A Conversation with Mary Reed and Eric Mayer about FIVE FOR SILVER, Number Five in the John, the Lord Chamberlain Mystery Series
When I chose a book in Mary Reed’s and Eric Mayer's John, the Lord Chamberlain mystery series, I read Five for Silver,
set in 6th century Constantinople during the Justinian plague, which many think was an early manifestation of the so-called Black plague in fourteenth-century Europe. The bubonic plague was one of four diseases I discussed in my book To Blight with Plague: Studies in a Literary Theme. A
favorable critic noted that he thought the book oddly titled. The title is taken from William Blake’s poem “London” (1794) among whose themes is the rampant incidence of syphilis at the time. He blames the pestilence on the sexual hypocrisy of his day, men visiting prostitutes to satisfy sexual drives and then marrying respectable young virgins whom they infect with this sexually transmitted disease. Blake imagines the marriage coach transformed into a “marriage hearse” and babies born blind because of syphilitic parents. Blake’s last line has to do with how the disease “blights with plague the infant’s cry.”
There were obvious differences between my book and Five for Silver.
Mine is a work of non-fiction; Reed’s and Mayer's a work of fiction. Both of us did considerable research but our sources and what we were looking for were very different. Their setting was the Justinian plague. I treated four diseases: bubonic plague; syphilis; the 1918 flu pandemic, and AIDS. Reed and Mayer had one main character who appears in the now-ten-book series, and other characters whose influence on and importance to Lord Chamberlain John could be followed from book to book. Their intention was to tell good stories set in the past. The historical mystery is a very popular genre. My book analyzed several works of literature in which disease was a major theme. I focused on inter-related themes that I traced from literary work to work. For me plagues cannot help but engender major questions about how people behave in the midst of a crisis and how personal ethics and civic duty come into play. I took the term “self-preservation” and focused on how that would be viewed across history and what different ages would think about the “self.” The idea of the individual self is a relatively modern one.
But as I have argued elsewhere, good mysteries cannot avoid dealing with significant subjects: good and evil; reasons for the existence of evil in the world; the motives for human behavior; the concept of justice; political intrigue and how it impacts on individuals; the conflict between the individual and society. Successful mystery writers may not insist that readers ponder these subjects. Many of the narrative motifs will emerge because they are intrinsic to the story or will reflect the authors’ attitudes even if expressing them are not the writers’ primary aim. In some mysteries the author’s unconscious will come into play, although I did not think this to be the case in Five for Silver.
Still, people are who they are, and for authors, who they are will come out in their fiction.
With this in mind, I engaged Reed and Mayer in a conversation about their series in general and in particular the plague theme in Five for Silver.
My part of the conversation will be introduced by my initials, BL. Mary has written to me that Eric “chimed in” on some answers and those will be indicated as M & E. When just one of them answers a question, the first name will be used.
BL. Have either or both of you published fiction before you began the series? If so, mysteries?
M & E, Mary had already published a few short stories before the series. Her first sale was to the BBC: “Aunt Ba’s Story." It was not, however, a mystery but a semi-supernatural tale, partly inspired by a dream in which Death had grey eyes and “Home from Sea,” one of her favorite Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
Then came a handful of mysteries in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine: “Local Cuisine,” “Cat’s Paw, " and “Folk Tales.” As Eric has been known to say, once married he could not avoid co-writing mysteries, and so our joint stories began to appear in the same magazine as well as in a number of historical mystery anthologies. There is a bibliography on our website http://home.earthlink.net/~maywrite
BL: Mary, it was good for your readers and undoubtedly for you that Eric decided to be your co-author. But as intelligent as he may be, what was there in his writing background that made it possible? Had he just been sitting on his talent and decided to let it come out?
Mary: You have described the situation very well. In addition, his work always involved editing and writing of a technical kind, but more importantly, he had been freelancing for years as a writer of legal articles. He is in fact, blush though he will and I know he will, a much better writer than I am and a real whiz at editing. I can show him a bit of writing and with a couple of sentences changed here and there it is immediately and vastly improved.
BL. What made you start the series and where, initially, did you think you might go with it? For example, the Swedish married writing pair, Maj Sjovall and Per Wahloo, planned their ten book Martin Beck series before—if I understand correctly—they began to write. Did you similarly plan yours? I don’t mean the individual books but rather the series.
