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JIM KELLY . . . Landscape, memory – and murder

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Phil RickmanWhen it comes to creating a sense of place in their novels, there are two living British writers who tower above their contemporaries. Phil Rickman, (left) in his Merrily Watkins books, has recreated an English – Welsh borderland which is, by turn, magical, mysterious – and menacing. The past – usually the darker aspects of recent history – seeps like a pervasive damp from every beam of the region’s black and white cottages, and from every weathered stone of its derelict Methodist chapels. Jim Kelly’s world is different altogether. Kelly was born in what we used to call The Home Counties, north of London, and after studying in Sheffield and spending his working life between London and York, he settled in the Cambridgeshire cathedral city of Ely.

jim kelly Small_0It is there that we became acquainted with Philip Dryden, a newspaperman like his creator but someone who frequently finds murder on his doorstep (except he lives on a houseboat, which may not have doorsteps). While modern Ely has made the most of its wonderful architecture (and relative proximity to London) and is now a very chic place to live, visit, or work in, very little of the Dryden novels takes place in Ely itself. Instead, Kelly, has shone his torch on the bleak and vast former fens surrounding the city. Visitors will be well aware that much of Ely sits on a rare hill overlooking fenland in every direction. Those who like a metaphor might well say that, as well as in terms of height and space, Ely looks down on the fens in a haughty fashion, probably accompanying its haughty glance with a disdainful sniff. Kelly (above)  is much more interested in the hard-scrabble fenland settlements, sometimes – literally – dust blown, and its reclusive, suspicious criminal types with hearts as black as the soil they used to work on. Dryden usually finds that the murder cases he becomes involved with are usually the result of old grievances gone bad, but as a resident in the area I can reassure you that in the fens, grudges and family feuds very rarely last more than ninety years

deat1In the Peter Shaw novels, Kelly moved north. Very often in non-literal speech, going north can mean a move to darker, colder and less forgiving climates of both the spiritual and geographical kind, but the reverse is true here. Shaw is a police officer in King’s Lynn, but he lives up the coast near the resort town of Hunstanton. Either by accident or design, Kelly turns the Philip Dryden template on its head. King’s Lynn is a hard town, full of tough men, some of whom are descendants of the old fishing families. There is a smattering of gentility in the town centre, but the rough-as-boots housing estates that surround the town to the west and the south provide plenty of work for Shaw and his gruff sergeant George Valentine. By contrast, it is in the rural areas to the north-east of Lynn where Shaw’s patch includes expensive retirement homes, holiday-rental flint cottages, bird reserves for the twitchers to twitch in, and second homes bought by Londoners which have earned places like Brancaster the epithet “Chelsea-on-Sea.”

With these two best-selling series under his belt, Jim Kelly would have been forgiven if he had played safe and simply ping-ponged Dryden and Shaw in his future novels. But, like Ulysses of old, he has given us a new character.

“’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset …….”

I am not suggesting for one second that Jim Kelly is anywhere near his metaphorical sunset but, just as Ulysses pushed his boat off into unknown waters, so Kelly begins a voyage that takes us to Cambridge in the golden autumn of 1939. Britain is officially at war with Germany, and Detective Inspector Eden Brooke has mysterious deaths to solve. Set in the glorious university town – yes, ‘town’, as Cambridge did not become a city until 1951 – The Great Darkness will enthral Kelly fans and new readers who like the landscape to be a significant character in their fiction.

The Fully Booked review of The Great Darkness will be available in the next couple of days, but here are several links to features on Jim Kelly and Phil Rickman.

All of a Winter’s Night by Phil Rickman

Jim Kelly – A Landscape of Secrets

The Seaweed That Started A War

Books Of The Year 2016

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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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ALL OF A WINTER’S NIGHT … Between the covers

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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.

aoawnAll 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.

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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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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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