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Mary Reed

Three for a Letter
Poisoned Pen, 2001
Barnes & Noble


If you have already read One for Sorrow or Two for Joy, then you already know John the Eunuch, Lord Chamberlain to the emperor Justinian and the series sleuth. If you haven’t read the previous two novels, a few details may not be clear to you at first about John’s background, but these are resolved in the course of the book: gradually you learn of his daughter, whom he has not seen in years, and come to understand the antipathy between John and the empress, Theodora. This novel is set in the Constantinople of 539 AD, though the major actions take place at the country villa of the uncle of John’s young friend and fellow Mithran (in the Christian court), Anatolius, poet and secretary to Justinian. Eccentric Uncle Zeno employs a talented inventor, Hero, who contrives brilliant robotic musicians and other creatures right out of the pages of his first -century AD Alexandrian namesake, that Hero who was the author of Pneumatics. Among the other carryover characters there are Felix, a captain in the excubitores, or palace guard, and Peter, John’s elderly, devoted, Christian servant. New characters include a disappearing mime, Barnabas, and an assortment of ladies-in-waiting to Theodora who have charge of a pair of Ostrogothic eight-year old twins who are in line for the throne of Italy once the persistent general Belisarius recovers it for Justinian. There is also the fiery fanatic Godomar, tutor of the twins and whip-cracker for the religious orthodoxy of his charges. Sunilda, one of the twins, is a major character, about whom much of the plot revolves. And though much of the plot also revolves around her brother Gadaric. he is not really a character, because he is killed after only eight pages, in the first of 2 successful murders. (There is also an attempted murder, but it fails.) Since the twins were important in Justinian’s plans, John must protect Sunilda from whoever murdered her brother, and to do that he must determine who the killer was. The most obvious suspects are , of course, innocent, and there turn out to be two murderers, acting from different motives. and on behalf of different people. Thus, the murder mystery is kept pleasingly complex (though the explanations at the end seem more rushed than the pace of the rest of the novel). What makes this work a particularly good read, however, is the combination of interesting characters, fascinating background details and a well-plotted story set in a recognizable historical context. John, like many comparable historical imperial functionaries, is a eunuch, but one who became a eunuch only as a mature male after military service and the fathering of a daughter. As a high-ranking follower of Mithra in a court peopled by followers of Jesus, he is the most complex of the characters, and both of these aspects of his persona are examined well. In addition, he is a good human being, as seen in his devotion to duty (here mainly trying to protect Sunilda), in his strong friendships with Anatolius and Felix (both of whom pine for women who are probably beyond their reach), and in his warm relationship with the aged Peter (a Christian who serves John, a Mithran, devotedly ). Both Anatolius, a bright young man about town and Felix, a dedicated career soldier , share the trait of having hearts easily taken by a pretty face and an engaging smile. One of the most appealing of the new characters is Sunilda, a lively, imaginative and winning girl who knows her own importance in the political scheme of things but is still naive enough to be duped, almost fatally, by a clever schemer trying to alter Justinian’s plans for the succession in Italy once Belisarius completes his conquest. Balanced against Sunilda is her tutor, the stiff, stern, doctrinaire Christian, Godomar, whom nobody likes but who has the influence to get most of what he wants. It may not be easy to create such varied main characters, but still more impressive is the fact that even minor characters who appear for only 4 or 5 pages seem to have a reality, not a cardboard flatness Uncle Zeno and the one-armed Hero provide the most fascinating elements of the story background, as Hero creates for the eccentric old man, at whose estate the twins are being kept, a grand array of robots who play music or shoot arrows, a mechanical whale (counterpart to a real whale who has a minor role in the story), where the first murder occurs, and a pumper-engine used to fight a fatal fire. Of course, we also are treated to authentic details of food, dress, living accommodations and mores in 6th century Constantinople, where Justinian appears briefly and Theodora much more often and crucially, given her dislike for John. Another intriguing element of the story is the practice of reading the future from the distribution of goats of differing colors on the hillside of a small sacred island just off the coast of Zeno’s villa. Clearly tongue-in-cheek is the story turn involving the supposed murderer, the dwarf Barnabas, a mimic/acrobat and a favorite of Theodora, especially when we find out what role he performs in the placement of those goats. There are often clever segues from the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next, occasionally giving the effect of film montage. Indicative of the care exercised by Reed and Mayer is a scene that I, at first reading, took as a throwaway, though a delightful one. John visits the old nursemaid of Anatolius’ former love, now wife of the senator whose nephew, Castor, is missing and thought to be implicated in the events at Zeno’s villa, which is next to his own. For four pages John and Nonna talk about old times and family connections of the sought-for Castor. It seems to John and the reader a dead end, providing no useful information, just a pleasant view of a Lord Chamberlain visiting an old woman and letting her ramble on. As such, I thought it was a nice touch, a willingness on the part of the authors to stray from forward-driving narrative to follow an affecting by-way. I should have know better. Chapters later, a small detail mentioned by Nonna recurs to John as he is trying to puzzle out some family ties in order to determine motive for the murder of Gadaric and this recollection gives him the clue he needs to perceive a relationship, a motive for murder, and the identity of the murderer --all of which are crucial to his attempt to find and save the then missing Sunilda. On all counts, this is a novel worth reading, for its intrinsic interest, for its mystery and character development, and for the light it sheds on an important period of late Roman history. There is nothing here that a teacher could consider unsuitable for a high-school class, though the involved plot, the length of the book and the sophistication of its language would require a reasonably mature reader. The glossary at the end of the novel will answer some of the questions readers may have, so it might be useful to read it first, or at least to refer to it whenever an unfamiliar term or name turns up. Recommended very highly, this book should prove enjoyable even if you haven’t read the two earlier installments in the series. Our era has become a golden age for murder mysteries set in ancient Rome, with Steven Saylor, Lindsey Davis, John Maddox Roberts, David Wishart and Marilyn Todd all turning out polished and well-researched novels set in periods ranging from that of early Julius Caesar to that of late Vespasian. Only Reed and Mayer are mining the Justinian era, a bit later than my normal professional classical interests, but still quite worthwhile. (To check on any of these authors, go to Fictional Rome -- http://www.stockton.edu/~roman/fiction/ -- and search by Author.) Fred Mench (with Michael Wells Glueck) Richard Stockton College of New Jersey 5/2002

- Fred Mench with Michael Wells Glueck, 5/1/2002

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