by Diana Hockley
The John the Lord Chamberlain series by husband and wife team Mary Reed and Eric Mayer has been honored with two Glyph Awards as well as nominations for the Bruce Alexander History Mystery Award. In 2003 the American Library Association’s Booklist Magazine named John’s adventures as one of its four Best Little Known Series. This week we are reviewing their latest in the series, Nine For The Devil, interviewing Mary & there are details on how to win an e-book copy of the book at the end of this post.
Fans of Robert Graves would enjoy this novel. Set in AD548, it was a perilous time for any person within Emperor Justinian’s orbit. Personal attendants had nowhere to hide. Highborn citizens and many in public office found reasons to leave the city, ostensibly to attend to military, political or private matters, but in reality to escape Justinian’s caprices.
One unfortunate who could not leave, is John the Lord Chancellor, who is charged with the impossible task of discovering the murderer of terrifying Empress Theodora, who, it is historically believed succumbed to cancer. Universally loathed for her meddling in people’s personal lives, the Empress’ enemies abounded within the city and surrounding regions.
Insane with grief, Justinian’s cruelty knows no bounds as he takes action against the innocent, including children. The fact that he alone fed and tended Theodora in her final days fails to deter his belief in his mad hypothesis.
John, beset by problems of his own–his daughter is about to give birth and his wife leaves to assist–commences the investigation, not knowing whom to trust or to condemn, for his own life will be forfeit if he fails to find a killer.
Beautifully written, the plot takes the reader into a “heart of darkness” where John’s friends and some enemies seek desperately to turn any possible suspicion against one another. While John is walking a political and emotional tightrope, he receives word that his wife, Cornelia, has not arrived at his daughter and son-in-law’s estate. Could Justinian’s vengeful reach have extended to her?
Words cannot describe the creeping fear which seeps through the words in this excellent story, drawing the reader into the stranglehold of life in the 6th Century of the Byzantine Empire.
The net tightens around John, his friends and those who were in close proximity to Theodora in her final days, forcing the reader to invest emotional care in their futures, no matter how unpleasant their character.
Mary Reed and Eric Mayer have excelled themselves in this highly recommended ninth installment of the series.
Purchase this book from Mysterious Galaxy & you support an indie bookstore & KRL:
Interview with Mary Reed
Diana: Did you start writing from a young age and are you a dedicated reader?
Mary: As a child my family pulled my leg no end because I was always saying I wanted to be a writer and live in a garret, due to my admiration for Little Women’s Jo March. Who of course did not actually live in the garret but wrote there. And I have always been a ferocious reader, having learned to read by the age of five because, according to my mother, she was tired of being asked what it said on the Fussell’s condensed milk label or the cornflakes box.
Diana: What or where did you find your inspiration for the plot?
Mary: Nine For The Devil was inspired by Procopius’ somewhat scanty account of Theodora’s death–it appears to have been due to cancer–and by the fact Justinian never remarried. Looking into the situation further, we found several major historical characters were in Constantinople at the time and by good fortune all of them had compelling reasons to wish Theodora dead. For example, one had been thwarted in his career and another was forced to live with an unloved wife. So we began with a solid base on which to build the story, which is not always the case, alas.
Diana: How do you plan your books and how long before you actually start writing?
Mary: We take the basic idea and toss it back and forth for maybe a day or so and then once the skeleton of the plot is formed begin to write the outline, adding the all important fiddly bits–who did it and why, secondary goings-on, clues, that sort of thing. Once we have the outline, we begin writing. It does not always go from A to Z, though, as we sometimes write chapters out of order.
Diana: What research do you do for your novels?
Mary: A great deal! It’s surprising how much can be needed for even the smallest details or a passing mention for local color. As we have continued to write the series we have become more familiar with the era and so there is less to look up, but there is always a fair bit of research needed. Copious notes have been made since the first novel so we can also find information needed but not hitherto used in those files.
Diana: Do you have a schedule for writing?
Mary: Not really. We get up, have coffee, and begin writing. Usually we set aside about three months to devote to the novel in progress. Both of us being self-employed writers of fiction and non-fiction, this is easier to arrange than it might seem.
Diana: Do you set yourself a goal of so many words per day?
Mary: No, we’re just happy if we can produce a chapter a day!
Diana: How do you cope with writer’s block?
Mary: Fortunately I have never been dragged down a dark alley by writer’s block! But if I was, I suspect an hour or two of reading would prime the pump, as it were.
Diana: Do you have a mentor–someone you can ring up and bleat to if necessary?
