Monday, September 6, 2021

Not Even a Gravestone to Point a Finger

by Eric

Not to give too much away, but in our Byzantine mysteries the murderer is rarely turned over to the authorities. Rather, our detective, John the Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, usually finds some way to bring justice to the miscreants himself. This isn't merely an artistic decision on the part of the authors. In fact, for much of its history the Roman Empire lacked the criminal justice apparatus we take for granted. There were no official police forces, or prison system, and as for murder...well, there was no general law against it.

That surprising fact is one of many aspects of murder, broadly defined, dealt with in A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Emma Southon discusses assassinations, murder within the family, murder by magic, and murder in the gladiatorial arena among other subjects. Although the book covers only the Republic and early Roman Empire the laws involved are not much different from those of Justinian's time.

And very strange they appear to us. Who in the twenty-first century would inscribe the following on a child's gravestone?

"To the spirits of the dead and to the most unfortunate Julia Restuta, murdered at the age of ten on account of her jewelry. Her parents, Julius Restutus and Statia Pudentilla, [set this up]."

This and other such epitaphs were likely the only "justice" average murder victims were likely to receive. Since murder was for centuries not a crime in the Roman Empire the responsibility for investigating, prosecuting and punishing a murder was entirely on the family and friends of the deceased. Unless a family was wealthy it had no way to pursue a murderer. The poor couldn't even afford a gravestone pointing a finger.

Roman law, at its inception in the Twelve Tables, was largely concerned with property rights. Perhaps because of the Ten Commandments we expect laws to have a moral basis but the Romans didn't think that way. Nor were they interested in interfering in family affairs. As Southon puts it: "The Roman state, at least until the dawn of the Imperial period, did not consider itself to be harmed, threatened or challenged when a man strangled his wife or stabbed a rival. That was their personal business."

Although we tend to think of the fellow on the library floor with the knife stuck in his back as the victim, technically the victim in a murder prosecution is the state. The state is the plaintiff. The state has suffered a challenge to its power to control the behavior of its citizens via the laws it has passed and thus it is the state that brings the case.

The Roman state was more interested in protecting private property than in protecting human life. Thus, while the family of a child killed in a mugging had no recourse, a man whose slave was murdered -- the slave being property and no more a human being than a table -- was at least reimbursed for his loss at market value just as he would have been for the destruction of cattle.

To the extent that Roman law dealt with murder it was through a hodge podge of provisions designed to deal with specific situations without apparent reference to any general concept of morality. For example, the father had absolute control of his family. Therefore infanticide was legal, however there was a law against parricide. This killing of any ancestor must have struck the Romans as particularly heinous -- as opposed to leaving an unwanted baby on a rock -- because the miscreant was put into a sack with a dog, a cockerel, a monkey and a snake. And then the sack was thrown into the sea. Did the phrase cruel and unusual spring to mind? (And where was the ASPCA?)

Many authors like to draw parallels between past events and today based on the supposition that human nature hasn't changed through the ages. And yet, looking at history from a modern perspective it is easy -- too easy -- to interpret the past in light of the present, to assume that people long dead had exactly the same motivations and goals and thought processes we do. Given our prejudices it is sometimes more difficult to see the differences between us and our ancestors than it is to see the similarities. A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is not only a fascinating look at murder in all its forms during the Roman Empire, it is also an excellent antidote to the tendency to describe the past as the present but without cell phones.

Where There's a Will There's Usually Trouble

by Mary

We've never written a legal thriller. However, it could well be said Five For Silver took us as close to contributing to that particular sub-genre as we've ever been, since the focus of the plot revolves around our Lord Chamberlain's labours to locate witnesses to a wealthy man's will.

Given our protagonist's position and power, this would seem an easy task for him to accomplish but it was one of the most difficult he has had to tackle, given this entry in the series is set during the Justinianic plague, which has been estimated as causing between five and ten thousand deaths a day. Nobody was safe and as a result Constantinople became a ghost city, largely deserted between the mounting number of deaths and the flight of residents deserting it for what was regarded as the safer countryside. The pandemic played no favourites -- Justinian himself was infected but managed to survive its deadly touch.

Since a will is the key to the plot, our preliminary research necessarily involved taking a plunge into Justinian's Institutes, a fascinating collection of laws. Glancing through it, certain situations give the modern reader pause. For example, it was illegal to engage in abusive language in an attempt to cause a crowd to form. Another provision concerned what would nowadays be considered stalking, in this instance defined as "following a matron, or a young boy or girl below the age of puberty", Meanwhile, writers faced punishment for "writing, composing, or publishing defamatory prose or verse." Compensation due to an injured party depended upon their social position, so as a result an aristocrat was entitled to greater pecuniary compensation than "a mere stranger, or to a person of low condition".

