Recent reading: To dream of the dead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is more of a “what I learned from this book” than a review.
It was about ten or twelve years ago that I picked up one of Phil Rickman’s books (it was Crybbe or Candlenight), concluded from the blurb that Rickman was a British Stephen King wannabe, and bought it for some light reading and comparison. After reading those two, in whatever order, I read The chalice, and decided that Rickman was better than Stephen King, and started looking out for his books. Whenever I see one I haven’t read, I buy it. I don’t wait until I have enough money, because I know if I come back later, it’ll be gone, and I won’t see it again for a year or six.
Those early novels were supernatural horror stories, and as Stephen King’s novels in the same genre give some insight into small-town America, Rickman’s give some insight into small-town Britain. What was quite interesting, too, was the way that some characters carried over from one story to another.
I’ve long been a great fan of Charles Williams, and Phil Rickman’s novels were the nearest thing I’d seen to Charles Williams in 60 years. I began to entertain hopes that he would develop into producing the same kind of supernatural thrillers that Charles Williams did, several notches above the horror novels of Stephen King.
A new character who showed up as protagonist was Merrily Watkins, diocesan exorcist (or rather, “deliverance consultant”) for the Anglican Diocese of Hereford. She and her daughter Jane (who has neopagan leanings) are interesting characters, and one who has carried through from earlier books is Gomer Parry, the plant-hire man (I must remember someday to look up in a dictionary to find out what a JCB is).
But my hopes of a new Charles Williams have been disappointed. Merrily Watkins has been exercising her deliverance ministry less and less, and has been turning into an amateur detective, a younger version of Miss Marple. And in this book, she loses even that role, and she is being nudged aside as protagonist by Detective Inspector Francis Bliss of the West Mercia police. The “Merrily Watkins” books are on their way to becoming conventional whodunits.
One thing that struck me about this one was the use of “form” as police slang for a criminal record. I first noticed it last month in a whodunit by Peter Robinson Cold is the grave, and then in a couple of other British whodunits, and now in a Phil Rickman book. Perhaps it’s appeared before, and I didn’t notice it, but its appearance seems to mark the final tipping of Phil Rickman’s books into the whodunit genre, with the supernatural thriller element being peripheral. It’s a bit disappointing.
Nevertheless, I did learn something from the book, and indeed from most of Rickman’s books, and that is something of the flavour of British culture and local politics in the early 21st century.
I first encountered British culture when I went to study in Durham in the 1960s. And 1960s British culture as I experienced it then was marvellously captured in the novels of Peter Tinniswood, A touch of Daniel and I didn’t know you cared. A generation later there have been huge changes, as I noticed when we visited Britain in 2005, after nearly 40 years. It was like time travel, being transported to a different time, with the cultural changes only vaguely glimpsed in newspapers and on TV, but captured quite faithfully in Phil Rickman’s novels. And it is perhaps this that makes them different from run-of-the-mill whodunits. In other crime fiction one notices technological changes — the use of computers, cell (mobile) phones and DNA testing. But apart from that there is very little of culture. Rickman manages to capture something of the culture, and to help one interpret it. The relations between “incomers” and local people, for example, and the migration that helped to explain why we managed to travel through the West of England, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, and never heard an accent from those places until we visited my Hayes cousins in Cambridgeshire. Everyone seemed to speak with Estuary accents.
Rickman manages to capture something of this, and so this makes his books a little more than the average whodunit.
But I still hope that in his next novel Merrily Watkins will move back into centre stage in her role as deliverance consultant rather than amateur sleuth.