The lamp of the wicked
I think I’ve read this book before, in fact I’m pretty certain I have, as many of the scenes rang bells for me, but the plot did not. Though there was so much that seemed familiar, i had no idea what was going to happen next, and so it was like reading the book for the first time. I had made no note of having read it before, so could not even tell when I had read it in relation to other books by Phil Rickman.
But whenever I read it before, reading it now makes me think that the book marks a turning point in Rickman’s novels, the point at which he switched from writing supernatural thrillers to writing whodunits. Being aware of what he wrote before and what he wrote after this book makes that clear, and as a result the book is rather jumbled and messy.
Merrily Watkins, for those who don’t know Rickman’s books, has taken over the job of diocesan exorcist for the Church of England Diocese of Hereford, but, since “exorcist” doesn’t fit with the modern image the church is trying to project, she is given the rather twee title of “Deliverance Consultant”, and is called in to deal with haunted houses and demonised individuals. She is also the Vicar of Ledwardine, a picturesque tourist village on the Welsh border, and single mother of a teenage daughter making the transition from New Age to atheism.
A parishioner, Gomer Parry, who runs a plant hire business, and features in even more of Rickman’s novels than Merrily Watkins, hears that his workshop has burned down, and suspects a business rival Roddy Lodge, whose shoddy workmanship Parry has criticised. But the discovery of a woman’s body excites Detective Inspector Frannie Bliss of the West Mercia police, who thinks he has a serial killer on his hands, an imitator, or even disciple of the infamous Fred West, serial killer of Gloucester.
The whiff of old evil brings Merrily’s mentor in deliverance ministry, the Revd Huw Owen, hot-footing it over the border from Wales, and all the while her boyfriend, Lol Robinson, a failed rock-folk musician, is making a reluctant come-back. To add a further complication a new parishioner at Ledwardine, Jenny Box, has seen a vision of an angel over the village, which inspired her to move there from London.
[Potential spoiler ahead]
This tangle of people with different aims and vested interests ends up in a spaghetti-like mess in the unlovely village of Underhowle, with a spectacularly botched funeral and an even more botched exorcism, with Merrily Watkins and Huw Owen working at cross purposes, in a series of scenes that are rather like a bad dream, where an important event is continually interrupted or sidetracked by a series of distracting happenings, and each interruption is itself interrupted by something else.
If I did read this book before, it didn’t look like a turning point, but reading it this time it now looks like the point at which Merrily Watkins makes the transition to becoming a 21st-century Miss Marple, only a bit younger and less astute.
Some of my other reviews of Phil Rickman books: