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Evie

Phil Rickman

I am slowly working my way through Phil Rickman's series of books featuring Merrily Watkins, an Anglican vicar who works, somewhat reluctantly, as the diocesan exorcist.  Based in Worcestershire, they are wonderful both as depictions of life in an English rural setting, and as mild thrillers with a supernatural twist.  They are far from pious - Merrily is a great character, a widowed mother of a lovable but infuriating teenage daughter, and the cast of characters generally is good, including the very lovely Lol Robinson, a former folk-rock musician (lover of Nick Drake's music), now a bit damaged, but there is chemistry between him and Merrily.  The supernatural element and sharpness of some of the characters and the writing prevents it from being Vicar of Dibley meets Midsomer Murders, in case it sounds a bit like that.

I am a bit alarmed to see that they are going out of print - the next two in the series are currently unavailable, and hence even secondhand copies are expensive - so I am having to skip those and go on to the next one, which I have chosen as my Christmas read, definitely curl-up-with-box-of-chocolates sort of books.

I know Klara is a fan - any others out there?  I keep hoping someone will make them into a TV series, they would be great.
Klara Z

Hi, Evie---yes, I am indeed a Phil Rickman fan, in fact I've begun re-reading some of my favourites. He's written an excellent book giving the background to the series (the topography, the folklore of Herefordshire, Nick Drake etc.) that was published this year 'Merrily's Border'.

Have you visited Phil Rickman's website? Apparently there's even a CD that accompanies the books, 'Song's From Lucy's Cottage', ( i.e Lol's music. )
I, too, would love to see these books adapted sensitively for TV.  

Any other Phil Rickman fans out there? Please join us!
Evie

I am now engrossed in The Remains of an Altar - perfect antidote to Christmas - or complement to the season while being an antidote to the actual experience!  Just the right touches of supernaturalism for me.

I find his books so hard to put down - ghost-story-cum-thriller, in a rural setting, with a Nick Drake enthusiast as one of the main characters, all just so hard to resist!  A blissful morning so far, and I plan to spend as much of the day as I can with Merrily Watkins and co.
blackberrycottage

Phil Rickman lover here too! They were heavily recommended to me after the first couple of books, and I did struggle with the opening of the first one, with the wassailing of apple trees. You can buy T shirts as well with Gomer Parry plant hire on, among other lines.

I believe they were being optioned for TV, but the Martin Shaw priest programme was preferred.
Evie

Excellent, blackberrycottage!  I still like the first one best - not sure if it's simply because it was the first one I read, but I did like all the stuff about the orchard, and about the rectory.  Am thoroughly enjoying my current one (think it's the 8th...but haven't checked!).
blackberrycottage

I struggled with the Elgar one, I don't know if I was trying to read it too quickly, but I loved the Garway one, and the one with the Boy Bishops and unctious politicians. I could do with reading them again from the beginning. Sometimes I think they could do with a glossary or more explanation of local customs. I love the idea of Merrily's Border - it begs someone to come up with all inclusive holidays driving you from site to site. I don't drive so that's where the chauffeur comes in. And you may as well have some good Herefordshire cider and Three Choirs Wine....even more call for the designated driver.

I would bet that Phil Rickman has increased interest in the music and visiting of Nick Drake's grave traffic too. I am sure I am not the only one who was screaming for Merrily and Lol to get it together, and who cried when Minnie died.
Melony

Pardon my ignorance, who is Nick Drake?
Evie

Nick Drake was a wonderful singer in the late 1960s and eary 1970s - a bit folky, though he wrote his own material - acoustic, mostly with just a guitar.  He died very young (26) of a drugs overdose - I think it's never been ascertained whether it was deliberate or not; the drugs he took were prescribed anti-depressants, and I think it is generally assumed that he took his own life.  His songs and his voice are sublime - if you have itunes or some other MP3 access on your computer, try listening to a bit of his album Five Leaves Left - one of my top five albums of all time - achingly beautiful songs, sung with an achingly beautiful voice, just amazing.  

