Byzantium, capitol of the 6th century Roman Empire, simmers a rich stew of creeds, cultures, and citizens with a sprinkling of cutthroats and crimes. John the Eunuch, Emperor Justinian's Lord Chamberlain, orders a Christian court while himself observing the rites of Mithra. Thomas, a knight from Britain, Ahasuerus, a soothsayer, and two ladies from Crete stir up events and old memories for John, Who must ask how the visitors link to the death of Leukos, Keeper of the Plate. An Egyptian brothel keeper and a Christian stylite know more than they are telling...
About the Author
Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mystery series including Bones of Contention, Bet Your Bones, and Bonereapers. Like her anthropologist sleuth, Matthews travels around the world learning about other cultures and mythologies, which she incorporates into her novels. www.jeannematthews.com
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BonereapersA Dinah Pelerin Mystery
By Jeanne Matthews
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2012 Jeanne Matthews
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Doomsday? No, no, no. That's a gross exaggeration, a scary catchword cooked up by another disaster salesman like yourself. You journalists just can't help yourselves."
Senator Colt Sheridan, R-Montana, fat-cat wheat farmer and presidential hopeful, remained annoyingly fresh and full of himself after the nearly nine hour flight from Washington, D.C to Longyearbyen, Norway. Dinah Pelerin shifted uncomfortably in her front-row seat and tried not to groan out loud. Three speakers had delivered their remarks and sat down, but the gentleman from Montana gave no sign that he was ready to cede the podium. He had spoken for over twenty minutes and now he was fielding questions from the media while Dinah shivered from the cold.
The disaster salesman was undaunted. "So this trip isn't because you're worried about an agricultural Armageddon?"
"It's about international cooperation." Senator Sheridan spared the man a pitying shake of his head, as if resigned to the deliberate stupidity of the media, and his eyes returned to the cluster of TV cameras and the home audience that mattered. His practiced smile radiated reasonableness and sincerity. "It's about insuring the continuation of the finest wheat crop on the face of God's earth, Montana red. It's about American leadership and making sure that American moms never have to send their kids off to school without their favorite cereal."
A large assemblage of Norwegian government officials, members of the Alliance to Rescue Civilization, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, concerned scientists, and interested citizens crowded into the harshly lit, inhumanly cold arrival lounge of the Svalbard-Longyearbyen Airport to welcome the U.S. dignitaries who had brought with them an assortment of seeds for storage in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It was popularly known as the "Doomsday Vault" whether Senator Sheridan liked it or not. He had brought a box of Montana winter red wheat berries to be added to the nearly twenty million seed varieties already on deposit inside the fortress-like facility on the frozen Arctic island of Spitsbergen. He had also brought his Norwegian-born wife Erika and his fellow Republican and best buddy in the Congress, Senator Whitney Keyes of Massachusetts.
Senator Keyes lounged in a chair behind Sheridan and projected a genial but dignified reserve. With his elegantly tailored suit, his mane of luxuriant dark hair, and his just-off-the-yacht élan, he reeked of privilege and Ivy League prestige. Keyes was a fiscal conservative and a vocal proponent of tax cuts, industry deregulation, and small government. But the normally liberal voters of Massachusetts had been won over by his Kennedyesque appearance, his moderate views on social issues, and his record of generosity to the poor and underprivileged. Following his marriage to the widow and heiress of a billionaire British oil magnate, the senator had founded a charitable organization dedicated to building nutrition and health centers in third world countries. It was he who had arranged this event in Longyearbyen, presumably to showcase Senator Sheridan's commitment to safeguarding the world's food supply and to soften his somewhat jingoistic image. Senator Keyes had brought with him a box of New England pumpkin seeds and a dewy-eyed intern from Boston named Tipton Teilhard III who looked like he was twelve years old.
