor website, and I'd rather proud of this one.  I think it's apt it comes out at Christmas.  It's about the journey my work has taken to get me from school to London Falling.  Doctor Who fans who follow my work may get a frisson from the final line.  You can find it here.

A lot more photos from my interview with Ben Aaronovitch are now up on Tor's flickr stream.

And if you're in the USA, you can now pre-order the hardback US edition of London Falling for 41% off the cover price.  That's very precise, as well as generous, I think.

After yesterday's photo of Tom with his soft toy scarecrow from 'Human Nature', I got sent the following from my old friend Julia Houghton:

'Soft scarecrow,

Warm scarecrow,
Little ball of straw.
Happy scarecrow,
Sleepy scarecrow,
Roar, roar, roar.'

Honestly, I don't see why people think that photo is somehow sinister.

I've just had a meeting on Friday cancelled.  I hope that's not because of the apocalypse.  Actually, it's been rather a joy in these last few days to wonder how the pro-apocalypse people are getting on, as the world delivers only its usual version of misery to those who continue aboard it.  I find those End of the World people to be dispiriting and dismal, and look forward to hearing their confused awkwardness on Saturday.  Or Monday.  Or whenever it is they'll have given up by this time.  I maintain that gleefully anticipating exciting death for everyone not like oneself isn't the way civilised people behave.  At least, I suppose, they're not anticipating taking part in said slaughter.  Except every now and then one of them does.

Anyhow, I thought it was about time that I started talking about a few of my favourite things of the year here on the blog, even if the heavy lifting of this festive series is being done by other people.

Favourite telefantasy of the year (and remember that I don't deal with Doctor Who like it's a mere television programme, but keep it over here in a category all its own): I very much enjoyed Arrow, which continually surprises in how it's using the selling points of The Dark Knight Rises and the corpse of Smallville to create something brand new for television, a show that feels like modern comics do.  (Person of Interest does the same and I like it almost as much, but is, I think, definitively out of genre.)  In doing so, it incidentally provides an Oliver Queen who's true to his comics original, with a lead actor capable of great subtlety and precision who nevertheless, as my wife noted admiringly, might be capable of winning Ninja Warrior.  Warehouse 13 entertained while being somewhat less coherent and interesting than previous seasons.  Fringe disappointed hugely with a season that, thus far, hasn't shown us any reason for its existence and feels like it could have been played out in a single telemovie.  Haven chugs along and prompts hope with the occasional high quality episode.  Grimm could produce one of those at any point, but hasn't.  The winner for me, however, is Merlin, which has now transcended its origins completely to provide a final stretch of episodes that look to be enacting a great and painful tragedy, worthy of the legend.  'The Drawing of the Dark' by series creator Julian Jones was an exercise in terrific plotting, almost perfect in its execution, as Mordred was turned, purely by the best intentions of good people, from a genuinely heroic character into a terrific, real, motivated villain.  In other words, to go with the metaphor the show has demonstrated a genuine political and personal understanding of, he was 'radicalised'.  The dolorous stroke of this fall of Camelot seems to be our hero's own lack of mercy where one of his own kind is concerned.  The oppressed should always most fear their fellows.  I anticipate a brilliant ending, and I hope the full tragedy is enacted.  But whether or not that happens, that one amazing episode should win awards.

As to favourite movie and books, as someone who was first preparing for parenthood, then experiencing it, I haven't been to a movie for months, and my reading is now done in tiny gaps.  I'd hesitate to name a work of long form fiction I finished and enjoyed that was published in the last year.  I did keep up with my reading of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine up until November, and I'd like to mention with fondness the following stories of quality from that publication:

Short: 'The War is Over and Everyone Wins' by Zachary Jernigan; 'The People of Pele' by Ken Liu; 'Beautiful Boys' by Theodora Goss; 'Star Soup' by Chris Willrich.

Novelette: 'The Pass' by Benjamin Crowell; 'Missionaries' by Mercurio D. Rivera; 'Old Paint' by Megan Lindholm; 'The Bernoulli War' by Gord Sellar; 'The Ghost Factory' by Will Ludwigsen.

