Friday, 2 December 2011

"The Secrets of Pain," by Phil Rickman

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I so nearly attributed this book to Alan Rickman when I typed the title.

I was very happy when I discovered recently that there was a new book out by Phil Rickman, as I have read and enjoyed the others in the series by him (this is the 11th book in a series featuring Merrily Watkins).  Phil Rickman's books are strongly plotted mysteries with an infusion of the supernatural.  His protagonist, Merrily Watkins, is a young widow and single mother of a teenage daughter who, following the death of her unfaithful husband in a car crash, discovered her faith in God and became a priest.  Her experience of events that have possible paranormal explanation lead her to become a "deliverance minister" (exorcist) for the Hereford diocese.  Phil Rickman's mysteries are also great for a book geek, as he is very aware of his predecessors: for example, previous novels have had plots that refer back to M.R James and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I am conscious that I know someone who occasionally reads this blog is just discovering the series, so I want to try and introduce this book without giving away any details about ongoing developments in Merrily's life.  So, not only am I trying to make sure that I don't have any spoilers for this novel, I'm trying not to spoil previous entries in the series - which isn't easy, as Merrily's relationships with the other characters around her are part of the strengths of the series.  In "The Secrets of Pain," the demise of a character who has appeared in a previous novel (no, not going to say who, sorry) is one of the catalysts of a mystery that takes in the SAS, Roman history and beliefs, the death of a wealthy landowner, and migrant workers.

I think that this series benefits from being read in order from the start, rather than being dipped into, as the series follows developments in Merrily's life: I look forward to the next novel to find out what is happening to her, as much as I do for the mystery element.  Another continuing strand in the series is more noticeable in this novel: the commodification of the countryside.  Phil Rickman's books follow the life of Ledwardine, the village in which Merrily lives, and this book finds a Ledwardine under siege from a rich developer who is trying to promote Herefordshire as the "New Cotswolds."  It is refreshing to read a crime novel in a more rural setting, as it seems to me that a majority of novels in the genre are set in urban, city locations, and this book is interestingly steeped in rural politics (which is nowhere near as dry as I just made it sound).

This is quite a long book with detailed scene setting and multiple threads.  However, for all its length, I found it engrossing and I never felt that it flagged.  The main strength of the series, for me, is the character of Merrily - who is warm, sympathetic and vulnerable - and I feel that it is all too rare for a man to write so successfully and convincingly with a female protagonist.  As someone who has no religious faith, but who sometimes envies the strength and comfort that others find in their beliefs, her questioning and occasionally unsure relationship to her God is believably depicted.  In her, Phil Rickman has created an appealing character for whom I have developed a genuine fondness, and I badly want her to find a happy ending.  I fully intend to continue reading this series for the mystery and intrigue, but also because I want to find out what happens next for Merrily.  I hope he writes quickly.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, very insightful.

    I love the Merrily Watkins series and I'm really looking forward to reading this - it's on my Christmas list! I completely agree that it's good to read the series in order from the start, as you definitely really see how Merrily grows and develops as a character over time. I also think reading them from the start gives you a better understanding of the character of Jane, as then you see her develop from a stroppy teenager into someone more thoughtful who's still figuring out who she really is, if you see what I mean.

    I think it's interesting that you, as someone with no religious faith, can relate to Merrily. I'm an atheist (and I'm pretty confident about that) but I never found it in the slightest bit alienating that Merrily was a priest. I could still really identify with her and understand why she has the faith she does. I definitely think that's all part of Rickman's skill in the way he writes her.

    I usually can't put his books down - all those end-of-chapter cliffhangers! - so I'm looking forward to getting stuck into this one.