A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I really enjoy clerical sleuths, and I don’t know why it has taken me so long to find this one. The Rev. Merrily Watkins is the protagonist of 12 mysteries by Phil Rickman, dating back to the 1990s. A bit of a recurring theme in my reviews too is finding books with a whiff of the supernatural that weave their way past my mental block. So, I’ve been looking forward to a new discovery.
Merrily Watkins is a breath of fresh air as a protagonist – I hesitate after reading this to call her a sleuth, as she is not the only one who is following clues and solving mysteries in this novel. The word ‘catalyst’ is used in the novel and I think that is a good one. She is the focus around which the characters delve into minds and memories to dredge up the clues that clump together to form the mystery. She is also someone who has the gift of making people to open up (Maybe that’s one of the advantages in a clerical hero – people unburdening themselves and thereby furthering the plot is just that little bit more plausible).
The setting is the fictional village of Ledwardine in Herefordshire, one of the ‘black and white’ villages, with an ancient parish church, a cavernous timber-framed vicarage, and an apple-growing and cider-making tradition that reaches far back into the mists of time. The novel opens with a mis-conceived revival of the Wassail, with, as the euphemistic saying goes, disastrous results. A witness to this is the Rev. Merrily Watkins, later that year to be appointed priest-in-charge of the parish, in succession to the indolent Rev. Alf Hayden, on whose watch nothing stirred the picturesque surface of Ledwardine. Merrily’s arrival, on the eve of a major Festival, re-branded that year as ‘Old Cider’ changes all that. A controversial community drama is proposed, on the theme of a notorious, charismatic 17th century parish priest, Wil Williams, part of the circle of Thomas Traherne, neighbouring clergyman and devotional writer and poet. Wil Williams was accused of witchcraft, and soon after found hanging in the orchard next to the churchyard. This stirring of 400-year old broth is the start of a series of terrifying situations, all with a slightly demonic, apple-y twist – a missing girl, a string of deaths, a dramatic éclairçissement of old family bonds and old family crimes. Merrily and her teenage daughter Jane become the focus for vaguely supernatural happenings, and, drawn by the village wise woman Lucy Devenish, come close to village secrets, ancient and recent. Both find themselves in peril, 15 year-old Jane more than Merrily, which gave me a rather queasy feeling (I wonder what age she would be if the novel were written now). For the small group of characters at the heart of the novel, violence or the threat of it abounds, risk is all around. Nobody is quite what s/he seems, and bad-smelling red herrings are strewn around (often to be discarded without resolution – I have a little list of bad people who do not seem to have had a comeuppance – I probably need to read on in the series).
This is a substantial read. It has made me discover one of the side-effects of reading on Kindle – the paperback would have told me what I was in for, I’d have been able to heft it in my hand, feel the width. It is a weird feeling to embark on a novel and just keep reading, unsure of how far I was into the coils of the mystery, whose story it was – quite a salutary experience. It reminded me (in an entirely good way, as it was good to be reminded of it) of the late, great Colin Watson, whose crime novels specialised in slightly gamey situations, and distinctly wonky characters. He, however, wove his magic in 200 pages or fewer. The 600 plus pages of this novel just had to be turned, though – it was entirely gripping throughout, and twistier than a Herefordshire lane. This goes beyond a neat, pithy crime novel, almost into Dennis Wheatley territory. For all that, I felt it was a novel with everything in it but the kitchen sink – everything anyone ever said about incomers, lords of the manor, ancient farming families, country sexual habits, survival (or not) of pagan beliefs and practices. Sometimes (Hilary’s mantra coming up) more is just more. However, the historic and literary resonances were right up my street – the connection with Herefordshire’s poet-cleric Traherne and his circle. Whoever has heard of Susannah Hopton? (I won’t spoil by saying how she was connected to the plot.) As it happens, I have, but I thought this 17th century woman divine, who lived secluded near the Welsh border, and published pseudonymously as ‘An Humble Penitent’, was so completely obscure that to find her name in a novel, well you could have knocked me down with a feather. But then, I don’t know Herefordshire nearly well enough.
As the first novel written with Merrily Watkins at its centre, this might or might not have turned into a series. So it is perfectly readable as a standalone novel. I understand that once the series idea took hold, the emphasis of the later novels shifts towards the role of Merrily Watkins as an exorcist, so the supernatural element (which in this novel gives flavour but at the end dissipates into plain, common-or-garden human wickedness) comes to the fore. The second novel (the first featuring exorcism), Midwinter of the Spirit, has been filmed for broadcast by ITV in Autumn 2015, starring Anna Maxwell Martin. That should be interesting to watch, and I may delay a further foray into the series until after I’ve seen it.
As for the Churchwarden? He’s not a very nice person, and is on my list of unresolved red herrings. We’re not all unsupportive, cowardly and treacherous, you know…..
Phil Rickman: The Wine Of Angels (Merrily Watkins 1). London: Atlantic Books, 2011. 640pp
ISBN 13: 9780857890092
First published: 1998