Map of Blue Book Balloon

2 January 2017

Review: All of a Winter's Night

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All of a Winter's Night (Merrily Watkins #15)
Phil Rickman
Corvus, 5 January 2017
HB, 487pp

Even if I wasn't married to a Church of England vicar and living in a country village, I'd still be obsessively keen on these adventures of Merrily Watkins, diocesan deliverance advisor and keeper of secrets. As I am, I love sifting over the ecclesiastical politics and spotting what's plausible and what's less so (it's fiction - of course it embroiders in places!)

I also love the writing, of course, and in this latest instalment, Rickman is on cracking form, with Gomer Parry back (fans will rejoice) and a juicy mystery that occupies not only Merrily, Jane and Lol but also Frannie Bliss and Annie Howe. The fun, as ever, is seeing how the apparently separate events unfold and join up - and how close Merrily comes to ruin and disaster in the process.

I felt that the balance between the two aspects was better here than in Friends of the Dusk, with Merrily playing more of a part and dealing with some real spiritual issues, although these were less of the classically horrifying Exorcist style and more knotty pastoral problems with a potential spiritual - supernatural - dimension. Indeed, her biggest problem here is arguable the presence of an interfering rationalist priest with his own agenda. The interplay between Merrily's concerns, Lol's career worries and Jane's personal life is as ever very well done - Rickman creates characters you'd just love to pop down the the pub for a drink with, at the same time as portraying an utterly modern England beset by employment, housing and development concerns.

The atmosphere is also well done, making use of all those nighttime, befogged  trips between Ledwardine, Hereford and various remote rural churches. Rickman has a knack, fully exploited here, of writing place as character, picking up on all those subtle cues that make somewhere seem right... or not...

And speaking of remote churches, it's when one of those crops up that the story becomes positively numinous. Rickman's ability for conjuring meaning and story from the carvings or ambience of the silent building is second to none. (And, yes, I used the word "conjure" deliberately...) This author knows how to tread the fine line between reality and fantasy. We are never told for sure exactly how far the supernatural is real here, only the different perceptions of Merrily, Lol and Jane - and their rationalisations. Yet their reactions are enough to distinguish these books from mundane crime fiction, or event, say, from something like Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries where we're tantalised by a suggestion of the supernatural which is always then explained away.

Rickman is also I think unusual in understanding and in sympathising with Christian, Pagan and (as we see here) other spiritual outlooks, appreciating where they may reinforce and where they may contradict. His writing is a long way from setting up simplistic oppositions - except, perhaps, where it comes to Annie Howe whose disdain for "superstition" is intact as ever. But, as we know (but Merrily doesn't!) Annie has her own contradictions and secrets.

So - excellent, taut, intelligent detective fiction with just a bit of a twist, nice midwinter spookiness and time spent with some characters I've come to know and love. A good start to 2017!

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