Thursday, March 17, 2011

Thursday's Thugs: Guest Blog by Mary Reed

Today I would like to welcome Mary Reed, one member of a dynamic husband and wife historical mystery writing team. Mary Reed and her husband, Eric Mayer, published several short Lord Chamberlain detections in mystery anthologies and in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine prior to 1999. One For Sorrow, the first full length novel about their protagonist, was published in 1999. They are currently working on the as yet untitled ninth entry in the series.

Their current book is titled Eight For Eternity. It is set in January 532, when mobs ruled Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire. Against a murderous backdrop lit by raging fires, John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, must find those seeking to use the Nika Riots to dethrone the emperor, untangling a web of intrigue in a city where death holds court at every corner and before escalating violence in the streets removes all hope of finding those he seeks.

Mary has graciously accepted my invitation to talk about one of her villains on Thursday's Thugs, Theodotus of Constantinople. Enjoy:

Four For A Boy, the prequel to John's adventures, relates how John regained his freedom and began his rise to great office. Theodotus, a major villain in the novel, was based upon an historical City Prefect of Constantinople.

According to Procopius' Secret History, Theodotus was much feared for his ruthlessness, particularly in putting down riots. It was also claimed he practiced magick. Theodotus was nicknamed the Pumpkin but Procopius gives no reason, leaving it open for authorial speculation.

We took Procopius' mini-portrait of a powerful and hated man who exhibited what my mother would call a nasty manner, changed his name to The Gourd, and described him thus:

Though he dressed like a peasant in leather breeches and a rough wool shirt, no one could have mistaken the broad-chested figure, shambling along as if weighed down by his enormous and asymmetrical head, set between wide shoulders without apparent benefit of a neck.

Some whispered he'd been kicked in the head by a horse as a youngster. Others said the misshapen head was a result of his mother easing her pregnancy with demonic potions. No one, however, said anything at all about the matter when within earshot of the man nicknamed the "Gourd".

Early in the book, the Gourd gives a banquet at which he insults his high-born guests by giving them cooked gourds to eat before performing an apparently magickal feat. Having freed a caged dove he proposed dropping into a scalding pitch, he plunges his hand into the bubbling mixture.

His hand emerges unscathed -- an explanation is provided later in the novel -- and the Gourd declares:

"This is the indestructible hand that reaches into the darkest alleys to choke the life from the murderous bastards who lurk there! Why do you think they whisper my name with such dread? They know my powers. They fear me. And rightly so!"

At that point news arrives of a riot breaking out in the city, an event allowing him to display his vicious nature and confirming his boastful statement was not mere words. We do not often feature violence on stage, but in this instance the Gourd illuminates the scene by burning a captured rioter alive:

Upending the pot he doused the [rioter] with lamp oil. The man began to struggle frantically as the viscous liquid soaked into his clothing and trickled down, forming a puddle.

Theodotus stepped away and casually kicked one of the lamps illuminating the scene towards the obelisk. The lamp skittered on its side, rolling in a tiny wheel of flames to come to rest against the man's oil sodden cloak. A thin line of red snaked slowly along it and began climbing up the man's chest.

Then the oil exploded into a ball of flame, inside which a dark figure writhed and screamed.

While the Gourd is only briefly mentioned in the Secret History, he made such an impression it was inevitable he would show up in our series.

Although it does not occur in Four For A Boy, the fate of the Gourd is known. According to the Secret History he was accused of causing a near fatal illness to Emperor Justinian, and of being a magician and a poisoner. While the charges are probably untrue, evidence against the Gourd was obtained by torturing his friends. However, one courageous high-ranking official spoke out, declaring the Gourd innocent, and as a result the Gourd was exiled rather than executed. When he later learned men were being sent to assassinate him, he fled to a church, took sanctuary, and spent the rest of his life there.


Gwen Mayo said...

Thanks for the insight into an interesting and complex character Mary.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Well, I'm intrigued by The Gourd. What a cool character!

Gwen, I've cleared your comment at the Weekend Hangout; come on by and play some more!

Joel Blaine Kirkpatrick said...

Hello Gwen - West of Mars sent me. In fact, Susan chased me.

Holy Toledo, am I glad that she did! One of my favorite reads is 'Name of the Rose' by Umberto Eco. Now Mary and Eric have me itching to begin reading their works. Nothing thrills me more than a period piece with some excellent mystery in plot.

Cheers to you all, off to read!

Jaleta Clegg said...

Scary villain, indeed. Those based on real historical figures are much creepier. BTW, stopping by from West of Mars.

Gwen Mayo said...

Mary asked me to convey her thanks to those who left comments on her blog post. For some reason my blog will not let her leave a comment.