The third member of the delegation, Senator Norris Frye, D-Hawaii, had not volunteered for the mission. He had been deep sea fishing off the coast of Maui when President Obama, eager to show that the Democrats also care about international cooperation and insuring the variety of children's cereal products, called him to service. Nursing a painful flareup of gout and an all-too-apparent sense of imposition, Senator Frye had brought offshoots of the rare Hawaiian hapai banana and, in the absence of a qualified botanist willing to leave sunny Hawaii and pop off to the North Pole in late December, he'd brought Dinah. She had been tapped as his "technical consultant"—in case anyone had the bad manners to ask him a question about bananas. At least, that was the story Senator Frye believed and it was Dinah's job to make sure he kept on believing it.
For the past six months, Dinah had been studying ethnobotany at the University of Hawaii in Hilo, focused on the complex relationships between ancient Polynesian cultures and the plants they cultivated and on a complex romantic relationship with the nephew of her department head, Eleanor Kalolo. A full-blooded Hawaiian with a passion for preserving endangered native plant species, Eleanor harbored a deep suspicion of the Seed Savers Exchange managers who had been pestering her to send her prized collection of heirloom seeds to Svalbard for safekeeping. She didn't relish the idea of storing her agricultural heritage on foreign soil inside of a frozen mountain and under the control of people she didn't know and couldn't keep tabs on. But as founder and chairwoman of the Native Peoples' Horticultural Cooperative, she felt it was her duty to learn what this Doomsday Vault was all about, which was where Dinah came in. Eleanor didn't travel. The mountain—or else a first-hand report on the mountain by someone she trusted—would have to come to her.
"You find out if these Seed Saver know-it-alls who want my samples will keep their promise to protect them," she'd said in a voice of rumbling command. "Senator Frye has asked me to give him a special cultivar from my collection to donate on behalf of the Hawaiian Seed Savers Exchange and he wants to take along somebody who knows something about it. I'm gonna give him you. You'll be my plant. You can tell me if this crazy ice cave in Norway is on the up-and-up."
A visit to the North Pole in the middle of winter had sounded slightly mad to Dinah, but mad at just the right moment. She needed a jolt of something different. Island living had lately made her feel lazy and hemmed in and her entanglement with Eleanor's marriage-minded nephew had begun to feel ... well, entangling. She'd turned thirty-two in October. Time was scorching past and she hadn't done half the things she wanted to do. She wanted to return to her first loves—archaeology and mythology and world travel. She wanted to discover the ruins of a lost city, or rescue some storied relic from a careless farmer's plow, or record the last speaker of a dying language. This trip would give her time to think and decide whether to unmoor herself from Hawaii and sail on, or trim her sails and her dreams and settle down. She'd bought a book of ancient Norse myths and legends to re-inspire her and she was looking forward to learning about the famous Svalbard Seed Vault.
She didn't expect to uncover any defect in the vault or misconduct in its management. The local people who'd been soliciting Eleanor's seeds may have rubbed her the wrong way, but Norway was renowned for its cleanliness, efficiency, high ethical standards, and commitment to world peace. Moreover, it stood to reason that a U.S. presidential candidate wouldn't make a highly publicized trip to declare his support for the project if it hadn't been carefully vetted. She would play her part as Senator Frye's assistant and, when the opportunity arose, ask a few questions about the reliability of the vault's new cryopreservation chamber, which was supposed to maintain unorthodox seeds like bananas at ultra-low temperatures to prevent them from drying out and losing viability, and she would inquire discreetly about the bona fides of the vault's managers. Other than that, there would be little for her to do except read and think.
It crossed her mind that Eleanor wasn't concerned about her seeds at all. Not the plant variety, anyway. She wanted Dinah to marry her nephew, Jon, and have babies. She'd probably sensed Dinah's restlessness and packed her off on this boondoggle to give her time to reconsider Jon's proposal of marriage. But Dinah had been reflecting on the dubious blessings of marriage since she was ten years old. She came from a family where the marriages tended to be ill-starred, contentious, and short. If she had inherited any of her mother's characteristics—and it was already pretty clear she'd inherited the restless gene—Jon would be well advised to retract his offer and give her a pass.
