Blast you, Phil Rickman. Why are you so good?

I used to call them “layers”.
They were the layers I tried to describe to my friends from Australia and Canada as I showed them around my old stamping grounds – the various layers that I saw superimposed on the picture postcard English villages and their surroundings.
I wanted my friends to look beyond the quaint “Olde Englishe” theme parks that some of the villages were turning into and to see them in a more real and interesting way.
One layer was the almost invisible aristocracy still sequestered here and there in their private bulwarks against the modern world. Another was the landed gentry and their families going back generations who formed a more visible upper crust in the communities. A few agricultural workers remained alongside the artisans and trades people who supported the rural industries. There were retirees fulfilling a dream or needing to downsize and stretch their nest-eggs. Another layer had cashed-up people from the cities seeking a country idyll or setting up their weekend retreats, plus a shifting population of city folk occupying the growing number of holiday lets.
Then there were the service-providers, the camp-followers attracted to the growth of newcomers as they tried to recreate bits of the lifestyle they previously enjoyed in their city suburbs. As the former High Street butcher, grocer, ironmonger and green-grocer were replaced by the new supermarket on the edge of town, their vacated premises were being refurbished and occupied by coffee shops, bistros, bijou craft shops and fashion boutiques. Ironically, such “improvements” risked spoiling the very things that drew them there in the first place.
Infrastructure was stretched to the limit by the relentless surge of tourists and newcomers while local authorities were torn between development and heritage, and between the conflicting needs and demands of the various layers in the community.
“But it’s more than that,” I told my friends. “There’s something else underlying it all, something less tangible.” I was talking about the whole ambience and character of the place; the ‘feel’.
At a casual glance, you got an impression of a genteel, polite Anglicanism or, here and there, a similarly unassuming Catholicism. Or at least a sort of vaguely Christian, nonchalant agnosticism.
But, I suggested, come the Equinox, Solstice and other significant dates, there’d be ceremonies and festivals that had their origins deep in the past, even if their present-day manifestations were now very much sanitised, and family- and tourist-friendly.
And if you dug deeper, I’d tell them, I bet you’d find a few private rituals; some would be new-age hippies in their endless quest for enlightenment and some might be middle-class thrill-seekers hoping to spice up their sex lives. And, I reckoned, here and there would be some who took it very seriously indeed and truly believed that they had secret, arcane knowledge and could command hidden powers. They would behave accordingly in their public lives.
“Just imagine the stories you could create, playing off the tensions and interactions between the layers,” I said.
“Well, why don’t you write a novel about it?” was a frequent response.
I told them I was thinking about it.
The setting was easy. Although I’ve lived in Australia for many years, I grew up on the very edge of the Birmingham conurbation with one foot in Warwickshire. The countryside through Evesham, Stratford and the Cotswolds was my playground. I’ve been fortunate to have been able to return and stay there many times, often with other overseas friends for whom I was privileged to act as unofficial tour guide.
The narrative was not a problem either; stories almost told themselves.
But the main protagonist was a challenge.
The stories were going to be mystery thrillers, but were they going to be police procedurals or amateur detective whodunits? Was the central character going to be a brilliant but eccentric police figure in the Barnaby and Morse/Endeavour mould, or a talented civilian somewhere in the Thea Osborne, Father Brown and Agatha Raisin tradition?
Was mine going to a policeman/detective – a bit of a rebel against authority with a past of playing in a rock and roll band? Or was he going to be a reclusive ex-rock star who gets drawn into investigating local mysteries? Either way, music was going to play a role both in providing narrative plot points as well as reflecting various themes.
I’d just about decided on the former and began sketching out some of the introductory scenes.
And then I stumbled across the Merrily Watkins mysteries.
Blast you, Phil Rickman*. Why are you so good?
I ploughed through the first 12 novels in the series in the space of a few months.
He had nailed it – the lot – and with two additional touches of brilliance.
First, the location and setting: what a stroke of genius to set it in the Border country where the various ‘layers’ and transformations that I had observed in the Cotswolds were in their early stages, where the tensions were newer and more recent, and emerging conflicts were rawer and unresolved.
And rather than just the layers, the focus was on the ‘borders’ between the layers, encapsulating in extended imagery both the layers themselves and the tensions between them.
The geographical setting of the border country between England and Wales becomes a metaphor for many of the borders that I described and others that Rickman perceived: past/present, rural/urban, environment/development, Christian/pagan, spiritual/mundane, sacred/profane, good/evil, this world and the next. The borders between them are very thin in Rickman’s Border country.
And his second stroke of genius is his main protagonist.
Leaves mine for dead, figuratively speaking.
Merrily is an astonishing creation, brilliantly reflecting various themes in the novels as well as exploring contemporary issues in society: the role of women, the diminishing influence of religion and the church, the quest for and nature of spirituality, the balance of life and work, the pressures of society and expectations, the parent/child relationship, the search for love and meaning in the modern world, the experience and value of belief, and the grey areas between certainty and doubt.
And then there is his use of the scenery and the environment almost like additional characters (OK that’s three strokes of genius). The whole border region comes alive with meaning as the stories move through it; sometimes of comfort, sometimes menace, but always strengthening the emotional impact. Add to that his subtle use of the weather and changing seasons; they not only provide plot points but also act as a backdrop that reflects the shifting moods of the narrative, reinforcing elements of the storylines. It’s a 21st century take on the Romantic poets’ “pathetic fallacy”.
And the thing that gets me every time is the “not-quite-knowing” at the end of each novel.
Yes, a crime has been solved, a culprit has met with some kind of civic or karmic justice, an underlying mystery is explained, various characters have learned from their experiences and grown a bit more, relationships have progressed and continuing sub-plots advanced.
And yet…
And yet, you are left wondering whether the heart of the mystery has really been resolved, and sometimes whether it was even real in the first place. You are not quite sure whether it was Merrily’s spiritual or physical intervention that uncovered the heart of the matter. Did her Deliverance practices reveal the truth of a past or recent tragedy and lay unquiet spirits to rest? Or was it her intuition, perception, courage and dogged persistence that helped her untangle a vexed situation?
I think that is one of the great things that helps make Merrily believable and memorable. Her self-doubt and mistrust of her own abilities helps us empathise and relate strongly to her character. In spite of her ongoing struggle with belief in the reality of what she is doing, she still continues to pursue a course of action to the bitter end, earning her our respect and admiration.
It keeps coming back to Merrily. She’s an Everyman, the protagonist in a Hero’s Quest, a seemingly ordinary person caught up in extraordinary events that reveal inner strengths and abilities in spite of fears and self-doubt. And the author has captured her many facets flawlessly.
Blast you, Phil Rickman. Why are you so good?
*Note: Phil Rickman is the author of numerous novels, including the Merrily Watkins mysteries published in the UK by CORVUS/ATLANTIC. He lives near Ross-on-Wye in the Border country where the series is set.

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