John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian I, is not your average
sleuth and his birth was unusual.
It all began with a 'phone call.
Not to mention a possibly forged short story.
One day we had a jingle from anthologist Mike Ashley, who asked if we
could contribute a very short historical mystery to a collection he had
nearly completed. But of course, we cried, thank you for asking and how
long do we have to write it?
About three weeks, he said.
No problem, we replied, pale around the gills.
Hanging up, we wandered into the front room and contemplated the task we had to accomplish. Gulping down numerous cups of coffee we debated its various thorny components.
What era might we choose? Hitherto our published short stories had been set in the modern day.
The collective gaze fell on the bookcase next to the fireplace, and was drawn to the history titles there. The red cover of Robert Browning's Justinian and Theodora leapt out, and lurking beside it we spied a small paperback translation of Procopius' Secret History.
Jubilation! Courts have always been full of drama, double crossings, dubious doings, and flat out murder. And what court could be more byzantine than the one that gave meaning to the word? Men jostling for
power and riches, rivals to be dispatched, political machinations, bribery, corruption, wealth beyond imagining -- and beyond the beautiful grounds of the Great Palace, a world of abject poverty, violent riots, wars, craftsmen and artisans, beggars and street whores, chariot racing and mosaics, and beautiful churches and dignified buildings behind which lurked a darkness more than physical.
Righty! Our story would be set in the sixth century capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, in and around the court of Justinian I. Not that we were likely to fit all that much of the era into 2,000 words, which was about the length for which we were aiming.
As far we knew, this was a fresh period for an historical mystery and would not duplicate any other contributions to Mike's anthology.
For such a brief story we settled on a puzzle with a twist at the end. The unusual time and Constantinople itself were probably the main characters, but the mystery format demanded a detective, even if he was nothing more than a puzzle carrier.
For the plot to work, our sleuth needed to be someone near to the emperor, someone the emperor would trust -- and also someone who would not share the emperor's Christian faith. The Eastern Roman Empire considered itself, most importantly, a Christian state and naturally our story reflected this.
Our deadline didn't allow for extensive research. We quickly decided that the emperor's Lord Chamberlain met our requirements. Historically, he was an official who served the emperor personally in various capacities, from organising court ceremonial and giving advice to reconquering Italy (in the case of Justinian's real Lord Chamberlain, Narses). He was also, often, a eunuch.
So we named our detective John the Eunuch.
As for the matter of his needing to adhere to non-Christian beliefs forplot purposes, a quick glance through our library revealed Mithraism had been a major force a few hundred years earlier. Making our eunuch detective a secret Mithran would work well.
Thus appropriately equipped, John did what little he had to do during the short course of A Byzantine Mystery, and that was that.
Until we were asked for another Byzantine mystery, and then another.
After a while a novel seemed inevitable. The era and culture were too rich to encompass in a short story, or even a series of short stories.
Somewhere along the way to the first novel we had began to askquestions about John. We had made our protagnoist more powerful than just about everyone except the emperor and empress, which was necessary if he was to have the freedom to investigate in a court filled with powerful men who could and would put murderous spok into investigations, particularly if any of them were breathing uncomfortably down their necks. But John's elevation to such high office posed a problem. Between wealth and social rank whence might come the conflict that is necessary for a rattling good yarn?
Fortunately, we had already given ourselves an answer when we made John a Mithran. Such pagan religions were proscribed. Powerful as John might be, he was also an outcast. If his true beliefs were discovered, the result could be exile or the dungeons -- or worse.
But why, we asked ourselves, was he a Mithran? Surely he had not arrived at his dangerous beliefs merely to serve as a convenient spear carrier to a couple of mystery writers?
It was, we decided, because he had been a mercenary in his youth, and had converted to a military man's faith in his wanderings in that role.
The mosaic was beginning to form as John's history unfolded.
To hold the rank he did, he had to be an educated man, and thus he attended Plato's Academy before taking to the dusty roads. Since he was at the Academy, we made him a Greek. This gave him two languages, Greek and Latin, and we added Coptic (for he had spent time in Egypt) and then Persian.
Where did he learn the language of one of the empire's most powerful enemies?
Because, we deduced, he had at one time been in captivity there.
So how would someone from such an unprivileged background come to achieve the great office we had handed him?
Well, he had been captured by Persians but was fortunate enough to subsequently be sold as a slave to officials from the Great Palace. Unfortunately, by that time he had been emasculated by his captors.
Not many slaves were as educated as John, and few could speak four languages as well as hold their own in a donnybrook. Then, as it turned out, John was able to carry out a mission for Justinian, who freed
him as a reward, thus putting John's boots on the first rung of the ladder to the office of Lord Chamberlain.
Then too, the fact John had served as a military man and had been rendered a eunuch only after reaching adulthood, while it didn't entirely make up for our hasty and thoughtless emasculation of him, also accounted for his austere and self-contained manner, his often bleak outlook, his sometimes erratic behavior, and his determination that justice be done.
It took a few years, thousands of words, and countless cups of coffee to get to know the character we'd accidentally created.
Which brings us back to that first, possibly forged, short story.The protagonist of A Byzantine Mystery goes by the name of John the Eunuch. However, as we know now, the real John would never do what the so called Lord Chamberlain in the first short story does.
It is our opinion that it is a forgery, written by that vicious gossip Procopius, who had little good to say about anyone.
John is keeping an eye on him.