Friday, April 18, 2014

Guest Author -- Mary Reed

Type M is thrilled to welcome Mary Reed to our blogging party this week. Mary and her husband Eric Mayer are the joint authors of the wonderful John the Lord Chamberlain mysteries set in Sixth Century Constantinople at the court of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. The Sixth Century may have been more than a millennium and a half ago, but don't think for a minute that people weren't just as inventive as we are today. Even more so, if I may say. Have you ever created your own automaton?

Three For A Letter is largely set on the country estate of Zeno, once described by our protagonist John as a man of eclectic credulity. As the novel opens, a special presentation of the story of Jonah and the Whale is under way at the estate to entertain Zeno's honoured guest, Empress Theodora.

The whale is an automaton created by Zeno's Egyptian servant who named himself Hero after, dare we say it, his hero, Heron of Alexandria, also known as Hero, who among other things drew up blueprints for dozens of automatons. His namesake's job is to create similar mechanical marvels.

Automatons appearing in Three For A Letter include a wine dispensing satyr, an archer who will take an important role in a local festival celebrating the harvest, and birds that sing, all as described by Heron in his treatise Pneumatics. However, he did not, so far as we know, provide instructions on how to construct a mechanical whale so we had to invent one ourselves, based on his writings.

And now Hero's mechanical whale makes its appearance:

The curtains parted and although there was no sign of pulleys or any other device, a large, shadowy shape, taller than a man, rolled forward.

The room's remaining light limned its broad, gray back and enormous flukes and gleamed in the great glassy eyes set on either side of its head.

An admiring murmur rose from the audience as the beast's tail,moving slowly from side to side, emerged from the curtains. It was apparent that the leviathan was not being propelled from behind. Indeed, it continued forward on its own, as if truly alive. There were gasps, and John tensed, as the great head moved out over the edge of the stage. However, just as it appeared the whale would swim straight into the diners, it came to an abrupt halt.

There was a hissing noise. The whale spouted.

To the startled exclamations of the audience, a jet of water burst up from the contraption's head and descended in a cloud of droplets that caught the dim light and glittered like stars over the sea. John, sitting near the end of the table, felt mist against his face.

The flutes keened more urgently, underscored by a new sound, a clanking and ratcheting. Slowly and majestically,the whale's mouth opened a crack. Through a fence of huge bronze teeth brilliant light poured out across the banquet table to flash and coruscate amidst gold and silver bowls heaped with delicacies.

And how, you may well ask, did this mechanical leviathan work?

All actions performed by our whale could be created by compressed air, water, or various ropes, pulleys, and counterweights, important components of many of the automatons described by the ancient writer.

Thus, the whale's ability to trundle about unaided came from Heron's description of an altar that functioned in the same fashion.

Zeno's servant Hero explains the method thus:

"It's done by winding two ropes, one in each direction, around the back axle of the whale's base. Now, as you see, inside the creature are two compartments, each half filled with sand." Showing John the mechanism as he described it, he went on "Each compartment contains a weight to which one of the ropes is tied, resting on the sand. When the bottom of the first compartment is opened, the sand flows out and the weight resting on it descends as it empties, pulling its rope down with it. That in turn moves the axle to which the rope is tied. Thus the whale rolls forward. Later, when the other compartment begins to empty, the process is repeated and the whale rolls backward. It's the sort of device has
been used in the theatre for hundreds of years," he concluded.

We've mentioned before we cast our nets wide when researching this series, =and the method by which the lamps in its mouth self-kindled is explained by a paragraph in Hippolytus' Refutation of All Heresies.

Hippolytus discloses wood spontaneously bursting into flame on an altar is because the altar contains freshly-burned lime instead of ashes. When the lime is wetted by libations poured by the priest, the result is a chemical reaction with enough heat to set fire to combustible materials.

In the case of our whale, when set in motion, a particular rope hidden in its body pulls up a bar operating lids on a set of tubes filled with water, whose contents fall onto minute amounts of burnt lime sprinkled in deep grooves around the lips of the lamps, and the resulting heat causes the lamp oil to catch fire.

Of course, we could have wound up with an exploding whale but Hero was very careful in his calculations as to quantities and no doubt experimented numerous times to ensure this did not happen.

As for the spouting effect, this was accomplished, as Hero explains,with the aid of a sealed vessel semi-filled with water, forced out by compressed air. This sequence we imagined would be set in motion by a specific rope in the afore-mentioned internal system of pulleys and counterweights, which also causes the whale tail to move and its jaws to gape.

Since we did not actually build a prototype of the whale it was all theoretical but we felt, given many of Heron's much more complicated mechanisms, it could be carried out by engineers and metal workers without violating the laws of the universe. We could at least have contributed the tongue, the simplest part of the whale's construction, since it's merely made of stuffed red linen.

As events unfold, a sacred herd of fortune-telling goats living on a nearby island become involved. They are not automatons, so we did not have to create a whole herd of mechanical beasts, but at the same time they are not quite what they seem...

The husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer published several short John the Lord Chamberlain detections in mystery anthologies and in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine prior to 1999's first full length novel, One For Sorrow. The American Library Association's Booklist Magazine named the Lord Chamberlain novels as one of its four Best Little Known Series. Ten For Dying, tenth in the series, appeared in March 2014 from Poisoned Pen Press. Head of Zeus is now publishing the series in the UK and Europe. More info about their writing at and

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