We'd never think of Peter, John's elderly servant and like his master a former slave, as one of low condition although doubtless he would have been considered such -- if he was thought of at all -- during his period of enslavement.

It is in fact Peter whose vision of an angel visiting him to announce "Gregory. Murder. Justice" starts the engine of the plot after John undertakes to find out if Gregory, Peter's oldest friend, has indeed been murdered. This in turn leads to John's need to search for witnesses to a deathbed will made by Nereus, a superstitious and wealthy shipper, in order to disinherit his wastrel son Triton.

But as we all know, where there's a will, there's often trouble.

Another dip into the Institutes provided most useful information. Oral wills were valid, provided the intent to make one and its provisions were declared before an assembly of seven witnesses. Slaves, lunatics, and those with certain disabilities or who were under the age of puberty were among those not permitted to serve in this capacity. Women were also barred from witnessing a will.

The task presented to John seems impossible given Peter, despite his long friendship with Gregory, does not know where the latter lived or his occupation. However, when John's friend Anatolius turns out to be one of the last to see Gregory alive, this sliver of information, scanty though it is, serves to enable John to begin tracing Gregory's movements.

As John pursues his time-consuming and increasingly urgent daisy chain of finding and interviewing witnesses, he is ever aware the plague could carry off any or all of them at any moment, not to mention the distinct possibility of one or more having fled the increasingly deserted city. As he discovers, there were indeed seven men present when Nereus made his will, a motley band who by a combination of circumstances happened to be in the right place at the right time to serve as witnesses.

The septet in question included Peter's friend Gregory as well as a seller of dodgy antiquities, a morbidly lugubrious court poet, the assistant to Nereus' house steward, a holy fool notorious for dancing in the street with the dead, a rustic carter, and an archdeacon.

The Institutes declares "The precepts of the law are these: to live honestly, to injure no one, and to give every man his due" and when John's winding path finally leads him to the culprit, he administers justice both terrible and appropriate -- without shedding blood.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Mystery Readers Journal

Mary's essay, Talking Snakes and Other Mysteries, appears in the summer issue of Mystery Reader's Journal. She talks about the roles played by animals in our Byzantine mysteries. The issue can be ordered online. Historical Mysteries II.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Head of Zeus Special Editions

We don't often write about our fiction being as interested parties will find a bibliography and reviews on our website, but given Rodgers and Hammerstein tell us June is busting out all over, this must surely to be the appropriate month to burst out with a shout-out to British publisher Head of Zeus' editions of John's adventures with their really striking covers. We like how the covers emphasis the fact that what some refer to as the Byzantine Empire was simply the continuation of the Roman Empire which survived in the east, untouched by the fall of Rome.

We'd also like to point out some special bargain priced editions published by Head of Zeus. Three Great Historical Mysteries is a collection featuring fellow Poisoned Pen Press authors Bruce Macbain with Roman Games and Priscilla Royal with Wine of Violence. John's debut One For Sorrow makes up the set. Together these span classical Rome, later Rome and the Middle Ages.

https://headofzeus.com/books/9781781855393

In addition to individual single titles Head of Zeus also offers a boxed set of the first four John novels in the Murder In Byzantium collection.

https://headofzeus.com/books/9781781859063

Finally there is a 48 page mini-book featuring one of John's early adventures, The Body in the Mithraeum.

Head of Zeus: https://headofzeus.com/books/9781781858394 Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/tmvwcsu8

In Praise of Tubbies

by Mary

When I mentioned my intent was to talk about "tubbies" this time round, Mr Maywrite asked me if the word was a Britishism or a Maryism. I cannot say either way, but will confirm right off the bat that the following is not about the colourful Teletubbies inhabiting the world of the popular British TV show for young children.

No, this essay is devoted to coffee containers and came about because only a couple of types of plastic bottles and jars are accepted locally for recycling. This means items without the appropriate magic numbers on their bases branding them as unwanted types of plastic must perforce be disposed of in the weekly bag of rubbish. However, not all of our numerical undesirables disappear that way, because we have amassed a collection of various sizes of coffee tubbies. Not surprising really, since being devotees of Satan's brew we generally get through even the largest sized container in about six weeks.

A quick survey of Casa Maywrite reveals several tubbies currently in use. A medium sized example in this very room holds spare light bulbs, an excellent way to store fragile items of that kind. Why light bulbs are sold in flimsy cardboard packaging when it takes a hacksaw to get into certain plastic-wrapped items is a mystery for the ages.

