Mary and her husband Eric Mayer write the popular John the Lord Chamberlain mysteries, set in sixth-century Constantinople, a city of extremes: wealth and corruption, beauty and violence. Originally published in the USA by Poisoned Pen Press, John’s adventures are launched today in Britain, which gives Mary a special pleasure because she was born in England, where she first got her interest in ancient history…
My family once lived in a long-gone street running into Scotswood Road in the north-eastern city of Newcastle-on-Tyne. I sometimes walked to grammar school rather than taking the bus, cutting through a street near my destination to take another glance at a startling sight in the middle of a heavily industrialised city: the remains of a Roman era temple.
To be sure, there isn’t much left of it. Dedicated to the god Antenociticus, built around 180 AD, and destroyed by fire about sixteen years later — it’s amazing what archaeologists can deduce from small amounts of evidence! — it consists of a low portion of its walls outlining what appears to be a very small space. The passerby will observe casts of two pillar altars and the head of a statue, the originals being held in a Newcastle museum. Imagine doing the washing up and looking out the kitchen window at the temple, a silent reminder of Roman rule!
One year our class went on a day trip to Hadrian’s Wall, out on the Northumbrian moors. Standing on the broad top of the structure that had once marked the edge of the empire, with a cold wind howling round our knees it was easy to imagine how far from home those patroling there must have felt, especially during the grey misty winters. To add to the jollity of our visit it rained that day something shocking. We got soaked.
However, our venture into the Byzantine period came about through an editor living in southern England. After my co-author and I married, we had some modest publishing success with short stories. One afternoon we had a call from Mike Ashley, who asked us if we thought we could write a short story in about three weeks for an anthology of historical whodunnits he was editing. Naturally we said yes. Eric is interested in Byzantine history and therefore had a number of books we could consult, so Justinian’s reign became our setting, and from there we progressed to John’s occupation, Lord Chamberlain, and his condition — he’s a eunuch, historically correct for holders of high office in certain eras. We also made him a secret worshipper of Mithra in an officially Christian court. Mithraism’s requirements added depth to his character, not to mention dramatic tension. As for Constantinople and the imperial court, it was a perfect place for back-stabbings, often literally and not always in the foul alleys outside the palace walls.
Two or three short stories about John subsequently appeared and then came One For Sorrow, John’s first novel-length adventure. There are nine of them to date. The latest entry, Nine For The Devil, appeared in March 2012. They’ve all been published in the US by Poisoned Pen Press, and now the revised edition of One For Sorrow is issued by Head of Zeus, publisher of the series in the UK.
There is a connection to Bretania in One For Sorrow, since one of its main characters is Thomas, a British knight who claims to be in Constantinople seeking the Holy Grail. The soothsayer Ahasuerus and two ladies from Crete stir up events and old memories for John, who must establish if and how these various visitors link to the death of his old friend Leukos, Keeper of the Plate.
It happens that in his youth John fought as a mercenary in Bretania. We haven’t sent him back there yet, but perhaps one day he will stand on the Wall and look north into savage parts.
ONE FOR SORROW is published on December 1st by Head of Zeus, London, under the pen-name M. E. Mayer. Find out more about both authors and their books at http://home.earthlink.net/~maywrite/