by J.M.C. Blair
311 pages, Berkely Prime Crime
Review by Melissa Conway
Author J.M.C. Blair has reimagined Camelot. There is no true magic. Merlin’s reputation is the result of smoke, mirrors and a superstitious populace. He wasn’t a magician; he was an arthritic, whiny, argumentative old scholar. Arthur wasn’t so much a hero as a philandering numbskull with a slippery grip on his kingdom. As much as I admired the underlying premise of this book—the effort to explain the legendary wonders of Camelot scientifically—I had a hard time enjoying it due to the unlikeable characters. It’s not a requirement for me to like a book only if the characters are appealing; it’s just that in The Pendragon Murders, Merlin and Arthur are constantly engaged in petty arguments.
Blair has written two previous ‘Merlin Investigation’ novels, neither of which I read prior to this, the third in the series, so I didn’t know what to expect. I’m okay with a historical novel using modern language as dialog, but occasionally the peasants’ vocabulary is as advanced as the king’s. Sprinkled throughout the narrative are heavy words such as ‘misanthropy’ and ‘megalomaniac.’
The plot involves the murders of several boys who may or may not be Arthur’s bastard children, a plague that may or may not be in actuality poison, and the convoluted relationships between Arthur and his dysfunctional-to-say-the-least family. Arthur does not make terribly intelligent decisions here. For example, when both the High Priestess (his sister Morgan) and Camelot’s resident Christian bishop decide the plague is unholy retribution for the removal of the Stone of Bran from its burial place, Arthur and company set out to put the stone back. This is in direct opposition to what his cranky advisor, Merlin, recommends. Arthur leaves the safety of Camelot, dragging poor elderly Merlin unwillingly along to traipse across a countryside that doesn’t respect his authority because they’ve never heard of him. Plus, the peasants are all too busy responding to the imminent threat of plague by running naked through the snow and copulating with whatever is willing. Arrows come out of the fog and are ignored by Arthur and his knights—there is a significantly delayed ‘run for cover’ reaction even though one of them has been direly wounded. The villain is obvious to the reader, but not to our supposedly brilliant investigator, Merlin. And who doesn’t love a villain who obligingly monologues for us at the end so we understand his motivation?
I suspect men will enjoy this book more than women, with its blood-and-guts violent death, and casual (but not explicitly described) sex. As for myself, I prefer lighter fare with characters who aren’t constantly at odds with each other. I know all too many people in real life who fit that bill—reading is supposed to be one way for me to escape it.