Today’s guest blogger is Phil Rickman who is the author of the Merrily Watkins series. The Secrets of Pain is the 10th book in the Merrily Watkins Series. He has won awards for his television and radio journalism. Music is often a theme in his novels as well and they range from the fictional to the real. He also presents the Radio Wales book programme “Phil the Shelf”.
Ten books. Wow. Surprising how quickly that happened. A whole series. And ten books does seem like a complete series. Certainly the point at which some crime writers I could name (but obviously won’t) began to run out of ideas.
So, obviously I had a decision to make. Was it Reichenbach Falls time for Merrily Watkins?
I mean, I never really wanted to write about a vicar. I knew from the start what would happen, and it did. Readers of grittily realistic crime fiction turned away with a knowing sneer. Clerical mysteries... yeah... right. While readers of so-called clerical mysteries often reacted like the Amazon reviewer who wrote:
I bought this book in error. I was looking for a murder mystery. Unfortunately this is not the type of book I like to read. The book is set in a village where there is an undercurrent of darkness throughout. The theme is evil/superstition/darkness and is not about solving a murder. Most of the characters seem to be disturbed. The church element only seems to be there to add some sexual fantasy. I was not comfortable with the book and the more I read the more I felt it would be wrong to carry on reading. Having turned to the end I realised that I most definitely was making the right decision to stop reading and I deleted the book from my Kindle and pc.
You can read it in full on Amazon under The Wine of Angels. While a touch blinkered, it’s undoubtedly the best one-star review I’ve ever had and must have attracted quite a lot of those readers who normally would turn away with a knowing sneer. But you get the idea: this series was unlikely to be an overnight success. It was rarely what anyone expected... least of all me.
Clerical mysteries undoubtedly have their place in the annals of crime fiction but they are, to an extent, fantasy. Very few vicars nail killers… well not more than once, anyway.
And fantasy was the last place I wanted to go. True, I’d started as a writer of supernatural thrillers but, after a few years, I was backing off in horror at the direction the genre was taking: whole armies of vampires - fairy stories, essentially. I needed some reality, a discipline. So it had to be crime. I always loved crime novels, especially procedurals.
Yet I didn’t want to leave the paranormal behind. I’m interested in anomalies, always have been, and find Richard Dawkins dispiriting in every conceivable sense of the word. But ghost-hunters, real and fictional, can be irritating too.
And if I was looking for a credible professional.... well, there was only one kind, and it opened a big can of worms.
Exorcists had rarely been dealt with, in an authentic way, since William Blatty’s masterpiece in the 1970s. And that was about Catholics priests. I needed a woman.
I knew that every Church of England diocese had at least one exorcist. But what did they actually do - here in Britain, in the third millennium? And how would it be possible to write about one without coming over as some kind of disturbed religious zealot?
Talking to working exorcists, you discover that, in these cautious, secular times, they’re often appointed for their scepticism. You learn how few of them have ever encountered a convincing case of demonic possession. How the dividing line between the psychic and the psychological is continually being stretched and blurred. I even found one who didn’t believe in ghosts. And the C of E doesn’t called them exorcists any more, they’re deliverance ministers or consultants. Personally, I prefer exorcist, but you have to go with what you’re given.
What’s interesting is that it isn’t unusual for their paths to intersect with criminal investigations. It was only because of a particularly horrifying domestic murder that the Church of England decided to replace the term exorcism with the less-sinister deliverance. And the politics were fascinating, it seemed the darker recesses of the Church of England had more in common with Le Carre´s Circus than it might care to admit. It soon became clear that I was into something extraordinary which could be the basis for an entirely new approach to crime fiction.
The theme is not about solving a murder. Mrs Amazon one-star certainly got that bit right. I never wanted a super-sleuth.
Merrily Watkins, Deliverance Consultant for the Diocese of Hereford, is the single mother of a teenager who’s more into paganism. Merrily smokes. She isn’t feisty, makes mistakes, and lives with insecurity. In the early days I used to get scary emails like the one that said, ‘I’m very disappointed. I wanted her to be God’s Warrior in the Battle Against Evil!’
In your dreams. And, OK, very occasionally, hers. And then she wakes up and it just isn’t that simple. For a few dismal years, Merrily Watkins inhabited the no-readers-land between the horror shelf and cosy crime. I got very tired of the term ‘clerical sleuth’ being applied to a woman who rarely solved anything and was constantly deconstructing her belief-system. And I didn’t do cosy.
So, at first, not many people got it. Then, gradually, as readers began to adjust to the idea of a decent woman trying to handle a medieval job in a scornful world, the series accumulated what I think is called ‘a substantial cult following’ - i.e. you don’t get rich but you do acquire serious fans.
At first, I expected the clergy to hate Merrily. But then, there were some things about the clergy that I didn’t understand. ‘Thank God,’ one said. ‘We might finally be saying goodbye to the Derek Nimmo Factor.’ I also had an early email from a diocesan exorcist who said, the low-key approach is exactly right.
The Deliverance ministry operates in a netherworld of weirdo’s, misfits, the paranoid and the disturbed. Most times the disturbances have a rational explanation. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you see a crack of strange light under a slightly open door. Momentarily, and then it’s gone.
But it continues to lure me back. Ten books is only a complete series when the characters and the locations have stopped talking to you.
Anyway, I took a year off to write something different - an historical thriller - just to prove I could. Without the baggage of a backlist, it sold surprisingly well, and even signalled a new direction. But I couldn’t lose the suspicion that the Merrily novels were more important. Also, they allowed me to have more fun with dialogue and to explore my obsession with folklore and a sense of place: how the history and atmosphere of a location sometimes can condition behaviour. Psycho-geography is the current term for the connections made when you study a location in depth.
In The Secrets of Pain, the main location is Credenhill, a few miles outside Hereford, where a massive Iron Age hillfort glowers over an area of the Wye Valley where the Romans built a town, long vanished, called Magnis. William Wordsworth, who often stayed here, mentions it in a poem in which ‘the men that have been reappear.’ Wordsworth is remembered at nearby Brinsop Church, where St George is said to have killed the dragon. A mile or so away, two Roman roads enclose the quiet spread of buildings, which is now the headquarters of the Special Air Service, Hereford’s finest.
The SAS, according to Tony Geraghty in his definitive history of The Regiment, Who Dares Wins, ‘is not afraid to declare its own mysticism.’
This is a crime series. Other elements remain on the periphery. They affect behaviour, they don’t affect the result. Evil is human, no solutions are revealed in dreams. Nevertheless, it’s another dimension to the crime novel, and if it’s going to work it has to take place against an authentic background and contemporary issues - in this case mass-immigration from Eastern Europe and the growth of rural organised crime.
So it’s Easter Week, and savage murder has come to Hereford. A farmer has been hacked to death in his own yard above the Wye Valley and two young women have died in a back street of the city. Merrily Watkins, meanwhile, is concerned about an old colleague, Syd Spicer, who clearly has something on his mind, something he can’t talk about because it concerns his old regiment. She’s not too concerned, obviously, because the SAS can take care of themselves. The SAS know how to deal with fear and pain all its forms.
Well, almost all...
Watch the video of The Secrets of Pain and listen to Phil Rickman talk about the book.