Crazed by grief, Emperor Justinian pressures John, his shrewd Lord Chamberlain, to find who killed his beloved wife so the perpetrator can be brought to justice. Problem is, everyone knows Empress Theodora died of a lingering, painful wasting disease (one which we'd call cancer). All the same, if John doesn't come up with a killer—or a scapegoat—he and his family will pay the price.
The unusual premise instills the narrative with a disturbing tension. Justinian's methods are swift and brutal, and he doesn't hesitate putting people to death or through torture for minor transgressions... or even for no reason at all. Honorable and ever practical, John takes his assignment seriously. As John proceeds with his investigation, he interacts with characters from all walks of life, from the palace physician to reformed prostitutes to Justinian himself. Only the emperor and a select few attendants had access to Theodora as she lay dying, making this not quite a locked-room mystery, but close.
Theodora, a bear tamer's daughter and former actress, had accumulated many enemies during her time in power, so John has a large cast of would-be suspects to sort through. For example, her matchmaking efforts pleased her grandson and his prospective young bride but angered the young woman's parents. Other military leaders, aristocrats, and religious figures had cause to want Theodora dead, too. (It may take a while for series newcomers to adjust to who's who, so the list of characters at the beginning is a big help.)
Evidence for murder is lacking, but people are still behaving awfully suspiciously. This is perhaps the novel's most clever aspect. What seems at first to be a wrenching moral dilemma develops into a twisting puzzle with a plethora of clues and possible motives. John may be acting on behalf of a capricious and paranoid autocrat, but it seems he's got a real mystery on his hands. He has plenty to occupy his thoughts on the personal front as well, with his elderly servant's decline in health and the impending birth of his grandchild.
Nine for the Devil is a good example of how to set a mystery within a real-life scenario—in this case, one taken directly from the annals of the Eastern Roman Empire. The colorful backdrop of Constantinople in 548 AD ripples with intrigue, with Pope Vigilius forced to remain in the city against his will, the thwarted ambitions of Justinian's cousin Germanus, and the scheming of Theodora's friend, Antonina, wife of General Belisarius. The result is a denouement that's both satisfying and historically plausible.
Nine for the Devil was published by Poisoned Pen Press in hardcover ($24.95) and trade paperback ($14.95) in March 2012. 304pp, including an informative and delightfully witty Afterword plus glossary.