|Mary Reed and Eric Mayer have just released their first book. One for Sorrow is a new release from Poisoned Pen Press, and introduces a new historical sleuth: John the Eunuch. We welcome Mary and Eric to our New Faces column!
Tell us about yourself.
MR: I'm English, from the north-eastern city of Newcastle-
upon-Tyne, the one to which coals are sometimes carried.
It's also the area in which Catherine Cookson set her
enormously popular novels -- not to mention being well known
as the original stamping grounds of the Animals! Finished
school at l7 and went to work and that's about it.
EM: I grew up in Dallas - in northeastern Pennsylvania, not
Texas. Studied English Literature in college, mainly because
I liked books, but discovered, on graduation, that very few
employers are willing to pay someone to like books. (Silly
of them, isn’t it!) Went to law school out of desperation
but realized I would never be able to stomach making a
living practicing the law. However, having a family by the
time I graduated, I took a job writing legal books.
Are you coming to mystery writing from another job?
MR: We earn a crust (and very little butter) by freelance writing,
including a fair amount of nonfiction for various publications.
So I’ve written about topics as varied as weather forecasting goats and
the symbolism of fruit as well as construction equipment rental
and how to organise a tea party.
But fiction is our first love and we are now striking out
into it more and more, and doubtless simultaneously striking
terror into editors' hearts.
EM: Most of my income still comes from legal writing and
editing. I was going back and forth between revising ONE FOR
SORROW and writing the “Corporations” article for The
Maryland Legal Encyclopedia. Just as arcane as the Byzantine
Empire, but not as interesting.
What led you to write mysteries?
MR: Yes, I've been reading mysteries for mumblety mumble
years, beginning with three of the greats - Conan Doyle,
Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham. First stumbled across
the latter because the printer in whose office I worked at
the time produced the covers! From there I jumped to D. L.
Sayers. Then I swooped upon any anthologies I could find and
began working my way along the shelf of mysteries - this was
at the then quite small library in Banbury, England.
Thus it is not perhaps surprising that I remain devoted to
the body in the library and locked room sub genres, although
I also love historical mysteries. But of course I will read
whatever I can get, both within the mystery field and
EM: Mary led me to write mysteries. When I was younger I was
more a reader of science fiction and fantasy, though I did
delve into Sherlock Holmes, and I suspect I was attracted to
the historical setting of ONE FOR SORROW because it
resembled the exotic settings of sf and fantasy.
Over the years I made a few desultory attempts to write sf.
Mary, on the other hand, had written, and sold, some mystery
stories. For a couple years, at various times, when we would
get to talking about whatever writing we were doing or
thinking about, I would mention to her a vague idea I had
for an “open room” mystery She kept nagging ... uh,
encouraging . . . me to write it but she didn’t succeed until
we were married when we finally sat down and collaborated on
“The Obo Mystery”, which introduced our Mongolian policeman,
Inspector Dorj, and was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery
Tell us about your road to publication.
MR: A friend of mine went to live in Iran. Out there, she
met a visiting Briton who knew someone connected with the
BBC World Radio Short Story programme, who had been
lamenting about the lack of good stories being submitted ...
so we all submitted stories, and mine was accepted. It was
the first piece of fiction I sold - not a traditional
mystery as such, but concerning Death, who has grey eyes and
visits twice before he arrives to carry you away. It was
based upon a dream, and a famous pre-Raphaelite painting,
Home From Sea.
Crazed with success, I thought, I shall give myself five
years to sell more or else Take The Hint. It actually took
two years to make my next sale. Most of what I was writing
was nonfiction, though idiosyncratic topics, such as
cheeserolling and canine companions to the saints. A theory
I developed then was to always keep as many pieces
circulating as possible, because when a rejection came in,
then perhaps tomorrow would bring an acceptance. My personal
record on that was thirteen rejections in two days. But I
all but a couple of them went on to be accepted elsewhere.
I often refer to us as orphan scriveners, because we did not
really known anyone in the mystery field when we arrived in it.
Thus,our writing had been non-critiqued and written
pretty much marching to our own bagpipes. However, the
prolific Ed Hoch (near whom we lived at one point) has
always been kindness itself and most encouraging, although
we never managed to summon up the nerve to actually ask him to
Eventually, we were invited to join a bunch of fellow writers
who met monthly in each other's houses. It was not a writers' group
as such. Horror writer T. Lucien Wright organised these
meetings, and they were a very loose sort of arrangement,
more a bunch of friends getting together for pizza and chat.
Of course, the chat did include discussion of works in
progress, and we all found it very valuable.
But apart from that, we were whacking away at the writing
pretty well on our own.
EM: I seem to remember, when I was about sixteen, giving
myself five years to sell my first novel. That didn’t quite
work out. In fact I couldn’t even get a story into my
college literary magazine. While I was in college, I did
write a weekly column for the local newspaper.
Over the years I made sporadic efforts to sell short science
fiction but each time was soon discouraged. I particularly
recall the sf mag that, rather than the cold impersonal
standard rejection slip, boasted a helpful checklist whereon
the writer’s failings (wooden characters, stilted dialogue,
bad grammar etc.) could be considerately checked off for the
rejectee’s elucidation. The shortcomings of one story I sent
were so egregious that the editorial reader felt compelled
not only to check off every available error but to fill the
slip with crabbed notations of numerous additional failings
For many years I mostly wrote for what we referred to as “sf
fanzines,” which were not usually about sf, oddly, but
mostly just personal writing and response, not unlike what
you see in internet newsgroups and mailings lists. I wrote
mostly personal essays and short humor.