Having grown up in the sultry heat of southeast Georgia and stuck to places with a mild climate, Dinah had no serious cold weather experience. Eleanor had given her a few hundred dollars to outfit herself for the Arctic, and during her layover in Washington she'd gone shopping for cold weather gear. She'd bought a navy wool pea jacket with chichi red buttons, a pair of fur-lined winter boots, wool gloves, wool socks, and a raffish ski cap with earflaps and two long, braided tassels. She'd felt cheerful and ready for her adventure at the top of the world. And then she stepped off the airplane in Svalbard into the thirteen-degrees-below-zero Polar Night and her enthusiasm shriveled.
The cold hadn't quelled Senator Sheridan's enthusiasm. He gestured behind him to the American and Norwegian flags mounted side by side. "It's not just my hope, it's my promise to forge better working relationships and broader cooperation among the nations of the world. We can learn a lot from each other. I'd like the folks watching back home in America to know why it is that little Norway can afford to build this extraordinary vault for the benefit of future generations. Norway isn't the richest country in Europe for nothing. Its trillion dollar surplus comes from offshore drilling and it's time we in the United States stop dragging our feet and start drilling more wells off our shores."
A reporter in full-length fur coat raised his hand.
Senator Sheridan recognized him with a confident wave. "Yes, sir. In the second row."
The man stood. "There is currently a trade gap between the U.S. and Norway. You import more from us than you export. Do you advocate stiffer trade restrictions?"
"No way. I'm a strong advocate for free trade, always have been. I've helped to enact some of the least restrictive agreements between the U.S. and its trading partners, including Norway. If elected president—"
Dinah tuned out the oratory. She had an inherent distrust of politicians. There were those who would say she had an inherent distrust of everyone, but politicians had proven themselves to be particularly untrustworthy. Even so, Senator Sheridan was an undeniably handsome man with a boyish energy and a disarming, down-to-earth manner when he wasn't politicking. On the flight over, he had told a funny anecdote about doing jumping jacks to keep warm while waiting for the school bus during the bitter cold Montana winters. Dinah wished he'd lighten up and lead the people freezing their behinds off here today in a few jumping jacks.
"Do you advocate gene modification?" The reporter who'd needled him about an agricultural Armageddon cut in without being recognized. He was a scruffy character with an accent that rose at the end of every sentence, which made him sound angry, and a press badge that read "Dagbladet," which looked like a swear word. He had a long, lupine face with pock-marked cheeks and wild, Einstein hair. "American companies have applications pending to sell their patented genetically modified grains to Norway. Are you here to promote those applications?"
Sheridan's eyes narrowed. "I'm here to donate unmodified Montana wheat seeds to the Svalbard repository. But global population is outpacing food production. With seven billion mouths to feed already, genetically modified foods may be one way to achieve food security."
"That sounds like an advertisement for Tillcorp Industries," goaded the reporter. "Tillcorp is one of the biggest contributors to your campaign and they've made selling their genetically engineered products a major goal in Europe and the rest of the world. Are you here to spread international cooperation and good will or mainly to advocate for Tillcorp?"
A disapproving murmur rippled through the ranks of the government officials seated on a makeshift stage behind the podium. The minister of agriculture thrust out his lips and glowered. Whitney Keyes darted a sharp look over the tops of his half-moon glasses. Norris Frye, whose gout-inflamed toes had kept him in bedroom slippers and off the stage, sat up smartly on Dinah's left, all ears.
Senator Sheridan glared at the reporter. "What's your name, fella?"
"Aagaard. Brander Aagaard."
"Well, you can put this in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Brander Aagaard. Colt Sheridan advocates for the hard-working farmers of this world. He advocates for responsible research and development that'll make our staple crops resistant to disease and pests and for policies that'll keep global markets stable and predictable."
The agriculture minister stood up and applauded as if that concluded the program. Looking ill at ease, the other officials followed his lead and so did the senators. Dinah joined in. Her fingers felt like icicles, at risk of breaking off with each clap, and she was increasingly desperate for a visit to the ladies' room. She noticed that Erika Sheridan, who sat primly on her right, was also showing signs of impatience. Her curtain of blond hair hid her face as she stared into her lap and worried her wedding ring. Twenty-five years ago, Erika had been the lead singer for Fata Morgana, the hottest rock group in Europe in the '80s. On the long flight over the North Atlantic, she and Dinah had played numerous games of gin and Crazy Eights and Erika had talked about her life before and after Colt Sheridan. They had met while he was a Rhodes scholar living in Oxford and, after a whirlwind romance, she left Fata to follow him to Montana. The way she hid her face and fidgeted with her rings made Dinah wonder if she was completely on board with her husband's presidential ambitions.
