Religious Tensions and a Murder in the 6th Century

Murder in Megara: A John, the Lord Chamberlain Mystery, by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer, (Poisoned Pen Press), 256 pages, release date 6 October, 2015

I read my first John, the Lord Chamberlain, mystery a year and a half ago and found it engrossing, not just because of the mystery at its heart, but because of the glimpse it gives into 6th Century life under the Emperor Justinian—particularly its depiction of the religious tensions at this time. Justinian has embraced Christianity, which is now the state religion, but many people still adhere to older faiths, including John, who worships the warrior God Mithra.

At this novel’s opening, John and his household find themselves in Megara, John’s childhood home, having been banished by Justinian. The citizens of Megara seem remarkably ill-disposed toward the newcomers. Partly this has to do with a number of shady enterprises villagers are involved in. But this is also due to the fact that Megara is a Christian city, home to a monastery—and the villagers attribute all sorts of acts of violence and voluptuousness to those practicing “pagan” religions. John tries to reconnect with childhood friends, but they are wary of being seen as too welcoming to him.

When John’s estranged stepfather is found murdered in the ruins of a temple on John’s property, John finds himself hounded by both villagers and the City Defender, who seems eager to accept even the wildest of the villagers’ tales, while treating John with suspicion.

This mystery is satisfactorily solved by the novel’s end, but it’s not just the who dunnit that will propel you through the book. The religious tensions of the 6th Century are fascinating in their own right and also provoke thoughts about the role of organized religion in our own time.

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