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Saturday 25 June 2022

‘The Fever of the World’ by Phil Rickman

Published by Corvus,
16 June 2022.
ISBN: 978-1-78649-459-7 (HB)

In case you haven’t yet encountered Merrily Watkins, here’s a brief recap. Merrily is the vicar of a Herefordshire village, and she also happens to be the diocesan exorcist, or deliverance consultant as the church now prefers to call them. If it calls them anything at all, which is one of the themes the latest in this unusual series explores. She deals not so much with manifestations of evil as with what the author describes as weirdnesses, which are apparently rife in that part of the world. She also gets involved in the odd murder, which is why the books belong on the crime fiction shelves. Local DI Francis Bliss, an incomer who hails originally from Liverpool, has learned the hard way that if something looks a bit odd, Merrily is the best person to consult; she in turn is only too glad to hand over to the police any oddness which involves crime.

The Fever of the World is the sixteenth in the series, and it’s been a long time coming – five years, in fact, since Merrily’s last appearance. But good things are worth waiting for, and for me, Phil Rickman’s blend of rural wrongdoing, comment on the way the world is, and plain old-fashioned weirdness is always worth a wait.

At the heart of Merrily’s latest outing lies the death of a popular estate agent with a penchant for rock climbing. He falls from a rock he knows well, and lands in a way that raises questions – did he jump or was he pushed? Merrily’s connection is the funeral; that’s one of the things vicars do, after all. The weird element concerns Wordsworth and his special relationship with the Wye Valley, and revolves around a standing stone, an atmospheric cave, a graveyard and a woman who has an unnerving effect on men. 

There’s a rich and thought-provoking confusion of clues and pointers, with Rickman’s usual cast of interesting and scratch-me-and-I-bleed characters much in evidence: Merrily’s eccentric mentor Huw Owen, her musician lover Lol Robinson, her sort-of pagan daughter Jane, Gomer Parry her protective neighbour, her friends and opponents in the church, including a bishop for whom deliverance is a non-event. On the police side are down-to-earth DI Bliss and a bewildered DC ‘Darth’ Vaynor, whose life is falling to pieces. A neighbouring vicar who used to be a TV actor, a documentary producer with an agenda, an estate agent who fulfils the less complimentary clichés and his glamorous young wife are also involved.  

Set it all against a global pandemic at its height, and in a landscape whose electric ambience comes across in bucketloads, and the result is a novel that will keep you up till the small hours for both its page-turning qualities and the uneasy feelings it provokes. Phil Rickman’s novels may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but once you get to know Merrily Watkins and the people around her, they may well become yours. They’re certainly mine.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Phil Rickman was born in Lancashire. He has spent most of his adult life in Wales and the Border country, where he won a couple of awards for his work as a BBC radio and TV news reporter. His first novel, Candlenight (1991) was discovered by the novelist and fiction-editor Alice Thomas Ellis. He followed it with four other stand-alone ghost stories before the Merrily Watkins series began with The Wine of Angels. Phil lives near Hay-on-Wye with his wife, Carol – they met as  journalists on the same paper .. He writes and presents the book programme Phil The Shelf on BBC Radio Wales.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction. 

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