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June 9, 2022

THE FEVER OF THE WORLD . . . Between the covers

TFOTW spine013

It seems like half a lifetime since there was a Merrily Watkins novel – it was All of a Winter’s Night back in 2017 (click the title to read my review) and there has been one hell of a lot of water under the bridge for all of us since then including, sadly, Phil Rickman suffering serious illness. His many fans will join me in hoping that he is on the mend, and at last we have a new book! Old Ledwardine hands won’t need reminding, but for newcomers this graphic may be helpful.

MW CAST CORRECTED2

Now, as another celebrated solver of mysteries once said, “The game’s afoot!” We are in relatively modern times, March 2020, and the Covid Curse has begun to cast its awful spell. The senior Anglican clergy, including the Bishop of Hereford, are relentlessly determined to be woker than woke, and have decided that exorcism – or, to use the other term, deliverance – is the stuff or the middle ages, and clergy are being advised to refer any strange events to the NHS mental health teams. This, of course, puts Merrily Watkins’ ‘night job’ under threat. She and her mentor Huw Owen know that some people experience events which cannot simply be the result of their poor mental health.

The Merrily Watkins novels have a template. This is not to say they are formulaic in a derogatory sense. The template involves a crime – most often a murder or mysterious death. This is investigated by the West Mercia police, usually in the form of Inspector Frannie Bliss. The investigation then reveals what appear to be supernatural or paranormal characteristics, which then secures the involvement of the Rev. Merrily Watkins, vicar of Ledwardine.

Here, a prominent Hereford estate agent and enthusiastic rock climber, Peter Portis, has plummeted to his death from one of the peaks of a Wye Valley rock formation known as The Seven Sisters. A tragic accident? Perhaps. A parallel plot develops. In another parish, the vicar – a former TV actor called Arlo Ripley – has asked Merrily for help. One of his flock has reported seeing the spectre of a young girl and isn’t sure what to do. Enter, stage left, William Wordsworth. Not in person, obviously, but on a visit to the Wye Valley, the poet apparently met a young girl who claimed she could communicate with her dead siblings. The result was his poem We are Seven. That, and Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey are the spine of this novel. Click the titles, and you will see the full texts of the poems. The girl who has entered the life of Maya Madden – a TV producer renting a cottage in the village of Goodrich – seems to be one and the same as Wordsworth’s muse.

Enter, stage right, another Hereford copper, David Vaynor. Nicknamed ‘Darth’ by his boss Frannie Bliss, he is an unusual chap. For starters, he has  a PhD in English literature, and his thesis was based on Wordsworth’s time in Herefordshire. To add to the strangeness, while he was researching his work, he went into what is known as King Arthur’s Cave, a natural cavity in the rock close to where Portis met his end. While he was in there, he has a residual memory of sinking – exhausted – into what was a natural rock chair – and then being visited by a succubus.¹

Yes, yes, – the poor lad was tired, a bit hormonal and having bad dreams. But wait. As Vaynor is doing his job, and interviewing those who knew Portis, he meets his daughter in law, and she reminds him horribly of the woman he ‘met’ on that fateful afternoon in King Arthur’s Cave.

This has everything Merrily Watkins fans – and newcomers to the series – could want. A deep sense of unease, matchless atmosphere – the funeral held in fading light in a virtually disused churchyard, for example – the wonderful ambiguity of Rickman’s approach to the supernatural – we never actually see the phantoms, but we are aware that other people have – the wonderful repertory company of characters who interact so well, and also a deep sense that the past is never far away. There is also a palpable sense of irony that ‘the fever of the world’ is not just a metaphor from a Wordsworth poem, but was actually happening as the coronavirus took hold.

The Fever of the World is published by Corvus/Atlantic books and is out now.

¹A succubus is a demon or supernatural entity in folklore, in female form, that appears in dreams to seduce men, usually through sexual activity.

