Merrily Watkins is a single mother, former Goth teen, smoker-turned-vaper.
She is also an exorcist.
Those statements, though a little dramatic and exaggerated, are true facts in Phil Rickman’s1 Merrily Watkins series, about a priest in the Church of England who is also the Diocesan Deliverance Consultant (the C of E’s euphemistic title), working with parishioners who are experiencing unwanted guests of the non-physical variety.
The series, which cleverly conflates murder and the supernatural, has fourteen full novels (and, I believe, a novella or two). The fifteenth has been in the works for some time; I continue to stalk Audible and the author’s page to get more information, but right now it appears we won’t be gaining access here in the U.S. until November 2021. It was originally slated for March 2020. Imagine my disappointment.
VOICE, RECURRING CHARACTERS AND PLOT
Merrily Watkins is depicted as a rogue in two respects: she is a female priest, and she is an exorcist. As the story moves forward and female priests are much more the norm than they were at when Book 1 was written, the focus gradually shifts from her gender to her role.
Merrily’s young adult daughter Jane, close Watkins family friend Lol Robinson, and police officer Frannie Bliss all share a direct point of view in the series; other characters (notably, Diocesan secretary Sophie,2) are filtered through the voices of the main speakers. References are made to Merrily’s deceased philandering husband, but interestingly, I cannot remember any substantial reference to Merrily’s family of origin outside of one early mention of her mother and an uncle who holds a non-clerical role in the Church of England.
As is the case in most long-running series, some stories continue from book to book; these arcs address relationships between ongoing characters, as well as Merrily’s professional status within the Church of England. Each book in the series is, at its very foundation, a formula combining murder and haunting, but the characters and plots are so fully developed. Players behave in sophisticated, sometimes unexpected ways – no cookie-cutters here.
The supernatural aspect of each story is subtle. Is that tree branch tapping on the window in warning? The whisper, the change in the light – is it a breeze? Is it a shadow crossing the moon? With a couple of startling exceptions, if these books were movies you wouldn’t jump out of your seat but you might feel a delicious chill at the back of your neck. Some of the ghostly stuff is based on local myth and ancient folklore such as The Green Man. If that’s your cup of tea, this is the series for you.
The murders are much more shocking than the ghosts, but as gruesome as they are, their goriness is described discreetly, in proper British fashion.
DOES THE DELIVERANCE MINISTRY REALLY EXIST IN THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND?
It does. Read this fascinating article, which seems at my first glance to support a lot of the language one hears in the series. Click HERE.
HOW TO EXPERIENCE THE SERIES
I have struggled to find this series, whether audio or print, in any library I can access. My personal recommendation is to purchase the audio books on Audible or your audio provider of choice. Narrator Emma Powell tells us each story quietly, almost reflectively, and each book is worth listening to more than once. I often listen to a random selection from the series when I don’t know what else to try, so I’m glad I purchased each book in the series in audio form. Start with The Wine of Angels, which is the first book in the series.
You can watch a three-part TV production of Midwinter of the Spirit, on Amazon Video. It also appears to be available on YouTube and Acorn TV (at least as of 2016). Predictably, I like the audio better. Merrily Watkins’ story needs to be heard in a whisper rather than a shout, and television is not known for its whispers.
My suggestion: however you experience Merrily’s world, be sure to light the fireplace or a candle, and make sure you have some good strong English tea at hand. Also you will want to close the curtains – but be sure to leave the window open to allow a friendly breeze . . . or something . . . to grace your reading room with its presence.
Stay the course, friends. Don’t be afraid of some hope and optimism today; it can’t hurt. I wish you good health.
1Phil Rickman has written many other books, some under pen names Will Kingdom or Thom Madley. He is a former BBC journalist whose first novel, Candlenight, was published in 1991. Read more HERE.
2Sophie, whose role is described as Bishop’s secretary but who considers herself serving the Cathedral rather than any one person, is a woman of extensive knowledge and insight. I just realized while writing this review that the name Sophia is Greek for Wisdom.