Sunday, 3 March 2013

The Secrets of Pain - Phil Rickman

‘The Secrets of Pain’ is part of Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins series, books that tell the story of a single mother who retrains to become a vicar in village close to the border with Wales. As well as having to break into a tight knit rural community and dealing with the prejudices and opinions about women priests, she is also then appointed as diocese Deliverance Consultant (that's Exorcist to you and me!).

The books are paranormal thrillers telling the stories of Merrily’s encounters with the paranormal and the evil that can be found woven into the fabric of daily living.  The books also tend to draw on the ancient past and traditions of the area and ‘The Secrets of Pain’ is no exception.

The book starts as the village of Ledwardine is preparing for Easter.  The spring is slow coming that year and the weather is bitter.  Murders are committed that at first seem to have no connection to each other.  A prosperous local farmer is found savagely slaughtered and covered in blood in his own field, while two young migrant workers are found dead in the city.  DI Frannie Bliss has to work his way through a tangled web of crime and local rivalries to find the connection, only to discover that his own private life has been compromised and it has become personal.

Merrily is drawn into this web through an old acquaintance that seems to be hiding a dark secret that he cannot talk about but is obviously weighing him down.  He is the chaplain at the nearby SAS base and is found dead a few days later on a steep path on the hillside. Did he die of natural causes or was this suicide?  If so, what terrible knowledge drove him to his death?  Merrily discovers that some of his SAS colleagues may have embraced an old cult from Roman times that celebrated being a warrior and perhaps were even performing the ancient rites.

Merrily’s daughter Jane became involved when she got mixed up with a sleazy banker from the city who was staying at the new resort that catered for townies who wanted to become part of the hunting, shooting and fishing crowd.  But her discovery of a dead cock that he had dumped in a rubbish bin triggers suspicions that somebody in the district has revived the cruel sport of cock fighting.  As she tries to find out where this is taking place and who is behind it, will she find that her new acquaintance is actually involved in something much darker and much older?

The story takes us into the ancient Roman past of the area and the more recent history of the SAS. One of the major themes of the book is blood sacrifice as Merrily prepares for a Good Friday meditation based on the writings of Julian of Norwich about the crucifixion.  But had some of these hard bitten SAS men taken up rituals involving a very different form of blood sacrifice? Had the beliefs of the ancient Mithras cult permeated the closed, secretive ranks of the SAS? 

As Easter grows closer can Merrily unravel the tangled trail behind the deaths that have taken place before someone else gets killed? Or will someone close to her pay a heavy price for their investigations and  interference?

'The Secrets of Pain' is a long book that is heavy on detail and description, which at times feels a bit ponderous and sometimes as I was reading I wished that he would just get on with the story. The book is, however, beautifully written with a lot of interesting historical detail. However, I found that the tension didn't build was well as it could because of the length and detail and I would have preferred a little more action as they say.

The book does work as a standalone read, but if you haven’t read any of the earlier Merrily Watkins books then you might enjoy it more if you start reading from the beginning of the series, as you will get to know the characters and the background.  And surely by now Jane should know not to get into cars with strange men that she doesn't trust?

You will need quite a few lunches to get through this one, so stock up the fridge or book a seat in your local sandwich bar and ask them to keep your coffee mug topped up.

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