Phyllis Ann Karr’s The Idylls of the Queen is so much more than a good murder mystery. It is a good murder mystery, but unlike an ordinary mystery, you can reread it (even knowing whodunit) without any of the fun being spoiled. The murder is one that actually appears in the legends, so some readers may recognize the bones of the story, but again, it’s enjoyable even if you know the murderer’s identity. The mystery is sort of a backdrop to the real show: an original take on the personalities of Arthurian legend, and a different look at chivalric ideals.
The narrator is the oft-maligned Sir Kay, the grouchy but well-meaning seneschal of Arthur’s court. He’s not a bad guy. He is a sarcastic curmudgeon, having seen countless self-serving buffoons win glory and adulation while his own hard work goes unnoticed. He is also secretly in love with the Queen.
Kay shares an uneasy friendship with a wonderfully written, morbid, fatalistic, and sympathetic Sir Mordred. Together they set out to clear Guenevere’s name of a murder charge, meeting fascinating characters right and left. Morgan and Iblis are especially engaging, and Karr uses them to voice some cutting insights on chivalry and religion. Morgan defends her mixture of Christian and pagan ways, and Iblis observes that justice is different for women than for men according to the moral code of the period. Also worth mentioning are the subtle taste of magic provided by the Lady of the Lake and the touching platonic relationship between Kay and his Queen.
If you’re an Arthurian buff, definitely look up a copy of The Idylls of the Queen. It’s a quick read, and a great way to spend a lazy afternoon or two.