With the world fast becoming a global village I have become accustomed to the exotic locales of the books that I read . I have read mysteries set in Iceland, Sweden , Norway , Holland, ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, Botswana, South Africa, HongKong, China, Japan and ancient Greece just to name a few. All the same , The Killing Way , a mystery that takes place in the Britain of King Arthur,was a first for me .
A crackling good yarn it is !
The action begins with Arthur about to be crowned Rigotamos (or King). His selection is almost a certainty but , on the eve of the council that will validate his ascension, a young woman Eleonore is found brutally murdered , her heart cut out , and with Merlin’s knife beside her corpse. Arthur is faced with a terrible dilemma. Should he stand by his old friend and counselor and risk alienating his subjects or should he allow Merlin to be summarily executed ? Either way, his ties to Merlin may doom his chances of being Rigatomos . In desperation , he turns to the one man who may be able to get to the bottom of the matter . That man is Malgwyn, surely one of the strangest protagonists in a mystery novel , or any novel for that matter.
Malgwyn was once a happy farmer and husband, content with his lot ,when treacherous Saxons invaded the farm , murdering his wife and laying waste to all. Determined to avenge his wife,the vengeful Malgwyn fought alongside Arthur wreaking havoc on the Saxons, until one of them lopped off his arm at the elbow. Arthur saved his life by having his wounds tended to by the priests of the abbey at Avalon. However, far from being grateful , Malgwyn hates him for condemning him to life as a one-armed cripple. Since his recovery, Malgwyn makes a living copying manuscripts for the priests when he is not drinking and whoring. This then is the man that Arthur turns to for help.
Eleonore is Malgwyn’s dead wife’s younger sister and this gives him a personal stake in finding out who murdered her. He quickly establishes that she was murdered elsewhwere and her body dragged to where it was found. He becomes convinced of Merlin’s innocence but proving it to the satisfaction of the restive populace is another matter. Someone seems to have staged the murder to discredit Arthur and ruin his chances of being elected Rigotamos. But who is it ? Is it the doughty warrior Vortimer ? Is it Arthur’s cousin , the scheming Modred? Both of them would like to succeed the current chieftain , Ambrosius. And what of the Druids who seem to be making a play for a return to power? If the devoutly Christian Arthur is sidelined it will be easier for them to make a comeback. Before Malgwyn can sort matters out, another woman is murdered in the same ritualistic way. and Ambrosius is forced to issue an ultimatum. Malgwyn has until sundown the following day to find out the murderer. If not, Athur must execute Merlin with his own hands and should Malgwyn fail to return by that time his own life will be forfeit. Accompanied by the loyal knight Kay, Malgwyn races against time to delve into the sinister plot against Arthur and to save Merlin’s life.The Killing Way also has some gripping subplots . Malgwyn’s brother, Cuneglas, is a jealous man who has turned Malgwyn’s young daughter against him. Will Malgwyn be able to regain the child’s affections ? And what of Cuneglas’s wife, Ygerne, who seems to harbor feelings for her one-armed brother-in-law ? All these make for a richly detailed page-turner , a highly evocative historical mystery which will keep the reader guessing until the very end.
The Castellum Arturius where the action takes place is quite different from the prettyfied Camelot of Hollywood movies. It is a cruder, harsher , barbaric place that has the ring of authenticity. The knights who people this novel are also different than what might expect. Lancelot does not make an appearance in these pre-Round Table days , and Gawain is barely mentioned. The main characters are Arthur (of course), Kay, Bedivere, Tristan of Cornwall, the scheming Modred, and Vortigern and they are sometimes surprisingly depicted. Kay for instance is usually depicted as a jealous, boastful bully. In The Killing Way he is a more sympathetic character, utterly loyal and steadfast and it is he who protects Malgwyn as he searches for a solution to the mystery.Tristan in this novel is a callow weakling and not the romantic figure we have come to expect from other sources. Merlin is shown as an addled old man, only sometimes in full possession of his senses. This is a surprise and doesn’t quite ring true , considering the important part he plays in Arthurian legends.
Tony Hays, the author of the Killing Way , was a journalist in Tennessee before turning his hand to novels. He seems to have done an impressive amount of research in order to write this novel. It shows in his treatment of the characters, different from the usual but quite convincing, and in the meticulous detailing of life in Arthurian Britain. I wish though that he had been more careful with the dialogue . It is jarring to find his characters use modern Americanisms such as ” How come… ” . It reminded me of the time I saw the Hollywood potboiler The Black Shield of Falworth and heard Tony Curtis spout Brooklynese like ” Dese .. ” and ” Dose…”. I am not sure whether the author consciously intended to use the modern vernacular or whether it never occurred to him that it might be incongruous in a historical novel. Regardless, it is a minor matter and should not keep one from sampling this book. It looks as though this is the beginning of a series and I for one eagerly await the next adventure.
The Killing Way by Tony Hays. A Tom Doherty Assosciates book . New York ( 2009) . $ 24.95.