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The secrets of pain — book review

24 August 2012

The Secrets of PainThe Secrets of Pain by Phil Rickman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Phil Rickman now seems to have settled in to a formula for writing his novels, with Merrily Watkins, Vicar of Ledwardine on the Welsh border, as protagonist, and the usual cast of supporting characters — Merrily’s daughter Jane, Gomer Parry of Gomer Parry Plant Hire, Lol Robinson the folk-rock musician trying to make a comeback, the Hereford police and a few others. The main villains are different, but a few of them continue from previous books.

There’s nothing wrong with that; if you set stories in the same place, then it would be strange if the same characters did not appear again and again. The plot is, as in most of Phil Rickman‘s books, based on a crime that turns out to have religious or supernatural overtones, which is how Merrily Watkins, the diocesan exorcist, or, rather, “deliverance consultant”, for the Diocese of Hereford gets involved.

In spite of these similarities, I must admit that I am hooked on books by Phil Rickman. If I see one I haven’t read, I buy it. No ifs, no buts, no “I’ll go home and think about it”. It’s an impulse purchase, immediate and compelling.

If I try to analyse why I like Phil Rickman’s books, it becomes a bit more difficult. Perhaps it’s because I also like the books of Charles Williams which have been described by some as “supernatural thrillers”. In War in heaven Williams describes how supernatural evil manifests itself in a quiet English village, not unlike Rickman’s Ledwardine. Williams has far greater theological depth than Rickman, but Rickman also gives a picture of at least a part of English society, which seems to me to be fairly true to life, and gives a picture of how social and intellectual trends affect ordinary people, with such things as fox-hunting, gentrification of the countryside, and even the trends in the Church of England reflected in the change of name from “diocesan excorcist” to “deliverance consultant”. I’m not sure that any English diocese has actually done such a thing, but it is certainly the kind of thing they might do.

One of the trends that this book deals with is the macho military style of doing things, fostered by the wars that Britain has got involved in over the last few years, not reluctantly, but with a very macho eagerness. And so the book deals with the kind of spiritual problems that might arise at a military base, and especially one of the SAS, and what kind of spirituality might result.

This is one of Rickman’s better novels, and I might have given it five stars were it not for a few quirks that were distracting, if not annoying. One was his habit of making the subject of the opening dialogue of many chapters (and sometimes sections within chapters) obscure. You simply have no idea what the characters are talking about, until a hint may (if you’re lucky) be dropped about 10-15 lines down. And then you have to go back to the beginning again to make sense of it.

Another, and perhaps more minor quibble is the way Rickman treats St George. St George’s Church, Brinsop, seems to be connected by leys to some of the events that take place. Merrily Watkins thinks that St George was “Turkish” and “Middle Eastern”, and somehow being used to justify the crusades — yet it was probably the crusaders who brought the cult of St Geoorge back to England, after encountering it in Palestine. And there were no Turks in the the Middle East in St George’s time. At that time, in the Middle East, as one of Rickman’s characters might have said, Turks were from Off. It was only much later that they took on the role of Incomers.

One of the pictures in the church shows St George dressed as a Roman soldier, and this is regarded by one character as very strange. Yet to all accounts, St George was a Roman soldier, so why should it be strange that an ancient picture in a church should depict him as one? One of the interesting things about St George is his very widespread popularity. He is one of the most universally popular saints of the Christian Church, from India to England, and from Russia to Ethiopia.

But desipite a few flaws, it’s still a good read. And the next time I see a Rickman book I haven’t read in a bookshop, I’ll buy it, without hesitation. The greatest danger in readi ng it is that it has a tendency to shape my perceptions of England, English society, and the Church of England. Apart from the minor exceptions noted above, Rickman’s descriptions are almost too credible.

View all my reviews

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