He had little commercial success during his life, but has become a hugely respected figure by other singers, and his few records now sell very well.  His songs tend to be a bit melancholic, but are fab, definitely recommend having a listen if you can!

His sister Gabrielle Drake is a reasonably well known actress on television over here, though I haven't seen her in anything for years.
Klara Z

Tagging on here as another Nick Drake fan (as Evie says, the Nick Drake connections in the novels re. the character of Lol are very resonant)--I'v recently bought the Nick  Drake  album 'Family Tree' after reading about it in Phil Rickman's book, 'Merrily's Borders' .  'Family tree' is a lovely and poignant album, consisting of home recordings made by Nick Drake, his mother and his sister, and includes Gabrielle and Nick giving  a rendition of 'All My trials'. The best introduction to Nick Drake is probably the album 'Way to Blue; the best of Nick Drake' and there are several excellent biographies, describing his short, tragic but superbly creative life.
Evie

Yes, Family Tree is lovely.

I am going to a concert at Warwick Arts Centre on 23 January where Vashti Bunyan and others are going to sing the songs of Nick Drake - am really looking forward to it, but, as with Bob Dylan, no one can sing Nick Drake like Nick Drake!


As for Phil Rickman's books - I am three-quarters of the way through Remains of an Altar and finding it hard to put down, as usual.  Have just had a blissful half hour in the bath with it!
MikeAlx

That show's coming to Brighton too, Evie.

The Family Album sounds interesting. I saw a documentary about Nick Drake some years back, called "A Skin Too Few", which featured some of the home recordings and a recording of one of his mother's songs (for piano and voice). It was striking how similar it was to Nick's own work (modal, melancholic and folky). If anyone gets the chance to see the documentary, I would definitely recommend it.
Evie

I have now finished The Remains of an Altar, the 8th (I think) in the Merrily Watkins series.

Set in and around the Malvern hills, with supposed sightings of the ghost of Edward Elgar on his bicycle (Mr Phoebus), causing traffic accidents and other mayhem, this follows the same pattern as the others.  While Merrily is trying to sort out what is happening in the village of Wychehill, where the ghost appears to be doing most of his haunting, her 17-year-old daughter Jane is investigating what she thinks is a ley (not a ley line, as she is quick to point out!), inspired by a book by Alfred Watkins (a real person, contemporary with Elgar) - and the two stories ultimately, and inevitably, combine.  Holding Merrily and her daughter together, amazingly, is the troubled but very lovely musician Lol Robinson (because of hideous textspeak, I kept reading his name in my head as l-o-l rather than the word Lol...very irritating!  I do *hate* those acronyms people use!).  All a complete load of hokum, and a completely unrealistic relationship between Merrily and her daughter, and some shockingly bad writing (everything spelled out, clearly not expecting his readers to know *anything*, and that awful habit of ending every chapter on some kind of portentous note or cliffhanger).

Yet they are very addictive, and I find them very difficult to put down.  I think it's partly, as Klara has said, that the world he creates is so appealing; the Herefordshire/Worcestershire/Welsh border region beautifully evoked, the village of Ledwardine unsentimental yet picturesque, the mixture of pagan folklore and Christianity, the flawed but lovable characters - all of this wins me over and works against my literary prejudices.  They are thrillers rather than detective stories, and quite graphic at times in terms of violence and even horror, all set against the superficially sleepy backdrop of English village life and the influence of the Cathedral precinct (not so much in evidence here, but the diocesan secretary, Sophie, is never far away!).  It is a heady mixture, and perfect for that post-Christmas need for undemanding but absorbing pleasure that seems to hit me every year.

