Written by Phil Rickman — This is the 12th in the series featuring Rev Merrily Watkins, the Diocesan Deliverance Consultant (or exorcist, as she would have been called in less enlightened times) for Hereford. When an old man called David Hambling is found dead in The Dulas Brook, a tributary of the River Wye, DI Francis Bliss of the Hereford police becomes involved. He and a local policewoman, Tamsin Winterson, probe into the dead man’s life, and Bliss feels obliged to call in Merrily to ask her advice about certain items found in Hambling’s house. What they have found suggests to Merrily that the body found deep in the stream which divides England and Wales wasn’t that of an ordinary man in his 90s.
The book is set in and around the town of Hay-on-Wye, which used to be known as the secondhand book capital of the world. However, its independent bookshops are struggling to survive in a world of digital downloads and supermarket discounts. So, it seems that American artist Robin Throgood and his stunning British wife Betty are trying to do a King Canute when they lease a tumbledown premises against the wall of Hay Castle, to open their brainchild Pagan Bookshop. They quickly learn that the cramped premises has something of a lurid history, hence the cheap rental. Existing fans of the Merrily Watkins books will recognise the Thorogoods. They were the the couple involved in an unpleasant battle with a very unappealing Christian fundamentalist in the 2001 book A Crown Of Lights.
Merrily is, literally, on her own. Her musician boyfriend Lol Robinson has finally decided to conquer his demons and go back on the road for a string of live shows around the country. Jane, her firecracker of a daughter, is missing, presumably enjoying sins of the flesh with her boyfriend while working on a gap-year archaeological dig. Merrily has reluctantly taken a holiday, and vacated the cavernous Ledwardine Vicarage, but not before getting involved in the strange case of a retired spinster who wakes up every morning to see the smiling face of her dead former assistant peeping out from under the duvet.
The action takes place, as in all great books, over a relatively short period, but with built-in breathing space provided by references to past events. Frannie Bliss is struggling back to physical fitness after a severe beating, and he has the most unlikely of girlfriends. The Thorogoods are real heroes, and are aided and abetted by some sterling Hay characters. Rickman’s sense of place is unrivaled in modern British fiction – the final pages are masterful, as we learn first the identity of the perpetrator of savage crimes both historical and current, as well as how David Hambling died. The final, almost comedic, face-palm moment is reserved for the last few words of the book and, although Rickman claims no great insight into the Anglican Church, there will be wry smiles all round on the faces of those who do scribble in ‘C 0f E’ on their census forms.
It is no exaggeration to say that Rickman has magus-like qualities himself in terms of his writing. The way he interweaves the threads of murder, police procedure, the power of landscape and faint but potent wisps of the supernatural to produce a literary cloth of gold, is little short of miraculous. Merrily Watkins is a brilliant creation. The widowed single parent is brave, vulnerable, demure yet sexy and, above all, completely believable. Rickman is a unique talent and shows here that he is in cracking form.
CFL Rating: 5 stars