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

Louise Doughty: Apple Tree Yard (2013)

Apple Tree Yard

I wanted to read Apple Tree Yard as soon as it was out last year because I’d enjoyed Louise Doughty’s earlier novel Whatever You Love so much. I didn’t really know what to expect, didn’t read any reviews, and so I was glad to find out that not only is the book very different from her earlier novel, but just as good, maybe even better.

Apple Tree Yard tells the story of an affair that goes terribly wrong. Yvonne Carmichael is in her fifties, married with two grown-up kids. She’s a scientist and very successful in her work. Her marriage could be better but yshe and her husband do get along fine. What it is that makes her follow a man and start an affair with him? Boredom? Love—or rather lust— at first sight? Maybe a bit of both.

The book opens with a prologue that gives away a lot. We know Yvonne Carmichael and her lover have been arrested and are being tried and we also know that the prosecution has found out something that could be fatal for Yvonne. I think it’s quite impressive that Louise Doughty managed to give away this much in the prologue and still was able to write a page-turner that held my interest until the last page.

What worked particularly well for me was that large parts of the story were written as if Yvonne was talking to her lover, which was intimate and eerie at the same time.

Apple Tree Yard is the third crime novel with a London setting that I’ve read this year and, once again, the setting is almost a character.

The book is a crime novel but it explores a lot of themes in a very arresting way. Unfortunately mentioning some of them would really spoil the book. One theme I can mention, which is important, is the exploration of a marriage. Yvonne and her husband still share a lot but they are clearly not in love.

Apple Tree Yard is part thriller, part court-room drama, nicely paced, intricately plotted and infused with a bitter-sweet, melancholy mood that is quite rare in crime novels. A very gripping and intense novel.


Ruth Rendell: A Judgement in Stone (1977)

Four members of the Coverdale family – George, Jacqueline, Melinda and Giles – died in the space of fifteen minutes on the 14th February, St Valentine’s Day. Eunice Parchman, the housekeeper, shot them down on a Sunday evening while they were watching opera on television. Two weeks later she was arrested for the crime. But the tragedy neither began nor ended there.

I discovered this novel  thanks to a suggestion from Danielle from A Work in Progress. I have read a few books of Ruth Rendell before and liked them and  I also read one she wrote under the pen name Barbara Vine but didn’t know which to read next. It is always good with prolific writers if someone can make a suggestion. I really liked A Judgement in Stone and can see why it is considered to be one of her best. It takes a very good writer to be able to captivate a reader even though the victims and the murderer are known from the very beginning. The psychological insights are absolutely convincing. Each character is so different from the other and they are all quite fascinating. Rendell adds a lot about the British class system and her description of two completely deranged women is amazing.

Because we know from the start that the main characters will be killed the book has an eery quality. It reminded me of a Greek tragedy. There is nothing to stop the course of the action.

Eunice Parchman, a middle-aged, illiterate and not very intelligent woman starts her employment with the Coverdales in summer. On Valentine’s Day she kills them. The changing of the seasons that Rendell describes with great detail adds to the feeling of the inevitable. The narrator is very present in this story, he misses no occasion to remind us, that the people he describes will meet a certain death. This reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

Eunice is not only illiterate she also lacks feelings for others. There is not the tiniest bit of empathy in this woman. Since she can’t read and sees this as a great flaw she abhors the written word and those who like to read. The Coverdales, a typical British upper class family, love to read. There are books all over their house. Eunice tries to cover up her disability as best she can and gets herself in a lot of impossible situations. One day, when running errands, she meets Joan Smith, a former prostitute who has joined some obscure Christian sect. One woman is as deranged as the other. Eunice is a cold-hearted selfish sociopath and the other a fanatic psychopath. Their alliance can only bring misfortunes.

Rendell’s  book is gripping, psychologically convincing and utterly fascinating. I’m really in the mood to read more of her books.

A Judgement in Stone has twice been made into a movie. One of them is by Claude Chabrol, La Cérémonie, starring Sandrine Bonnaire as Eunice and Isabelle Huppert as Joan.