I need volumes 6 and 7, which are out of print and only available if I am prepared to pay around £25 (which I am not!), so I will be hunting the library catalogue and secondhand shops for those.
blackberrycottage

Evie, appararently a new publisher is taking over again, so hopefully they will be repackaged and republished.
Evie

Oh, that's good news - thanks!
Castorboy

Evie wrote:
I am now engrossed in The Remains of an Altar - perfect antidote to Christmas - or complement to the season while being an antidote to the actual experience!  Just the right touches of supernaturalism for me.

I find his books so hard to put down - ghost-story-cum-thriller, in a rural setting, with a Nick Drake enthusiast as one of the main characters, all just so hard to resist!  A blissful morning so far, and I plan to spend as much of the day as I can with Merrily Watkins and co.

Highly recommended and I am so pleased there there are another seven to read in the Merrily series. As I enjoy Elgar's music this one gave me additional pleasure - one of those informative novels which could prompt me to read the biography of the real person depicted.
Evie

They are great fun - I think that's one of my favourites, because of the Elgar ghost element, but I have loved them all.  Still 2 or 3 to read - still out of print, as far as I can see, but now there are cheaper ones available secondhand, so will see what I can find!  Glad you enjoyed it, Castorboy.  Would love a TV series of them.
Caro

I see there's a decent number of these in my library, and have put him on my list of 'to read' books.  You've all made him sound fun and entertaining.
KlaraZ

Like Evie, I'd love to see a TV series of the Merrily Watkins books, and I wish we could lobby the BBC about it---similiarly, I'd love to  see C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake  books on screen. But I do fear the whims of casting directors, always wanting to put someone 'famous' in and then choosing the wrong person. Years ago, I enjoyed the Marjorie Allingham adaptations, but, oh dear, Peter Davison just wasn't my idea of Albert Campion.

So---who should play Lol and Merrily, I wonder?
Evie

They were going to make the Shardlake books with Kenneth Branagh as Shardlake - and he then got caught up making Wallander, and the project was shelved, sadly.

I would like to see James D'Arcy as Lol...still can't decide who I would want as Merrily.  Maybe Helen McCrory, though she is slightly too old.
Castorboy

Crybbe is a town on the Welsh Border where strange things happen. The inhabitants are sunk into a general apathy, uninterested in any newcomers who try to become friendly. The hostility is palpable when the millionaire pop music tycoon Max Goff buys the Elizabethan manor house Crybbe Court. He wants to convert it into a centre for experiments with psychic energy based on a possible ley-line.
Other newcomers are Fay Morrison a radio reporter, her retired father the philandering Canon Alex Peters who hands out more than homilies and Colonel Colin Croston ex-SAS and deputy mayor. In their efforts to find out the source of the evil in the town they find themselves opposed by the Preece famliy – Jimmy the mayor, Jack his son who rings the nightly curfew bell and the two grandsons Jonathon who runs the farm and the hippy-lazy Warren who has ambitions to be a rock star. Add in Warren's teenage friend, the manipulative Tessa Byford and wait for the tensions to explode in a battle of temperaments and weapons, verbal and actual. Talk about firing off in all directions – there are discoveries of lively bodies but these are outnumbered by the appearances of very dead ones!

Having recently finished The Remains of an Altar, I noticed the references to Alfred Watkins and The Old Straight Track, the SAS in Hereford and possible ley-lines while once again Gomer Parry featured at crucial moments. Crybbe is more far-fetched with its elements of horror and supernatural events buiding up to a tremendous climax.
blackberrycottage

The first seven Phil Rickman novels are now being rereleased. Wine of Angels came out on April 1st and the others follow at two monthly intervals. Apparently Waterstones has its own special edition.  This is according to the Phil Rickman page on Facebook.
Evie

Oh, excellent news - should be able to catch up with the two or three I had to miss out.  Thanks, blackberrycottage, will investigate further!
KlaraZ

Excellent news, I agree. And I'm eagerly awaiting his new Merrily Watkins novel, The Secrets of Pain, which is coming out in the autumn.
Caro

With all these recommendations, I have just started reading Midwinter of the Spirit, which I think is the earliest Merrily Watkins book our library had, though I am not sure where it fits in the series.

