Wednesday, January 20, 2016

An Interview with Eric Reed by E. B. Davis

In mid-1941, children evacuated to the remote Shropshire village of Noddweir
to escape the Blitz begin to vanish. It was not uncommon for city children faced
with rural rigors to run away. But when retired American professor Edwin Carpenter,
pursuing his study of standing stones, visits the village and discovers bloody clothing in the 
forest, it is clear there is a more sinister explanation.

The village constable is away on military duty so the investigation falls to
his daughter Grace. Some villagers see the hand of German infiltrators bent on terror.
The superstitious, mindful of the prehistoric stone circle gazing down on Noddweir,
are convinced malevolent supernatural powers are at work. And Edwin,
determined to help Grace find whatever predator is in play, runs
into widespread resentment over America’s refusal to enter the war.

Mary Reed and Eric Mayer are married and write together. For their current release, The Guardian Stones, they formed the pseudonym, Eric Reed. They have been published in Ellery Queen Mystery magazine and have a long running “John, the Lord Chamberlain” historical detective series, comprised (so far) of eleven books. Poison Pen Press released The Guardian Stones this month.

The time and setting, a small English town in the early days of WWII, prompted me to read the book. The questions I asked myself after reading initiated the interview.

Please welcome Mary Reed and Eric Mayer to WWK.                                                                           E. B. Davis

I read that your writing collaboration started in 1992. Were you immediately successful?

Mary Reed (MR): It's fair to say we did quite well from the beginning in that “A Byzantine Mystery,” the first Lord Chamberlain short story, appeared in Mike Ashley's 1993 collection The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits. Mike included a number of our short stories in subsequent anthologies, including the beginnings of a series in which ancient historian Herodotus is protagonist.

“The Obo Mystery” was our first co-written magazine sale to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in 1995. We are both fond of locked room mysteries but this one was more a closed tent yarn. It introduced our Mongolian detective Inspector Dorj, a couple of whose later adventures also appeared in EQMM, including “Murder On The Trans-Mongolian Express,” a more traditional locked room mystery set on a train. Alas, Dorj has been waiting for a novel ever since. We've long since had the basic idea but somehow got shunted in a different direction.

Eric Mayer (EM): Mary modestly fails to mention that she sold a short story to the BBC and
three stories to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine on her own long before we started collaborating, so she had already sown the seeds for our rather quick success.

All of your fiction is historical. Did your education focus on historical research?

MR: In my case only to the extent of history lessons in a British grammar school. However, I have had a life-long interest in the history of the ordinary schmoe between say 1900 and 1945, with a focus on civilian life during the two world wars. The Guardian Stones naturally fell right into that period.

EM: I took one or two history courses while getting my degree in English Literature. I did belong to the History Book Club for years! The Byzantine Empire always interested me since, while real, it was little noted by the general public and had the feel of alternative history: What if the Roman Empire didn't fall in 476 but survived for another 1,000 years? This stood us in good stead when we were writing the first Lord
Chamberlain story with a very tight deadline. I've learned far more about the Byzantines since we began the series than I knew before.

The Guardian Stones is set in a different time and place than that of your other series. What drew you to write about the English countryside during WWII?

MR: The time was a natural choice with my interest in World War Two and I dragged Eric along with me! We intended it to be something of a study in the nature of evil and we felt a village was a good place to set it being a closed community, with the additional stress not only of the war itself but having to manage to keep going, cope with terrible shortages of even the most common items, and constant worry about family members and friends fighting on the continent or sent elsewhere to do war work. Plus the introduction of city children as evacuees caused further difficulties, given their different upbringings.

EM: We like variety. That's why we try to make each John the Lord Chamberlain book significantly different in some way from the ones before. But we especially wanted to write a story in a relatively modern time period for a change.