M & E. We had no inkling we would write a novel, much less a series. For John first leapt into the world in unusual circumstances. One afternoon we had a phone call from anthologist Mike Ashley, then in the process of editing The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunits.
He asked us if we could contribute a short story, but his deadline was about three or four weeks. Naturally, we leapt at the chance! Eric is interested in the Byzantine Empire and had a number of books on the topic, so it was a natural choice as setting, and we decided we would place our story in sixth century Constantinople. As for our protagonist, we made him one of the highest officials in Justinian’s administration, and thus a man who could move about as easily in the back-stabbing atmosphere of the Great Palace as in the poorest parts of the city. He was then made a secret Mithran [see below] a belief liable to prove fatal in an officially Christian court. He was also a eunuch, a condition historically accurate for certain office-holders at this time. “A Byzantine Mystery” was a short story indeed being only five or six pages long, but subsequently Mike commissioned more of John’s adventures for other Mammoth collections. After a while the thought came to us, why not write a novel about our protagonist?
BL. How did your originally intended standalone come to be a series?
M & E. One for Sorrow
was not planned as the beginning of a series. We had no idea we would go on to write other novel-length adventures about John, and as they appeared we included a little more information about his background and life. It was in the fourth book, Four for a Boy,
that we explained how he regained his freedom after enslavement as an adult and put his boot on the first rung of the ladder to his high office. We had hinted in earlier novels that his becoming a free man again was the result of a delicate service rendered for the then emperor, Justin, Justinian’s predecessor. Our editor, Barbara Peters, felt it was time to tell that story, which also explains how John became acquainted with three people who became his closest friends: Felix, then a mere excubitor serving in the ranks, Anatolius, the senator’s son who at the time was just a boy, and the tippling physician, Gaius.
BL. One of my books was co-authored. Its subject was folklore in Ibsen’s last seven plays. My co-author was a cultural anthropologist who spoke all Scandinavian languages; I was a literary critic who depended on translations. Also, our personalities were very different. I stressed clarity and his ebullient personality spilled over onto his pages. We worked very well together but when we were ready to write, we realized we couldn’t combine our voices. So our book has an unusual structure. For example, if one wanted to read our analysis of Hedda Gabler,
there are two separate chapters about this play. His takes the anthropological-folklorist approach; mine is traditional literary criticism.
M & E. That was an excellent solution, given co-writing means working out a workable arrangement. In our case we construct an outline to work from. We each take a chapter and write the first draft. This is then reviewed by whoever did not write it, who revises it as seems needful. This second version is added to what becomes the first draft of the novel, which is subsequently looked over by both of us and tightened and revised as necessary. That’s our process and it results, strangely enough, in a quite different authorial voice than our individual ones. Barbara Peters is the only person so far who has been able to tell which of us wrote which portions.
Having said this, there are a couple of important points. Writing in this fashion leaves no room for ego. So we long ago agreed if one of us feels strongly a particular section must stay in or should definitely be removed, the other won’t kick up a fuss. We write in a lean fashion so the loss of wordage is not that significant in the long run. What is best for the novel is what rules.
It is true that Eric has said in jocular fashion that before beginning a co-written project, writers should remove all sharp implements and make certain that hinges are strong enough to withstand the door being slammed.
BL. One of the fans of your series did offer a mild complaint, which is that he recognized that there was, in addition to each book in the series, a continuing story he did not fully know. This suggests a frequent questions asked about a series, especially if a reader for one reason or another is not going to read all the books. Should that reader start with the first in the series? That is what authors of a series presumably would be delighted by, that the first book captured the reader who would continue from book to book. Or should the reader who has limited time or a TBR list that seems longer than a lifetime read one of the later books? As authors write, their confidence and a certain momentum will allow their characters and plots to develop. A first book may not be the best example. In many series, each book seems like a standalone and its place in the series is less important to understanding any single book.
