Saturday, December 08, 2012

Book review: Nine for the Devil, by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer

Mary Reed and Eric Mayer's solid historical mystery, 9th in a series set in 6th-century Byzantium, places their protagonist in an impossible situation.  How can one unmask a murderer when no crime was actually committed?

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 killeror a scapegoathe 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 scenarioin 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.

12 comments:

  1. This sounds really interesting - but is this a series best read in order?

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  2. This is the first one I've read, and I didn't have too much trouble getting up to speed, but the plot hinted at character backstories that I didn't know. (It made me curious to find out, however.) The first book is One for Sorrow, and it's easy to tell the series order from their titles. The authors' website lists them all.

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  3. Thank you for your review, Sarah. We're happy you enjoyed Nine For The Devil, the more so as it encourages us as we begin to write the tenth novel, as yet unnamed.

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    1. Good to know there will be more. I look forward to learning the title!

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  4. Sounds interesting but is it in e-Book format? That's all I read these days unless it's for research.

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    1. Yes, the Kindle and Nook versions sell for $4.99.

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  5. The books move in chronological order (except for one that is a flashback telling how John first got into his investigative position for Justinian). I read them in numeric order (as indicated by their titles) and enjoyed reading them that way. I don't think it would be a major problem to read them out of order, but I think it would be more satisfying to read them in proper sequence.

    I must say that they are well written with a good feeling for presenting the era and the location as well as nicely presented characters around John. There is no doubt that John is at the center of the story, but as with watching a particularly well done television series (pick ano of your favorites as examples) you come to enjoy the quirks of the recurring secondary characters.

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    1. Thanks for the additional information, Jim, much appreciated. I enjoyed seeing all the secondary characters. They had a lot of personality - I'd like to see more of Peter and Hypatia in particular. I wouldn't mind seeing Theodora "in person" as well.

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  6. Good write up, Sarah.I enjoyed this title very much, being a fan of Byzantine history from way back. I hadn't read any of the earlier books either and didn't find that a drawback. John is a great character, enjoyed his investigation and interactions with the other characters.

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    1. Nice coincidence that you also started with book 9. I wasn't very familiar with the other characters from Byzantine history (those aside from J&T, that is) so, if not for the list in the beginning, I wouldn't have known who was real/fictional. But I did some looking around on the web afterward, and indeed, the depictions were accurate.

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  7. Anonymous1:22 PM

    Thanks to all for their comments and interest in John. Let me add that two of the novels are set earlier than the previous entries. Four For A Boy is a prequel, relating how John won back his freedom and took his first steps towards high office, Eight For Eternity, set during the murderous Nika Riots. Even so they are all self
    contained stories.

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    1. Many thanks for the details on the earlier books!

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