Shropshire looked to be easier for us to handle than the Byzantine setting. After all, Mary had lived in the UK whereas neither of us lived in Constantinople during Emperor Justinian's reign. Unfortunately the year 1941 was before Mary's time and the inner city of Newcastle is much different than a small country village, so the amount of research involved was not much different.

Edwin Carpenter, a retired American professor, comes to Noddweir to study the stone formation that is near the town and is similar (if less impressive) to Stonehenge. Why did you choose the American outsider as the main character POV?

EM: The book is from an American publisher and will sell mainly in America. So the explanations of British ways that Edwin needs also helps out American readers who might be unfamiliar as he is with certain cultural differences. He gives American readers a character to
identify with too!

Noddweir is located in Western England close to the border of Wales. I assume it is a fictional town, but did you base it on any real town, and why that location?

EM/MR: It is indeed a fictional location and was based upon the traditional English villages where, in former times at least, life revolved round the agricultural year, family, church, school, and pub. We placed Noddweir in the forested Welsh border area because we felt the remote area offered more opportunities for the development of terrible events and their results in a location where everyone knew, or thought they knew, everyone else, not to mention their business.

The story can be taken in and of itself, but the story also parallels the horrors of WWII. The plot poses questions about the causes of atrocity. Do you believe Evil stalks and possesses people? Or does the basis of atrocity lie in situational factors, such as ignorance, isolation, and superstition? Is it all down to human character flaws?

EM/MR: That's a hard question to answer. You've really nailed what the book is about, aside from being a mystery of course. We wanted to examine the nature of evil. Is it learned or innate? Does it come from within or without? Different characters offer various answers. The book does offer our answer but to discuss that in any detail would probably give away too much.

Due to her father’s position of Constable prior to his leaving the village, Grace, Edwin Carpenter’s landlady, becomes the default investigator. Why didn’t the town’s folk recognize the authority of the newly appointed Constable Harmon?

EM/MR: Partly it's the traditional distrust of outsiders—and with good reason, considering that outsiders, particularly those from a city, do not necessarily know enough about the way village life works to police there. In addition, in this case, Special Constable Green is an
officious incompetent.

The reader is thrust into the action at the opening of The Guardian Stones. A thirteen-year-old girl is missing. But townspeople keep disappearing one by one, and everyone becomes a suspect. Is the climate similar to that left by the Nazi’s when they took Jews from their houses and businesses?

EM/MR: A good analogy, but one we actually did not consider although a good description of the psychological and social effects of events in the novel. As with the situation you mention, distrust and suspicion make villagers draw away from each other, rifts appear, friends fall out, sharp words are spoken, people are afraid.

There are a number of factors that make the English period unique; the lack of young men, the child evacuees that are staying in townspeople’s homes, the malingering ill health of the remaining WWI survivors, the nightly blackouts to avoid bombing. All are factors making the town vulnerable. But is the threat internal or external?

EM/MR: Thereby hangs the entire tale! The villagers themselves consider the culprit could well be an outsider and the usual suspects suggested at a meeting include tinkers, tramps, and deserters—but if they are wrong it means a neighbor, someone they have known all their lives, is responsible, and that being the case, it could be anyone. Which in turn means every villager is under suspicion.

The “conscientious objector” is really a black marketeer. He’s looked upon as a neutral party, but then he also sells people what they need. Does the marketplace nullify politics?

EM/MR: Generally speaking it would be very much a question of conscience. On the one hand with so much on ration and shortages even of non-rationed items, buying on the black market would be a great temptation. On the other, some saw it as immoral in the sense of not working for the common good, or of items bought and resold by black marketeers contributing to the shortage of these very items. In fact, the now deceased father of a friend of Mary's refused to speak to his neighbor because he knew he had been involved in the black market during the war.

The townsfolk seem to meet either at the church, even though many don’t attend, or the local bar. The proprietors of both are beleaguered men. Are these establishments viewed as neutral places or safe shelters of comfort?

EM/MR: We would say the latter. The pub was the social center of the village, the church the spiritual. There is also the practical consideration that a small village like Noddweir wouldn't have many places suitable for people to congregate.

