Phil Rickman, 1999: Merrily Watkins #1
(Series: The Rev. Merrily Watkins, a Deliverance Consultant* for the Church of England, lays ghosts to rest while, incidentally, helping British police officer Frannie Bliss solve murders. This ghostly crime fiction / modern-day Gothic mystery series is beautifully produced in audio – which is the format I recommend, by the way. You won’t jump or scream – but you’ll shiver.)
In this series debut we don’t yet meet Frannie Bliss. We do, however, meet the despicable Annie Howe, who later works as Bliss’ commanding officer. Merrily has just arrived in Ledwardine with her daughter Jane. Jane makes some diverse new friends, and Merrily is approached by an actor and his younger boyfriend. They would like to produce a play about 17th-century poet and clergyman Thomas Traherne and the fictional Reverend Wil Young, who may have been Traherne’s lover and who inhabited the vicarage in which Merrily and Jane live now. (In fact, Traherne existed and is, himself, believed to reside in a parish near Hereford, which is where Ledwardine is located.)
The lifebloood of Ledwardine is the old apple orchard, and that blood flows in the form of cider, referred to as “Old Cider,” throughout this village steeped in folklore. Miss Lucy Devenish, owner of a shop called Ledwardine Lore, is adamant that the spirit of the apple and of the orchard must be respected. She introduces Jane to the book Folklore of Herefordshire by Ella Mary Leather.
Rickman does an excellent job building a world steeped in folklore and longstanding but disturbing local customs. For Merrily though, the folklore becomes terrifying in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. In the end, of course, murder is done. The only flaw I can see in the story is that every evil person meets a bad end in nearly the same way. This is easily forgiven though, and more of a head-scratcher than a disruption in the story.
A different narrator is used for future books in the series, which is a good thing; this narrator – or the recording itself – is set at a tone where unemphasized syllables are nearly inaudible and I had to turn the volume way up to hear. I do recommend the audio version of most volues of the series though; the narrator for the rest of the series is excellent and effectively builds a world of mystery delicious spookiness.
*Deliverance Consultants used to be called exorcists, and this is an actual role in the Church of England, last time I checked.