Phil Rickman

THE FEVER OF THE WORLD . . . Between the covers

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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.


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 POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Kara & Rickman

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Two cracking new hardbacks arrived last week, one written by Lesley Kara, whose previous four domestic psychological thrillers have all been best-sellers and, the other by a writer who has created one of the most original amateur detectives that I have encountered. It has been five years since we had a Merrily Watkins novel from Phil Rickman, but now he brings her back in The Fever of the World.


Screen Shot 2022-05-24 at 19.03.43Lesley Kara (left) specialises in creating tension between ordinary people in humdrum surroundings – in other words, normal circumstances experienced by the vast majority of us. I reviewed her excellent debut novel The Rumour, and her new book is centred around – as the name suggests – a murder that took place above Scarlett’s flat. The victim was her aunt, and as Scarlett tries to live as normal a life as possible with such a terrible event – almost literally – hanging over her head, it is up to her to make the funeral arrangements for her relative. As she does so, she meets Dee, the funeral director. Dee has problems of her own, but an unexpected link binds the two women together, and both are now in terrible danger. The Apartment Upstairs will be published by Bantam Press on 23rd June.


Screen Shot 2022-05-24 at 19.07.31For the uninitiated, Merrily Watkins is a single mum, and vicar of a village in Herefordshire. She also serves as Diocesan Deliverance Consultant – aka an exorcist. The series began in 1998 with The Wine of Angels, and seemed to have terminated rather abruptly with All of a Winter’s Night in 2017. A new book titled For The Hell of It was billed to come out in 2020, but this seems to have been reimagined as The Fever of the World. Here, Merrily becomes involved in a murder investigation led by local copper David Vaynor who, in a previous life, was an expert in the poetry of William Wordsworth. Aficionados of the work of Wordsworth may well recognise the provenance of the book’s title, taken from the poem composed on the banks of the River Wye near Tintern Abbey:

“In darkness and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart.”

My appreciation of the Merrily Watkins novels is here, and I am anxious to see what has become of the  repertory company of characters Rickman (above right) used in the earlier novels. The book is published by Atlantic Books, and will be out on 16th June.

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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Existing fans of Phil Rickman’s superbly evocative Merrily Watkins novels can skip this paragraph. As in all the best fiction series, there is a stable cast of recurring characters. So, for new readers, the Rickman Repertory Company is led by the Reverend Merrily Watkins: widow, mother, parish priest and Dioceson Deliverance officer (modern C of E speak for exorcist). Then comes Jane, her teenage daughter and inveterate dabbler-into-things-she-oughtn’t-to-be-dabbling-in. Gomer Parry, local drainage contractor, voice of common sense and elderly savant. Representing the forces of law and order is Frannie Bliss, detective with the Herefordshire Constabulary, scouser and all-purpose square peg. The musical director of this ensemble is Lawrence ‘Lol’ Robinson, dazzling guitarist, singer songwriter, sometime depressive, sufferer from paralysing stage fright – and the long term boyfriend of Merrily.

Lol has a serious back-story. In To Dream of The Dead, Rickman spells it out in stark clarity:

“Barely twenty and convicted of sexually assaulting a fourteen-year-old girl while on tour with Hazey Jane. An offence actually committed, while Lol was asleep, by the band’s bass player, who’d walked away, leaving Lol on probation, unjustly disgraced, disowned by his creepy Pentecostalist parents, swallowed by the psychiatric system. His career wrecked, his spirit smashed.”

As he creates Lol’s complex character, Rickman wants us to think of a real-life singer and guitarist, Nick Drake. Cynics might say that when the Gods take young musicians, it is a cast iron guarantee that both victim and music will achieve a kind of immortal celebrity that they may not have reached had they lived. Who can say with certainty that Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Marc Bolan, Jimi Hendrix and others in the pantheon of dead rock stars would now be as famous in life as they have become in death?

Lol Robinson shares Nick Drake’s intensity, delicate guitar playing, haunting voice and sense of sublime anxiety about himself and the world he lives in. But, thanks to the support of Merrily Watkins and others, Lol comes through his bad times and lives to perform and record again. As he emerges from the darkness, he almost becomes as one with his guitar. Like Frank Westworth, Phil Rickman clearly knows, loves and plays the instrument, and he gifts Lol a beautiful hand-made guitar. Its maker is Al Boswell, a unique craftsman; part gypsy, part mystic and a man whose hands seem guided by forces older than any skills learned in a school woodwork class.


Not content with making one of the spear-carriers in his ensemble a fascinating and compelling character, Rickman goes one step further. He has actually recreated Lol’s band Hazey Jane, and they have made videos and sound recordings to prove the point.

Click on the image below to visit Phil Rickman’s own site, and learn more – and hear more – about Lol Robinson and Hazey Jane II.

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philrickmanBefore he had the brainwave which gave us Merrily Watkins in The Wine of Angels (1998), Rickman wrote several standalone novels. The most music-centred one was December (1994). It begins on the evening of Monday 8th December, 1980. For most people of a certain age, that date will be an instant trigger, but Rickman (right) sets us down in a ruined abbey in the remote Welsh hamlet of Ystrad Ddu, which sits at the foot of one of The Black Mountains, Ysgyryd Fawr – more commonly known by its anglicised form The Skirrid. Part of the medieval abbey has been fitted out as a recording studio and, in a cynical act of niche marketing, a record impresario has contracted a folk rock band, The Philosopher’s Stone, to record an album of mystical songs in the haunted building, and he has stipulated that the tracks must be laid down between midnight and dawn.

