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

38 thoughts on “Phil Rickman: The Smile of a Ghost (2005) Merrily Watkins Series

  1. I’d never heard of this series, but your review will be useful for the library stuff I’m involved with. Ludlow Castle is great, you’d love it. I recall visiting Ludlow as a child and being quite fascinated by it.

  2. Enthusiatic review. I’m sure it’s great but vicar + exorcist, that’s not for me.

    PS: is it a joke that the main character named Merrily dates someone named Lol?

    • There’s a long tradition of vicars in British crime/literature. I liked how he treated it so differently. I had a couple of doubts because of the name too. 🙂 It’s short for Laurence. He’s called Lol most of the time though.

  3. Five hundred pages and it’s the 7th in a series? Wow, that’s prolific. I’m intrigued, thanks to your review, and need something really different to read. Just finished a truly lousy book.. Blech. 🙂

    • I hope you like it. I loved a lot about it but could have done without some of the rather lengthy church politics. On the other hand it made it so realistic and contemporary. The church doesn’t seem different from a corporate company.
      Sorry to hear about the bad book. You’re a finisher as well, aren’t you? Even when a book isn’t good.

    • Thanks you so much, Delia.
      I don’t always aprtcipate but I enjoy receiving an award. 🙂
      Often I struggle too much to find 15 other blogs – who haven’t been nominated yet.
      Some of my favourites are already on your list.

  4. Great commentary Caroline.

    This really sounds good. I am stickler for reading series in order however. It may be more of a psychological quick on my part as not all series require it.

    I have noticed that for one reason or another I have been gravitating toward long books. I think that I like them better so I do not thing the volume of pages in this book would bother me.

    • Thanks, Brian. I would love to know what you think of the Trollope comparison should you ever read this.
      I messed up. I’m not sure why I didn’t pay attention and bought the 7th and not the first. I’m going to order the first now.
      His books are really in a long tradition of vicars in British novels/crime. In smaller cities they still have a central role and are in contact with everyone and hear much more than most, so I think the choice to have a vicar as amateur sleuth is great. The police is still involved though.
      I should get over my aversion of long books. In some ways you immerse yourelf so much more in long book, not only because you spend more time with it.

  5. Wonderful review, Caroline! A vicar who is also an exorcist and a single mom with a teenage daughter and who also dates a rock musician – isn’t Merrily a cool character 🙂 That description alone makes me want to explore this series. I also loved your description of the book as Trollope + Gilmore Girls 🙂 So nice to know that you liked it so much. The gothic atmospheric feel looks really appealing. I occasionally like reading about church politics – I loved that aspect of Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’. It is also nice that though the book is long it leaves you yearning for me. This is a series that I would like to keep an eye on.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I think she’s a very cool character and I knew a vica who was a bit like her. A man though but really similar. He just wasn’t an exorcist but organized events in which healers would lay on hands. It still exists and there’s even an afternoon for animals. 🙂
      I can’t wait to read the first book in the series and see how th relationship with her daughter evolved. And the atmopshere is terrific.
      I’ll let you know how I like the first book.

  6. What an intriguing collection of themes and events. I do like the sound of this series. For me at the moment, crime stands or falls on the prose. If it’s good, then I’m interested, but if it’s got that slightly used, cliched feel to it, I seem not to be able to keep going. I’ve just discovered the new series by Eva Dolan and her writing is so fantastic that it’s made me look at some other new authors askew. But I’ll certainly check this series out.

    • I thought that the writing in this series made it stand out as well. I’d be so interested how you, as a native speaker, like it. I found it so refreshing. All of it. It’s obvious that as a deliverance counsellor, Merrily gets to see the darker side of people.
      I have to check out Eva Dolan if she comes with such high praise.

  7. I have already ordered the first one based on a comment you made and now that I have read your post am looking forward to getting it in the mail! I wonder if the earlier books are a bit shorter–I don’t recall it being this long, but then maybe I didn’t look that closely. I’m reading a James Runcie book right now and it has an amateur sleuth vicar, but it is decidedly cozy–it will be fun to compare and contrast the two!

    • I read the first chapter of the first in the series and – again – great atmosphere. I love the idea of an excorcist and she’s such modern woman nonetheless.
      The first is even a tad longer. 600 pages but to be honest, I read it pretty quickly. It just had one or two chapters based a bit too much on chuch politics. She laos chnged POV a few times which made it very entertaining.
      I really hope you like it.

  8. I’ve long wondered about this series, so it’s good to see a review of it. It’s always sounded rather fun, but seven fat volumes (or more) is a fair old commitment. Still, sometimes one needs something a bit lighter in terms of subject if not length.

    Oddly enough about 20 years back I read an internal CofE report on exorcism and the supernatural in the UK, which was fascinating. It included detailed analysis of reported hauntings, possessions of people and places, and various other phenomena most of which I now forget. There was a discussion as to whether ghosts appeared to be place memories or actual spirits of the dead (the evidence on their view was with place memories with only one case indicating a possible actual spirit, and that was doubtful) and generally it showed an admirable matter-of-factness. I suspect it was internal only because of the risk of how the press would treat it more than because it was inherently sensational.

    I’m not myself religious, but one does have to be a little careful discarding without any analysis the experiences of others, so while I doubt anything in the report was true as I would see true (ie not purely psychological), not having investigated it with the evident care they had it would be arrogant of me to dismiss it out of hand.

    Not that that’s relevant to the books, which sound rather fun. I suspect I’d quite like the Church politics bits, but then that’s very domestic UK and I can see it probably wouldn’t travel well.

    • Max, I didn’t mention that but I’ve rarely read a series that was more British. You’d know immediately what I mean. I loved that about it. This couldn’t have been written by an American (or anyone else) who just happens to love the UK. This is an insider writing.
      Your comment is extremely interesting and it’s precisely what is explored in the series. I like it a great deal that the exorcist herslef, hasn’t made up her mind whether she really believes in ghosts or whether she just want’s to help people in some sort of spiritual distress. My feelings about it are similar to yours although I think I’ve experienced a few things I would be tempted to call “ghosts”. In any case what took place couldn’t be explained any other way by those present.
      I also liked that this series is rooted in the tradition of vicars in British crime literature. Or monks. I seem to remember you quite like Ellis Peters.
      But it is a commitment. I’m going to read the first in the series and then decide if I’ll read more. I think it’s possible.
      I’m glad that you answered a few of my questions in your comment. As a Catholic – I left the church as a teenager but was raised Catholic – I thought there were no exorcists in the Church of England. I was wrong.

      • I’m of Catholic background myself and thought the same. I think it’s understandable, and indeed wise, that the CofE keeps quiet about it. Generally I think they take the same view the Catholic Church does, that if someone reports possession or similar the first port of call is a psychiatrist.

        Ellis Peters is pretty good, I’ve only read one so I’m perhaps extrapolating too much there, but it was well done.

        It does sound very British (very English in fact). I like that in the same way I’d like another book for being very Italian. I think it’s interesting to see books that are so much of the place that gave birth to them.

        • Very English, indeed. While quite different overall I felt that it was as English a series as Rankin’s was Scottish.
          I suppose that nowadays they always include a psychiatrist. Another plot line in this novel. In the end the psychiatrits fails where Merrily doesn’t just because he tries to reason too early. I found it quite interesting.

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