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by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer
Poisoned Pen Press, April 2008
296 pages
ISBN: 1590584899

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

I've enjoyed the mystery novels featuring John the Eunuch written by the husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer and set in 6th century Constantinople. They're full of color and vivid descriptions of the various features and inner workings of what was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, one of the most beautiful, important, and interesting cities in the world. It is a city that most novels today unfortunately pass over except when they're using its present identity of Istanbul to represent a place of mystery and adventure. The "John the Eunuch" novels illustrate some of the ways that Constantinople anticipated the modern city's reputation for exoticism, deception, betrayal, and conspiracy.

SEVEN FOR A SECRET is the seventh in the series in which John, castrated as an adult and now occupying the high, albeit dangerous, position of lord chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, shows an unusual penchant for solving mysteries as he deftly steers his precarious way through court intrigues. The current story starts with John's fixation on a highly unusual mosaic of a young girl. He then finds the body of a murdered woman who had claimed to be the original for the haunting tessellated portrait. His instinct tells him that the murder is just one piece of a far larger plot endangering the throne that John is sworn to protect.

To solve the mystery, John and two of his companions, Felix, the captain of the guards, and Anatolius, formerly a secretary to Justinian and now a lawyer, wend their way through Constantinople making inquiries among an assortment of unusual denizens. John becomes increasingly aware of something he already knew, the widespread dissatisfaction with Justinian and his wife Theodora, a one-time courtesan. John knows that Theodora can just barely tolerate his being still among the living, and Justinian expects loyalty from his courtiers but gives very little of his own to them. The circles that John especially covers in his investigations are full of effete erstwhile palace habitues who have fallen out of grace with the emperor or his wife, but not to the extent of having their heads severed from their bodies, or worse. Dissatisfaction is tolerated - sometimes - if it seems harmless.

Before John wraps up the case, the one murder has increased to three, and John also finds reason to suspect the motivation of a friend. Other characters in the story include Procopius, an historical Byzantine official who wrote THE SECRET HISTORY, a book that remained unpublished for many centuries and that excoriated Justinian, Theodora, and other high-ranking people. John skirts perilously close to incurring Theodora's wrath as he looks into rumors of her having had an illegitimate child.

Like the others in the series, this newest novel is well worth reading for anyone who is inclined toward historical mysteries. If you should make a trip to modern-day Istanbul sometime, reading these books can make it that much more enjoyable.

Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, January 2008

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