Mary Reed and Eric Mayer co-author not only the Lord Chamberlain Byantine series but also the Grace Baxter mysteries, set in WWII Newcastle-on-Tyne, England. Today they’re here to talk about a topic in Five For Silver, the fifth book in the Lord Chamberlain series, that’s quite topical right now. Learn more about Mary and Eric and their books at their website and blog.
A Circumstance Such as has Never Before Been Recorded
Every now and then pandemics sweep all before them and the lives of those who survive are changed forever in more ways than one, as we shall again doubtless see once the current emergency has passed into history.
Five For Silver, a John, Lord Chamberlain, mystery, which received a stared review from Publishers Weekly, has become timely in a most uncomfortable way. Set during the Justinianaic pandemic, it features the most noir opening sequence of any novel in the series, given it describes a character clawing his way out from a mass burial. Since the plague's illness and its effects form an important part of the structure of the plot, we put on our research hats and went looking for the necessary information.
Of the bubonic persuasion, the plague appears to have originated in Egypt, spreading swiftly across the Roman Empire and beyond and arriving in Constantinople in the spring of 542. Fortunately the historical record provided us with many useful details. In his Ecclesiastical History Evagrius Scholasticus termed the plague as "a circumstance such as has never before been recorded". His description of the course of the disease is harrowing and graphic. Some experienced hallucinations before other symptoms appeared. Signs of infection included swollen faces, affectations of the throat, fever, delirium, and buboes. Death usually followed in two or three days, although Evagrius records some patients recovered once or even twice, only to succumb to a third attack.
He also described what he dubbed the various and unaccountable ways the plague could be contracted: by touching or living with infected persons, entering a sickroom, or by "frequenting public places", a stark reminder of shelter-in-place orders as I write. On the other hand, despite exposure to it, some did not succumb to the disease, including those who, in despair after having lost those they loved, attempted to catch it but to no avail.
In his Secret History, contemporary historian Procopius mentions Justinian was infected but recovered, giving further information about general conditions in Constantinople during that time in his History of the Wars. He mentions similar symptoms as those cited by Evagrius. The number of deaths was so great in the city the rising number of cases finally made it impossible to keep up with burying the dead, and with existing tombs full and mass graves overflowing, states burial parties "mounted the towers of the fortifications in Sycae [Galata], and tearing off the roofs threw the bodies there in complete disorder; and they piled them up just as each one happened to fall, and filled practically all the towers with corpses, and then covered them again with their roofs."
It is within the unthinkable darkness of one such terrible tower that Five For Silver opens.
Five For Silver
John, the Lord Chamberlain, Mystery, Book 5
In 542, Peter, John the Lord Chamberlain's elderly servant, claims a heavenly visitor revealed a murder to him. It transpires that Peter's old army friend has indeed been stabbed, but then John discovers that Gregory was not what he appeared to be. As the plague ravages Constantinople, John's quest for the truth leads him to churchmen and whores, lawyers and bear trainers. Suspects include a dealer in dubious antiquities, a resourceful bookseller, a court poet fixated on bereavement, and a holy fool who outrages the city by dancing with the dead and invading the empress' private bath....