When the applause died, the agriculture minister, a big, beefy man with lips like sausage links, cleared his throat significantly. "Well said, Senator Sheridan. We are all in agreement on these matters. Stable markets. Research. Yes, and now I'm sure that Senator Sheridan and his party are weary from their long journey and anxious to be shown to their hotel."
Senator Keyes extended his hand to the agriculture minister. "Thank you, Herr Dybdahl. We appreciate this warm reception here in the Kingdom of Norway and look forward to more substantive discussions with you and your cabinet at the dinner tonight." He nodded deferentially to Sheridan. "Do you have anything you'd like to add, Senator Sheridan?"
Sheridan waved an arm across the audience. "If there are no more questions ..."
"I've got one," said Aagaard. "Tillcorp can buy genetic deregulation in the U.S. simply by donating to you Congress people. Is the fix in for them to have free access to experiment with American seeds stored here in Norway?"
"What do you mean, 'the fix'? There's no fix here. Not anywhere." Sheridan appealed to the sensible people watching him on TV back in America. "My vote's not for sale. Never has been, never will be."
"If you're not lobbying for Tillcorp, why did you bring the president of Tillcorp and his lawyer with you on your plane?"
"How the ...?" Sheridan scowled and a note of uncertainty crept into his voice "You're way out of line, fella. I'm here at the invitation of the Norwegian Government. To do my part, to do my country's part to guarantee the planet's food security." He turned angry eyes to the row of ministers behind him, as if to demand that somebody give this rabblerouser the heave-ho. The senator obviously wasn't accustomed to the aggressive style of European journalists.
Dinah wasn't accustomed to associating with politicians or the reporters who egged them on. The antagonism seemed mutually calculated to stir up their particular constituencies. The Norwegian ministers exchanged looks of embarrassment, but seemed unsure how to handle the situation.
Aagaard pressed his advantage. "Is Tillcorp's presence a secret?"
"Let me through. Move. Move aside."
There was a commotion at the rear of the room.
"Out of my way. Move, move!" A small, pudding-faced man with a few tufts of grayish-red hair tried to shove his way past the guards at the door. His English had the same singsong pitch as Aagaard's. "They have to be stopped. They're destroying God's creations. They rob the earth of its precious fruits!"
A shout went up from somewhere in the crowd. "Look out! He has a gun!"
"Let me through. It's the Americans who are dangerous. Atrazine! Alachlor! They've brought the death gene."
Excerpted from Bonereapers by Jeanne Matthews Copyright © 2012 by Jeanne Matthews. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
READING GUIDE FOR THE JOHN THE EUNUCH HISTORICAL MYSTERY SERIES
Everyone knows about the fall of the Roman Empire to the barbarian hordes. However, while the western portion of the empire passed from Roman control in 476 AD, the eastern part-often referred to as the Byzantine Empire- survived for nearly another millennium, until its capital of Constantinople was overrun by the Turks in l453.
The John the Eunuch mystery series unfolds during the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565), on the cusp of the classical and medieval worlds. John lives at a time when paganism had all but lost its battle with Christianity but the glory of Rome was still much more than just a dim memory. In his attempts to restore the empire, Justinian not only successfully reconquered both Africa and Italy but also codified Roman law and rebuilt Constantinople so as to rival in the magnificence of its architecture ancient Rome itself. Yet the city's centerpiece was not a pagan temple but a Christian church, the Hagia Sophia.
