The John the Lord Chamberlain mystery series, by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer is set in sixth century Constantinople, also known as Byzantium. I had been meaning to read this entire series for some time, but I waited until I could get the whole series, which I needn’t have done.
One for Sorrow begins with a rowdy May festival commemorating the founding of the Empire’s capitol. The public entertainment includes a trained bear and a lovely female bull leaper who reminds John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, uncannily of a former lover. The evening’s continuing street revelry results eventually in the escape of the bear. In the chaos that follows, John finds his friend Leukos dead in a back alley near a house of ill repute. John is ordered by Emperor Justinian to investigate the death, since Leukos was the Emperor’s Keeper of the Plate and he appears to have been murdered.
John questions his friend Isis who operates the brothel, as well as an innkeeper with a shrewish wife, a knight from King Arthur’s court on a Grail quest, a stylite or “pillar saint” living on top of a column, and the ancient wandering soothsayer who was consulted by the victim shortly before his death. John even looks up the beautiful bull leaper, partly to satisfy his curiosity and partly to appease his young friend Anatolius who declared he was in love with her at first glance. When the Emperor abruptly calls off the investigation, John, for reasons of his own, continues his sleuthing against the Emperor’s wishes, risking the emperor’s deadly wrath.
All these colorful characters and scenes are wrought in realistic and believable detail. Interwoven are John’s reminiscences of his years as a mercenary, his enslavement and subsequent mutilation (John is a eunuch), as well as his grief for his lost relationship with a Cretan woman.
I found myself identifying with John, and I found the story line intriguing, with just enough historical detail to keep me turning pages and looking forward to my nightly forays into Byzantium. I especially liked how the authors handled the conflicting belief systems, the early Christian church with its internal dissent and imperfect leaders as well as followers, and the outlawed but persistent paganism. All in all, this is a fascinating mystery. I was impressed with the interweaving of the various story lines, and the care the authors took to do careful research without weighing down the story with unnecessary material or emasculating its fictional elements (John’s condition notwithstanding). It held my interest and kept me in suspense to the harrowing climax, all the while feeling as if I was there in that distant time and place, uncertain what would happen next, but also with a little time to explore the scenery. The pace was very well balanced in that regard, which made this a fun read for me, in which I could savor each chapter.
As an added bonus, the book includes a glossary in the back with helpful historical details that aren’t necessary for enjoyment of the story, but are nice to have. There’s also a map of sixth century Constantinople in the front.
While I highly recommend One For Sorrow, I want to point out that it was only the first in a series of eight mysteries so far. I’ve read a couple in the series now, and the other, Four For A Boy, was every bit as good. The eighth book in the series, Eight for Eternity, is available now, and I was very tempted to read that before this one. After all, it got a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, and my experience with two of the series titles so far convinces me that these are readable and enjoyable in any order. So if you’re anxious to delve into the latest first, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
This post has been updated on January 24, 2023 to correct old links.