Animals in Historical Mysteries: An Interview with Mary Reed (and Eric Mayer)

Another author who recently humored my request for an interview is Mary Reed, who co-authors the John the Eunuch series with Eric Mayer. And actually I got double my money this go around because this dynamic duo is also a married one as well.

I’m going to keep my intro short because in reading their answers you’ll come to see how much they not only love animals (especially cats), but also use animals in their work and have a lot of fun with it.

Courtney Mroch: What kind of things do you write about?

Mary Reed/Eric Mayer: We write historical mysteries. Our novels about John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian I, are set in 6th century Constantinople during the early days of the Eastern Roman Empire. It was a tumultuous era. The classical world was giving way to the medieval, but not without a fight.

We favour classical whodunnits in which the reader is given all the clues necessary to solve the murder and can compete with the detective in reaching the solution. What we don’t like is excessive gore. So while the crimes and settings forming the basis for our stories may be of a very black nature indeed, the violence is not described in great detail as seems to have become the custom.

CM: What kind of pets do you have? (Or have you had.)

MR/EM: Presently we have one eighteen year old cat of the tortoise shell persuasion, named Sabrina. We have served a succession of cats during our marriage. Eric has in the past hosted various dogs, tropical fish, turtles, hamsters, ants, and sea monkeys amongst other things. When he came down with a case of Easter measles as a child he spent a week and a half confined to his dimly lit bedroom with a half grown chicken. It started out as an Easter chick.

At various times Mary has shared living space with a half-Siamese tabby called Jean Paul, a dog and budgie both named Peter, and assorted stray cats brought home in childhood.

CM: Do animals appear in your work? Are they the focus of any of your stories or the main characters?

MR/EM: Quite a few animals have appeared in our works, and indeed the titles of our series (One For Sorrow, Two For Joy, etc.) are taken from a traditional counting rhyme recited by British children upon seeing black birds, usually crows or ravens. More than once one of our characters has contemplated a solitary crow or two or more, and reflected upon the rhyme and what it might foretell. Birds aren’t the only oracular creatures to find their way into our writings either. There was, for instance, a human headed snake and a herd of fortune-telling goats although they did not grace the same book.

The Great Bull figures prominently in John’s pagan religion –Mithraism– it being the sacred animal slain at the beginning of the world by the god Mithra. And two members of John’s family were originally traveling entertainers who recreated the ancient (even during the sixth century) Cretan art of bull leaping.

A trained bear has played a role in several books. We’ve also introduced a mechanical whale and its living counterpart. There was an inventor in one book who studied birds with the idea of fashioning a pair of wings for himself and attempting to fly. In a short story (not a Byzantine mystery, but one featuring the historian Herodotus) sacred crocodiles, some alive and some mummified, were vital characters.

In addition, sea birds and feral dogs appear on numerous occasions, though it might be argued as to whether they are part of the scenery or actual characters.

In Six For Gold John’s initial task is, in fact, to solve the murders of animals. He is sent to Egypt by the emperor to discover why (and how) sheep in a remote village are cutting their own throats.

Cats, however, top our list. There was a feline who was perhaps literally intended as a Cat’s Paw in a short story of that name, and our latest short fiction (in The Mammoth Book of Dickensian Whodunnits) is named after a mythical Kentish hill figure depicting The Three Legged Cat of Great Clatterden –the latter unrelated to poor Tripod, a three-legged feral cat appearing now and then in the novels. Between those publications a cat provided a clue in another short story, Beauty More Stealthy, and another cat saved John’s life by its typically feline behaviour in One For Sorrow. Then there was also a purveyor of cat mummies whom John encountered in Egypt. So while John does not have a house cat at his home in Constantinople, he does have a cat mummy in residence.

CM: Do you ever use your pets as the basis for any animal characters?

MR/EM: We have to confess that the two cats who lived with us at the time we wrote our first book — the now departed Rachel and Sabrina who is still here — make a cameo appearance in every book. They are usually disguised as feral cats who are up to some mischief.

CM: Do your pets contribute to your work methods and help with the process?

MR/EM: Sabrina specialises in sitting on Eric’s knees and putting her paws on the keyboard as he works, so she obviously thinks she helps! But mostly she sleeps on the bottom shelf of the bookcase to my right, not being a literary sort of cat.

CM: What are you working on now? Any new releases?

MR/EM: We’ll soon be thinking about our protagonist’s next adventure but meantime the next novel about John and his friends is Seven For A Secret, to be published in April 2008.

CM: For a complete listing of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer works, please visit their website.

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