M & E. There is the series author’s great difficulty, which is to say to reveal enough of the back story for the benefit of new readers but not so much as to bore those who have read earlier books. It can be difficult to present the basic information in a new way given we strive to provide it in a different fashion each time. As examples, by the content of bystanders' observations, conversations with members of the court, or choice insults from Theodora [Justinian’s wife]. Other than that, there have not been too many difficulties writing a continuing series, and we are ever careful to show growth in returning characters and changes in their situations.
BL. What were your concerns when you tried to reconcile too little back story with too much?
M & E. When we realized we would be writing more than one novel about John, we discussed to what extent we wanted each book to be a standalone or an episode in a continuing story. We decided to downplay the ongoing plot element for fear it would begin to seem like a soap opera. Our decision to weight our choices in favor of standalones reflects our personal preferences, but we are aware that we may not be in agreement with many of our readers.
We also realize that many readers may disagree about character development over the course of a series. Our own thought is that readers want to revisit essentially the same characters and not a group of people who have been much altered by the events of each book. So our characters probably do grow, as people usually do in our opinion, gradually and subtly. Our main intent, at any rate, is to present in every book a mystery, a puzzle in an interesting historical context.
BL. I realize that the plague setting that drew me is but one of these historical contexts. But now, I too would like to have an overall summary of the continuous story, a summary that will not force spoilers upon you.
M & E. In brief, John is Greek and became a mercenary after leaving Plato’s Academy. He met Cornelia, the woman he loves, who at the time belonged to a traveling troupe recreating the ancient Cretan sport of bull-leaping. John was captured, is castrated by the Persians and purchased for the Great Palace as a particularly valued slave because he is literate. These details are covered when readers first meet him in One for Sorrow
so hopefully are not really spoilers.
BL. Can you—again without spoilers--expand this summary a bit. For example, it is clear in Five for Silver
that his relationship with Cornelia is troubled, not surprising given that he is a eunuch and is now in a high court position.
M & E. After John and Cornelia becamae lovers, John joined the troupe. Being young and hotheaded, one evening after imbibing too much wine he decided that since ladies wore silk, he would buy some illicitly for Cornelia and dashed off to do it. However, in the attempt he strayed over the border and was caught by slave traders, leading to his emasculation and sale to the Great Palace. But as far as Cornelia was concerned, he had abandoned her, not knowing she was pregnant with his daughter Europa. They of course do meet again.
As a character, Cornelia has a quick temper, a sharp tongue, and what John describes as a wicked wit. Dangerously, for one living in Justinian’s court, she never hesitates to voice her opinions. They are devoted to each other and there is great love between them. Anna, the senator's daughter he is tutoring in Four for a Boy,
says it best when she observes she can tell John loves Cornelia by the way he says her name.
BL. Mary, I know you have a special favoritism to the golden age of mysteries, and that you appreciate authors who, as Aristotle urges, keep violent scenes off-stage. Have you violated your own preference by making John a eunuch?
Mary. To our surprise the description of John’s emasculation in One for Sorrow
was somewhat controversial despite the popularity of much gorier novels featuring detailed descriptions of terrible bloodshed. When we wrote One for Sorrow
we described John’s emasculation in a matter of fact way, just as he refers to it on those occasions when he must. However, he is filled with black rage about his terrible fate. For example, in conversation with one of his instructors from his time at the Academy, he observes of himself, “That young man, Cornelia’s lover, the son of a mother and father, the father of a daughter, your student, the former mercenary, all that man died when the curved blade did its work.” The account of John's emasculation was changed for the second edition and much toned down by request.
B.L. Perhaps I misunderstood something. John’s value to Justinian had to do with his literacy. But since it was not unusual for high officials to be eunuchs, there must have been some reason for this. The castration had to do with an enemy’s cruelty, I assume, but why would eunuchs in general be valued? Is it some hormonal change, not medically understood, that made them more docile, less aggressive and therefore more loyal? Did any of your research sources address this subject?
M & E. [They supplied excerpts from three sources, one of which was The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian.
] Generally speaking, authorities seem to think eunuchs were popular as holders of court office because by law they could not become emperors nor would they have families whose interests they would wish to promote. [One source dissented on the subject of families; obviously a eunuch could have had children before being castrated.]
B.L. You have described John as a Mithran. What is that and what is its significance for your stories?
