John the Eunuch

(creators: Eric Mayer and Mary Reed)


Eric Mayer
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".
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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)
One for Sorrow is set in 6th century Constantinople. John the Eunuch, the Emperor's Lord Chamberlain, discovers the murdered corpse of his close friend Leukos. Leukos appears to have no known family but John is instructed by Justinian himself to investigate the murder and discover "the real reason for it". One of his suspects is King Arthur's knight Thomas from Britain who says he has come in a search for the holy grail and reveals that he is, like John, a follower of Mithra. Then there are two women from Egypt who bring up painful memories from John's troubled past.

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)

Four for a Boy (2003)
Four for a Boy takes us back to 525 AD when John was still a slave, and tells how he earned his freedom when Justinian, the dying Emperor's heir, sent him out to investigate the murder of a wealthy philanthropist, an event which, he suspects, may be part of a possible succession conspiracy. It was a time when the streets of Constantinople were terrorized alternately by elegantly dressed young thugs who styled themselves the Blues and forces under the orders of the City Prefect nicknamed The Gourd, a man notoriously adept at slaughter and magic (It is he who "plunged his bare arm into the bubbling mixture (of boiling pitch)" without coming to any harm. But before he can track down the murderer, John must first win the respect of Felix, the excubitor (member of the palace guard) who has reluctantly been paired with him, discourage the advances of the romantic but naive Lady Anna, and make peace with his own fate.

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."
"Nonsense, Trenico. My father has no grievance with Justinian."
"Look upon it as good advice, Anna. And let me add that for his sake it might also be wise for you to become more, shall we say, inclined to consider my petitions."
"If I wanted your advice, I would ask for it'. "As to your last remark, kindly explain what you mean or leave. Blackmail is despicable, however you disguise it."

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)
Nine for the Devil is set in 548 AD. The emperor's wife, Empress Theodora, has died of disease. Or so everyone in Constantinople believes. Everyone except Emperor Justinian, who orders John, his eunuch Lord Chamberlain, now "in his early fifties", to find her murderer or suffer the consequences. But was Theodora
really murdered? Or is this just a product of the Emperor's fevered imagination?

There is certainly no sign of foul play, but many of the aristocrats at the imperial court had good reason to want Theodora dead. Suspects include General Artabanes, forced to occupy a house with an unloved wife; Justinian's cousin Germanus, who has seen his career blocked; and Antonina and her husband General Belisarius, enraged by Theodora's attempt to marry their daughter to her grandson by compelling the young couple to live together. And the exiled and much hated former tax collector, John the Cappadocian, may have played a role. Had Gaius, palace physician, tampered with Theodora's medication? Pope Vigilius, detained in the capital due to a religious controversy, is not above suspicion.
Even John's friends, the lawyer Anatolius and Felix, captain of the place guards, are acting strangely.

As well as dealing with all this, John must also grapple with domestic upheavals. His daughter (born, of course, before his castration), who lives on an estate outside the city, is about to give birth, and his aging servant Peter is dying. It is he who, ill and hazy, and hardly able to stand, insists on getting up and preparing the evening meal - only to find himself back in bed with his fellow-servant Hypatia bending over him.
"What are you looking so glum about, Hypatia?", he asked her, 'but she drew away as if she had not heard.
He hadn't managed to speak. He made a determined effort.
This time she heard. "Peter, you were so still, I was worried.What are you saying?"
"The evening meal. I started it. It's on the brazier."
"What do you mean? I've just been in thr kitchen and there's nothing ..." Her voice trailed off. "Oh, I see. Yes. Thank you, Peter."
'She turned and left the room and Peter could hear her sobbing for some reason in the hallway.'
You really empathise with the poor old man, although John himself "did not have words of comfort for his long-time companion. Christians were quick to assure the sick and bereaved they would pray for them .... Not that John had known such prayers to alter fate .... John's own Mithra was not a god who would look kindly on pleas that he alter the natural course of life. It was up to the Mithran to deal with life, whatever that might entail, to survive uncomplainingly, to serve." John was happy to avoid "the endless squabbling to which Christians were prone .... When he thought of the religion of the Christians he smelled incense and neglected, unwashed bodies. Mithraism by contrast brought to mind the coppery odor of blood spilled by the sacrificial bull, the smell of raging battle."

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 authors have their own website and there are interviews with them on the Mystery Reader site and the Jenny Milchman blog as well elsewhere, and there is an interesting profile of them on the Mystery File site.



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Mary Reed
One for Sorrow cover
The cover is appropriate even if a bit cluttered.
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