Novella: 'Murder Born' by Robert Reed.  (One of the best pieces of genre short fiction I've ever read, concerning the mass return to life of murder victims.)

And my comics reading has also been so all over the place this year that I'd only be mentioning the usual suspects.  Many of my friends have done great things, but their names would be no surprise to you, and they know how I feel about them.

In the next few days, of course, I'll be adding to those with everything I forgot to mention.  Hopefully.

So, on to the main feature of today's blog, and how lovely it is too.  We continue our theme of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' as explored by guest bloggers.  Today it's the turn of writer, Doctor Who novelist and girls' comics enthusiast Jacqueline Rayner, talking about Eight Maids a Milking!  She brings a new Sherlock Holmes story entitled...

The Adventure of the Dead Parrot

It was early on the morning of the Sunday before Advent when my friend Sherlock Holmes and I found ourselves returning, through streets still lit by gas lamps, to our Baker Street abode.  Having successfully solved the mystery of Colonel McKenzie’s midnight visitor and dealt with its aftermath, Holmes had determined on a walk through the night air to clear our heads of the horrors we had seen, instead of embarking on the long and possibly fruitless search for a hansom. 

     We were nearing the famous museum of Madame Tussauds on the Marylebone Road when a terrible scream reached our ears, a sound more suited to the waxworks’ Chamber of Horrors than to a humble London terraced house.  I stopped still, but Holmes' sharp ears had swiftly pinpointed the direction of the noise and he was already running up the stone steps towards the house’s front door.  As I followed him, a further cry came to us. ‘He is dead!  Dead!’
     Holmes banged on the door.  I joined him on the top step and waited, but there was no answer.  ‘I hope you are feeling strong, Watson,’ said he.  ‘We may have to force entry.’ 
     He knocked again as I braced myself on the railing, ready to give my strongest kick.  But my preparations were unneeded.  The door was opened by a flustered-looking night-shirted man, a nightcap perched on top of a head that would surely have qualified him for the red-headed league, had that strange society really existed.  ‘I don’t know what’s happening,’ he muttered, vanishing back inside. 
     We followed him down the hallway and into a kitchen.  A plump woman knelt on the flagstones, tears streaming down her cheeks.  ‘What is it, Mrs Mutlow?’ the man demanded.  ‘Who is dead?’
     She moved back, spreading out her arms towards a small white body on the floor.  ‘It’s Percy!’ she cried.  I stepped into the room.  The creature which had brought forth such an agonised scream was a bird. 
 ‘What you need is a nip of brandy,’ said I to the distressed woman, but the gentleman raised a hand in protest. 
     ‘On no account,’ said he.  ‘I will not have spirits drunk in this kitchen.’  He turned to us.  ‘I apologise that you gentlemen have been troubled by cook’s ridiculous outburst.’
     ‘So, what should I call this most singular case when I write it up?’ I enquired of Holmes as we once more set off towards Baker Street.  ‘”The Problem of the Dead Parrot”?’
     ‘More of a problem than you observed, Watson,’ said he.  ‘That parrot – or, as it should be more properly known, a cockatiel – was murdered.’
     ‘Indeed.  Perhaps you did not see the blood spots on the floor, blood that did not come from that bird but of which there were traces on the hook of its beak.  No, Watson, that cockatiel attacked some malefactor, causing, I suspect, considerable injury, and in return the intruder wrung its neck.’
     ‘Good grief!’ I exclaimed.  ‘Who would do such a thing?’
     ‘Someone annoyed by its squawking no doubt.   An interesting little problem.  There had clearly been no break-in – you do not need me to enumerate the many ways in which that fact is obvious – which leads us to conclude the murderer was a member of the household.  Yet the cockatiel would almost certainly have attacked the head of its victim, perhaps their hands if they tried to protect themselves, and neither the cook nor the night-shirted gentleman displayed wounds and the only other member of the household is a bedridden invalid.’
     ‘You know the family, Holmes?’
     ‘Not at all. It was merely observation and deduction – can it be that you did not notice the solitary male garment on the hatstand and all the accoutrements needed for calves’ foot jelly set out on the kitchen table – to say nothing of the absence of a maid leading to the gentleman of the house opening his own front door?’ 

