Phil’s genre defies categorisation, but Amazon often kindly list him under Welsh crime, and he variously takes the tags contemporary horror, horror thrillers, paranormal, women sleuths, gothic romance, and mystery, the last two being the case with his Book 1 in the series, The Wine of Angels. which was published in April 2011.
It’s fascinating wondering what Amazon will come up with next to describe his subject matter.
Phil Rickman created Merrily Watkins, young widowed woman vicar, and placed her in the beautiful black-and-white village of Ledwardine in the Welsh border country. He gave her an ancient draughty vicarage and a troublesome, rebellious teenage daughter Jane ( heavily into all things pagan). Then he made Merrily take on the role of Diocesan exorcist (known more subtly in the Church of England as ‘the deliverance ministry’, With that, he hit upon his winning formula, as an ideal vehicle for all the things he wanted to write about.
He created a main protagonist who finds herself constantly in tension with so many different areas of her life:
i She’s a woman in a leadership role in a traditionally male preserve;
ii She’s working for a huge institution, which historically holds, and still clings onto, a significant level of psychological and political power in the UK;
iii Her role in that organisation is one it still feels ambivalent about, is slightly ashamed of, likes to keep secret, and is wondering whether to ditch, to make itself more trendy and acceptable to the secular world;
iv She’s in an unstable personal situation: she loves a man who is himself vulnerable, and whom she fears to marry; her wilful daughter is obsessed with things the church fears, but she is indispensable in the resolution of Merrily’s cases; and through all this she is a discerning, intuitive, non-judgemental listener.
v She finds herself at the forefront of a conflict between the powerful undercurrent of myth/folklore/ancient pagan tradition that runs along behind human behaviour, especially in the Welsh border country, versus the things established religion says people should be guided by.
Phil Rickman’s devoted fans are, with this novel, reading Book 16 in a much-loved series, which many of us have followed all the way through. We therefore take-as-read the relationships and situations between the characters. This is a series that is almost essential to begin at Book 1, and not start halfway through.
Being in this position must make an author fear the possibility that he might not think of anything new to tell readers about his characters for fear of spoiling it all – along with the fear of bringing to an end something which is keeping so many readers reading. That was how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle felt with Sherlock Holmes, and we all know how he tried to kill the great detective off and had to bring him back from the dead!
I have loved all the books in the Merrily Watkins series and this new addition was particularly long-awaited due to the author’s sad ill health. I admire how he has come through this gruelling challenge, and completed this book despite such adversity. Phil Rickman still keeps us guessing about the relationship between Lol and Merrily and this to me is the clearest indicator he plans another Merrily book!
In this story there was more emphasis on Merrily’s self-willed daughter Jane, especially in the first part of the story, and I really feel that I’m on Jane’s side here. Jane comes up trumps again later on, using the simple strategy of eavesdropping on Merrily’s conversation with a haunted and disturbed ‘client’, and then doing her own investigations without telling Merrily. I have throughout this series long wished Jane and Merrily would communicate better, as they make such a wonderful duo of investigators into all things paranormal / weird / pagan / criminal.
Everyone in this story seems to be, or becomes, very knowledgable about the poetry of Wordsworth, even when (in Merrily’s case) they claim not to have read anything of his since school. I love Wordsworth: some of his poems have a luminous rhapsody about them. He was a mystic, a pantheist, and my favourite from early youth. Certain lines shine out to me: “We come, trailing clouds of glory… we forget that imperial palace from whence we came.”
Alongside the strong references to Wordsworth and his close relationship with the Wye Valley, I also love the way the author evokes Symonds Yat Rock, the sublime view of the river Wye, and the peregrine falcons soaring down from their clifftop home. Phil Rickman captures all this in his story. He brings together so many elements that fascinate me in fiction, along with family relationships: 1) A place of wild natural beauty on the Welsh border; 2) a creator famous for being inspired there (poet/composer/writer); 3) the ancient history associated with the region: standing stones, myths, along with the idea that history does not recede; 4) the faerie lore associated with the area, along with witchcraft traditions and ghost stories; 5) crimes/murder/dark deeds.
Over-arching all this we find the characters we love; Gomer Parry, redoubtable old man and ever-loyal to Jane, Lol and Merrily; Frannie Bliss, Scouser policeman; his sidekick David (or is it Darth?) Vaynor; Sophie, Merrily’s ally and rather subversive Bishop’s PA; a dodgy Bishop; the faithful, persistent, and highly-relatable character of Lol; the impetuous, inspired and rebellious Jane; the gifted, insightful, and non-judgemental listener and investigator Merrily.
In this story we also meet Arlo, former TV actor, now a very troubled vicar; Maya from the TV world who claims she’s seen spirits of dead children; Diana a sinister weirdo and probable succubus; and not least Wordsworth himself, obsessed with the vision of the eight year old girl he has met.
A worthy book in the series although I wish it had been longer and more complex, as we have come to expect from this series.