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Well, it has been a while but Phil Rickman has finally produced another Merrily Watkins novel: The Secrets of Pain. Regular readers may know that I'm a huge fan of Phil Rickman, especially his novels about Church of England "deliverance consultant" (or exorcist) Merrily Watkins. They feature a beguiling mixture of police procedural, ecclesiastical goings-on and supernatural or mystical content. They have been described as "The Vicar of Dibley meets Cracker",though that doesn't do justice to the numinous feel of the novels or the fascinating, vital way they evoke modern rural Britain at its most beautiful and horrific. I first checked out Rickman after reading a glowing review of The Fabric of Sin by Steve Duffy, which should tell you something about the quality of the writing in these books!

I ended up giving The Fabric... a good review myself, and after moving on to A Crown of Lights I was irretrievably hooked on the series. Though I've been a bit slack about reviewing them all here they are all of a high standard (my favourite The Remains of an Altar, has the numinous turned up to 11 and is a remarkable, haunting story.) However, I found 2009's To Dream of The Dead a bit lacking. The Watkins series is into the double figures now and I was a bit scared that the author might be falling into a cookie-cutter approach. To Dream of the Dead had an unusually heavy emphasis on the police procedural side of things, focussed on incredibly depressing subjects (global warming and Richard Dawkins-style fascist atheism) and generally lacked the magic of the earlier novels. But can The Secrets of Pain repair the damage to Rickman's reputation?

The Secrets of Pain is a big fat book like those Stephen King bloatmonsters, and what with the tendency of authors to become prolix when they get famous I was a bit worried this would be a book with too much padding that outstayed its welcome. In fact, that's not the case. Like all the Watkins books, it features a variety of subplots that combine with each other in complicated ways. The first few chapters alone feature the murder of two immigrant girls and one farmer, a confrontation between Merrily's teenage daughter Jane and horrid city-boy tourist, suspected cockfighting, a bizarre encounter with a naked man in the snow, and a fellow vicar and former SAS member who is plagued by a supernatural force that he is annoyingly coy about. Phew!

Fortunately, Rickman's pacing and plot handling is second-to-none and the reader is never confused or bored. And as the novel progresses and the jigsaw starts fitting together, a wealth of interesting themes emerge. The Secrets of Pain casts a cynical eye on the New Herefordshire - their livelihood ruined by economic forces beyond their control, many farmers have recently been forced to tart up their land for a particularly vile new breed of tourist, the wealthy Londoner. Yes, having comprehensively rogered the Cotswolds housing market, these tourists are increasingly turning to the England-Wales border for their next "unspoilt" playground. This generally involves large amounts of shooting and manly "team bonding" weekends. If you hate stockbrockers, this is the book for you, though characteristically Rickman's main City character is depicted with some compassion - he tends to reserve the real vitriol for institutions rather than individual people and never makes straw men.

Having said that, he does make an exception for wealthy members of the Countryside Alliance, appearing here in thin disguise as "Countryside Defiance". Rickman identifies them as a PR stunt fabricated by the rich for the rich and which cares nothing for the interests of the average farmer, many of whom are penniless subsistence types who couldn't afford to fox-hunt if they wanted to. (It's even in the name - no country-dwellers call their home the "countryside", that's an impossibly twee term for the exclusive use of tourists and city folk!) I have not-very-happy memories of my local branch of the Countryside Alliance forcing farm labourers and tenants to attend rallies in support of their landlords' thuggish hobbies by threatening them with sacking and eviction, and I reckon Rickman's portrayal is absolutely spot-on!

Even more fascinating was the material about the history and present state of the SAS. The SAS has been an intermittent presence in loads of Rickman's novels, since they are based in Hereford and often retire in the border area, and I've been waiting for him to give the subject the full-on treatment for some time! The result is an engrossing overview of the elite fighting force, and since this is a RIckman novel there is also an intriguing psychogeographical component (did you know the new SAS base is built on land dedicated to Mars, Roman god of war? Or that the Bank of England is sitting on England's only surviving temple to Mithras, Roman god of frankly colossal violence? This isn't just clever historical join-the-dots though: these themes are used as a springboard for examining the role of violent masculinity in the current day, and how it contrasts with the more "feminine" role of the Church. This is all good thought-provoking stuff, though it does give rise to a certain amount of gender stereotyping and even some oddly-placed pagan Godessy stuff, which was a bit unnecessary really (Jesus was a man, after all!)

Of course Rickman is not a perfect writer, and he does do his usual slightly irritating thing of confusing you at a climax by suddenly leaping forward some days ahead, then dealing with the events retrospectively. It's totally unnecessary as he's more than capable of writing a decent straightforward climax! But altogether The Secrets of Pain is classic Merrily Watkins, a great return to form that practically reads itself - I couldn't believe how quickly I got through it despite its size! It can also be enjoyed as a stand-alone novel and would make a good introduction to the series for first-time readers. So what are you waiting for?


Darkling Tales

March 2013

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