Mary. John became a Mithran during his years as a mercenary. It is a soldier’s religion and was spread throughout the empire by its followers in the military. At one time it was one of the most popular Roman religions before retreating into the shadows. Mithrans were required to be chaste, obedient, and loyal. In Four for a Boy,
prequel to the series, the Father or priest further explains to a man about to be admitted to the mysteries of Mithra that an “adept guards his honor, does not defile himself or others, and never refuses aid to another follower. Above all, he loves the Lord of Light.”
Mithraism is significant in that Justinian’s court is officially Christian and anyone found to be following a pagan religion of any kind was subject to severe punishment. Consider too the irony that John’s Christian servant Peter can display proof of his beliefs, but his master John cannot. So John’s religious beliefs are a constant threat to life and limb.
Eric. During Justinian’s reign there were several purges of pagans, including high officials. The Praetorian Prefect Phocas, for example, was prosecuted for paganism in the late 520s but survived and continued in the emperor’s service, Almost twenty years later, however, he was brought to trial again and, facing execution, committed suicide. So historically the emperor was perfectly willing to employ suspected pagans as long as they suited him and to use their paganism against them when he no longer found them useful.
In fact Mithraism, being a secret religion, was very much like Freemasonry. No one knows what Mithran rituals involved since most of what we know comes from self-interested opponents. Did Mithrans really sacrifice bulls, as many scholars have said and as we depicted in the first book? It is impossible to be sure.
BL. This description of what may seem an obscure point in the story is important. It is one demonstration of how you both have aimed at historical accuracy, how much you distinguish between what is known and what is only speculated about. Moreover, because John is a secret Mithran, the danger he puts himself in is consistent with the writing of a mystery, generating suspense and concern for the protagonist.
On that subject, you seem to have done much research. As did I, but we were looking for very different things. I researched contemporary writing on pestilential diseases as well as how individual writers used them. For example, I discovered interesting controversies about how syphilis was contracted and whether an uninfected mother would give birth to an infected baby. This was important to my discussion of Ibsen’s Ghosts.
I also found a book-length study of Hawthorne’s famous story, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” which argues that it is a story about syphilis and about the controversies of the day about inoculations. One of the interesting areas I read about had to do with vocabulary, the differences among the words epidemic, pestilence, plague.
The latter is imbued with moral connotations and writers on the subject of AIDS protest this joining of plague with sin, as if it is to be taken for granted that those with HIV or AIDS deserve what is happening to them.
Where did your research take you?
M & E. All over the landscape. We did quite a bit of research, as the plague contributed both to the background and events during the novel. For Five for Silver,
apart from a couple of medical books, we also consulted Evagrius’ Ecclesiastical History
and Procopius' History of the Wars.
Both provide information on the symptoms of plague, while Procopius also supplies a vivid description of hurried arrangements for disposing of overwhelming numbers of the dead. A particularly important resource was Justinian’s law concerning the making of wills, wherein among other matters is laid down who could witness a spoken will, a vital point as the book develops.
BL. As someone who also read widely about the bubonic plague, both primary literature (Boccaccio and Defoe) and secondary, I was struck by your opening scene in Five for Silver.
Vivid hardly describes it! The man who is mistakenly buried alive and strives to save himself by climbing through layers of bodies combines historical accuracy with the kind of nightmare Edgar Alan Poe’s mysteries evoke. I have read a great deal of literature set in the midst of plagues, but your description of the way bodies were disposed of is as compelling as any I have come across. But you have stressed in our earlier discussions that there was a difference between what is called the Justinian plague and the outbreaks of bubonic plague centuries later. What are these differences?
M. & E. We were particularly struck by the fact that the plague’s symptoms sometimes included hallucinations, so we used that serendipitous discovery to kick off the plot when one of the characters takes his hallucinations to be a vision from heaven directing a certain course of action to be undertaken.
BL. Your book is very rich in historical detail. Did you also have any themes that run through the series? A way of looking at events from other than an historical vantage point? Catastrophes test peoples’ morality and sense of civic responsibility. Boccaccio and Defoe, for example, tell of horrendous incidents in which parents abandon their sick children for fear of catching the disease.
