I had the privilege of meeting author Phil Rickman at a book signing for his latest Merrily Watkins novel, the Magus of Hay. I have been steadily working my way through the Merrily Watkins series of ghost story meets murder mystery books. I enjoy Phil’s writing very much, his books are satisfyingly chunky and engrossing, with enough authenticity to draw you in.
It so happens that my husband and I had visited the historic Market town of Ludlow just a week earlier, a visit prompted by reading one of Phil’s Merrily novels set around the town with its impressive castle. I hadn’t been to Ludlow for about eight years and it was high time to revisit. We had a great day out and enjoyed strolling around the ancient streets. We saw the bookshop was advertising Phil’s latest book and that he would be there for a book signing event. What a lovely piece of synchronicity! It was great to return and meet Phil, his lovely wife and his extremely well-behaved dog.
For those unfamiliar with the character of Merrily Watkins she is vicar of Ledwardine, an old Herefordshire village. She is also the Diocesan Deliverance Consultant for the County; Deliverance being the modern and politically correct term for Exorcism. The action in this series is set around Herefordshire and the Welsh borders, which is particularly enjoyable for me as this is where I live and the settings are both atmospheric and instantly recognisable. We live in an historic and varied area so for anyone wanting a taste of reasonably unspoilt English and Welsh border landscapes the books will be evocative.
Merrily is a loveable character, petite, chain smoking, a widow and pretty mother of a teenage daughter who has pagan interests. She is in a tentative relationship with a musician and not at all stuffy. She’s certainly not the stereotypical crucifix wielding exorcist of a Hammer Horror film, however she does seem to be slightly inept and her earnest attempts to clear up hauntings often backfire on her both energetically and politically. She also seems to have a knack of landing herself in the midst of rather a lot of murders and unexplained deaths and is often found to be assisting the local police!
These books can be rather creepy and Merrily does come up against the darker side of the human condition, there are some gruesome murders along the way, so these are not novels for the easily scared or spiritually squeamish!
The Magus of Hay is set in Hay on Wye, the Town of Books established by Richard Booth in 1962. Hay is world famous and holds a vibrant literary festival every year. It probably has the highest density of bookshops per head of population anywhere in the world and it attracts international visitors as well as local booklovers having a day out. In the Magus of Hay, Rickman weaves a complex tale of magical groups, the charismatic King of Hay, independent booksellers fighting a recession and the rising popularity of Kindle, alongside a dark thread of neo-Nazi right wing extremism. I was pleased to see the return of the likeable pagan characters Betty and Robin from an earlier Merrily tale who are now trying to establish an esoteric bookshop in the quaint old alley that runs by Hay Castle wall. Psychic Betty detects some unpleasant vibes and an old murder mystery is unearthed. Good old Merrily is caught up in the thick of it all as usual.
I loved the The Magus of Hay (Merrily Watkins Mysteries) and although there is a progression of storytelling running through the series you could start your exploration here as The Magus of Hay will stand alone as a very readable novel in its own right.