The Beloved Dead, Tony Hays, Forge Books, 2011, 400 pp
I am always intrigued by any version of the King Arthur tale. The Beloved Dead is the third in the Arthurian Mysteries series by Tony Hays. Each volume entwines King Arthur's life and ascension to High King with a murder mystery. Of course a murder needs a detective and sure enough Arthur had his own private investigator, Malgwyn, who was also his most trusted adviser.
Also true to murder mystery form, Malgwyn had personal troubles: deep grief over the slaughter of his beloved wife by Saxons and a weakness for alcohol. Because Arthur saved the man's life, though not his right arm, Malgwyn pulled himself out of a suicidal depression to assist this King for whom he had a deep love.
I have not read the two earlier volumes in the series, The Killing Way and The Divine Sacrifice, but this volume has convinced me to do so. In The Beloved Dead, Malgwyn is up against a serial killer who violates and mutilates the bodies of maidens as part of the murders. Truly gruesome descriptions of the murderer's signature mutilation not to mention continuous scenes of mayhem bring to life the brutal level of violence that characterized daily life in fifth century Britain.
I liked the way Hays made use of the political situation to anchor his story. Ever since the Romans had pulled out of Britain because of the barbarian invasions into Rome, Britannia lost their civilizing force, devolving into internal battles between various tribal lords. Arthur rose to power because of his ability to unite these tribes against their common enemy, the Saxons. It was however an uneasy alliance.
As The Beloved Dead opens, Arthur has recently been crowned the Rigotamos, High King of all Britannia. Due to religious conflicts between traditional Druids and followers of "the Christ" in addition to rivalries always ready to erupt, Arthur has decided to deliver a blow to Druid superstition while at the same time entering into a politically strengthening marriage. Ever the idealist who cared deeply for the "people" and dreamed of peace for his land, Arthur is also portrayed as somewhat pig-headed and impetuous when it comes to political moves. The murders began immediately following Arthur's announcement of his marriage and his perceived desecration of a Druid burial ground.
At first I was put off by Tony Hays' writing style which eschews elegance for a down-to-earth tone. He is compelled to repeat himself every fifty pages or so, hammering in his themes about male/female relations and the mentality of a serial killer. But in the end I was impressed by the strength of his story and the historical depth he brings to the Arthurian legends.
After all, for those of us compelled to read any story we can get our hands on when it comes to Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin and the rest, comparing the myriad tellings of the tale is at least half the fun.
(The Beloved Dead is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)