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BOOK OF THE YEAR 2017 . . . All Of a Winter’s Night, by Phil Rickman

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Phil RickmanThere are no honourable mentions here, because, (if you’ve been good) you will have seen them all in the previous four posts. Regular readers of this blog, and those who read my interviews, reviews and features on Crime Fiction Lover, will know that I am a massive fan of Phil Rickman’s books and, in particular, the series featuring the thoroughly modern, but often conflicted, parish priest, Merrily Watkins. She is one of the most intriguing and best written characters in modern fiction, but Rickman (left) doesn’t stop there. He has created a whole repertory company of supporting characters who range in style and substance from the wizened sage Gomer Parry – he of the roll-up fags and uncanny perception (often revealed as he digs holes for septic tanks) – to the twin-set and pearls imperturbability of the Bishop’s secretary, Sophie. In between we have the fragile genius of Merrily’s boyfriend, musician Lol Robinson, the maverick Scouse policeman Frannie Bliss and, of course, Merrily’s adventurous daughter Jane, for whom the soubriquet ‘Calamity” would fit nicely, such is her propensity to go where both angels – and her anxious mother – fear to tread.

These actors flit in and out of the stories, but there is one other character, ever present and formidable. I am in the autumn of my days and, casting aside false modesty, widely read, and I have likened Rickman’s use of landscape to that of Thomas Hardy. The Welsh Marches – Hereford, Radnor, Brecon, Monmouth – combine to make this extra character. The windswept hills, sullen valleys, glittering streams and abandoned chapels all play a part in Rickman’s novels, and never more effective than in my Best Book of 2017 – All Of a Winter’s Night.

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The art of Morris Dancing has often been ridiculed, never better than when it was suggested that a Morris team could be an effective counter-display by the England Rugby team when faced with New Zealand’s ferocious Haka. But here, the faintly ridiculous concept of men dancing around with bells on their trousers and funny hats on their heads becomes as sinister as anything ever dredged up from the fevered imaginations of Poe or Lovecraft. Rickman has his finger on the pulse of an old Britain, a land steeped in superstition, symbolism, and distinctly un-Christian – not to say pre-Christian – traditions.

AOAWNIn All Of a Winter’s Night a young man has been killed in a mysterious car crash, and his funeral attracts bitterly opposed members of the same family. Merrily tries to preside over potential chaos, and her efforts to ensure that Aidan Lloyd rest in peace are not helped when his body is disinterred, dressed in his Morris Man costume, and then clumsily reburied. Rickman adds to the mix the very real and solid presence of the ancient church at Kilpeck, with its pagan – and downright vulgar (in some eyes) carvings. The climax of the novel comes when Merrily tries to conduct a service of remembrance in the tiny church. What happens next is, literally, breathtaking – and one of the most terrifying and disturbing chapters of any novel you will read this year or next. With its memorable mix of crime fiction, menacing landscape, human jealousy, sinister tradition and pure menace, All Of a Winter’s Night is my book of 2017.

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THE MISSING HOURS … Between the covers

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Dr Selena Cole is a widow. She and her late husband Ed founded The Cole Group, operators in the secretive world of K & R – kidnap and ransom. Ed’s military experience tmhand Selena’s qualifications as a psychologist made them the go-to people for corporations and wealthy families who had fallen foul of the highly lucrative business of international kidnapping. But then, on a blisteringly hot morning in Brasilia, it all went badly wrong. Selena went shopping for children’s toys prior to her addressing a meeting of fellow professionals in the afternoon. While she was selecting gifts for their little daughters, the bad guys attacked the hotel and conference centre, shooting, bombing and delivering a stark message. “You may think you are smarter than us, but look at the body count, and then tell us how clever you are.”

Ed, having a lie-in, before the presentations, is one of the victims. Now, months later, Selena has pretty much handed over the running of the group to her sister-in-law, Orla Britten, and her husband Seth. Their centre of operations is the Cole’s elegant period house in a village not far from Hereford. Then, Selena goes missing. One minute she is watching her girls Heather and Tara play on the swings in the playground. The next, she is gone, and a neighbour has gathered up the distressed children, and the police are called.