I don't know yet how I will get on with the supernatural elements, being something of a rationalist myself.  Part of the trouble with any form of supernatural in novels is that finding things are completely natural always feels a bit of a cop-out, but accepting supernatural possibilities just seems ridiculous.  So usually I avoid anything magical or dealing in spirits.  (With adventure books of magic - LOTR or Harry Potter or Crestanamci for example - I struggle with (as with all children's adventure goodies/baddies books really) the power of magic/strength/luck in determining events and why one lot of magic would be stronger than another, and why people can't, if there is magic, just know automatically what is happening/going to happen.  Or where their enemies are, etc.  

At the same time I would be very disappointed if my expectations of the 'goodies' winning were to be dashed.  That requires a very different sort of book.

Caro.
Evie

Let's just say that I don't think you need to worry about the supernatural vs rational thing with these, Caro.  I forget which book is which, so I can't remember the story of Midwinter of the Spirit.  

There is a sense that things are referred to from previous books, but they do all stand alone as novels - it's just things that happened in Merrily's life that are referred to, or in the lives of the other characters, but not knowing these is not important enough to detract from the current novel.

My favourite one is the one about the ghost of Elgar cycling around the Malverns!
blackberrycottage

I liked the Garway one and the one with the allusions to Fred West best. I didn't much like the Elgar one or the Baskerville one. I prefer the ones based more around the Wye. I started with the second one, because that was what was in the library. I found the opening to the first one with the wassailing of the apples odd - it would have been enough to put me off if I hadn't liked the second one so much. I think I need to go back and read them all again. I want Frannie Bliss to have a better home life.
Caro

I have checked a website and I am reading the second one.  The first one is called The Wine of Angels.  (I think - checked this a few seconds ago and have managed to become uncertain already!)
Evie

Yes, Wine of Angels is the first one - it's after that that the order loses me now!  I found the Fred West one a bit too dark, by association, and a bit unpleasant as a result - but I have enjoyed them all.

But then I loved the apple wassailing thing - that appealed to me more than anything!
Caro

I have finished Rickman's Midwinter of the Spirit, but I am not sure I am as enamoured by it as I hoped to be.  My main criticism is with the length of it - at the end he thanked his wife for "some absolutely vital plot-surgery; I just wish she had taken her scalpel a more sharply to it.  468 pages is too long for a light crime novel.  However this is a fault he shares with an awful lot of writers of lightist works, so I assume it is insisted on by publishers.  I had got a little tired of it by page 320.

And I also got tired of the constant changes of scene and character.  Maybe I'm a lazy reader, but I don't like having to readjust my thinking every second or third page to accommodate a different set of characters.  And Phil Rickman does this all the time.  I suppose this is to show things happening simultaneously but I don't like it. I don't know if he has an eye to a television series or if he wants the quick change of scene to indicate a quick pace in the novel, but I really would have liked to concentrate on Merrily, Jane or Lol for a reasonable length of time before shifting to one of the others.  

I am not religious or spiritual to any degree so the tension between the forces of Christianity and God and Satanic believers is not particularly interesting to me.  But there is certainly plenty to learn about church heirarchy, architecture, and history here which I liked.  And the three ongoing characters are enjoyable.  Lol Robinson is the sort of man who draws the reader to him, as is Merrily.  (One minor quibble - not a single person in this novel, on being introduced to Merrily, makes a comment on her name, or asks to have it repeated.)  

One or two infelicities of simile/metaphor hit me - and they are not unique to Rickman.  I notice writers seem to strain for similes often to laughable effect.  I noticed here, "the wind had died, leaving the sky lumpy and congealed like a cold, fried breakfast".  No, please.  And "In the afternoon sunshine, the woods were a golden crust on the long, shallow loaf."

