I make no bones about it, but I have an obsession. Since accidentally discovering the latest title in this series – The Magus of Hay – I went back to the beginning (The Wine of Angels) and worked my way through all twelve books. Then I did it again. And again. And I’m not the only one – Phil’s Facebook group currently has 1814 members and we’re all equally enthralled by the ongoing story of single mother, vicar and exorcist Merrily Watkins. They’re supernatural crime dramas – an unusual mix of two genres which somehow mesh perfectly in Phil’s prose, in a world so carefully crafted it’s like a second home.
Set in the borderlands of Herefordshire and Wales, Merrily struggles to balance her duties to her parish, her ambivalent interest in the world of the paranormal, and her relationship with her pagan teenage daughter Jane, all the while walking the tightrope of political machinations in both the Diocese and the media. As a woman in a man’s world, and doing a job many see as frivolous, she tries to retain her integrity as well as develop her spirituality. Called in on occasion to help the police with their more unusual cases, her life is anything but ordinary. She’s utterly believable as a character, and makes the whole concept of an exorcist work for even the most sceptical of readers.
Surrounding her are a large cast who are all drawn with such deftness and vitality that you feel like you really know them. Feisty Jane, Merrily’s daughter and environmental activist, is definitely my alter ego! Lol Robinson, Merrily’s cautious lover, is a man locked in his own tormented past, and his efforts to move beyond this are moving indeed. Huw Owen, her exorcist mentor, is wonderfully irascible and ambivalent. Frannie Bliss is the tame, slightly maverick copper whose blood is 95% caffeine (I confess to being slightly in love with Frannie), and Annie Howe is his ambitious and hard-nosed boss, the antithesis of Merrily’s emotional centre. And Gomer Parry, the wild and wily old Welshman and proprietor of a plant hire company, is a brilliant creation – saving the day on his digger on more than one occasion! Everybody needs a Gomer in their life. When he confronted a killer in Lamp of the Wicked, I nearly had a panic attack.
The plots are labyrinthine with endless depths, which is why you can read them over and over again and find new strands that you didn’t see before. They deal with the depths of human nature in all its perversity, and the thread running through all of them is how belief affects human behaviour.
Rickman portrays Christianity and Paganism with a real understanding, showing how belief can be both a strength and a weakness, a temptation to evil and a call to compassion. They are anything but sensationalist, treating religion with respect but at the same time exposing the hypocrisy and corruption that can lurk in the heart of any institution or individual.
Phil Rickman’s stories are intelligent and thought-provoking, as well as gripping, shocking and downright addictive. Both the sense of place and character in this series are so strong, it’s not surprising that his fans are so obsessive. He’s a fantastic writer and this series is exceptional – he’s made the cross-genre of supernatural crime entirely his own, and done it with both seriousness and style.
His new novel, Friends of the Dusk, is published on 3rd December. My phone will be off the hook for that week.
Call Gomer Parry Plant Hire. I’m moving to the Borders as fast as I can!
About the reviewer
Jo Westwood is a librarian, editor, writer, gardener and geek who loves curling up with a good book. As her job as a specialist children’s librarian means she reads at least one novel per day, that’s rather fortunate, and her obsession with the novels of Phil Rickman in particular is praise indeed. She’s currently working on creating a time travel device that will allow her to fit in even more reading, as there are far too many good books and rather less time in which to read them than she would like. Jo's blogs at anniseed.com