On Arthurian Mysteries

Last summer, I wrote and submitted an outline for a Merlin novel, based on the BBC series which begins its second season on SyFy this Friday. As I described it at the time, I had a “barking mad” idea, I wrote it out, and I got the loveliest rejection letter I’ve ever had in all my years of writing.

“TDH” was not my first Arthurian story. No, that honor belongs to a novel I wrote in my second year of college. I’ve not looked at it in fifteen years, and I’m not even sure where the manuscript is today. I suspect that, were I to read it now, I would be horrifically embarrassed by it; juvenilia rarely stands the test of time.

There’s another Arthurian story I’ve toyed with for the past four years, though. For the longest time, I didn’t know who my main character was. Then, one day, I discovered him quite by accident, in the middle of something else entirely. Then I realized that I didn’t have a story — I just had a concept and a character, and while I knew the kind of story I wanted to tell, I didn’t have an actual story in mind. I think, honestly, that I was attracted more to the possibility of the concept — because it was, as best I could tell, terra incognita where the Matter of Britain was concerned — than the concept itself.

And what concept is this?

“A Murder in King Arthur’s Court.” Yes, a mystery, set against the backdrop of Camelot.

Historical mysteries are quite the rage. Look at the shelves in a bookstore, and it seems like a good quarter of the mystery novels are set in medieval times or before.

It turns out I am not the first person to have this idea, as the four books sitting atop my desk will attest. Two different Arthurian mystery series debuted within the past two years.

Are they any good?

Let’s start with J.M.C. Blair’s Merlin Investigates series. The series now numbers three books — The Excalibur Murders, The Lancelot Murders, and the just-released The Pendragon Murders.

Merlin, Arthur’s wizened old councilor, is not a wizard. He’s just a scientist, a world-weary traveler, and a scholar. He is assisted by a young man named Colin, who is actually a young woman named Nimue who is hiding from Morgan. Arthur’s military is commanded by a female knight named Britomart. Guinevere keeps her own court at Corfe Castle where she cavorts with Lancelot. To the southwest, Mark has his own kingdom.

Let me be blunt. There’s nothing especially Arthurian about these books. There is no magic, as Merlin is at pains to explain, though his protestations fall upon deaf ears. The names and relationships all hold up, but there’s no rhyme or reason to the worldbuilding; these books take place vaguely during Justinian’s reign in the Eastern Roman Empire, except for when they don’t. (Some things seem to take place later, much later.) Everyone is far to modern.

As mysteries, these are terrible. I deduced the murderer in The Excalibur Murders about five pages after it happened, and then I waited 200-odd pages for Merlin to catch up to me. (Apply Roger Ebert’s “Law of Economy of Characters” to the story, and it falls apart very quickly.)

And the writing? The Lancelot Murders is an insomniac’s dream; the book consistently put me to sleep. The prose is flat and lifeless, the characters are uninteresting, the politics are boring, and the result are books that are a chore to read.

In the defense of Merlin Investigates, the flat characterizations and the missmatched history are both common to the medieval sources; as one analysis of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur put it, Malory was writing of the sixth century in the fifteenth century, in thirteenth century terms. No wonder everything gets jumbled in Blair; he’s writing about what I might call the “generic” Arthurian world.

Still, these books aren’t especially good, and I can think of little positive to say about them.

Fortunately, there is a better option for those wanting an Arthurian mystery — Tony Hays’ The Killing Way. This is the first in a series; the second book, The Divine Sanction, is due out in a few weeks.

If Blair’s Arthurian world was “generic,” Hays’ is anything but. He attempts an historical Arthur, along the lines of the work of Bernard Cornwell, Jack Whyte, Courtway Jones, or Helen Hollick.

Once, Malgwyn was a soldier and a trusted advisor to the young warlord Arthur. But Arthur saved Malgwyn on the battlefield, and the soldier cursed Arthur for not allowing him to die. Years later, as the nobles of Britain are coming together to elect a new Rigotamos, a body is found outside of Merlin’s hut in Arthur’s castle, Arthur suspects that Merlin was framed for the murder to discredit Arthur’s candidacy for the high kingship as Rigotamos, and Arthur asks Malgwyn to uncover the truth.

The story moves quickly, characters are fairly well drawn. The back cover copy compares the book to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and while I wouldn’t go that far, the copy on the dust jacket (Brother Cadfael meets CSI) is probably closer to the truth. The investigation takes Malgwyn and his helper, Kay, on a journey into a conspiracy that could affect the future of Britain. Swordplay, riots, even a battle with the Saxons — this book has action in spades to match the ratiocination of Malgwyn’s investigation.

I didn’t outthink the mystery, but some other non-mystery plot elements were painfully obvious. There’s also a red herring that I expected to go somewhere, only it didn’t. It’s your basic historical procedural, albeit one set in the misty 6th-century CE. If you like Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma or Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, The Killing Way will be familiar territory, though Malgwyn isn’t of the cloth.

All in all, it was a decent first book in the series, and I’ll likely pick up the second book, which involves St. Patrick and the Pelagian heresy, when it comes out next month.

I should say that The Killing Way, with its historical setting, is close to what I had in mind for my own concept, though with some significant differences. And I may roll that concept into the filling-off-the-Merlin-serial-numbers plan for the rejected Merlin outline. Which had a murder mystery in it, I should note. 😉

Arthurian mysteries. No one did it, and now there are several series ongoing. Merlin, Arthurian mysteries, we live in a time of Arthurian plenty! 🙂

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