John, who serves as Justinian's Lord Chamberlain, is called upon to solve some of the mysterious deaths which were not uncommon in this turbulent time of competing viewpoints. In One For Sorrow (535 AD) he investigates the death of a friend who was an official at the Great Palace, while also contending with a soothsayer and a traveler who claims to be on a quest for the Holy Grail. Two For Joy (537 AD) finds him attempting to find an explanation for the deaths of holy stylites who spontaneously burst into flame atop the pillars upon which they live, just as a religious zealot arrives at the gates of Constantinople, claiming supernatural powers and making political demands. In Three For A Letter (539 AD), John becomes involved in Justinian's plans to regain control of Italy when he is sent to a seaside estate to solve the murder of a young diplomatic hostage who was an heir to the Ostrogoth throne-and at the same time also protect the dead boy's sister. His task is further complicated by intriguing courtiers, automatons and a herd of fortune-telling goats. Four For A Boy (525 AD) is a prequel to the series, relating how John regained his freedom by solving the murder of a prominent philanthropist in broad daylight in the Great Church, as well as his first meetings with several series characters including Felix (here a rank and file excubitor), Egyptian madam Isis and the wine imbibing physician Gaius, not to mention a cast including street performers, courtiers, and the former actress Theodora, who was later to co-rule the empire with Justinian.
John the Eunuch is a tall, lean Greek, born around 495 AD. As a young man he attended Plato's Academy outside Athens but grew restless and left to become a mercenary. He fought in Bretania, where he developed a fear of deep water after seeing a colleague drown in a swollen stream. He also lived for a time in Alexandria and traveled with a troupe which recreated the ancient Cretan art of bull-leaping for Roman audiences. While seeking to buy silks for his lover in a border region of the empire, he strayed into enemy territory, was captured by Persians, emasculated and sold into slavery, purchased to serve at the Great Palace in Constantinople.
Having regained his freedom and eventually appointed Lord Chamberlain, John's official role is as chief attendant to the emperor. As part of his duties John oversees much of the palace administration and supervises court ceremonies. However, his real power lies in his close working relationship with Justinian, who depends upon his advice and, from time to time, his ability as an investigator. Unfortunately, John has attracted the enmity of Empress Theodora.
A man of simple tastes, John lives in a sparsely furnished house on the palace grounds. Although wealthy, he refuses to employ slaves or the customary bodyguard. He is fluent in four languages (cursing in Egyptian) but is not quick to share confidences in any of them. He has, however, been known to share his thoughts with the girl depicted in the mosaic on the wall of his study.
John is sometimes aided in his investigations by Felix, the Captain of the Excubitors (palace guards), his younger friend Anatolius (Justinian's secretary) and an elderly servant, Peter. John, like Felix and Anatolius, is a practicing Mithran and has attained the rank of Runner of the Sun. Like them, however, he must keep his beliefs secret since Mithraism is a proscribed religion.
John is a man of contradictions-a pagan serving a Christian emperor, a man of principle in a society whose corrupt institutions do not offer justice, someone who has been terribly wounded but has not descended into ruthlessness although he has been known to lapse into fits of anger and near madness, perhaps a result of urges he usually controls.
John appears in several short stories as well as the series of novels.
SUGGESTED TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
WARNING: INCLUDES SPOILERS
(l) John suffered castration as a young man. In what way has this affected his emotional and mental attitudes? How do you think you would react to this type of traumatic event? To what extent do the things that happen to us dictate "who we are" and to what extent can we decide "who we are" despite the things that happen to us?
(2) John was captured, mutilated and sold into slavery but has survived to become a man of great power. Yet he has not attempted to hunt down and punish those who wronged him. Why do you think he hasn't taken revenge? Should he? Would you?
(3) People sometimes assume that a eunuch must not be a "real" man and so would be unable to protect the people he loves or do "manly" things. What are your thoughts on this assumption? Can we in fact accomplish things that seem impossible when the need arises? Has this ever happened to you?
(4) Many things taken for granted in John's time - families selling their children into prostitution or slavery, for example - are morally repugnant to us. Yet these things are still going on l,500 years later. Do you think the world is becoming a better place? Will such conditions always be part of it? Does our society take for granted things that will appear morally wrong to people in the future? What do you think they would consider to belong to this classification?
