Phil Rickman, November 2013, 464 pages,Corvus, ISBN: 0857898655
Reviewed by Rich Westwood.
(Read more of Rich's reviews for Euro Crime here.)
THE MAGUS OF HAY is the twelfth book in the Merrily Watkins series that began in 1998. For the uninitiated, Merrily is a single mum with a rebellious daughter, the vicar of the fictional Herefordshire town of Ledwardine. At this point, I usually end up pointing out that these aren't Vicar-of-Dibley-esque cosy mysteries, but rich and sensitive stories with a deep-rooted sense of place.
There are also supernatural overtones, largely stemming from Merrily's role as Deliverance Office for the Diocese (exorcist, in other words), but there are always rational explanations for the crimes, if not the spooky goings-on.
THE MAGUS OF HAY reintroduces Robin and Betty Thorogood, a pagan couple who first appeared in 2001's A CROWN OF LIGHTS. They didn't have much luck in that book, and not much has improved in the interim. Robin is a dreamer and falls in love with the idea of starting a pagan bookshop in the bookselling town of Hay-on-Wye. A new set of troubles is about to begin for the couple as they settle in to the shop.
Meanwhile, an old man called David Hambling is found drowned under the waterfall just over the border in Herefordshire. Merrily's old friend DI Frannie Bliss goes to view the scene, and calls her in as an advisor as soon as he has discovered Hambling's idiosyncratic library.
Merrily is feeling a little lonely - temporarily abandoned by her boyfriend and her daughter - and is additionally being drawn into a potentially embarrassing situation with a bereaved headteacher who believes she is being haunted by her partner (and seems to like it). She welcomes the diversion, especially as it takes her out of her jurisdiction. Her knowledge and contacts soon reveal that Hambling was a formerly influential magical practitioner with a regrettable history of inspiring far-right activists.
DI Bliss also inadvertently inspires an ambitious young policewoman named Tamsin Winterson to conduct her own enquiries on the side. It is her disappearance which brings the two strands of the story together, as Robin soon becomes prime suspect in her murder. Unpleasant secrets get uncovered (literally in some cases) and the investigation brings Robin, Betty and Merrily into real danger.
The story is also about a unique town in danger of losing its hard-won individuality and becoming just another place. The locals are keen for Robin and Betty to rent the shop in order to prevent it becoming a nail bar. Phil Rickman talked to Crime Fiction Lover about Hay's history and declaration of independence,
THE MAGUS OF HAY is another strong entry in this series; well worth catching up with.
Rich Westwood, November 2013