Ooh, interesting! This was a Kindle daily deal which tempted me with the alluring of combination of paganism, murder and quirky bookshops, set just over the Welsh border. It’s part of a series – Merrily Watkins – chronicling the (mis)adventures of a parish exorcist, none of which I’ve read before so I plunged right into the latest installment. It reads well enough alone so you can follow the action, although the ongoing stories of the recurring characters remained slightly shrouded in mystery. But I enjoyed it nonetheless, and I’ve just downloaded the first two books in the series so I can get to grips with the beginning.
It’s certainly a different premise for a crime series. Merrily is the exorcist, called in to help (officially and unoffically) when bizarre occurances threaten the sanctity of Hay-on-Wye, famous for its bookselling trade. In this story, the death of a mysterious old man who lived a semi-isolated life up in the hills opens up a can of worms when his identity as a chaos magician is uncovered. Earlier in his life he had written extensively on how magic was central to the Nazi ideology, and this earned him unsavoury followers whom he spent years trying to avoid. But did someone uncover his past, and is his death a form of magical intent? When a young police officer investigating the case goes missing, events take an even darker turn.
I’ve not been to Hay-on-Wye for over twenty years, but I could really picture the town, and get a good feel of its inhabitants. The newcomers Betty and Robin with their creepy bookshop, which just might be the scene of a decades-old murder, are very sympathetic. And I loved Jeeter. Now I want to know if the actual shops are really there! The atmosphere is also built up very convincingly, as this seemingly picturesque town is revealed to harbour a sinister undercurrent of violence and hatred. Oddly, I didn’t want to leave, so engrossed I become with this odd community.
What did startle me was that according to the author, the story is not as far-fetched as it might appear – “For reasons of credibility, the eccentricity of Hay has been underplayed” he states in the credits. Several of the characters mentioned are actually real people, and the history that forms an integral part of the setting is true, as is the landscape. There are lots of famous people whose names are casually dropped, from Beryl Bainbridge to Aleister Crowley. But worryingly the satanic neo-Nazi groups on the Welsh border are also rather too real. It’s certainly challenged my romantic view of Wales…. But as a “slack pagan” myself I found it intriguing; the interplay of Christianity, neo-Paganism and and fascism could have been sensational, hysterical and misinformed, but Rickman handles it sensitively. I half-expected to be offended by the way in which Christianity or Paganism were depicted, but gratifyingly I wasn’t.
I can’t wait to read other books in this series. They’re refreshing, melding esoteric, mythical beliefs with the cold hard reality of a crime investigation, and producing something quite unique.
Atlantic Books, ISBN 9780857898685 (paperback, due June 2014)