I was in my mid thirties when I finally sold a humorous
essay I’d originally written for a fanzine to “Baby Talk.”
Which my first sale to any sort of national publication. For
a few years I made about one such sale a year. Then I tried
my hand for a time writing nonfiction. Among other things I
wrote about running and orienteering.
I finally got serious about fiction when I started
collaborating with Mary. As for novels, I’d always preferred
books to short stories and aspired to have a novel published
but I had neglected to actually complete one. The writing
group we joined gave me an incentive to do my bit to
complete a novel, simply because practically everyone else
in the group had managed to do so. Losing my legal editing
job in a corporate buyout didn’t hurt either. Aside from
giving me (temporarily) some spare time, it also forced me
to realize I might as well do something with my life that
meant something to me, because handing your life over to a
corporation doesn’t even guarantee a livelihood these days.
The first novel completed was a funny (we hoped) mystery, of
the body in the library and eccentric suspects mode, but set
out in the woods at an orienteering meet. The universal
reaction was, “Tells me more about the sport of orienteering
than I wanted to know.” So we set to work on ONE FOR SORROW
and perhaps some will find that it tells them more about
sixth century Constantinople than they want to know. (Hope
What kind of research was involved for your first book?
MR: A powerful amount! I don't know why we are such fools to
ourselves, because both our series (that is, the John
stories, and the Dorj stories, set in Mongolia) require a
lot of research.
Access to the Web has helped enormously, and we have built
up a small library of reference books. For John, the three
volume Dictionary of Byzantium is particularly useful. But
it was getting the smaller details right that sometimes
caused the worst headaches. For example, we wound up
spending longer on checking a culinary question than writing
the entire chapter in which the one reference was made --
and we subsequently left it out anyhow! On the other hand,
we subscribe to the "ask the expert" school, and the Web is
particularly useful for finding them -- and they all have
been most obliging when getting questions about arcane
matters from complete strangers, folks they don't know from
EM: I didn’t give much thought about the research
implications of writing a historical mystery novel ahead of
time, luckily. Our first story about John the Eunuch was
only four pages long and didn’t require much research, but
probably could’ve used more. In a historical there’s
practically nothing you can write that you can’t second
guess yourself about. A character says, “Wait a minute!” Did
Romans have “minutes?.” And what kind of fish is that served
at table? Did they fish for swordfish in the sixth century?
Were they swimming around the Mediterranean then? And if you
don’t second guess yourself, someone else will. Worse yet,
the experts don’t all agree! I’m kind of looking forward to
getting old enough to write a “historical” set in the
Who are your influences as a writer?
MR: The classic Golden Age mystery writers, and also Ray
Bradbury, for his autumnal feel, and M. R. James, the master
EM: Oddly, neither Mary nor I had read any mystery novels
set in the Roman era before writing ONE FOR SORROW, although
we have since. After we began writing it, we made it a
particular point not to read any, because we feared being
influenced. For my own part, I have to work hard to avoid
that, to the point of trying not to read books similar to
whatever I might be working on, because I find I tend to
write like whichever author I’m reading.
My own favorites include John D.McDonald and Georges
Simenon, but I don’t know that there is much Travis McGee in
John the Eunuch. Maybe a little Maigret. I also like
mysteries featuring a strong puzzle aspect, like those of
Agatha Christie and any locked room mystery, even though, I
admit it, I have yet to completely figure out a mystery
before the author reveals all. For many years my writing was
strongly affected by essayists like E.B. White, James
Thurber and Robert Benchley, but I can’t say what affect
that’s had on my novel writing, except to make even a short
novel seem like a very lengthy piece of work.
What does your family think of having a mystery author
in their midst?
Like the body in library, they remain rather silent on
the matter. But we like to think they are secretly quite
tickled about the situation, unlike the aforementioned
I suppose it is rather taken for granted, since my dad
is a watercolorist, with paintings hanging in many galleries
and museums, and my brother is also an artist. I suspect, on
the whole, my family would’ve preferred I go into the law or
some other ‘real’ career instead of writing. My grandmother,
who died many years ago, was an avid mystery reader and my
one regret about ONE FOR SORROW is that I will not be able
to hand her a copy.
Tell us about plans for future books.
MR: ONE FOR SORROW is the first of six, at least, about
John. The second is planned for publication next year..
There'll be more short stories about John, of course,
including a locked roomer coming out this autumn
in a historical mystery anthology edited by Maxim Jakubowski.
EM: Speaking for myself, I have lots of plans (after all,
I’ve had to save all the ideas up over the years!) and not
enough time. For the last couple of years, for instance,
I’ve returned sporadically to a modern-day mystery, with a
rather controversial theme, but haven’t gotten more than 10
or 12 thousand words into it. Our primary focus now is on
John the Eunuch.
How can readers get in touch with you?
They may like to visit our Web site at
or perhaps jot an email to us at email@example.com
Mary and Eric, thanks for joining us! Readers, we have a review of One for Sorrow on our Historical Mysteries page.
November 10, 1999