(5) John does not always approve of aspects of his society. His views are sometimes more in line with modern day thinking. Is this realistic? How much does the society in which we live shape our views of what is right and wrong?
(6) Several characters in the books are practicing Mithrans living in a Christian court whose emperor has proscribed pagan religions. They must therefore follow their religion in secret. What parallels do you see with religious oppression today? Is it possible, like John and his friends, to follow individual beliefs and principles in a world that often seems to hold contrary views?
(7) As Lord Chamberlain, John the Eunuch is immensely wealthy but he prefers plain food and a sparsely furnished house. What does this tell you about him? Is wealth necessarily the measure of a person? What would you do if you were suddenly as rich as John?
(8) Empress Theodora is a very strong woman whose power is exceeded only by that wielded by her husband, Justinian. Some scholars believe her influence on her husband was so great that she was actually co-emperor. Today we see a few women serving as heads of state. Has the role of powerful women changed? Can you think of any women today who are like Theodora? Who would you choose to play her in a movie?
(9) In One For Sorrow, Ahaseurus claims to be able to foretell the future while in Three For A Letter the same talent is ascribed to a herd of goats. Fortune-telling and horoscopes remain very popular today. Why do you think that is, considering how much we now know about the world thanks to modern science? Do you think we can foretell the future by astrology or other means? Do you know of any examples where this actually happened?
(l0) The innkeeper and his wife in One For Sorrow are a good example of a marriage that began in high hopes and ended in sorrow. Given the history of the couple as related in the book, could a different course have been taken? If they had asked you for advice on their marriage, what advice would you have given them?
(ll) In One For Sorrow, John is driven to find his friend's murderer even though the emperor has ordered him to stop the pursuit. Do we have a higher duty to our family and friends than to those in power?
(l2) Anatolius, who appears in all the books, is often hasty in his actions. What advice would you give him if you were his parent? Would it be any different from parental advice you would give to a young man or woman today?
(l3) At the end of Two For Joy, Michael's true identity is revealed. It has been said that we all wear public masks. Do you think this is true? What would you have done in Michael's situation?
(l4) In Two For Joy, Lucretia becomes a runaway wife. Given her situation as described in the book would you have felt the same way? Would you have stayed in the marriage? Why?
(l5) Justinian exercised absolute power over the life and death of everyone in his empire. If you were the emperor what sort of civil and legal reforms would you order carried out immediately? If you could only order one reform, what would it be, and why?
(l6) In Three For A Letter, the Ostrogoth twins have been brought up in very unusual circumstances, separated from their blood relatives and far from home. What sort of effect do you think this would have on children? How could it be counteracted?
(l7) Much of Three For A Letter is set on Zeno's country estate and exhibits a dreamlike quality. Have you ever felt as if you were living in a dream, whether good or bad?
(l8) Were you surprised to learn that the Roman Empire had continued for 1,000 years after its "fall"? Why do you think so little popular attention has been paid to its later history while there have been many books and movies about its earlier times?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fascinating story. One reviewer calls it Norwegian Noir, because it’s set in a very unusual place and time. The normal endless night has settled on the small Norwegian town of Longyearbyen, located in enduring cold only a few hundred miles from the North Pole. The American delegation is both political and commercial. From the warm and sunny shores of Hawaii comes anthropologist Dinah Perelin. Accompanied by some United States Senators and their entourages, the CEO of a large and wealthy agribusiness corporation, and a growing gaggle of media types, Perelin is present to see to the sequestration of a quantity of heritage banana seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Buried in the permafrost, the high-tech vault is a repository for heritage and special seeds. Some have dubbed it the Doomsday vault, a place to store viable seeds against the possibility of the next world-wide catastrophe that would send the world population into widespread starvation. There are intriguing possibilities for crime fiction in this vault, but they are only alluded to here. Perelin slogs her way through a complicated group of characters, some of whom could stand more development, as well as murder and assault with a little potential romance thrown in as well. There are disappointing shifts in points of view at times. These are relatively small points against a story that moves along at an icy jog through the enduring night, revealing crucial information that will keep many viewers turning the pages, if only to see what happens next to the charming protagonist.