More of these lagniappe storage units lurk in three rooms and a porch. The tubby in the latter location houses sundry small garden tools as well as drop cloths and paintbrushes. Another office example holds small odds and ends of the type that tend to be found lurking in desk drawers. Unfortunately neither of our desks include that most useful feature, so items such as envelopes, stamps, spare pens, and scissors are kept in their own tubby. There is the disadvantage that tubbies do not seem to spontaneously generate rubber bands and paper clips as desk drawers do.

There's another tubby in the bathroom housing the loo brush, and assorted hoover attachments lurk in the pantry tubby. Last summer one of the bigger containers proved really handy when carrying out a controlled pouring forth of wood stain, rather than attempting to wrassle with large tins reminiscent of British petroleum containment units, as Mr Maywrite put it. Which, he observed, in this country are still known as gas cans despite being made of plastic.

One of a procession of plumbers whose retirement accounts we have enlarged significantly the last couple of years asked if he could have one of our smaller tubbies, and we were glad to oblige. My guess is it will serve as a mini bucket in tighter plumbing spots. We have used one as a temporary bucket when the kitchen sink sprang a leak and of course they are also useful when dealing with other tasks involving water.

Leading subscribers further around a grand tour of the premises, observe the fine example of the largest type of tubby residing on the kitchen counter. We pressed it into service some time since to store wet rubbish such as coffee grounds, fruit peelings, and eggshells. Its capacity is large and keeping it tightly lidded until it the time came to dispose of its contents has proved particularly useful during east coast heat waves.

Another attraction of these handy items: stores expect you to pay for specialised containers for various sorts of clutter, but tubbies are free. Which reminds me there's one containing loose change in the kitchen but their use extends further: they serve as the subject for an essay when the idea fairy goes missing.

Things the Library Taught Me

by Eric

Last month I visited the library for the first time in a year to make copies of our tax forms. Years ago a week wouldn't have passed without my going to the library, let alone a year, but recently I've turned to e-books and never need to leave the house for reading material.

My grade school was a short walk from the local library and every week our teachers would have the class troop single file to the white wood frame building to exchange our borrowed books for new ones. That was my introduction to libraries and over the years they taught me a lot, quite apart from a love for reading.

Even during my picture book phase those weekly school excursions weren't sufficient. Saturday mornings it wasn't uncommon for me to trek from home to the library to stock up on Dr Seuss and the like, exhaust my selections by afternoon and return for more. Unfortunately the walk to the library was close to a mile with steep hills at both ends. I greedily piled up books until I had far too many to carry under one skinny arm, and nearly too many to see over cradled in both arms. I staggered outside, nose more or less resting on a Lorax or Horton the elephant. My thick lensed glasses kept slipping down as I stumbled along, more and more slowly, arms beginning to ache from the weight of all those delightful flights of imagination. Thus I learned about one's reach exceeding one's grasp.

When I was on fourth grade I learned about censorship. I had read all the Tom Swift Junior books my parents had bought for me and desperately craved more science fiction. (Instead of a monkey on my back I had an alien). Unfortunately the science fiction section of the library was upstairs in what must once have been a small bedroom. It was adults only. Apparently certain science fiction, including juveniles by Andre Norton and Lester del Rey, were unsuitable for young minds. Maybe an irate parent had shown them Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, or else someone didn't think kids should be reading about futures that held out the possibility of things being different than they are. Luckily, before long my parents were able to straighten out the strait-laced librarian and I was no longer barred from reading Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 which condemned book burning, and plenty of other science fiction which railed against the suppression of knowledge and freedom.

Speaking of freedom, libraries also gave me a foretaste of the surveillance state and not just via science fiction. Are you old enough to remember when library books had borrowing cards in a pocket on the inside back cover? You'd sign and date them when you took a book out. It was interesting to see how many times the book had been borrowed, when, and by whom. But at the library I went to this system also allowed the librarians to keep track of how many books each patron had borrowed. Which one time led to the librarian checking my books out to admonish me that I ought to read more. My classmate Nancy C----- had read twice as many books as I had! Despite the great loads of books I'd lugged home. What can I say? As a girl Nancy was not obligated to spend hours of potential reading time with friends reenacting the Gunfight at the OK Corral with cap guns.

