|John the Eunuch
(creators: Eric Mayer and Mary Reed)
|John the Eunuch is the Lord Chamberlain to the Christian Emperor Justinian in 6th century Constantinople, and is a secret adherent of Mithra ("a simple soldier's religion" that pre-existed Christianity and hailed from Persia) in the largely Christian community. He had once served as a mercenary in Egypt, after having run away from Plato's Academy and his philosophy studies, but, before he had reached his 25th birthday, had been captured and castrated by the Persians (his "genitals were entirely removed") then sold as a slave. He had subsequently worked his way up at the palace to his current important role. He seems to have settled well into his new life, but his friend Anatolius cannot help wondering if "John's controlled and rational exterior might be no more than a thin varnish over madness and despair".
|He was "a tall, thin Greek, clean-shaven, with high, sharp cheekbones and sun-darkened skin" and "closely cropped black hair".
Eric Mayer (1950- ) grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania and, after going to law school, began work as a technical writer on legal publications. He began writing non-fiction for science-fiction fanzines (amateur magazines) and even produced his own. It was through this shared interest that he met his wife and co-writer Mary. He also writes comic books, and programmes text-based computer games and interactive fiction.
Mary Reed was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne in England. She worked as a secretary before running the Theology Faculty office at Oxford University. She subsequently emigrated to America, and it was while living in Illinois that she sold her first short story. She began writing mystery stories, the first of which was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in 1987. Six years later she co-wrote the first John the Eunuch story with her husband, Eric Mayer, and this was followed by eight others as listed below.
One for Sorrow (1999)
There are vivid portrayals of life at the time including the dancing prostitutes and heavily made-up pretty page boys, the life of a stylite living on top of his tall pillar (whose "few rotten rags of clothing ..... squirmed with life. The stench was unbearable, even to John who had helped bury former colleagues on battlefields days after victories") and a secret ceremony of Mithra in which the adherent "ascends another run of his religion's ladder" by getting drenched in the blood of a slaughtered bull.
The authors had to use their imagination about such ceremonies because, in reality, very little is known about them. However, as they explain in their glossary Mithrans "advanced through seven degrees ranging from Corax (Raven) to Pater (Father) .... Followers were required to practice chastity, obedience and loyalty. Some parallels have been drawn between Mithraism and Christianity, because of shared practices such as baptism and a belief in the resurrection. Mithra, in common with many sun gods, was said to have been born on December 25."
When John is eventually able to confront the murderer, his “lips curled back in a wolfish grin. Rage iced his veins. The siren song of combat, so long absent from his ears, sang in his blood. He was prepared to kill and to enjoy the killing." It is all bit melodramatic but provides a dramatic conclusion to a story with an intriguing setting that holds the interest throughout.
I have included this book because of its interesting setting and its glimpse into the world of Mithra - but I propose to review only two of the numerous other books in the series as John is such a very marginal clerical detective!
Two for Joy (2000)
Three for a Letter (2001)
We meet an interesting cross-section of people ranging from the dying Emperor Justin and senators, churchmen, and wealthy businessmen to laborers, beggars, and prostitutes. It makes a violent story with enough dramatic action to hold the interest and John's previous experience as a mercenary certainly comes in useful in fighting off enemies and making dramatic escapes. There are vivid descriptions of life (and death) at the time as when the ailing old Justin suddenly turns on his attendants: "Guards! Guards!" he calls. "Take these two attendants outside for a little stroll in the garden. Then execute them both."
It is old Justin too who orders Felix to "hold out that pot for me." Then he "gestured weakly at the plain ceramic vessel sitting on the floor at the side of his couch. 'My night soil pot. I wish to relieve myself. Yes. you could tell the time by me. I drip like a water clock .... I don't need a physician, Felix. What I need is a plumber.' "
There are other parts of the dialogue that also don't always sound totally convincing, as when Lady Anna's would-be lover warns her, "Rumors swirl about the court like seagulls at the fish seller's stall. I worry sometimes that someone will put a nasty word or two about your father into Justinian's ear. You don't want to inadvertently help bring official disfavor on him, or even official attention."
Another part that is not entirely convincing is when John and Felix witness a fearsome Mithraic initiation ceremony that sounds as if it came straight from the authors' fevered imagination. However, Mithraism is still very real for John who still "prayed nightly (to Mithra) for acceptance of the terrible fate his rashness had brought on him." He has leant to be aggressive when there is any mention of his castration: "Can you imagine," he asks Felix, "how often I have been questioned about this matter? The very thing I most wish to avoid ever discussing with anyone, let alone the drunken louts who are the most obscenely curious? So I long since decided to give the prying bastards an answer that would make them wish they hadn't asked." And "a brief smile crossed John's face". You could almost call him smug - but, then, as his exploits show, he's a born survivor.
As this was the only one of the stories to take us back to John's earlier experiences, it would have been interesting to have also heard something about his life before he was enslaved - and about his capture and castration for, let's face it, this is probably the most interesting thing about him, and whether he likes the idea or not, it's his most important characteristic.
The Kindle edition contains a few slip-ups as when the authors' own names suddenly appear in the middle of the text on page 22 and words are missing at the end of page 184.
Five for Silver (2004)
Six for Gold (2005)
Seven for a Secret (2008)
Eight for Eternity (2010)
Nine for the Devil (2012)
The story itself gets off to a good start but it is the background detail that provides the most interest, as when we are told how Madam Isis, the "plump former madam" of a brothel had converted to Christianity and replaced the gilded Eros over her entrance with a gilded cross and transformed her girls into white robed penitents, although not all of them liked it: "Some - the newer ones - complain they have to work too hard and have too little time to themselves. And they miss their silks. The older ones, who have seen what the life can lead to, are happier with the change."
The plot involving possibly "no crime and endless suspects", gets rather tedious, especially as the crime turns out to have been an unlikely "act of mercy" that gets John dismissed from Justinian's court. But, as the authors point out, "It is not so difficult making fiction out of history since so much of history is fiction to begin with." But it is difficult to see where John can go from here that would offer such an interesting setting.
|The cover is appropriate even if a bit cluttered.|