THE WHITE HORSE MURDER . . . A brutal killing in a Lincolnshire market town (2)

WHITE HORSE HEADER

SO FAR – Market Deeping, Lincolnshire. September 1922. On Wednesday 20th, 18 year-old Ivy Dora D’Arcy had married her sweetheart, George Prentice. On the following Monday, her widowed mother Edith – landlady of The White Horse – was to remarry. At around 9.00pm on Saturday 23rd, Edith, Ivy, her sister Gertrude, and Edith’s soon-to-be daughter in law Eva are examining wedding presents in a back parlour, lit only by a candle. As ever, what happened next is vividly described by a local newspaper:

Blurb 1

At the coroner’s inquest on Monday 25th September, Edith D’Arcy explained that she was now Mrs Kitchener. Her new husband’s rather hard-hearted employers The Great Northern Railway Company, had refused to extend his leave of absence despite the tragedy, and so they had been married just an hour or so before arriving at the inquest. They are pictured below.

Mum arrives

Barely managing to keep her composure, she told the court that in the darkness, no-one realised what had actually happened. She said:

“Gertrude cried, “Bring a light, Ivy has been shot. I got some matches and lit the gas, and I saw them lifting Ivy onto a chair. She was smothered in blood, and a big clot of blood as big as my hand lay on her lap.”

What she saw was described in more chillingly anatomical terms by the doctor who was called to the scene:

“Dr. Benson stated that he was called to The White Horse Hotel soon after 9.20, on Saturday evening. Deceased was dead on his arrival. Her clothing was saturated with blood, and there was a 2½ inches by 3 inches wound on the left breast, whilst several ribs were smashed. A large cavity was formed In the thorax. The full charge from the gun had entered her chest at close range, from close range. Death was instantaneous, and due to haemorrage and shock. The wound was consistent with having been caused by the charge of a sporting gun such as that produced.”

It is almost impossible to imagine the devastating effect this murder would have had on George Prentice. For three days he had a lovely young wife with the promise of children and years of happiness. Because of an instant of jealous rage, those dreams lay in tatters. He is pictured below, the man on the right, supported by a friend, arriving at the inquest.

George arrives cropped

Worse was to come for George Prentice. He had to watch as his young wife was lowered into the ground on Wednesday 27th September while the solemn words of the burial sentences were intoned.

I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord : he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet Shall He live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shalt stand at the latter day upon the earth.
And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God:
Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another.

It is hardly surprising that the occasion was too much for George Prentice to bear.

Husbands Collapse

Ivy’s grave is very weathered, but can still be found in Market Deeping cemetery.

Ivy Dora Prentice smaller

FRANK FOWLERScreen Shot 2022-06-07 at 20.39.30

As for Fowler, (pictured left, leaving the inquest) he was clearly as guilty as sin. In his mind he had painted a picture in which he and Ivy D’Arcy were destined to be man and wife, despite the lack of any encouragement on her part. He was sent for trial at the autumn assizes in Lincoln, and it wasn’t until the jury found him guilty of murder, and the death sentence had been imposed by Mr Justice Lush  that his defence team  decided to ask for a  a repeal on the grounds of insanity. This was rejected, and Fowler was booked in for an appointment with the formidable Thomas Pierrepoint, (right). 13th December 1922 was a bad day for Lincolnshire, as the double execution despatched two men of the county, Fowler and a man called George Robinson who had murdered another 18 year-old girl in Dorrington.

Double Execution

As for Fowler’s motivation, one has to accept Edith Kitchener’s statement that there was never anything between Fowler and her late daughter. Whatever relationship there was must have existed purely in his own head. At the time of the shooting he was heard to say, “Now I’ve had my revenge.” He had determined that if he couldn’t have Ivy Dora D’Arcy, then no-one would.

These stories would wander interminably if we followed the future lives of the surviving participants, but thanks to Chris Berry, whose family tree Ivy D’Arcy is part of, I can add that George Prentice married again in 1927, to a woman called Florence Taylor. He died in October 1960, leaving the tidy sum of £20315 which is close on £330000 in today’s money. Edith and William Kitchener were recorded as living in Tallington in the 1939 register. She died in the spring of 1945, aged 75, while William died in the spring of 1951.

FOR MORE TALES OF MURDER AND TRAGEDY IN LINCOLNSHIRE
CLICK THE IMAGE BELOW

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