Mary: Not in the traditional sense, but if it were necessary I should consult my co-writer Eric, whose desk is a yard or two from mine thus saving on the phone bill!
Diana: Does someone else check your plot as you go along, or do you keep it a secret until you have finished the first draft? Or finished altogether?
Mary: We run the basic plotline past our editor before we begin writing. Further plot checking is built into our method in that we each write individual chapters and then the other party takes them and does light rewriting and polishing, the result going into the first draft. As the book progresses this also makes certain clues are in place and characters know only what they could have known at that particular point.
Diana: How do you keep track of the characters and what is happening at any given time in the story?
Mary: At times with difficulty, even with a fairly detailed outline. Plus Eric constructs a timeline for checking this sort of thing as well as matters such as what day it is and how often a particular character appears, which sometimes needs adjusting.
Diana: Do you do your own illustrations?
Mary: No, but Poisoned Pen Press produces beautiful maps for all the novels, based on rough versions drawn by Eric.
Diana: If not, who does and does the illustrator discuss the drawings with you first, or does he or she read the book and then do them from that?
Mary: Well, the only illustrations are on the book jacket and each features details from Roman mosaics with the same basic layout but different background colors. Thus the books have an uniform, linked look. Whisper it quietly, but a couple of covers provide clues to developments in their plots, but I better not mention which for fear of spoilers!
Diana: If you had a choice–and you may well have–what time of the day do you like to write?
Mary: At night. I have always been a night owl. But we can write any time of day, so are more fortunate than many writers who have day jobs.
Diana: What are the titles of your other books?
Mary: The titles are based on a variant of the counting rhyme children use to tell fortunes. Thus the series runs One For Sorrow, Two For Joy, Three For A Letter, Four For A Boy (the prequel), Five For Silver, Six For Gold, Seven For A Secret, Eight For Eternity (another novel set earlier than the previous titles), and now Nine For The Devil.
Diana: Do you have a favorite book-signing or fan mail story which you would like to share?
Mary: My favorite story is unusual to say the least. A while back a reader wrote to tell us he had lost touch with a good friend some years before and was amazed to see the latter’s name in the acknowledgements in one novel. We were able to put them in touch with each other again, much to everyone’s delight.
Diana: Future books?
Mary: We are outlining John’s tenth adventure at present and have two non-related books completed and as yet unpublished. One is a mystery with a touch of the supernatural set in Victorian times and the other–we finished it this week, in fact–is what I would describe as a thriller-mystery, set in World War II Shropshire.
Diana: What do you like to read? And do you read your own books after some time has passed and think “Oh no, I could have done that better!!!” and gnash your teeth?
Mary: My particular favorite genres are Golden Age mysteries and classic supernatural tales but I also enjoy history, particularly social history, generally relating to the period from say 1900 to 1945.
As for reading earlier books. Well, we do sometimes think hmm, we could have done that better, having learned a fair bit about writing since we started out. In fact, it’s why we recently revised One For Sorrow, which will appear from British publisher Head of Zeus in the autumn and is already available here for Kindle from Poisoned Pen Press.
Diana: When did you start seriously writing and what did or do you do other than writing?
Mary: John’s first novel-length adventure appeared in l999. Before then we had published a number of co-written stories in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and various anthologies from 1993 on. By then we already had a fair number of professional credits, having published solo articles on topics ranging from British folk customs to running.
Diana: Any advice for new writers?
Mary: In a nutshell, the new writer will need to persist and be patient. Keep sending manuscripts out. If rejections say much the same thing about the story, take notice. Remember what one editor does not care for, the next editor may well love. Luck plays a part too. We submitted One For Sorrow, as we subsequently learnt, not long after the editor at Poisoned Pen Press was speculating on the lack of mysteries set in the Byzantine Empire. Write something every day. Read widely. And sharpen your sense of humor because you will need it!
Diana: Where do you see the publishing industry going in the next few years?
Mary: I am hopeful the current Us (self-published) vs. Them (traditionally published) war will end in a truce. Beyond that, I believe we will see more “small” publishers established, particularly for e-books, but otherwise have no idea!
Diana: Anything you would like to add?
Mary: Yes, my thanks for your interest in John, an unusual protagonist to say the least. We would be the first to say he will not appeal to all readers, but we hope those who sample his adventures will find them interesting and entertaining and that we manage to pull the wool over their eyes until late in the story!
Learn more on Mary and Eric’s website.
To enter to win an e-book copy of Nine For The Devil, simply email KRL at life@kingsriverlife[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Nine”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen September 8, 2012. U.S. residents only.