The Killing Way, by Anthony Hays

Article published on October 24, 2011.

The Killing Way is an interesting prospect from the outset – a murder mystery based in Arthurian times. I confess that I approached it with trepidation in quite how this could be executed, with the period being one that has been portrayed in numerous historical fiction pieces in the past. The romantic version of Arthur’s court died a death with Cornwell’s interpretation, and has since been well and truly buried by Hume and others. So could an author successfully create a suitably dark version of the period in order to set a brutal murder within it?

Fortunately Hays succeeds in doing just that. The dark ages are well represented in their brutality and chaos, and the characterisations within the novel are suitably complex to allow for the mystery to unfold effectively. The main protagonist, Malgwyn, is well drawn and develops well throughout the novel. When the reader first encounters him he is a bitter, twisted drunk who has still not forgiven Arthur for saving his life when he wished to die in battle. As a result of that past encounter he is left with one arm and little in the way of a living. This allows for Hays to create a believable tension between Malgwyn and the other characters from the outset, one that varies by degrees as the novel and the murder investigation progresses.

Hays’ Arthur is also original. Complex enough to make him believable, whilst still with sufficient positive attributes to ensure the reader can envision him being a great leader of men. During the novel he has yet to reach the position of High King, and thus this political wrangling casts an ever lengthening shadow over the murder and motivations behind it.

Further analysis of the plot would undermine Hays’ well woven design and potentially reveal the twists that make The Killing Way so entertaining. Suffice to say that like all good mysteries, the book opens and closes possible lines of investigation intelligently and ensures that the reader is unlikely to have taken the leap to the conclusion on the first read through.

Historical fiction relies on strong character arcs, whilst mysteries are often more reliant on clever scripting. This novel has both, and manages a balance that would be difficult to imagine ever being successful.

Thus The Killing Way is well written, cleverly plotted, and a thoroughly entertaining read. Despite this reviewer’s reservations as to whether the premise could even succeed, I have to admit I was engrossed from start to finish. It demonstrates that a talented author can ensure an old-fashioned mystery can succeed, even in a world of CSI and procedural investigations.

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