The Secrets of Pain

I’ve just finished (on my Kindle, in case you’re interested) the 11th book in the Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman: The Secrets of Pain. It seems to have been a long wait for this latest one in the series to come out because Mr Rickman also writes other books as well and one must assume he was busy doing just that. But I’m afraid I was a little disappointed with this latest offering, although I see all the reviews on Amazon are excellent so perhaps I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind.

As the blurb says about Merrily Watkins:

Merrily Watkins, parish priest, single mother, exorcist, works for the Diocese of Hereford in a remote village on the border of England and Wales. Like many men and women doing an essentially medieval job in an increasingly secular society, she’s never certain how much she can permit herself to believe. It doesn’t help that she sometimes has to work with psychiatrists and the police. Or that her employer, the Church of England, is far from free of prejudice, sexism, greed and corruption. Or that Merrily’s teenage daughter is more interested in paganism than the priesthood. No wonder she smokes. No wonder she occasionally lapses into language hard to find in the Bible.

And indeed, that has been the main reason for me reading and enjoying the series. However, my criticism of The Secrets of Pain would be that there just wasn’t enough of Merrily in this book. Oh she was there, flitting about reading Julian of Norwich and managing to be out and about the hills on Maundy Thursday evening. I mean, come on! What parish priest has time to gad about the countryside on Maundy Thursday? In fact, she seems to be most laid back priest I’ve ever encountered in Holy Week but perhaps the CofE does things a little differently.

There was plenty of Lol, her boyfriend, and Jane, her daughter. And the other faves were in there too:  Gomer and Ethel the cat, Frannie Bliss et al. In fact this book seemed to be more about the love life of the police than anything remotely priestly. (Not that I object to reading about someone’s love life, you understand, but at my age frankly I’d rather read about the machinations of the church.)

The plot involves countryside politics, fox hunting, ley lines, Roman history and Mithraic rituals, cock fighting, the SAS and ex-soldiers gone bad.  It was more crime than supernatural which I missed.

Actually it was a good story and I raced through it in a couple of days, so don’t let what I’ve said above put you off. (And it did just cost me 99p for the Kindle version when it isn’t even out in paperback yet.)  I just felt that it could have done with more Merrily and less of her unbelievably stupid daughter Jane. More church next time, please, Mr Rickman.

Ecclesiastical Whodunnits

There’s been a wee discussion, which has turned into quite a long discussion, over on Facebook about the books clergy read when they are relaxing. Not just clergy, of course, although I do find it rather amusing that the murder genre is enjoyed by so many clergy…  Anyone with a vague fascination with church matters can enjoy a good ecclesiastical whodunnit. And it doesn’t have to be contemporary tales of churchy matters either, we are not averse to reading mediaeval murder either.

Penelopepiscopal over on her blog has been listing the ones she has enjoyed and recommends. So I thought I’d do the same for the UK readers.

For me, reading churchy books all began with the Susan Howatch series: Glittering Images; Glamorous Powers; etc. I was given the first one not long after I joined the church and although they are not really whodunnits, as such, they do look at the politics and power of ecclesiastical matters. I loved them so much that I couldn’t wait for the next book to come out in paperback and my shelves do hold one or two in hardback. My idea of heaven would be to have the time to re-read them all one after the other.  If I remember correctly, they begin with the Church of England at the beginning of the last century and work up to the present date with the St Benet’s Trilogy. There is no denying that Susan Howatch knows the Church. Actually I miss them and would love another, if you’re reading this Ms Howatch…

I think the first of the ecclesiastical whodunnits I read were by Kate Charles. I stumbled across her books in Waterstones one rainy afternoon and began the Clerical Mysteries with A Drink of Deadly Wine. Each book stands alone as a mystery but it is better to read them in order as the ‘detectives’ develop a relationship. Again, this is an author who knows ‘church’ and I remember reading the first one and thinking she must have visited St Michael & All Saints at some point in her life! How did she know our organist and flower arrangers so well? Of course, now that I’ve been round the ecclesiastical block a few times, as it were, you realise that there is a heavenly mould somewhere which produces such gorgeous creatures. Kate Charles went on to create the Callie Anson mysteries, the hero being a priest who happens to be a woman. Some are out of print now but you can get them secondhand on Amazon and others are available on Kindle. Highly recommended.

Andrew Greeley was my next find, but in the library only because you couldn’t buy his books over here. I voraciously read the Blackie Ryan series and enjoyed them hugely. Now I see that he is still writing ecclesiastical fiction and I may have to rediscover the joys therein. (These are of the RC variety.)

Next there was a series by Jan Karon, also American, which I think I came across in a rather evangelical bookshop in Edinburgh’s George Street. The series was called The Mitford Years and although there weren’t many murders it did tell the story of a priest in a small town and the charming people he meets. These are schmaltzy and romantic but fun. I see there is a Father Tim series so maybe that’ll go on the wishlist.

Back to murder now with the Sister Fidelma series by Peter Tremayne. I’ve not read all of these, nor in order, but there was a time when I was scouring church booksales for more in the series. The author is an expert on the ancient Celts and Irish history so it is no surprise to find that Sister Fidelma lives in the 6th century and works within the Brehon law system (when women actually had a prominent role in the church). Lots of monks and nuns and murder abound as the clever Sister travels with her friend Brother Eadulf. Great escapism and you might learn something about ecclesiastical history in the process.

