The Magus of Hay by Phil Rickman

Rating 7.5/10
A murder mystery in the not-so-quaint Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye.

A man's body is found below a waterfall. It looks like suicide or an accidental drowning - until DI Frannie Bliss enters the dead man's home. What he finds there has him consulting Merrily Watkins, the Diocese of Hereford's official advisor on the paranormal.

It's nearly forty years since the town of Hay-on-Wye was declared an independent state by its self-styled king. A development seen at the time as a joke. But the pastiche had a serious side. And behind it, unknown to most of the townsfolk, lay a darker design, a hidden history of murder and ritual magic, the relics of which are only now becoming visible.

It's a situation that will take Merrily Watkins - on her own for the first time in years and facing public humiliation over a separate case - to the edge of madness.

The latest in the Merrily Watkins series, The Magus of Hay, is a murder mystery in the not-so-quaint Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye. Declared an independent state decades earlier, Hay was a thriving centre of counter-culture and literature, but now the bookshops are closing and the death of an old man, found drowned at the bottom of a waterfall, plunges the town into a murder hunt.

DI Frannie Bliss is a stereotypical semi-ruined detective – in this case recovering from brain stem injuries after being brutally beaten up in the previous book – but is determined to stay on the job. After investigating the dead man’s house he calls in Merrily Watkins, who is a vicar and an expert on the paranormal. It gradually emerges that there is a darker side to Hay and the Magus’ death is just the first.

I haven’t read any of the previous 11 in the series but The Magus of Hay stands well by itself for the most part. There are references to previous books – the couple Robin and Betty who have just bought a book shop in Hay have their story told in A Crown of Lights, and it makes more sense for so much focus to be on Merrily if you read more in the series, but this doesn’t detract too much from the story. However, I do think the description of the book paints a far more in-depth vision of magic and ritual than what actually emerges. I thought this was a solid murder detective story but the supernatural and pagan side of things in the books actually turn out to be strangely irrelevant.

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