"On a lonely sword he leaned,Like Arthur on Excalibur."
- G.K. Chesterton (The Ballad of the White Horse, 1911)
Recently, I reviewed A Child's Garden of Death (1975) by Richard Forrest, which marked the debut of his husband-and-wife detective team, Lyon and Bea Wentworth, as well as the first one to feature an impossible crime – of which there are five in this ten-book series. Some of them have very alluring sounding premises (e.g. inexplicable vanishing of an airplane and a disappearing houseboat).
So, naturally, I felt attracted to the series and A Child's Garden of Death, in spite of its imperfections, deserves praise for attempting to bridge the gap between detective stories from the Golden Age and those from the post-World War II era. In any case, the book warranted further investigation and almost immediately decided on which one would be next in line: the last one from the series, Death at King Arthur's Court (2005), which was published posthumously.
Inferring from the dated plot-thread about the fax machine, I strongly suspect the manuscript was initially rejected by his publisher and spent the next decade as drawer stuffing.
Nevertheless, the summary of the plot was promising a story with a solid locked room problem, one with "a medieval twist," involving a hooded figure wielding a broadsword and the shadow of suspicion falling on Lyon – who could end up on death row. So how I could possibly resist? But let's start at the beginning.
Lyon is an author of children's literature and created the Wobblies, "a pair of benign monsters," while his wife, Bea, is an "unflappable state senator." One whose rising star is starting to get noticed across state lines. They live in an eighteenth century house, called Nutmeg Hill, which stands in the Connecticut town of Murphysville, but the small, deceivingly peaceful town has a homicide rate that competes with that of Cabot Cove and Midsomer County. Usually, they find themselves involved in these local murder cases.
During their first recorded case, Lyon and Bea were drawn into an official police investigation by a close friend, Police-Chief Rocco Herbert, but in their final outing as detectives they find a problem in their own driveway – inurned inside a completely sealed, armor-plated RV!
Warren Morgan, a professor at Middleburg University, has been receiving death threats from "a bunch of disgruntled college dropouts," who refer to themselves as the Brotherhood of Beelzebub, which went as far placing "a hundred grand bounty on Morgan." So the professor went full A-Team on an old RV and turned the vehicle into "a rolling fortress." The front doors had been strengthened with interior braces, the windows were replaced with "the special safety glass utilized on armored cars" and could be covered steel shutters. A steel shield had been welded under the chassis and a giant air-conditioning unit was sunken into the roof, requiring the combined strength of "four or five very strong guys," which has an air-filtration system built into it – making it impossible to gas him through the air vents. Finally, the only door has a combination lock and there are only two people with the right combination: Morgan and Lyon.
The final result is a vehicle with "all the protection of an army tank" and "the interior comforts of hedonist's house trailer," which was parked for extra security on the driveway of the Wentworth home. However, every effort to protect himself proved to be wasted money and energy: someone penetrated a seemingly impregnable fortress and butchered the professor with his own broadsword. He used the sword as a prop in one of courses in Arthurian legends.
Around the same time as the murder, Lyon found himself in the nearby woods, dazed and confused, but he also feared for his life: a hooded figure, in a robe, wielding a medieval-looking sword was pursuing him with the clear intention of separating his head from his shoulders. Strangely, the figure of his executioner "disappeared into the darkness as quickly as it had appeared."
When Lyon emerged from the woods, hunched, bloody and dragging a long sword across the grass, he tells a waiting Rocco Herbert that something had happened to him, but he was "not sure what." However, Captain Norbert of the State Police suspects Lyon of murder. After all, Lyon was covered in blood, carried a broadsword and knew the combination of the lock on the door. So you would expect that, from here on out, the plot would center on exonerating Lyon, but here is where the book began to flip-flop – shifting the focus of the story into a different direction.
Lyon avoids immediate arrest and the next couple of chapters have him recounting the events from the day and evening, which introduces a number of potential suspects.
First of all, there are two feuding literature professors from Middleburg University and Margon's half-brother and sister, twins, who are under his financial control, but there’s also a redheaded stripper from Boston and mother of Morgan's son – who wants to secure a future for their child. This gave the narrative an entirely different tone and the story never returned to the one set forth in its opening chapter, in which Lyon was attacked by the sword-wielding figure. It turned the book from a dark persecution story into a more lighthearted whodunit in less than two chapters.
Actually, the opening of the book and the chapters recounting what happened on the day preceding the murder recalled some of the Jonathan Creek episodes from the 1990s (e.g. Danse Macabre, 1998).
After these chapters, the State Police receives a letter, written in red ink, which claimed responsibility for the murder ("Satan has been gloriously revenged") and Lyon is let off the hook. Once more, this changed the tone and direction of the story: there are a number of additional murders, one by sniper fire, and the reader learns of a person who has designs on Bea. First by stabbing or shooting her in public and eventually by planting a car bomb. On top of that, Lyon and Rocco have to deal with the slightly unhinged personality behind the threatening letters, which involved the plot-thread about the fax machine, but this was basically a side distraction and an excuse to introduce some thriller-ish material – such as tossing around a hand grenade. I actually liked that fun little scene, but there's no way they could've pulled that off in less than four seconds.
Anyway, this moves a great chunk of the second half of the book into the territory of the modern thriller and crime novels, which was reflected in the poor and disappointing conclusion of the book. The murderer was both obvious and slightly mad. So don't expect too much from the who-and why part of the plot.
There is, however, one aspect of the plot I loved: the explanation for the locked room murder. If you want something different in a locked room mystery, you'll find it in this part of the plot. The solution wonderfully uses such aspects as the weight of the armored vehicle and some, eh, external factors. Forrest excellently clued and foreshadowed how the trick was pulled off, which he subtly spelled out to the reader in the opening chapters, but you've to be very alert and perceptive to put one and one together. Sure, the idea behind the locked room trick is simpler than its execution, but that does not take away from the fact that Forrest found a fairly original way to enter and leave a sealed environment.
So, yeah, Death at King Arthur's Court has a strong opening, a shaky, uneven middle section and a disappointing ending, but with a good and solid impossible crime plot. I guess I can only recommend this one to locked room enthusiasts. Other wise, you can safely skip this one.