There were some other medieval murder mysteries by Susanna Gregory and Pip Vaughan-Hughes, and Ellis Peters and Umberto Ecco are perhaps too obvious to mention.

I read one or two of the Theodore Braithwaite books by DM Greenwood but I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember whether they were any good or not.

Sacred Hearts was the first of the Sister Agnes stories which I enjoyed. Sister Agnes is a nun like no other, in that she had a private income, if I remember correctly, and was allowed to live outwith the mother-house and go gadding about solving crimes. (I imagine she enjoyed Lladro china as well and wore silk scarves which she could cast down with a tea light or two and create something mystical and meditative.)

In the Church Times I came across a review of a first novel by Anne Borrowdale and then read Messiahs Don’t Fly and No Perfect Priest. It was a while ago now but I do remember enjoying them. Lots of clergy angst and temptation in these.

And then I discovered Phil Rickman Merrily Watkins series in Borders book shop and for the next few years my life was full and overflowing with ecclesiastical whodunnits galore. Who could fail to enjoy reading about a heroine who is an Anglican priest, single-parent of troublesome child, smoker of Silk Cut, who becomes the Diocesan Exorcist? What’s not to love? (And they are being Kindled as I write this.) I have read a couple of his other books which are mostly mysteries at Glastonbury and didn’t enjoy them so much.

At this point someone in my little flock who shared a taste for murder at the Mass, told me of this website Clerical Detectives. Oh my word! This was heavenly ambrosia for an addict like myself. Here was me thinking I’d managed to source a pretty impressive list of clerical whodunnits and there were tons more! Enough to keep me going for the rest of my life, I reckon.

The same person introduced me to Priscilla Royal’s mediaeval mystery Wine of Violence which was good in that it combined mediaeval church and a woman abbess with lots of power. A great combination in my book.

Then I moved on to the Michelle Blake books starring another Episcopal priest, Lily Connor, this time on the other side of the pond. I really enjoyed these although I had to wait ages for them to come via Amazon in the USA and secondhand.

From there I moved on the Rev Clare books by Julia Spencer-Fleming. Its been a while since I read these and I don’t think I’ve read them all, but I seem to remember another Episcopal priest and a friendly policeman and I think they finally got it together. She did seem to take alarming risks too, but all good escapism.

I don’t remember who recommended The Liturgical Mysteries (always nice for a change from clerical or ecclesiastical): The Alto Wore Tweed by Mark Schweizer. This was really funny but rather expensive so the only one I’ve read. However, I see some of them have been Kindled so another one for the Amazon Wish List.

And I recently read Donna Fletcher Crow’s A Very Private Grave which features an ordinand in the Anglo-Catholic college of the Transfiguration in Yorkshire and a trip to Lindisfarne and Durham with some dead bodies on the way. Another winner! (And it says Book 1 of the Monastery Murders so one must presume there are more to come.)

In between I’ve read one or two of the C J Sansom Matthew Shardlake books but unfortunately because the covers all look so similar I forget which ones. This time the setting is Tudor England and these are long books. Really long. Lots of history in them too if you like that kind of thing.

So there we have it. Enough ecclesiastical books to keep you going for a long time. You need never read a non-churchy book ever again, in fact. These may seem like harmless escapist fun but in actual fact you can learn a lot about the church from these little gems. And as always, you learn a lot about people – in particular church people, and that’s never a bad thing.

I’m sure I’ve read lots more which have escaped my memory for now. Interestingly enough, I do have a copy of the Father Brown Stories but have never read it. Perhaps you’d like to add your own favourites? And if anyone wants to borrow any of the above…

Lol Robinson sings

I’ve been listening to a CD this morning entitled Songs from Lucy’s Cottage which is rather nice. The strange thing is that it is sung by a fictional character. Kind of. Readers will know I am a big fan of the Phil Rickman books featuring Merrily Watkins: single parent; Silk-Cut smoking; priest; and diocesan exorcist. Merrily’s lover is a man by the name of Lol Robinson who has developed rather nicely throughout the series of books from angst-ridden, Nick Drake fan to a man who finally has played his music in public without the help of narcotics or alcohol and has modest success.  Throughout the books we hear about songs which Lol has written or performed and here they all are.

I liked Heavy Medication Day which reflects the care which goes on in some psychiatric hospitals. Cure of Souls is haunting and stuck in my head.  The whole CD is kind of done in the style of Nick Drake (of whom I am a big fan) and is really rather nice. I shall keep listening and sure I’ll come back to it too. If you are a lover of the books, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it too. (And Gomer’s voice is just how I imagined it!)

The Wedding Party

Read in the Church Times an interview with author Sophie King and how she had done her research for one of the characters in her latest book The Wedding Party.  Now I have a penchant for fiction which features priests who happen to be women so I ordered it from Amazon tout suite.  Just finished it and it was lovely and light and perfect summer reading. And the priest who happened to be a woman was just right.

For those who also like ‘woman priest fiction’, can I recommend Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series, Anne Borrowdale‘s books, Kate Charles‘ later ones (well all of them really but for a woman priest you need the later ones), Michelle Blake’s Lily Connor series, and a few others which I can’t lay my hands on right now.