Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Summer Superheroes, Part 2: Merrily Watkins

Maybe you don't like adrenaline.  Or maybe, instead of ruthless killing machines, you prefer to read about thoughtful, reflective people struggling to cope with family, friendship and faith; say, about a widowed Anglican priest, trying to raise her daughter and tend to the needs of a small and difficult rural parish, all while holding onto some vague semblance of a love life.

Oh, and casting out demons.  Did we forget the demons?

If this sounds good, we recommend the adventures of the Rev. Merrily Watkins.  She is the rector of a church near the Welsh border, and her life as mother, lover, priest and diocesan exorcist (or "Deliverance Consultant") has unfolded in eight long novels by Phil Rickman.  They are truly remarkable, and we'll try to explain why.

First, they are mystery novels.  Most involve crime and police investigations, to which Merrily often becomes a party.  The cover blurb on one calls Rickman "the best English crime writer in the genre today," and we wouldn't be the least bit surprised if that were true.

But Rickman is far more than just a crime writer.  His earliest novels were supernatural thrillers -- ghosts and psychics and whatnot.  Merrily's work as an exorcist allows Rickman plenty of room to work with those subjects as well, as well as more conventional matters of faith, doubt and spirituality.  Indeed, there are quite a number of characters, most of them rock musicians, who figure prominently in both the supernatural thrillers and the crime novels. So he crosses genres easily.

Indeed, these books participate in a third genre, one less well known than the mystery or horror.  They are "priest novels," part of an odd lot that includes everything from Barsetshire to Middlemarch, from J.F. Powers' wry solemnities to Susan Howatch's theological bodice-rippers.  In this company, Rickman is far from the least distinguished practitioner.

Above all, though, Rickman is a writer, and a serious one; genre, one suspects, is just a way to get paid for writing the stories he cares about.  These are about the imaginary community he has built up in the west of England, with its priests and policemen, its crusty old ditch-diggers and wealthy Londoners seeking a rustic fantasy, its folklore and its economic struggles.  Egg readers will be able to confirm that Merrily's parish, Ledwardine, is led by entirely credible laypeople:  the blowhard with a sense of entitlement, the know-it-all attorney, the backstabbing weasels and the  loyal salt of the earth.  Its struggles -- shall we put a cell tower in our steeple? -- are familiar, as is Merrily's own constant sense of being evaluated by the people, torn between her desire to make herself acceptable and her commitment to do what is right.  Her daughter Jane is probably the best-realized PK in all of literature.

That said, though, make no mistake:  these books are thrilling.  In places, they can be scary as hell.  They may not move with the rattling pace of a Jack Reacher novel (what does?), but they offer rewards that are deeper and more satisfying.  They can make you think, feel and shudder, all for characters who seem as real as the ones around you.

Sadly, the Merrily Watkins novels can be hard to find in American bookstores.  We suggest ordering them online.

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