The great journalist and broadcaster Ed Murrow said of Winston Churchill, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle..” I believe that the best writers do the same with the landscape their characters inhabit. My theory applies to ‘serious’ literature as well as crime fiction: just as Hardy used his thinly disguised Wessex, the London of Charles Dickens is a major character in many of his novels; Arnold Bennett’s tales brought the Staffordshire Potteries to life, while for both DH Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe, Nottinghamshire was vital to their writing. Phil Rickman’s terrain is the borderland between Herfordshire and Wales, with its isolated villages, abandoned chapels, insular farmers and villages where the past is sometimes more real than the present.
All Of A Winter’s Night is the latest episode in the turbulent career of the Reverend Merrily Watkins. Her philandering husband long since dead in a catastrophic road accident, Merrily has a daughter to raise and a living to make. Her living has a day job and also what she refers to as her ‘night job’. She is Vicar of the Herefordshire village of Ledwardine, but also the diocesan Deliverance Consultant. That lofty term is longhand for what the tabloids might call “exorcist”. If you are new to the series, you could do worse than follow the link to our readers’ guide to The Merrily Watkins Novels.
A young man has died after his off-road vehicle has been mangled – along with his face – in a collision with a speeding white van on a country lane. Merrily presides over a funeral made difficult and perfunctory by the visible animosity between various members of the lad’s family. The fates are determined that Aidan Lloyd will not rest in peace, however. His body is disinterred, re-dressed in the uniform of a Morris dancing team from the village of Kilpeck, and then clumsily reburied.
At this point, three regular characters in this successful series intervene. Local JCB driver, drainage man, grave-digger and savant Gomer Parry is worried that his cemetery handiwork has been compromised, while emotionally fragile singer-songwriter (and boyfriend of Merrily) Lol Robinson just happens to be passing, along with Jane Watkins, daughter of Merrily, and full time pagan and environmental activist. They discover that mischief has been perpetrated on poor young Lloyd, little realising how their discovery will compromise Merrily, who is fighting what appears to be a losing battle to retain her job in the face of opposition from a modernising Bishop of Hereford.
The shocks and scares come thick and fast, but Rickman is much too good a writer to use a shovel to apply the chills and horror: instead, he uses the finest of squirrel-hair brushes, and we readers suffer endless torments of subtle suggestions, veiled threat and a pervading sense that all is far from well. There is more than enough conventional crime, dealt with – as always in the series – by expat Scouse cop Frannie Bliss and his secret girlfriend (and boss) Annie Howe, whose estranged father is making a bid to become the areas Police and Crime Commissioner.
The novel plays out against a bleak and gloomy Herefordshire November, where the brooding hills are shrouded with mist, and the outlying villages clinging to the steep slopes are uninviting, with doors remaining firmly shut in the faces of anyone “from off”. The sense of menace is compounded by the fact that both Merrily and the well-meaning local police come to realise that the death of Aidan Lloyd has opened a gateway into something which lies deeply embedded in the memory, landscape and folklore of a land where belief and conviction are older and more potent than modern concepts such as law and order. There are more deaths, and this time there is no pretence that they are accidental.
The snow, long threatened, sweeps in from the Black Mountains.
“NOT LONG AFTER ten p.m., it began like a few grey feathers blown from a nest. Soon it was filling the cracks in the walls and gleaming like epaulettes on the sagging shoulders of the graves in the churchyard.”
Merrily prepares for a service of Remembrance for the souls of both Aidan Lloyd and Kilpeck’s late vicar, but this no ordinary service. It coincides with the winter solstice, what John Donne called “The Year’s Midnight”, and will close with an appearance of the Kilpeck Morris, who will dance in honour of The Man of Leaves, one of the images carved into the church fabric. In a breathtaking conclusion to the book, this unique conjunction of the Sacred and the Pagan is shattered in the most dramatic way possible.
Whatever your New Year resolutions were, add another one to the list, but put it at the top. By fair means or foul, get hold of a copy of this book, switch the phone into answer mode, bolt the door and pretend there’s no-one at home while you are swept along by the brilliant writing. Oh, and a couple more things; if you thought that Sheelanagig was just a West Country folk band, you will be educated otherwise. And you’ll never look at a Morris dance team in quite the same way again.
All Of A Winter’s Night is published by Corvus, and is out on 5th January.
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