Intriguing as this was, the puzzle of the parrot soon passed from our minds as preparations for the Christmas festivities commenced.  But on the second day after Christmas, as we sat reading the daily papers, a paragraph caught my eye.  ‘Holmes,’ I cried.  ‘Do you recall the house where we had such a singular encounter with a dead bird?  Surely the address given in this obituary is one and the same!’

     Holmes took the paper from me and perused it with a frown.  ‘”On the 25th of December, at her home in Marylebone Road, Miss Constance Ackerly.”  “Miss” – so the young man in the nightcap must therefore have been a nephew.  Cause of death given as acute gastritis.’
     ‘Overindulgence on mince pies and roast goose, perhaps,’ I suggested.  ‘An invalid’s stomach, more used to calves’ foot jelly and beef tea, could well rebel against such rich fare.’
     For a few minutes Holmes sat staring into the middle distance, apparently concentrating on the sound of carollers coming from outside our window.  As they moved on to proclaim the many things their true love gave to them to celebrate Christmas, Holmes leapt to his feet.  ‘Of course! Maids a-milking.  Tell me, Watson – is there not some quaint name associated with the Sunday before Advent?’ 
     ‘Yes, indeed. In households everywhere it is known as “Stir-up Sunday” referencing both the opening words of the Collect of the day and the custom of making the Christmas plum pudding on that day.  But what that has to do with milkmaids...’
     Holmes did not enlighten me.   His only utterance, as he exited the room, was a request for Mrs Hudson not to wait lunch for him.

I had learned not to be surprised by Holmes’ many and varied guises, but it still took me a moment to recognise him in the shabby, disreputable figure that shambled into our rooms some hours later.  He had been indulging in gossip about the Ackerly household, and had discovered that the deceased lady, despite the humble nature of her home and the lack of servants, was wealthy. 
     ‘A miser, in the manner of the late Mr Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge, although perhaps prompted by fear rather than avarice.  Despite being confined to her bed, the lady was expected to live for a good many years to come, and suffered from great anxiety that, should her funds fail her, she would be removed to a workhouse.  She therefore clung tight to every penny to ward off such a day, despite her nephew – Mr George Ackerly, her sole relative – assuring her that such an outcome was, if not truly impossible, then at least so unlikely as to make it absurd.  Her adherence to a simple diet was as much to reduce the household bills as to preserve her health.  Christmas furnished the one exception to this strict diet, when, for the sake of the season, Miss Ackerly would descend from her bedroom and partake of the feast alongside her nephew.’
     ‘A mistake,’ I said, shaking my head.  ‘No invalid’s constitution could take such treatment.’
     ‘Exactly.  That is what we were expected to think.’
     ‘Expected?  By whom?’
     ‘By her murderer!’
     I gasped.  ‘Surely you jest!’
     ‘By no means.’  Holmes began to remove the dirt from his face.  ‘Miss Ackerly’s constitution was not much  feebler than the next man’s, for all her invalid diet.  Should she perish of gastritis in the normal way of things, a doctor may become suspicious.  But that was avoided by her death coinciding with such a break in her routine.’
     ‘Poison, you think?’
     ‘I am sure of it. I can even put a name to it – arsenic.’
     Arsenic!  The tasteless, odourless scourge of the medical profession.  How many poor souls had gone to their graves with ‘gastritis’ recorded where ‘arsenic’ should have been? 
     ‘This is what I believe happened.  Mr George Ackerly, who I have ascertained has many gambling debts, resolved to do away with his aunt to inherit the money she guarded so fiercely.  On the night before “Stir-up Sunday” he descended to the kitchen to adulterate the ingredients for the Christmas pudding – remember how he reacted when you suggested the cook take a mouthful of brandy? – not knowing that Mrs Mutlow had lately taken to leaving the door to the parrot cage open at night, to allow her pet, Percy, to fly free. When Percy attacked he had to silence the bird or risk discovery.  That done, he merely had to wait a month until his aunt partook of the poisoned plum pudding.’
     ‘But Holmes,’ I cried.  ‘Did he eat none of the pudding himself?’
     ‘That is where his genius comes in.  He ate the pudding, yes, and enjoyed it.  If anyone should query his aunt’s illness, the innocuous nature of the meal was proved beyond doubt, as each had partaken of the exact same feast yet only one of the two diners had succumbed to illness.  You know of course that small doses of arsenic, taken over time, eventually lead to immunity from the poison.  They do, however, leave deposits in the hair of the individual.’  He produced a few bright red hairs from his pocket.  ‘Obtained from the hairbrush of the gentleman in question.  This will demonstrate the truth of the matter!’
     I watched while he set up the equipment needed to carry out the Marsh test, then waited eagerly for the shiny black ‘arsenic mirror’ to appear on the tile.
     We waited in vain.
     Holmes’s eyes narrowed.  ‘No.  I do not accept that my reasoning was faulty.  It is unquestionable that there was no break in, and no stranger had passed the threshold for months beforehand.  Every fact leads to the conclusion that George Ackerly is guilty of the murder of his aunt.’
     ‘But remember there was no sign of a wound on his head, Holmes, whereas we know that the bird drew blood.  And if his hair contains no trace of arsenic –’
     ‘No!’  Holmes thumped his fist on the table, then fell into a deep reverie.  Almost an hour passed before he rose.  ‘Watson,’ said he, 'have you your revolver handy?’ 
     ‘Of course!’ I cried.
     ‘Excellent!  Then fetch it, and meet me on the Marylebone Road in an hour’s time.  Once I have run an errand, we will pay a visit to the house of mourning and get to the bottom of this affair.’
     He grabbed coat, stick and an empty carpet bag.  ‘Don’t wait dinner, Mrs Hudson!’ he called as he left, and I wondered how long it would be before vittles passed his lips again.