M & E. Mary sees no deliberate theme running through the series. A possible side-theme might be John’s struggle to survive enemies at court, notably Theodora, while resolving remarkable tasks set him by Justinian. In Five for Silver,
solving the mystery is exacerbated by the fact that with thousands dead from plague, another few bodies are not that noticeable. Plus there is the breakdown of society and order in a largely deserted city, and there is also a sense of great urgency given John must locate more than one person to solve the case while knowing there is a strong possibility one or all of them will die or flee the city before he can interview them.
Eric’s main motivation for writing is to tell a story that will entertain readers. Unlike a lot of writers (including a lot of very bad writers) he never felt that he had a calling to deliver some great message to the world. On the other hand, as a reader, he doesn’t find carefully engineered but essentially empty books (modern thrillers that do nothing but push emotional buttons for example) very entertaining.
BL. John’s need to survive in a court teeming with intrigue of course cannot help but involve themes of political corruption, espionage, and so on.
M & E. Over the course of the series John is motivated to do what is necessary to survive, but without betraying his principles, which is difficult and dangerous at the corrupt court of sixth century Constantinople, as it is in today’s society.
BL. That balance that John must achieve is a very complex one and I would say it adds another layer of meaning to your stories even if your main intent is to write enjoyable mysteries.
Eric. In Five for Silver,
I suppose I had in the corner of my mind how the world human beings have constructed for themselves (and in particular the ethical world) has nothing to do with nature. A plague—like all the rest of nature—has no ethics or sense of justice. Yet people will seek justice even during a plague. John seeks out a murderer who may well have killed someone who would have been a plague victim anyway. A murderer who may already be dead himself. There is the unresolved question of whether this impulse for justice is noble or simply irrational. And of course the Eastern Empire being Christian most of the citizens seek to harmonize the plague with the existence of justice through religion.
BL. We could discuss the problem of evil indefinitely—as Milton puts it, justifying the ways of God to man. It will be interesting to hear how you viewed the themes of evil and nature in Five for Silver.
Did the people of the time think they were being punished for some evil they had committed?
Eric. To the Christian writer John of Ephesus, who believed the end of the world was at hand, the plague was a manifestation of God’s wrath, a punishment in response to human sinfulness. Given the lack of medical knowledge and the prevalence of Christian beliefs most of the inhabitants of the Empire probably agreed with him. In his History of the Wars,
Procopius, noting how widespread and unpredictable the plague was, striking men of every class, in every city and season, stated that “for this calamity it is quite impossible either to express in words or to conceive in thought any explanation, except indeed to refer it to God." In the Secret History,
his polemic against Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora, he goes further and attributes not only the plague but also floods, earthquakes and invasions to the fact that God had turned his back on the Empire because it was ruled by a demon emperor.
BL. These disasters are often difficult to understand and it seems as if there is a human need to ask “why” and seek to answer it. In his novel The Plague,
Camus creates a character, Father Peneloux, who delivers a sermon with the conventional Christian view of human iniquity, but it is clear that this is not Camus’ view. How, in the twenty-first century, did you respond to John of Ephesus and Procopius?
Eric. I doubt that many people of the time even went so far as to wonder exactly what evil had brought God’s judgment down on the world. A couple of pagans remark from their point of view it seems odd that the innocent as well as the guilty should suffer for the sins of the world but our Christian characters don’t speculate about the plague. They accept it as God’s justice. Our John, as a pagan, refuses to depend on the Christian God’s justice. He insists on finding the killer, even though the killer may already have been carried off by God—according to the Christian view.
BL. I seem to have been forcing you to philosophize more than is necessary to read and enjoy your books. So why don’t we end this conversation by your repeating just what you two wanted to achieve in writing Five for Silver
—as well as the other books in the series.
M & E. Our main reason for setting a mystery during the plague was that it presented a fascinating historical backdrop—setting and atmosphere being an important part of the series—and that the death and disruption presented the detective with unusual difficulties. It is hard to investigate a murder when witnesses and even the murderer himself may have died or fled the city.
Our aim in these Byzantine mysteries is to provide a diversion for readers, albeit an intelligent one. We present a fairly clued classical mystery puzzle in an accurate historical setting. Those two things are themselves a pretty heavy burden for the short little donkey carts of our books. Any philosophizing is mostly for the sake of historical atmosphere.