(Editor’s note: In the latest installment of our “Story Behind the Story” series, we introduce you to Mary Reed and Eric Mayer. For the last 11 years, this husband-and-wife team have produced “John the Eunuch” mysteries, set during the Middle Ages in the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The essay below recounts how they began writing those historical puzzlers, and where their eunuch detective hero stands in Eight for Eternity, the new entry in that series.)
The eighth of our historical mysteries featuring John, Lord Chamberlain to the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian, is just out from Poisoned Pen Press. We’ve been writing about sixth-century Constantinople for quite a while now. To get there, we didn’t take the Via Egnatia straight to the Golden Gate. We followed more obscure and meandering paths, which just happened to end at the walls of the Byzantine capital.
As aspiring writers, we both traversed the lowlands of science-fiction fanzines and then climbed into the foothills of non-fiction magazines. Mary ascended to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and even the BBC, whereas Eric wandered into small-press comics. After we married in 1992, our paths converged.
In that same year editor Mike Ashley asked us if we could write a story for a historical mystery anthology. He needed something short and he needed it quickly. For authors who are serious about historical authenticity, “quickly” is a problem. Research takes time. That’s where Eric's comics came in.
In addition to publishing his own “mini-comics,” he had tried, without success, to sell some comic-book scripts. One involved an ancient superhero, a Byzantine slave who chanced upon a magic ring that had belonged to the pagan Roman Emperor Domitian. The ring could be used to summon the old gods, who had been largely deposed by Christianity. To write the script, Eric had done more than enough research for a 2,000-word story. Thus we set out on the road for Constantinople, in A.D. 532, the time of the Nika street riots, and coincidentally the setting for our current novel.
At that point, Mary’s experience in writing mystery stories took over. She came up with a suitable puzzle and a twist at the end. The story was not intended as a character study. Nevertheless, a mystery story requires a detective, so we started looking to fill the position.
“The successful applicant will be someone close to the emperor, who might be trusted with an assignment of a delicate nature. Psychological complexity not required.”
A cursory glance at Byzantine history revealed the emperors’ Lord Chamberlains possessed the proper qualifications. Powerful and influential palace officials who were close to the ruler, Lord Chamberlains had historically been given all manner of odd jobs, such as reconquering Italy in the case of Narses. So was born John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian I (who reigned from 527 to 565).
The title Lord Chamberlain is a very loose translation from the Greek employed by some Victorian historians. Perhaps it is not the best term, but we don’t imagine “A praepositus sacri cubiculi mystery” would sound very enticing to potential readers.
Over the years we’ve come to wonder whether “A John the Eunuch Mystery” is a very effective enticement. Some readers might well be repelled by the word eunuch, and others might find it hard to warm up to a protagonist so apparently lacking in qualities that seem to dominate practically every form of entertainment we’re offered these days. If you can’t even sell beer without sex, how can you hope to sell books without it?
John’s castration was accidental, both in fiction and in fact. In fact, it was a slip by the authors. Byzantine Lord Chamberlains were traditionally eunuchs, so we gave him that appellation to add a bit of color to our brief tale. A bit of color for the authors, tragedy for the character. When Mike Ashley subsequently asked us for a second, and then a third Byzantine mystery, neither of us had the presence of mind to invent a new and improved Lord Chamberlain while we still had the chance. After John had appeared in print several times, we decided we had to deal with his accidental maiming, rather as he has had to. In the first novel, One for Sorrow (1999), we described how he was captured, castrated, and sold into slavery after thoughtlessly wandering behind Persian lines. Perhaps it was unfair, attributing our own thoughtlessness to the young John.
By sticking with a eunuch detective, we arguably exacerbated the problem by the way we treated his disability. We downplayed it. John prefers not to talk about his condition and never dwells on it. His injury does not affect the way he acts or the sort of person he is, aside from his exerting a steely control over himself so as not to allow the misfortune to consume him. Would we have been better advised, in today’s marketplace, to emphasize John’s freakishness?
“Step right up, ladies and gentleman, if you dare. Inside the tent we have a detective never before seen, an abomination against nature, the world’s first, one and only, Eunuch Detective!”
Or should we have turned him into a brooding, dark-souled noir figure? John has been given to rage on occasion. He could have spent all of his time violently taking out his rage against the world.
Unfortunately, we have a weakness for writing what we like and a worse weakness for liking what is unfashionable. Still, observant readers will note that the book covers now say “A John the Lord Chamberlain Mystery,” with no mention of his being a eunuch. This, though, was probably a case of closing the barn doors after the horse had escaped, galloped across the fields, leapt the fence, and vanished into the woods.
Although John’s wounds cannot be healed, we have over the years, added details to his character. He has even been reunited with both the woman he loved before his fateful straying, and the daughter she bore him. The arrival of those two women allows John to display the softer side of his nature, which is also demonstrated in his treatment of his elderly servant, Peter, who like John spent time as a slave. In fact, given John’s character as we depict it today, he would be incapable of the treachery carried out by the Lord Chamberlain in that first short story. If ever challenged on it, we intend to claim it was all a pack of lies circulated by Procopius, notorious for his Secret History depicting the emperor and empress as evil, rapacious demons.
That would also explain how, in Eight for Eternity, John is doing something very different during the Nika Riots than was shown in the early story. The current novel differs considerably from our previous books in that it is much more firmly wedded to a specific historic event and strongly features historical characters, including the great general Belisarius and the legendary charioteer Porphyrius.
One error we’re determined to avoid is writing the same book over and over. Significant changes to the series are on the way. John’s long-time nemesis, Empress Theodora, will be departing in book nine as we leap to A.D. 548, the year of her death. There will be changes in our cast of characters and their situations, including John’s own situation. We may very well write a book or two predominantly from the viewpoint of characters other than John, and will most likely see a little of the sixth-century world outside Constantinople.
Before then, however, John has to carry out an investigation against a murderous backdrop lit by raging fires after he is ordered to find those people seeking to use the Nika Riots to dethrone the emperor. Are the ringleaders still in the city--or even alive? Porphyrius, the most famous charioteer of his time, may know more than he tells about the mysterious disappearance of two men under imperial guard. What roles are being played by a pair of brothers with a distant claim on the throne? Does a headstrong young girl hold the key to the mystery? With the fate of the Byzantine Empire at stake, will General Belisarius and his armed troops side with the rioters or remain loyal to Justinian? To some the riots portend the end of the empire, to others the end of the world itself. John must untangle a web of intrigue in a city where death holds court at every corner before the escalating violence in the streets removes all hope of finding those he seeks.
Won’t someone please call it noir?