Phil Rickman: The Smile of a Ghost (2005) Merrily Watkins Series

Smile of a Ghost

In the affluent, historic town of Ludlow, a teenage boy dies in a fall from the castle ruins. Accident or suicide? No great mystery, so why does the boy’s uncle, newly-retired detective sergeant Andy Mumford take his personal fears to diocesan exorcist Merrily Watkins? More people will die before Merrily, her own future uncertain, uncovers in those shadowed, medieval streets, a dangerous obsession with suicide, the nature of death and the afterlife.

I bought The Smile of a Ghost by accident, thinking it was the first in the Merrily Watkins series, but it’s already book seven. I think it says a lot about a series though if new readers do not feel left out and don’t get the impression that there’s a huge amount of backstory that would be annoying for those already familiar with the books.

When you read about some of the elements of the novels, notably that they are set in small English towns and that the main protagonist/investigator is a vicar, you might be led to thinking this is cozy crime. You’d be very wrong. The series is far edgier than you’d expect. And in some ways quite eccentric. Think Trollope meets the Gilmore Girls and you have a pretty good idea of the flavour of the series.

The main investigator is thirty-six-year-old Merrily Watkins, vicar of Ledwardine, in Herefordshire, near the Welsh border. Merrily isn’t only a vicar she’s also a deliverance minister – in other words an exorcist. And she’s the single mom of a teenage daughter and dates a rock musician. With these ingredients it’s not surprising that the books offer a mix of solid mystery, with a gothic flair and a very realistic look at life in contemporary Britain.

In this seventh book of the series Merrily has a lot of trouble with the church. Exorcist is a role that many among the clergy want gone. It whiffs too much of medieval superstitions. But Merrily persists. She’s not entirely sure herself whether she believes in ghosts, all she knows is that there are phenomena nobody can explain and if people feel the need of a priest to help them, why should the church refuse this. It’s decided that she can go on doing what she does but only after consulting with a whole group of people first, one of which a retired, pompous psychiatrist.

Merrily is a very independent person. She hates these new rules. But she’s got more troubles of her own . Her boyfriend, rock musician Lol, has moved to Ledwardine and they try to keep it a secret for the time being. Someone knows though or they wouldn’t receive hate mail. Jane, Merrily’s feisty daughter, starts to investigate, only to find a few other worrying things.

When a young boy, Robbie Walsh, falls from Ludlow castle, it looks like an accident at first. His uncle, newly-retired police investigator Mumford doubts it was an accident. As usual the boy stayed with his grandparents for the holidays. He loves staying at Ludlow. His own home is anything but peaceful. His mother is a druggie and pregnant with a much younger guy’s kid. Robbie’s a history buff and knows everything about Ludlow, including its ghost stories. Shortly before he dies he’s seen with Belladonna, an eccentric goth musician who has bought a house in Ludlow. She’s often seen at night in a dark cape, possibly naked underneath, holding a flickering candle. Does she have something to do with Robbie’s death? Was it a suicide?

If Mumford’s mother wouldn’t pretend she’s still seeing Robbie and he’s talking to her, Merrily might not have been drawn into this, but since there’s the possibility of a haunting, Mumford asks her for help.

Shortly afterwards Mumford’s mother is found dead in the river and a girl jumps from the castle. There’s clearly something very sinister at work here. A suicide cult led by Belladonna? Drug-dealing youth who force others to throw themselves from the ruin? Murder?

I loved this book and will return to this series again. It has such an arresting mix of elements: a suspenseful mystery, elements of ghost stories, a strong sense of place and setting, social commentary and a lot more. The characters are wonderfully well drawn. Merrily and her daughter Jane are a great team. They made me think of the Gilmore Girls more than once. The only reservation I have is the length of the books. None is shorter than 500 pages, many are over 600 and a lot of these pages are filled with church politics. It didn’t bother me too much because everything else was so different and fresh. And I had a tiny problem with the occasional use of vernacular though. It’s just something I don’t like.

I highly recommend this series. It offers a terrific mix of elements, wonderfully likable characters, and great setting and atmosphere. I was almost sad when I came to the end of the novel and didn’t have another one at hand. And I would love to visit Ludlow Castle.

Ludlow Castle