You should be reading Phil Rickman

Phil Rickman is an author who should be better known in the United States, because his books are terrific.

I used to work at a large Borders Books, and one day I was shelving books in the mystery section. Now, I love mysteries, but reading them is like eating potato chips. You can’t stick to just one, or even a few, but after you’ve finished, you feel kind of guilty and not very well nourished. Still, I’m always searching for a good one to sink my teeth into. Anyway, I recognized the picture on the cover of one of the books I was putting away. (“Hey, I’ve been to that town!”)  It was Ludlow, Shropshire, on the Welsh border. The book was by Phil Rickman, and it was the seventh in the Merrily Watkins Mystery series. The description sounded intriguing, but I like to start at the beginning, so I bought a copy of Midwinter of the Spirit. I thought it was the first in the series, but I was wrong. The Wine of Angels is actually the first title. It didn’t matter. I was hooked from the first page, and Midwinter is a better book than the first one. I tore through the series, and then I came to the part I hate, where I have to wait a year or more for new books in a series to be released. It’s even worse when it’s a British author, since the UK folks get their hands on the books months before we do, and I have to decide whether to pay extra to get them sooner or to just wait.

Phil Rickman’s books

Merrily Watkins is a young widow who’s just become an Anglican priest. She moves to the English/Welsh border with her rebellious teenage daughter Jane, taking over as parish priest in the small village of Ledwardine. Her encounters with a restless spirit in the old vicarage lead to her appointment as “deliverance consultant” for the diocese of Hereford, which is just a newfangled term for exorcist.

Now, this could lead to standard horror or to silly supernatural stuff, but Rickman is too smart and too subtle to let that happen.  You won’t find any teenage vampires or rabid zombies wandering through these pages. Instead, the paranormal elements are just spooky enough to send shivers down your spine but always rooted in human emotion and human (dare I say it?) evil. Rickman always lets the reader decide whether to believe in God and Church and Religion, whether to believe in ghosts and hauntings, whether to believe in witches and ley lines and ancient pagan rituals. Nothing is dismissed and nothing is assumed.

What keeps me coming back, though, are the characters. My favorite is Gomer Parry, because you can’t help admiring an old fellow who’s so passionate about his JCB. That’s a big digging machine, and Gomer is never happier than when he’s digging a ditch or working on a septic tank. You’d be surprised how useful a guy like Gomer can be in a supernatural mystery.

One of the richest and funniest characters is Merrily’s daughter Jane. She’s sixteen, and like every teenager, she truly believes she knows more than her mother. She’s smart and passionate, but she’s also terribly impressionable. Her fascination with paganism and witchcraft is obviously a reaction to her mother’s traditional religion. It’s fun to watch Jane grow up, grow wiser, fall in and out of love, and gradually learn that her mother may know a thing or two.

Once you’ve read all the Merrily Watkins books, while you’re waiting for another one (and the eleventh title The Secrets of Pain will be released September 1, 2011 in the UK), you’ll want to read more of Rickman’s work. His first two books are Crybbe (also called Curfew) and Candlenight, and they’re traditional horror novels that are just average (and I know I’m going to get some arguments about that from other Rickman fans!)  I’ve tried and failed to make it through his third novel, The Man in the Moss, but I will probably keep trying. Rickman hits his stride with December. It’s delicious and probably my favorite non-series book by Rickman, about a group of psychic musicians recording an album in an old abbey. Rickman has a lovely habit of introducing characters in his early books that are so vivid, they keep popping up in Rickman’s later works, like old friends dropping by for a visit.

But wait, there’s more. Phil Rickman has written two books under the name Will Kingdom and two children’s books as Thom Madley. His latest book is The Bones of Avalon which has not yet been published in the US, and I haven’t read it yet. It’s about John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer, and the search for King Arthur’s remains.

Be sure to visit www.philrickman.co.uk to learn more. You can even order a Gomer Parry tee shirt or a CD of music inspired by the books. You can also join The Phil Rickman Appreciation Society on Facebook.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Peg on May 17, 2011 at 6:48 am

    Until I found your blog I thought I was alone in the world of Rickman. My first Rickman was actually Curfew and I was hooked. Next I found December and Candlenight and I love the way he weaves characters in and out of one book plot to the next. Merrily Watkins I found totally by accident. I found his website and the name Merrily caught my attention as it is my daughter’s name and not a common one. I ordered the first 5 from Amazon (talk about taking chances lol) and have scrounged the rest of them up (used) since then. With the exception of the last three, mainly because I only found them this winter, I have read the others into rags. That being said I have never been a reader of mystery books with exception of Doyle and Christie (many years ago) and you are right Rickman needs to be better known here in the US. Love his writing style and his people. Am just finishing To Dream of the Dead and I am dragging my feet ’cause I really don’t want to leave Herefordshire! He cannot turn them out fast enough for me.

    Reply

  2. It’s so great to hear from another Rickman fan! My friend just brought me a pristine copy of The Bones of Avalon from London, and I can’t wait to tear into it. I also want to savor it slowly so it lasts. Then come September, I have to decide whether to order The Secrets of Pain from the UK. And, I still want that Gomer Parry tee shirt…
    Like you, I want a lot more Merrily Watkins books to read!

    Reply

    • Posted by Peg on May 22, 2011 at 6:53 am

      I just found a Rickman appreciation group at Facebook. So of course I asked them to let me in. And I just found copies (used) of The Man in the Moss and The Chalice. They should be here in a couple of days and I can take them to work with me! I am fortunate to have a job that gives me time to do my own thing when I am not doing their thing. LOL! I try to make the books last now ’cause I never know when I will find another. Next up are his Will Kingdom books I guess as I think I have all the others to date.Oh and the Bones of Avalon!

      Reply

      • I’m in the facebook group as well, although it’s kind of a cruel tease, because they’re often posting events I can’t attend in the States. I like the Will Kingdom books. Rickman tried a different sentence structure/writing style for The Man in The Moss, and I still haven’t successfully tackled it yet! I like how some of the characters in The Chalice reappear in the Thom Madley children’s books. Happy reading, and leave the lights on!

        Reply

  3. Posted by Peg on May 23, 2011 at 5:00 am

    Well I will see you there then. 🙂 I like the way so many of his characters morph in and out of other books. And will have to find Thom Madley as well! I do find I am looking over my shoulder at times. I had to find something else to read in the interim and went for Blackwood and Freeman. So now I have Shadows and Willows to look out for.

    Reply

    • Definitely read the Thom Madley books! The first one, Marco’s Pendulum, is better than the second, but how can you stop with Rickman, right? Oh, dear, I’m not sure I like the sound of shadows and willows…

      Reply

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