The first responder is Detective Constable Leah Mackay. She is married – albeit precariously – and has her own children who unwittingly provide instant empathy with the two little Cole girls. First, their father has been taken, and now their mother? It all seems impossibly cruel. Meanwhile Detective Sergeant Finn Hale, precisely 82 days into his promotion, has his first murder case. A body has been discovered beside a narrow road out in the mountains. The cause of death is a throat wound, but it is clear that the body has not bled out where it was found. Before the body became just that, an inanimate mass of tissue, a corpse, it was a ‘he’ and the ‘he’ had a name and personality – Dominic Newell.

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Dominic is well-known to the local police. No, not in that sense. He was a familiar face because he was a local solicitor well used to turning out and advising local villains on their rights, and when to say “no comment.” But Dominic was different. Even the police admit that. He was a decent man, nobody’s fool, and someone willing to believe the best of people. So, who had cause to kill him and leave his mortal remains exposed to the elements on a wet hillside?

When Selena reappears, less than 24 hours after she disappeared, Leah Mackay is relieved. Not only because she will not have to deliver an awful death message, but because she has become fascinated by the strange world of Selena Cole and her associates. The problem, though, is a huge one. Selena says she can remember nothing of the intervening hours. Not one thing. Not where she went. Not who she was with. Leah is told by her boss to ditch the Selena Cole disappearance and join everyone else in hunting for the killer of Dominic Newell. She nods dutifully, but does exactly the opposite.

emmalkOne of the many delights of this excellent novel is that Finna Hale and Leah Mackay are brother and sister. Finn has leap-frogged his sister in the promotion stakes, despite her evident superiority – evident, that is, to us readers, but not the local constabulary personnel department. Kavanagh plays the relationship between the siblings with the touch of a concert violinist. There are all manner of clever nuances and deft little touches which enhance the narrative.

Kavanagh reveals the inner workings of K & R consultants by letting us browse through the files of The Cole Group in between chapters focusing on one or other of the main characters. The police procedural aspect of the novel is sure-footed and convincing, while the touches of domestic noir work well, despite being a well-trodden path. After all, who has ever read a novel where a detective has a blissfully happy marriage with a fully supportive spouse?

The plot twists come, as they should, with only a few pages to go, but by then you will have been totally hooked by the excellent writing, Kavanagh’s well-tuned ear for dialogue, and the authentic setting – that mystical landscape where Western England merges into Wales.

The paperback edition of The Missing Hours is out on 17th November

THE MERRILY WATKINS NOVELS … A readers’ guide

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1998The Reverend Merrily Watkins, who was first brought to life by Phil Rickman in The Wine of Angels in 1998, is, on one level, your average workaday Anglican parish priest. For starters she is a woman, and the Church’s own website tells us that while male ordinations are declining, those of women are increasing rapidly. Secondly, Merrily faces a declining congregation in her Herefordshire village – just like hundreds of other parishes up and down the country. Thirdly, she observes – at a distance, admittedly – the continuing friction between modernising progressives and the traditionalists in the hierarchy of the Church of England.

But the Reverend Mrs Watkins is crucially different from most of her fellow vicars. Some of them may also be single parents, but not many would have had a husband who was a crooked lawyer, and fewer still would have lost him in a fatal car crash. While Merrily is very far from a Merry Widow – she is much too introspective and self-examining for that – she does have a love life. The object of her affection is a talented but tormented singer-songwriter called Lol Robinson. His career as a latter day Nick Drake has been blighted by stage fright and self doubt but, so far at least, unlike the late and lamented Drake, he is still in the land of the living. Rickman’s own love of music and guitars shines through in his portrayal of Robinson, and if you want a slightly left-field novel involving musicians and the supernatural, you could do far worse than to read Rickman’s December (1994), a chilling retake on the impact of the death of John Lennon.

While Merrily’s relationship with Lol is, despite her attempts to be subtle, the worst kept secret in the village, her secondary occupation is known to very few of her remaining parishioners outside of her churchwardens. Merrily is, to use her official title, the diocesan Deliverance Consultant. That is Deliverance as in the words of the Litany of The Church of England:

From all evil and wickedness; from sin;
from the crafts and assaults of the devil;
and from everlasting damnation,
Good Lord, deliver us.

