The first John the
Eunuch Mystery by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer,
One for Sorrow, was a
real eye-opener for me. Though I’ve always loved history, I had never gone
much for historical mysteries. Yet I found myself so thoroughly engrossed
in the tale of a eunuch serving as Lord Chamberlain to Caesar in sixth
century Constantinople that I was looking forward to reading the second
installment Two for Joy before it even
came out. Lucky for me, I received an advance reading copy so I could do
just that. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Two for Joy takes us back once again to the days when toga-clad men walked the cobbled roads of Constantinople, fish-sellers, bakers and prostitutes openly bartered their goods to passersby, slaves did their masters’ bidding, and throngs attended gruesome sports in the Coliseum. Ah, the good old days.
Well, hardly. Reed and Mayer are candid in their portrayal of the gritty standards of living back then, the results of life in a society without antibiotics or anesthetics - and, perhaps, most importantly, the absence of a good fire department. You see, the mystery begins unfolding with the "spontaneous combustion" of three stylites in the ancient city (stylites are self-proclaimed prophets who live atop pillars, food sent up to them in baskets on pulleys). John the Eunuch, the brainy aide to the Emperor, must investigate this strange "combustion" phenomenon. Could it have anything to do with the fact that the leader of the Michaelites, Michael himself, has camped outside the gates of Constantinople only to have the Emperor decline a meeting, causing Michael to threaten conflagration? Perhaps.
When a fourth victim burns in the streets - wearing a robe meant for a stylite, and a fifth - this time, a prostitute - at a party thrown in honor of a Senator who is summarily poisoned, John is more certain than ever that there’s a link between the crimes, and he’s determined to find it. An old teacher from the Academy, Philo, who shows up on his doorstep after all these years, nearly derails John’s efforts with his own bumbling attempts to snoop.
But the true hero in Two for Joy is John, the former soldier, then slave, who was captured and castrated, now serving the Emperor of Rome. His mind is analytical and sane, despite the craziness constantly swirling around him, which makes him the perfect detective.