Shortly before 4.00am, as the band are playing a song which relates the tragic story of Aelwyn, a young Celtic man who was hacked to death in the abbey grounds by Norman invaders in 1175, what was already a fractious and uneasy atmosphere turns distinctly sinister. Acoustic guitarist Dave Reilly is overcome by disturbing visions and, as he escapes the studio to shelter under an ancient oak tree, over three thousand miles away it is 10.50 pm and a disturbed young Hawaiian man called Mark David Chapman is pumping four bullets into former Beatle and musical legend, John Lennon.

As if the ill-fated recording session is not already attracting enough malevolent vibrations, things are about to get worse – much, much worse. Lead guitarist Tom Storey – as notorious for his abuse of drink and drugs as he is celebrated for his guitar virtuosity – has had enough. He has left his pregnant wife Deborah in a nearby hotel and, angry at the shambolic and disturbing recording session, commandeers a Land Rover and storms off to be with her. Deborah, meanwhile has decided to come out to Ystrad Ddu to ‘rescue’ her husband. As John Lennon is bleeding to death in the back of a police car, Tom’s Land Rover smashes into Deborah’s Lotus sports car.

“Twenty yards away, the old blue Land Rover driven by Tom Storey has brought down a low, sleek Lotus Elan, like a lion with a gazelle. The Land Rover has torn into the Lotus and savaged it and its guts are out and still heaving, and Dave can see flames leaping into the vertical rain …..”

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Rickman takes us forward to the present day. The Philosopher’s Stone is no more. It died on that fateful December night. Tom Storey has remarried, but lives as a recluse in a Cotswold mansion with his second wife and daughter Vanessa, removed from the dying body of her mother but afflicted with Down’s Syndrome. Singer Moira Cairns has flirted with the folk music scene, but has largely retreated from public life. Dave Reilly has eked out a threadbare living as a musician, but is cursed with an ability to sense the supernatural, and his ‘gift’ has done him no favours. Bass player Simon St John has abandoned music altogether (apart from in the privacy of his own room) and has taken holy orders.

Novels and, indeed, films, would not be able to create their magic were it not for the priceless ability of fictional characters to make decisions which turn out to be disastrous – and often fatal – mistakes. So it is in December. An unscrupulous music executive, desperate for something that will give his flagging career an edge, discovers a box of tapes, all that remains of the fatal pre-dawn music making in December 1980. A highly respected producer, Ken ‘Prof’ Levin (who features as a mentor to Lol Robinson in the Merrily Watkins novels) is persuaded to restore the tapes. To say that all hell breaks loose as a consequence is putting it mildly. Ghosts don’t like being woken from their dreamless sleep by money-grubbing mortals, and they exact a high price for their inconvenience.

Amid all the psychic mayhem, this is unashamedly a novel about guitars and their magic. We have Stratocasters, Martins, Takemines, Ovations, Telecasters and Les Pauls. Rickman’s fascination with his chosen instrument shines through, and his enthusiasm will inspire many a lapsed player to blow the dust off their guitar case, open it up and coax an old tune from their neglected lover.

Check out the buying options for December, and other Phil Rickman novels, here.

You can also read the Fully Booked review of the most recent Merrily Watkins novel
All Of A Winter’s Night

You can catch up with the previous parts of this series by clicking the links.



ALL OF A WINTER’S NIGHT … Between the covers


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.


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.


ON MY SHELF … Redmond, Rickman and Tully


redmondHighbridge, by Phil Redmond
To create one addictive TV soap might be considered just lucky. Creating two should evoke a few sharp intakes of breath. To be responsible for three…? Well. it ain’t gonna happen, is it? Yet it did, and with Grange Hill, Brookside and Hollyoaks under his creative belt, it was only a matter of time before write Phil Redmond (left) turned his hand to the crime fiction market. Set in the fictional town of Highbridge, Redmond spins a hypnotic yarn about two brothers who take different routes to avenge their sister’s death. Sean embeds himself in the cut-throat world of local politics where the law is ostensibly respected, but subverted in a hundred subtle ways. Joey goes Route One, and pursues his revenge within the criminal underworld where law and order are just random letters rearranged to make a word that no-one understands. Highbridge will be out in January, and you can pre-order here.

tulleyDown, But Not Out, by Gary Tulley
The first book in this series of crime novels set within the sweat and sawdust world of boxing was Seconds Out (March 2016) We were introduced to a gentleman – Paul Rossetti – who is described as “a plastic gangster”. The author (right) had a distinguished career as a coach and administrator in amateur boxing, but on retirement wrote two PI novels, Once Upon A Spook (2012) , and The Spook Who Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (2013). He now follows up Seconds Out with another saga involving Paul Rossetti and a boxer described as ‘his nemesis’ – Ronnie Callaghan. The story bobs and weaves its way through the murky and arcane world of men who try to beat the living daylights out of each other – and the criminal types who control them outside the ring. Down, But Not Out is available now, and is published by Matador.

phil-rickmanAll Of A Winter’s Night, by Phil Rickman
I make no apologies about naming this as my biggest up-and-coming release. I have been hooked by the Merrily Watkins novels since public library days, when I first discovered The Wine Of Angels in 1998. I believe Rickman to be one of our finest writers, with his unrivalled sense of landscape and history, and his ability to scare the pants of me without resorting to cheap shocks. Rickman is a modest man and may demur at my comparing him to Hardy in his awareness of the power of landscape, but he must put his hand up and acknowledge that he is very much the equal of the great M R James in the way he conjures up dread and menace using everyday objects and happenings. The Reverend Watkins, Rector of Ledwardine and Diocesan Deliverance Consultant returns in a wintry tale, where she must cope with the unwelcome convergence of a bleak funeral and a gangland shooting. Expect shivers up your spine, more peril for Merrily’s vulnerable daughter Jane, and a story that combines ancient menace, modern crime, and a totally believable cast of characters. All Of A Winter’s Night will be out on 5th January.



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.


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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