Merrily Watkins does not like to use the ‘E’ word when talking about her work, as that tends to bring into people’s minds swiveling heads, the projectile vomiting of green slime and teenage girls with a rather gruff and inventive turn of phrase. Instead, she tries to offer solace and the comfort of The Holy Spirit; sometimes to people, but more often to places where the presence of the dead is disturbing those who live within the four walls. She is never sure whether she is trusted by her boss – the Bishop of Hereford – or simply tolerated. Bishops come and go, however, and in the most recent novel, Friends Of The Dusk (2015) a new incumbent brings with him the proverbial new broom, and Merrily has to put herself in personal danger if she is not to be swept away.

So, when Merrily encounters ‘the crafts and assaults of the devil’, does she believe what she is seeing and feeling? She is certainly susceptible to atmosphere, and Rickman is clever enough to keep things subtle; there are no movie special effects here, but the temperature might drop a degree or two, a weathered stone carving might take on a sinister aspect in the fading light of dusk, and a creaking floorboard is usually enough to have us reaching for the crucifix.

One of Rickman’s many skills is the way he allows real life characters to inhabit Merrily’s world. Over the series, he has brought in a star-studded cast of people who have had a real connection with the Welsh border country. In The Remains of An Altar (2007) the shades of Sir Edward Elgar and Alfred Watkins (The Old Straight Path) pay a visit, and The Magus of Hay (2013) we meet The Hay on Wye entrepreneur Richard Booth and, slightly at a tangent, Eric Gill and Beryl Bainbridge. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle puts in a retrospective appearance in The Prayer Of The Night Shepherd (2004) when Merrily’s teenage daughter Jane has a holiday job in a hotel every bit as spooky as The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, and which is the place that perhaps inspired ACD to write his masterly The Hound of The Baskervilles. The sinister presence of Fred West lurks in the corner of The Lamp of The Wicked (2003) and in The Wine of Angels (1998) the life and words of the 17th century mystical poet Thomas Traherne echo throughout the plot.

Jane Watkins, dear, dear Jane. Rickman shamelessly uses daughter Jane to scare the pants off us on a regular basis, in that she goes where angels – and her mother – fear to tread. Jane seems to age on a slightly different timescale to the adult characters, but we basically see her through sixth form and away to university. She might be what older and less charitable folk call a ‘snowflake’. She is environmentally aware, probably quite left wing, and very much the feminist. Fortunately, we have yet to hear her demand Safe Spaces or clamour for the No Platforming of some speaker with whose views she disagrees, but her vehement defence of archaeological sites has led her into conflict with some pretty unpleasant corporate types, and she is forever wandering off – usually while mum is preoccupied – into situations where she makes herself a prime target for the bad guys.

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There are several regular members of the Phil Rickman Repertory Company. Gomer Parry is a roll-up smoking drainage contractor who is intensely supportive of Merrily, and acts as a kind of Greek Chorus offering commonsense views on distinctly unusual situations. Franny Bliss is Merrily’s point of contact with the police. We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that these novels are, albeit with a decided twist, crime fiction novels, and so the Liverpudlian copper, based in Hereford, is an essential player. If Parry and Bliss sit on the Profane benches, then two occupants of the Sacred side of The House must be mentioned. Huw Owen is a bluntly spoken northern priest who has seen more of The Devil’s works than he cares to mention, but he is the closest Merrily has to a spiritual advisor, even though he spends most of his time in an obscure retreat away in the Welsh hills. Sophie Hill is the Bishop’s secretary, and she ought, by rights, with her severe manner and unimpeachable Anglican pedigree, to be very sniffy about the Vicar of Ledwardine, but she is one of Merrily’s most subtle – and caring – allies.

We have talked about Merrily’s metaphorical and spiritual landscape, but the physical landscape of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and the Welsh borders is a constant and sometimes sinister presence. The dark little valleys with their decaying Victorian chapels, the remote manor houses with their fragments of medieval and Tudor stonework and the isolated, hard-scrabble farms where lonely men might – and sometimes do – become quite mad, provide enough chills of the earthly kind even before the unquiet dead need to put in an appearance.

Phil Rickman is a fine writer and his earlier stand-alone novels and his John Dee series are proof enough of that, were any needed. It is in the Merrily Watkins novels, however, that Rickman 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 which is little short of miraculous. Merrily Watkins is a brilliant creation. She is brave, vulnerable, demure yet sexy and, above all, completely believable.

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