The blinds were down at the house in Marylebone Road.  Normally one would not intrude on a house of mourning, but if Holmes was right, these were no ordinary circumstances.  I had been waiting only a few minutes when my friend arrived, a large carpet bag in his hand.
     The door was opened by the cook, and we were ushered into the drawing room to wait for George Ackerly.  ‘We apologise for disturbing you,’ said Holmes when that gentleman joined us.  ‘I also apologise that no introductions were made when we made your acquaintance a month ago.  My name is Sherlock Holmes –’  Was I imagining things, or did Mr Ackerly start at those words?  ‘- and in light of the rumours which have reached my ears – ’
     ‘What rumours?’ 
     Holmes looked surprised.  ‘Why, the rumours regarding the death of your aunt from the poison in the plum pudding.’
     This time I knew I was not mistaken.  The man’s face went as white as the snow that lay on the paths outside. 
     ‘I have heard no such rumours!’ he cried.
     ‘No?  They say that arsenic was added to the Christmas pudding ingredients the night the parrot died.’
     ‘But I ate a good portion of that pudding!  That proves these rumours to be nonsensical.’
     ‘Ah!’  Holmes beamed at him.  ‘Excellent!  Arsenic, as I am sure you aware, can be found in the hair of anyone who has been exposed.  All we need to do is make a test of your hair, and then we can lay the rumours to rest for good.’
     I frowned.  Holmes had already carried out such a test!  Was it possible that the hair he had somehow obtained was not that of George Ackerly?  Its distinctive colour made that doubtful.  Yet Ackerly visibly relaxed at Holmes’s suggestion, and when my friend went on to tell of the theory that the poisoner would display obvious wounds from an attacking parrot, the man almost smiled.  He must be confident of proving his innocence if he could smile at the idea of Holmes’s tests.  I waited for Holmes to make our apologies and leave.  But he had other ideas.
     ‘Oh, one other thing,’ Holmes said, and reached for the carpet bag.  ‘I wondered if your cook might be able to give a home to Polly.’  He opened the bag and drew out a bird cage.  A sleepy looking cockatiel cocked its head at us. 
     ‘I don’t think –’ Ackerly began, but Holmes was already unfastening the cage door.
     ‘She needs a home and she is very friendly.’  The bird stepped tentatively on to Holmes’s hand – then gave a massive squawk as he flung his arm towards George Ackerly.  The man yelled as the panicked cockatiel flew at his head.  Its outstretched talons caught in the man’s hair – which fell off, revealing a few ragged red hairs round a bald, heavily scarred scalp.

