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Book Review: The Excalibur Murders by J. M. C. Blair

* Genre: Historical Mystery
* ISBN: 0425222535
* ISBN-13: 9780425222539
* Format: Paperback, 320pp
* Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
* Pub. Date: July 2008

I think the last time I stopped reading a book, just put it down and walked away with no desire to return to it, ever was in high school. I am not known for giving up on a book, no matter the cost to me. When I buy, borrow, download, or receive a book for consumption, I feel a sense of loyalty to the author to do my utmost to read their book in its entirety.

So it is with shame (and relief) that I report that I had to put down, midstream, the so-called historical mystery, The Excalibur Murders by J.M.C Blair. Blair (a pseudonym for a writer of gay SF) has written the dullest prose, the most uninteresting characters, and the most lackluster plot I have ever encountered outside of a vanity press.

The story idea is terrific. Merlin, of King Arthur fame, is not a wizard, but rather a scholar in the historical King Arthur’s court. His intelligence is seen as magic by those around him, but it is nothing more than deductive reasoning and a well-read mind. When one of King Arthur’s squires is killed, it is up to Merlin to solve the case, along with the female knight Britomart, Nimue – dressed as a boy named Colin, and a few other hangers-on.

Merlin’s character is sarcastic, egotistical, and manically self-righteous. All, in all, a character I would like. But Blair made the great mistake of making all of his characters like this, so that everyone talks to everyone else in sarcasm or with vehement loathing. The only character who responds differently is King Arthur, who is really just a big, dumb, blonde who drinks all day and thinks fighting will get him what he wants. He is a stereotypical jock, someone that all children with “four-eyes” often love to hate. He is easily dismissed as uninteresting, except for his power. Merlin, on the other hand, is super smart, and supposedly his character should resonate with anyone who has ever been picked on because he got straight A’s in school. And he does. But sarcasm wears on you after a time, and when Blair begins using his characters to make political statements, it only adds to their two-dimensionality. They become nothing more than caricatures, not people of interest and worth. Merlin becomes a champion of liberality, and King Arthur a poorly veiled George W. Bush. This is completely unrelated to the story, and distracting as well.

The novel is not about the characters, however. It is about the mystery, which is sorely lacking in this tale. Two murders and one suicide occur in the first 150 pages (this is as far as I got) of the 300 page novel but never once did I feel any compulsion to find out why these characters were killed. A good mystery makes you want to know why such and such person was killed, and will people its story with interesting characters to follow, trying to discover which of them did it. Blair’s story doesn’t have any interesting characters. Guinevere and Morgan Le Fay provide two, both of whom are obviously evil, the crazy Pellenore, former king of Camelot another, as well as all the other conquered kings of England. Yet none of them is interesting, or captures the attention.

A good mystery write should also have his story filled with clues. Yet each clue that comes to Merlin and his companions come not through dint of effort (unless wandering the countryside can be called effort) but through various lucky circumstances. A found map of the movements of the suspects, a chance encounter with a suspect in a place he shouldn’t be, things like that. Never once, in the portions of the book that I read, did Merlin, Britomart, or Nimue actually discover a clue themselves. That is not a good mystery, and it is a dull story. In fact, the third chapter is titled “The Investigation Begins in Earnest”. So in essence, with a chapter title like that, the reader is being told that the investigation wasn’t all that serious to being with.

There are rabbit trails too. The chapter about Anna, mother of the dead squire is pointless. Supposedly we are learning something about Arthur’s nature, but since the woman kills herself by the end of hate chapter, I got the sense it was really just filler to get Blair to 300 pages of material. It in no way informs on the rest of the tale.

This tale is just a haphazard, poorly constructed story. It is works like this that give paperback novels a bad name. I recommend you avoid this work at all costs. It’s dull, boring, and filled with stock characters. The culprit was easy to discern, (I checked against the end of the book) and was unoriginal and not entertaining to try and discover. The story, labeled a mystery, lacks that very characteristic. Should you see Blair on the bookshelf, pass it by and pick up Ellis Peters, Peter Tremayne, or Margaret Frazer instead. That is good historical mystery. The Excalibur Murders is a case of a good idea gone bad. Poor execution ruined what could have been a most interesting story. I would not inflict it on you by daring to recommend it in any way. You are better off looking elsewhere for reading material.