The Killing Way by Anthony Hays
It is impossible to criticise a novel of Arthurian Britain for historical inaccuracy given the man himself has come down to us wreathed in the mists of myth and legend; much of that through Mallory and Taliesin. This, coupled with the Author's Note, means that any indignation at the portrayal of Camelot, Arthur, his Knights and the surrounding cast of the likes of Guinevere, Accolon, Kay, Merlin, Tristan and Mordred is an ineffectual charge to level at Anthony Hays. This is a murder mystery novel, pure and simple... and extremely well executed.
We are at the fortified town of Castellum Arturius - once known as Camel - where the Rigotomas (King of all Britannia) elections are due to take place. Ambrosius is about to retire to Dinas Emrys and Arthur stands ready to be elected his successor. However, as with all elections, an easy transition of power is not inevitable and we open with the foul murder of Eleonore who is found with Merlin's dagger beside her corpse. Missing - her heart. As the befuddled old magician is tied to a post and people whisper of Druid sacrifice our chief protagonist, Malgwyn, is charged by Arthur to discover the truth whilst the likes of Vortimer, Mordred and Tristan clamour for Merlin's head.
Malgwyn is an embittered, aging warrior. Missing one arm after a battle, he spends his time more at drink and womanising than being a good father to Mariam; his wife is long brutally dead, his brother has little time for him, his sister-in-law Ygerne is having trouble understanding her feelings about him.
Malgwyn is set to understanding the truth of Eleonore's death with Kay at his side. They hunt for the missing Accolon and his wife Nyfain until the latter also winds up dead, killed in the same manner. Both women are murdered on the Via Caedes, the titular road of the novel. Against these murders loom the politics of succession and Tristan of Cornwall's delegation to persuade the Britons to permit the Saxons free entry across the land. It is the death of Nyfain that triggers a forty-eight hour time glass for Malgwyn to find Accolon and reveal who really killed the women lest Merlin lose his head and Arthur his reputation (and subsequent claim to become Rigotomas). In that time, Malgwyn and Kay leave the author's safety of Castellum Arturius after barely heading off a town riot and head into yew woods to find a group of friendly bandits - from an anecdotal story of Malgwyn's past. There they also find Saxons during the hunt for Accolon. Returning as Arthur is about to behead Merlin, we move into a lengthy denouement, an election, and a final death that neatly sets us up for the further adventures of Malgwyn.
The characters of Arthur and Guinevere, whilst having much 'screen-time' are curiously one-dimensional compared to our anti-sleuth. Arthur clings devoutly to the Roman ways and Christianity. Guinevere is his consort but cannot be his wife. Their love is tragic, she succumbing to him when she was in a nunnery; he wracked with guilt over his youthful lusts. Arthur is held up as a statesman; charismatic and intensely moralistic, the author has tied him firmly into his place as future King and it is a strait-jacket that does not allow the character to breathe. Guinevere, though described as "she could see into the hearts of men and know their thoughts...had always been special, in action and in beauty. And she sparked jealousy in women the way freshly cooked food sparked hunger." comes across as faintly aloof, reserved in her patient sadness.
Malgwyn is vibrantly realistic. A dour man who has experienced much of life, made many mistakes, but is curiously the most honourable of them all. It is Ygerne who describes him best: "You are a man that other turn to when danger calls. You are trusted when others are not. Cuneglas told me once that men such as you are not common, and that you should be protected, sometimes even from yourselves." It is Malgwyn that keeps the pages turning. The novel starts slowly, as the reader has to adjust to a misplaced indignation surrounding the constant thought "this isn't how King Arthur is meant to be.." yet, by focusing solely on Malgwyn, we come to accept the author's disquieting portrayal of legendary characters - it is perhaps, unfortunate this has come to this reviewer whilst Camelot hits Channel 4 - and begin to enjoy the mystery that is portrayed. Where Hays succeeds is that his mystery is simple, yet difficult to fathom. The unravelling of the plot brings surprise; it is neat, tidy and eyebrow raising.
If I wanted to be picky I could remark on Malgwyn's self-contradiction when he claims: "I am not a religious man, Mordred, as you know. I look at men's actions for their motive. Some men's motive are pure of heart. Others... have motives spawned by the devil." Hard to claim a lack of religion yet believe in the devil in the same breath. But, I acknowledge it is churlish. There is much to laud here. I'd definitely read another of Anthony Hays Arthurian mysteries.
Set in the court of Arthur in the Middle Ages, a young serving girl is found dead and mutilated outside the hut of Merlin, an old and increasingly forgetful advisor of Arthur. Arthur appoints an old friend, the crippled drunk Malgwyn, as investigator, but time is of the essence as at court the council of Lords is electing a new leader, so suspicion cast upon Merlin affects Arthur’s claim to becoming head of the council. Malgwyn has to sift through the politics and motives in order to bring the murderer to justice in time, as well as battle his own personal demons.
Murder mysteries set in historical settings have been done many times before, but I think the Dark Ages is an interesting time to choose to set this because it presents a lot of opportunities regarding setting the overall scene and the kinds of characters that you could have that would be markedly different from setting the murder in the Tudor court for example. Also, the legend of King Arthur comes with, to my mind, a specific set of images around the shining castle of Camelot and heroic quests, which are very Hollywood film-like and therefore can be explored in a far more realistic, grittier and grimmer way.
Overall The Killing Way is a quick, enjoyable read with a couple of nasty murders and some political in-fighting between the lords of Britain, whilst the threat of the Saxons hangs overhead. However, I found it a bit lightweight. It wasn’t grim enough is my general feeling about this book. It isn’t that I want people being hacked apart left, right and centre, it is more the overall feeling of the setting. This is supposedly a very tense time with powerful lords coming together to choose their new leader, with all of the compromising, back stabbing, bribing and political intrigue that goes with it, there is the threat of the Saxons who have invaded Britain and are trying to push their way further in, and there are the differences in religion with Arthur building churches whilst other lords travel with druids, keeping the old faith. The story should be heavy and tense, with the murder of a popular, attractive girl who Arthur treats like his own daughter stretching this to breaking point, but I just don’t feel this.
It’s a story of two halves - the murder mystery, and Malgwyn’s own journey to rebuilding his life. The murder mystery is a nicely convoluted plot that relies on logical detective work and an ability to understand people’s characters that remains clear and plausible. Malgwyn’s story however I felt was a bit protracted. The author may well want to write a series using this character, but I don’t think the first book should just be used overly to set this up, it should stand alone, but if you take this by itself, Malgwyn and his personal problems take up far too much time. Arthur meanwhile takes a back seat in this, which is a shame because if you’re going to set the story in his court, I’d like a good image constructed of what a Dark Age court would be like.
If you want a quick murder mystery in a different setting, I’d recommend this book, but personally I’d like a darker, heavier background to set the mystery in.
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