‘A wig! It covered up the injuries caused by the parrot, and ensured that his “hair” was arsenic-free.’  We were trudging back through the snow towards Baker Street, having left Ackerly in the care of the police.   Polly was quiet once more inside the carpet bag. 
     Holmes nodded.  ‘I recalled that the frequent taking of arsenic can cause extreme hairloss, and with hair of such a striking shade the loss would have to be disguised to avoid difficult questions.  It seemed the only conceivable explanation, but I felt the man would not readily allow me to get close enough to test the theory for myself, hence borrowing Polly here from our old friend Sherman in Lambeth.’
     A thought struck me.  ‘Holmes, I am still perplexed about the maids a-milking.’ 
     ‘And you a medical man, Watson.  Edward Jenner!  His discovery that milkmaids who had been infected with cowpox were immune to the smallpox virus led to him infecting others with cowpox to prevent them from catching the worse disease.  A small amount of a harmful thing taken to protect you against greater harm – which is what Mr George Ackerly did with arsenic.’ 
     I suppressed a shudder, recalling the look of madness on the man’s face as he launched himself at my friend after his deceit was revealed.  ‘It is as well you suggested my bringing my revolver.  What a villain!  Still, he is in Japp’s hands now.’
     ‘Indeed,’ said Holmes.  ‘And I suspect I know how he feels about the matter.  As sick – as a parrot.’

Jacqueline Rayner is a writer who was at one point also an editor, but is now frustratingly unable to do anywhere near as much writing as she’d like due to having Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (please have a look at this blog where sufferers are frantically fundraising for research and treatment), and the editing has fallen by the wayside completely.  So what possessed her to attempt a piece of fiction for Paul’s blog when she’s frantically struggling to meet her own deadlines amid vomiting six-year-old twins?  Because golden age crime fiction is the genre she loves above all others but she’s never actually tried writing it before and it suddenly felt like a thing she really, really wanted to do.  (And how do I know this?  Because I am she!  Just writing in the third person because it’s the tradition for biogs and you don’t start messing with tradition at Christmas.) Of course, anyone trying to ape Conan Doyle is setting themselves up for a fall because he was a genius at this stuff, but it’s Christmas, so please forgive the self-indulgence.  (Oh, and she’s just realised, if only Poirot was out of copyright this could have been written for him and been called Dead Parrot (for The) Sketch. Dead Parrot (for The) Strand just isn’t funny.  Shame.) 

Thank you, Jac.  We'll continue tomorrow with Fables creator (and the man responsible for this run of blogs) Bill Willingham talking about... Nine Ladies Dancing!  Until then, Cheerio!

5 Response to "The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Eight"

  • Michele Says:

    That story was brilliant fun. I was totally gripped! Well done Jac!

  • sanmiguel71 Says:

    Great story from Ms. Rayner.

    I have agree to disagree with your take on the last season of Fringe. Then again, I like the underdogs going up against a very powerful force. The loss of a character who was only established 5 episodes earlier had real impact.

    Thanks for the short fiction recommendations!

  • Rainbow Warrior Says:

    Thanks for the great story from Ms. Rayner.

    Paul, I have to agree to disagree with you on Fringe. I really like the team going underground to stop the seemingly powerful Observers. The death of character, only established 5 episodes earlier, really had an an emotional impact on me. I am hoping for a great finale.

    Thanks for the short fiction recommendations.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Well, each to his own, both of you!