Pens, Paws, and Claws would like to welcome Mary Reed to the blog this week!
Tell our readers a little about yourself and your writing.
As Eric is wont to say, we began writing together after we married because he had no choice! We’ve been fortunate in having a number of short mystery stories set in different eras and locations published in a number of historical mystery anthologies as well as in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. We also co-author two series: the John, Lord Chamberlain mysteries set in and around the sixth century Constantinople court of Emperor Justinian I and our newest venture, the Grace Baxter series taking place in wartime Britain.
What are you reading now?
Le Queux’s The Mysterious Mr. Miller, which gets off to a cracking good start. Mr Massari, an Italian and obviously a gentleman, takes a room at the London boarding house at which narrator Godfrey Leaf is staying.
Massari, newly arrived from the Continent, is taken ill that night and Leaf, who speaks his native tongue, sits up with him. During the night Massari speaks of keeping a woman’s secret and later gives Godfrey a sealed packet of papers he says are of considerable value to certain of his relatives in Italy, asking him to give it intact to the Italian ambassador three years after his death, which rapidly follows….
What writing projects are you currently working on?
We’re busy writing the next entry in the Lord Chamberlain series. John is able to get into Rome, then encircled by the Goth army, in connection with a particularly convoluted investigation involving a close friend.
The situation is complicated by the fact John has been exiled to Greece and it is highly likely he will be executed if Justinian learns he has left that country without permission.
Who is your favorite author and why?
As a fan of Golden Age authors it’s difficult to pick just one, so today I shall mention Ethel Lina White. My favourite novels of hers are Wax, which involves a run-down waxworks, minor crimes whose explanation is surprising, and a darkly ironic ending, The Spiral Staircase aka Some Must Watch, a tense book set in an isolated not fully electrified old house with a murderer loose in the immediate area, and Fear Stalks The Village, in which poison pen letters bring death to an idyllic village, including two suicides for an unusual but convincing reason.
Did you have childhood pets? If so, tell us about them.
It’s possible I may be the only mystery writer whose first childhood pet was a budgie with a Geordie (Tyneside) accent. These birds can be taught to mimic human speech, but the only word he ever learned to say was his name Peter, or as he would squawk Pe’er because he learnt it from a voice whose accent features glottal stops, or as I’d say it glo’al stops. One day I came home from school to find poor Pe’er dead. So he was buried in the back yard in an old sink where I attempted to grow nastursiums, which local stray cats liked to grub up during their bathroom visits. Can’t complain really, given there was very little open ground in our urban area so streets and roads were covered in concrete or tarmac except for graveyards, an occasional small park, and the odd demolition site. So poor Pe’er in his domino box did not rest in his graveyard for very long. It has occurred to me a budgie’s accent being that of a place a person of interest in a crime claims never to have been would make a good clue in plain sight, although of course such a person might well claim he or she purchased the bird from someone from the relevant area.
How do you use animals in your writing? Are they a character in their own right or just mentioned in passing?
Both. In One For Sorrow, the first Lord Chamberlain novel, there was an unfortunate bear who had been subjected to bear baiting. We made sure his trainer met his doom at the paws of the bear when it escaped its cage. The same bear also broke the nose of an intoxicated man who poked him with a big stick, and serve him right too. In a later novel Empress Theodora orders the bear taken from its current home, the imperial menagerie, to be freed on a country estate. There the bear has further adventures, some of a humorous nature.
Also in One For Sorrow a starving feral cat saves the Lord Chamberlain’s life by accident. This cat was modeled on Rachel, who came into the family when he showed up in a bad state one winter night. He was a tom cat named by children too young to know the difference and had obviously been someone’s pet at some point because he arrived neutered and declawed and therefore was not able to defend himself or fight for food when out in the world. We could never be sure if he had just run off as cats will occasionally do or if someone had abandoned him.
In our fiction Rachel is usually seen in the company of a smaller cat based on Sabrina, his long time real life friend. She was born in a garage down the street to a feral mother and while all the kittens in the litter were found homes, the house owner could not persuade the mother to stay. Generally speaking the two cats are to be found in our fiction doing something in the background and are included as a little nod to their memories.
Why do you include animals in your writing?
They are generally there to to provide local colour although occasinally they interact with a given character. A few examples would be a man carrying a wicker cage stuffed with squawking chickens fleeing his village, which he believes is doomed due to certain omens (Three For A
Letter) or the old crone selling partridges in Constantinople, all of whose birds are purchased and set free by one of the more prominent characters (One For Sorrow).
Then there’s a noirishly comic scene involving a donkey, whose skittishness interferes with the attempts of a major character to dispose of a body at night, leading to increasing frustration on his part although he eventually manages to solve the problem. (Ten For Dying). The same novel included a scene or two involving frogs in unusual circumstances.
Do you have any working or service animals in your stories? Tell us about them.
The most unusual working animals we have created so far appeared in Three For A Letter. This is a herd of fortune-telling goats living on an island along the coast from Constantinople. The seeker after knowledge must write their question on a piece of parchment and then burn it before sunrise in a bowl on a pedestal under an open-sided shelter opposite the island. A local woman provides the answer to the question by interpreting the positions individual goats are seen to have taken when the sun has risen. The same novel also involves a mechanical whale whose workings we based upon the writings of Hero of Alexander concerning the construction of automatons. Although mechanical, he’s a working mammal as he is integral to the play based upon the story of Jonah and the Whale which kicks off the plot.
Then there’s an oracular snake with a human head in Six For Gold. As is the case of what must at first glance seem bizarre and unlikely trimmings in our novels, he also is based on an historical account, being inspired by just such a snake utilised by the charlatan Alexander the Paphlagonian.
What’s your favorite book or movie that had an animal as a central character? Why?
Stephen King’s Cujo. It’s a frightening book demonstrating how easily ordinary lives can be affected by outside forces in terrible and unexpected ways, in this case when a beloved pet falls ill. But can we blame the dog? After all, it wasn’t poor Cujo’s fault he became rabid, but the results are heartbreaking for his family, for others, and ultimately for Cujo himself.
What’s your real-life funniest pet story?
Now and then Sabrina attempted to take over Rachel’s role as boss cat by tussling with him. In some way she knew he had injured one of his legs.
It stuck out at a strange angle when he was sitting, the result of who knows what adventure in the wild before he was taken in and so she would try to get under his guard to nip at it. Seeing her advance, Rachel would raise a threatening paw but she generally took no notice and still went for that leg. On one occasion however he made a surprise move. A big cat, he turned a complete somersault and she ran off in terror. How I wished I had had a camera to hand on that occasion but alas….
What do your pets do when you are writing?
Rachel and Sabrina are both gone now, but Sabrina could always be found velcroed to Eric’s knees when he was writing. She was a one person cat and although the memory remains terribly sad, she died on the knees of that one person. Whereas Rachel tended to distribute his affection around more and was very friendly, really more dog-like than most cats though we never could get him to fetch a stick <smile>. When one of us was writing he could often be found lying down or sleeping at our feet.
Mary Reed and Eric Mayer’s most recent Lord Chamberlain novel is Murder In Megara (2016) and, as by Eric Reed, Ruined Stones (2017), set in wartime England, both from Poisoned Pen Press. Their most recent short story, “Time’s Revenge”, appeared earlier this year in the anthology Bound By Mystery.
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