Pro-File: Mary Reed and Eric Mayer.
The husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer have written six well-regarded mystery novels chronicling the cases solved by one John the Eunuch, Lord Chamberlain to Justinian I. Set primarily in Constantinople in the mid-sixth century, at the height of the Byzantine Empire, the stories are not only well-grounded from a historical point of view, but they’re also Grade-A detective fiction in the traditional sense, with plenty of comic relief.
After several short stories in which John appeared, his first appearance in book form was One for Sorrow (Poisoned Pen Press, 1999), followed at yearly intervals by Two for Joy, Three for a Letter, Four for a Boy, and Five for Silver. Awards and other honors have followed suit, including a Glyph award for Two and nominations for the Bruce Alexander History Mystery award for Four and Five.
Asked why they chose a eunuch as a detective, and whether he was unique in detective fiction, Mary’s reply is that his condition came about for historical reasons, and not for “shock value.” Many eunuchs held high office at that time in civil and military administrations, the thinking being, Mary goes on to explain, that with no family interests to push forward, they would devote themselves to the good of the empire. When they began writing about him, as far as they knew, John was the only eunuch detective around, but another sequence of mystery novels has appeared since that time, as Mary points out, these involving castrato soprano Tito Amato in 18th century Venice, written by Bev Myers and also published by Poisoned Pen Press.
The authors are also fans of the “locked room” mystery, and many of their short stories involve impossible crimes in one form or another. Other series characters, in the short form only (so far) are Herodotus of ancient Egypt, and Inspector Dorj of modern Mongolia. These and a host of other non-series tales from the pen(s) of this prolific pair of co-authors have appeared regularly in EQMM and continue to do so – not to mention a healthy percentage of the historical mystery anthologies published over the past ten years or more.
Visit their website at http://home.epix.net/~maywrite/.
-Steve. (May 2, 2006.)
1. Tell us about your current novel.
Six For Gold is something of a departure for us because for the first time the narrative alternated between two locations – Mehenopolis, an Egyptian backwater boasting a shrine to the ancient snake god Mehen, and the more familiar Constantinople. John himself departs for Egypt under a cloud, having been accused of the murder of a senator but is unable to clear himself before being despatched to investigate why sheep are cutting their own throats.
Among the suspicious characters John and his two companions encounter in Egypt are a pretentious local landowner and a self-styled magician who are battling for control of the lucrative shrine, an exiled heretical cleric, an itinerant bee-keeper, a purveyor of cat mummies, and a disgraced charioteer. Meantime, back in Constantinople, John’s friends, poet turned lawyer Anatolius and excubitor captain Felix, are doing their best to find the person responsible for the senator’s death.
2. Can you give us a sense of what you’re working on now?
We’re about to begin writing Seven For A Secret. This time John remains in Constantinople! We envision this book as a more traditional investigatory tale where the solution to the mystery gradually becomes clear as various suspects and not-so-innocent bystanders reveal their stories to John. However, whenever we start a novel we vow the plot will be simple, and yet invariably it twists and turns into a truly byzantine story. Once again, with the lion trainer’s traditional whip and chair in hand, we propose to tame the unruly plotline. Time will tell if we succeed in doing so.
3. What is the greatest pleasure of a writing career?
Entertaining readers who enter our fictional worlds for a few hours. Beyond that, being able to spend time making up yarns, which in itself is a pleasure for anyone who likes to tell stories and create lives from whole cloth.
4. The greatest DIS-pleasure?
As full time freelance writers, obtaining the necessary ‘work-work’ in order to keep afloat, and yet still find the time needed for writing fiction. Plus the hideous tax burden for the self-employed – and don’t even think about mentioning the cost of health insurance for those who are not salaried workers!
5. If you have one piece of advice for the publishing world, what is it?
We would ask them to consider doing away with half million dollar advances and instead give 50 authors $10,000 apiece, thus increasing the possibility of sales overall by virtue of having additional entries in the race, making more authors happy, and lessening the strain of having to sell enough copies of the half million dollar advance book to make a few dollars in profit.
6. Are there two or three forgotten mystery writers you’d like to see in print again?
With the advent of the Web, a number of forgotten mystery writers are returning to the light o’ day via e-text sites, but what we’d like to see is a series reprinting overlooked short mystery stories originally published in 19th century and early 20th century magazines. Think of mining for hidden gems in dozens of periodicals such as The Strand, Illustrated London News, Household Words, Blackwood’s, Cornhill Magazine, The Graphic, Bentley’s Miscellany, Ainsworth’s Magazine, The Idler, Pearson’s Magazines, All The Year Round, Cassell’s Family Magazine, Chamber’s Journal, and Pall Mall Magazine! Never mind what critics thought about these stories, let’s have them back in print, illustrations and all!
7. Tell us about selling your first novel. Most writers never forget that moment.
Our path to publication was one less travelled. By 1998 we’d published three or four short stories about John – “A Byzantine Mystery” in The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunits, “A Mithraic Mystery in The Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives, and “Beauty More Stealthy” in Classical Whodunits: Murder and Mystery from Ancient Rome and Greece, all collections edited by master anthologist Mike Ashley, plus “Leap of Faith,” which appeared in EQMM. We were seized with the notion of writing a book about our protagonist, but the problem was we had no agent and conventional wisdom had it one was necessary in order to break out at novel length. Then, in 1998, reading a MWA newsletter, we noticed that a fairly new publisher called Poisoned Pen Press had been nominated for an Edgar in the Best Critical/Biographical Work for AZ Murder Goes ... Classic.
So we emailed PPP a note of congratulations and while we were at it asked if they were also considering publishing original fiction. The same day, editor-in-chief Barbara Peters confirmed they were indeed thinking about it and asked for further details about John and One For Sorrow. These were duly transmitted, and shortly thereafter came a request for the full manuscript. Naturally we despatched it post haste and not long afterwards received a kindly letter from Louis Silverstein, then chairman of PPP’s editorial review committee. We were thrilled, to say the least, for the encouragement Louis gave us and have always been grateful to him for it.
About three weeks after submitting Onefer came the glad word it was accepted, and we were so overcome with delight and, yes, surprise that after a bit of mafficking about we more or less had to lie down with damp cloths on our foreheads. We later learnt that not long before our first email arrived, Barbara had been commenting on the lack of mysteries set in the Byzantine period. Thus did Fortuna play an unsuspected role in John’s appearance in novel form.
After acceptance came such rewriting as was needed – including the first chapter, which was laboured on and wept over more than once – and then John was ready to sail away as we stood on the quayside waving our hankies. Yet it still did not seem quite real until the year before the book came out when, on Christmas Eve and without any warning, the Press sent us a huge and glorious jpeg of the beautiful scarlet cover for Onefer. Talk about your best Christmas box ever! And it was this striking cover which One For Sorrow flaunted when it finally appeared in 1999. It was not only our debut novel but also the first original mystery published by Poisoned Pen Press.
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Copyright © 2006 by Steve Lewis. All rights reserved to contributors.
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