And yet the same author can describe some massed singing thus:  "...a piano was being plonked, a dozen cracked sopranos clawing for the notes of what might have been a hymn".  I loved the thought of cracked sopranos clawing for notes.  It seemed so right somehow.  

I don't doubt I will try more of these, however.  I have made my response to this sound totally negative and it wasn't at all.  But I would love it to have been shorter for a quicker read.

Cheers, Caro.
Evie

I don't mind the length at all, in fact I quite like the fact that they are doorstops - I'm always sad when they end!  But Phil Rickman's writing is often bad - somehow it doesn't stop me enjoying the books.  Though with me I think it's partly that my sister is a vicar in the Church of England (though not an exorcist!), and much of the writing about the church is accurate enough to make me (and her) laugh.

I didn't want to give anything away before the end, but I hope you feel reassured that the seemingly supernatural turns out to have very earthly origins!  There is still a hint of mystery, and Merrily clearly takes her job and her calling seriously, but ultimately the activities she investigates are of human origin.  There is a lot of tapping into ancient folklore and the mystery of the history of the landscape, which I love, and they are not without their spiritual side, but you don't get the supernatural cop-out that you were fearing, Caro.

Lol Robinson is lovely!
KlaraZ

The latest Phil Rickman/Merrily Watkins novel is out---The Secrets of Pain---and my copy has just arrived from the library. I shall dive into it this weekend!

http://www.philrickman.co.uk/pages/Secrets.html

(Hope there's going to be a lot about Lol in it!)
Caro

In response to Castorboy's suggestion I am putting this here (minus, I hope all the typos of the original, which I know I could correct if I could be bothered).  

I read The Lamp of the Wicked by Phil Rickman recently.  This one was long and detailed and based around the Fred and Rose West crimes and home.  They weren't really characters, but their legacy was vital to the story.  Phil Rickman said it hadn't been an easy book to write, and it wasn't at times all that easy to read, either.  I hadn't been aware of much of what he told us, as I do tend to ignore the details of such crimes, partly for squeamish reasons, but also so as not to give publicity to them.  

Evie has said Rickman isn't the best of writers, but I didn't find anything that bothered me in his writing - it isn't stylish or testing, but it is competent.  Oddly he can put a very nice phrase in, and then soon after a rather silly one.  I didn't think much of his simile of the sun being like an egg yolk, for instance.  

But a bigger criticism from me is that this book was too long (about 450 pages), and it had far too many threads at the end.  Extra crimes or uncertainty about the solved ones, and I just found that somewhat irritating.  It would have been more concise and more strongly finished without this.  I also found a jumpiness to the story, with constant changes back and forward to other characters.  Sometimes just three or four pages and then we would dart off to someone else.  I find this not conducive to concentrated reading. But I will read more of his.  I did feel this was a more serious and socially-important novel than the earlier one I read, mostly I think because it did take as its main premise a true, terrible and widely publicised crime, and showed the lasting effects and ripples across society that such an event and all its ramifications have.

I am interested to see mention of Nick Drake here - I mentioned him to my dil the other day and she didn't know of him.  I only know him by what I have read - haven't deliberately listened to him, though I think he is occasionally played on our radio here.  

Cheers, Caro.
Evie

NZ really is enlightened if they play Nick Drake on the radio!  Not sure I've ever heard him on the radio here.  Have a listen sometime, Caro - really beautiful songs - Five Leaves Left is my favourite album, and there is lots on youtube.
Caro

I thought I might have that wrong, but checking their website I see Pale Moon was their feature album one afternoon in February 2009 and Five Leaves Left was their feature album in Feb 2010.  That doesn't mean I heard it though.
county_lady

I have just finished reading the first three volumes of the Merrily Watkins books. The weather being hot here making me unable to sleep I was often reading through the night. They are strangely compulsive though not at all the type of book I normally read.
KlaraZ

There's a new Merrily Watkins novel out! 'The Magus of Hay'. My copy ordered from library has arrived and I'll be reading it next.

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