Do you have other books planned for Eric Reed?

EM/MR: Yes, and indeed he is scribbling away like all get out even as we speak. He's a very fast typist, having four hands. The as yet untitled sequel moves Grace to the north-eastern industrial city of Newcastle on Tyne and again involves an unusual structure, the exceeding scanty—and real—remains of a Roman temple in the city. The idea for a third novel is already in place but that must wait a while to see to fruition—although not we hope as long as poor old Dorj!

Are you beach or mountain people?

EM/MR: Depends upon the season! The mountains are beautiful in different ways in spring and in particular the autumn but can have hellish temperatures in the summer. And the beach is always attractive (well, perhaps not in winter, depending how far north it is located) especially if there are few people about rather than shoulder to shoulder as can be the case in hot weather.



  1. Congratulations on your start of a new series, and welcome to WWK. I wonder if our fascination with WWII is because those who lived through It are fast leaving us, which means our only way of capturing the time is the stories we now tell.

    ~ Jim

  2. Mary and Eric created tension. There was a "who's next" feel for the reader. When extreme events happen, rational people wonder if it is insanity or some paranormal evil. At the gym yesterday, the news announced that in a two-year span over 16,000 people had been killed and 38,000 people had been wounded in Iraq. With IEDs blasting whoever is in proximity, it makes us all wonder at the rage and the lack of scruples. But perhaps I've defined war. The book captured the terror of WWII as reflected in the microcosm of the small English village. Man remembers nothing and learns nothing. I hope God's experiment at the next planet is going better than ours.

  3. I love historical fiction, so your series sound fascinating, Mary and Eric. Thank you for stopping by WWK. Now the real mystery - how to you handle writing together? Division of duties? Chapters?

  4. Welcome to WWK, Mary and Eric. As someone born shortly before WWII started, and also an Anglophile who loves books set in the UK, I look forward to reading your book. I've written it down on my to order list.

  5. What a great addition to WWII fiction! I love to read historical mysteries that are well grounded in research, and this sounds like something I would love, as does your series.

  6. I'm always fascinated by writers who are two people. Would love to hear more about the collaboration process. If one of you is stuck, can the other push forward?

  7. Britain during the War has always held a fascination, far more so than the US. I too am wondering how the collaboration process works. Do you share plotting or write different aspects of the story?

  8. I find just about everything about World War II interesting. My father fought in it. Your work goes on my to-be-read pile.

  9. Great interview, E.B. Thank you for introducing us to these talented authors. I look forward to reading their work.


  10. Thanks, E.B., for this interview and to all those who were kind enough to leave comments.

    I'll answer the questions on our collaborative process here, as there is a space limit for replies.

    We work from an outline so we have some guidance on what will happen in each chapter, though it is not written in stone and tends to diverge ever more as the end of the book approaches. We each take a chapter, perhaps one to which had contributed most of the plot, and write it. Then we pass each chapter over to B, who gives it a polish and adds a bit more. Those chapters turn into the first draft, which is checked for plot developments, clue placement in particular, before another polish. That forms the second draft, submitted for editorial comments which are then incorporated into the third and final version.

    We have long since agreed there's no room for ego in collaborative writing and so if one of us feels strongly a particular passage should be added or left out, the other agrees.

    In the writing, we sometimes dodge about and write chapters before their turn in line so some care has to be taken to keep things straight, particularly when the protagonist obtains certain information. But it all works out in the end, although in fact for one novel we wrote the first and last chapters first, leaving only the bit in the middle to be completed.

    Curiously enough, although we have different writing styles individually, our blended
    style for writing fiction is distinctively different from both without an attempt to be so!

  11. Congrats, Eric Reed! You are in fine company with those other ink-stained wretches at Casa Maywrite! You all should write a book about collaboration -- I'm just beginning to learn the ropes of writing with another person, and could certainly use the guidance.