The library also taught me not to lose my head in financial dealings. No, I didn't read books of investment advice while growing up (nor since). Rather I went to the annual library auction with a buddy. Usually what attracted me to the fund raiser were the food vendors and used book tables but one year the big speakers by the auction platform in front of the barn blared out that the next item up for bid was a trio of hamsters. My friend and I excitedly counted our pocket change and immediately began bidding furiously. Against each other. Solely against each other. Who other than a ten year old wants three hamsters? I guess we were naive but the whole point of an auction is bidding. What's the fun if you don't bid? Not surprisingly we eventually exhausted our funds and took our furry little prizes to my friend's house. We'd agreed to share custody and trade them back and forth. But I never got to keep them at my place.They turned out to be a bad investment because they got along worse than the Three Stooges. The next morning one was eviscerated and one decapitated. The survivor of the fight (I suppose he would have been Moe) we set loose in the woods. God help the chipmunks.

So I learned a lot from libraries but today I sit here typing electronic words which you'll read off a screen. I can't help remembering lurching homeward, gasping for breath, legs trembling, under the burden of those picture books and thinking that maybe books that weigh nothing are not a bad idea.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Maybe All Dogs Don't Have Their Day

by Eric

When it comes to literary cliches, I'm ambivalent. The ghosts of my English Literature professors cry out from the past to avoid cliches like...well... like something other than a rat-borne disease, certainly. But I also believe there's a lot of wisdom in the cliche that cliches become cliches for a good reason -- because they express an idea so well. I recall watching MacBeth and needing to continually remind myself that when he wrote the play, Shakespeare wasn't a hack piling up tired old phrases. No doubt every dog had its day and brevity was the soul of wit long before 1606 but it took William Shakespeare to put those truths into words so apt that we still use them more than four hundred years later.

Though not necessarily in a novel. Some cliches are so familiar as to be wince-worthy even in their originator's work. A writer today would probably not tell readers that a villain was hoist on his own petard. On the other hand, might a protagonist still see something in his mind's eye? It's a thin line and besides, most cliches are more mundane than Shakespearean. They don't leap out from the page, at least if you're not a critic. The eyes of startled characters still get round, those knocked on the head from behind fall into pits of darkness or the like. Many sorts of common expressions are cliched to varying degrees and it doesn't upset me when a writer gives in and says something in a way that's been used before.

It can be painful to read desperate attempts to avoid those dreaded shop-worn phrases. A sixties science fiction author once wrote a whole paragraph describing, with anatomical precision, how a character's vertebrae quivered beneath the cold footsteps of a terrible foreboding (or some such), perhaps because he couldn't bring himself to just tell the reader (who might have been a literary critic after all!) that his poor character felt chills down his spine.

As a writer you don't want to make readers cringe at your lazy lack of originality but you don't want to make them laugh at your clumsy circumlocutions either. As Shakespeare might have said: neither a pathetic hack nor a Great Artiste be.

Cliches can extend beyond simple words. How many hackneyed plot devices do we all tolerate to one degree or another? For instance, you'd think there's an unwritten law that thrillers and action movies need to end with the hero's wife/daughter/girlfriend being taken hostage. I admit I have never seen a female action heroine's boyfriend held hostage but maybe I don't get out enough. Then more times than not, as the villain is about to pull the trigger of his weapon a shot rings out (ouch...) and rather than the hostage dying the villain looks surprised, then presumably falls into a pit of darkness, having been shot from behind at the last moment, quite often by a character who has not had the guts to shoot anyone until then.

Though overused this ending is satisfying and useful. I have to say that because in the climactic scene of our first book, One for Sorrow, Mary and I had John's family taken hostage by the baddies.

So, yes, even writers who might know better in principle often employ cliches. Meddlesome old biddies who solve mysteries are cliches, as are ladies who track down murderers while not baking pastries to sell in their small shops, not to mention private investigators. Not that PIs are sold in small shops. They tend to spend their time drinking in their small offices. One thing all these cliches have in common is that they are unrealistic. These categories of people hardly ever solve murder cases in reality.

So these cliches are popular because people like them, not because they artfully express a truth. Maybe all dogs don't have their day but we only think they do because Shakespeare said it so well and, in fact, brevity is not the soul of wit. (Oh yes it is, I hear you saying at this point. Oh yes it is.)

I seem to be going off the tracks here, hopefully not straight into a pit of darkness. The point is Mary and I have begun a new novel and we made our detective a reporter. Which is a cliche and also not very realistic. Call it a trope if you prefer. (See if I care) We didn't want anyone in law enforcement, or the usual type of amateur, or anything too esoteric. Reporters do look into wrongdoing and possess sleuthing skills and plenty have been involved in fictional murder mysteries. We had the idea after watching Fritz Lang's 1958 film While The City Sleeps about reporters vying to identify a serial killer. If it's good enough for Fritz Lang....

By the way, the movie was based on Charles Einstein's brilliant novel The Bloody Spur, the title of which, you probably won't be surprised to learn, comes from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.