Friends of the Dusk by Phil Rickman (Merrily Watkins Mysteries #13)

When autumn storms blast Hereford, centuries-old human bones are found amongst the roots of a tree blown down on the city's Castle Green. But why have they been stolen?

At the nearby Cathedral, another storm is building around a new, modernising bishop who believes that if the Church is to survive it must phase out irrelevant archaic practices. Not good news for Merrily Watkins, consultant on the paranormal or, as it used to be known, diocesan exorcist. Especially as she's now presented with the job at its most medieval.

In the moody countryside on the edge of Wales, a rambling 12th-century house is thought to be haunted. Although its new owners don't believe in ghosts, they do believe in spiritual darkness and the need for exorcism. But their approach to Merrily is oblique and guarded. No-one can be told - least of all, the new bishop.

Merrily's discovery of the house's links with the medieval legend of a man who resisted mortality threatens to expose the hidden history of a more modern cult and its trail of insidious abuse. A trail that may not be closed.

This is the 13th Merrily Watkins Mystery that Rickman has written, which focuses on a vicar, Merrily Watkins, who lives in a small town near the Welsh border. But she isn’t just a vicar, she’s also an exorcist. In Friends of the Dusk, a storm blows over an ancient tree, exposing an old burial. However, as soon as it is unearthed, the skull vanishes. Elsewhere, Merrily is called to help out at an old house deep in the countryside, located next to the remains of an abandoned village, where some strange power is affecting those living there. Alongside this, she also has to deal with a new bishop marking his territory by trying to force her out of the exorcism work and into something where she’d cause a lot less fuss.

As with the previous Merrily Watkins book I reviewed, The Magus of Hay, you don’t have to have read any of the previous novels, but as there is quite a significant focus on Merrily and her life I think readers would get more out of these books if they are read as a series so the relationships between the characters and references to previous events have more weight to them. You don’t need to have read the others to enjoy the crime and horror parts by any means, and set around Halloween this is the perfect time of year to curl up and delve into a creepy ghost story, but I think it’s useful to keep in mind that Merrily’s family and her own problems with a new bishop will take up as much of your time.

It’s fun to read and Rickman’s skill for me mainly lies in his ability to create an incredibly tense atmosphere, whether that’s in a house that seems to have a mind of its own, or out amongst the ruins of a castle where something strange is creeping out of the woods. I think this came through a lot stronger in another recent novel of his, Night After Night, which isn’t part of the Merrily Watkins series, so if that’s more your thing I’d go for his other work.

For me, this is a difficult book to review in that unfortunately I actually don’t find Merrily herself that interesting. I can see why Rickman created a calm, solid main character to contrast with the bizarre work that she ends up doing, but for me it is the supporting characters, such as damaged but decent Detective Inspector Bliss, former spook Athena and Byronic, shady Rajab Ali Khan who I am far more interested in. As well as being a crime novel and supernatural horror there’s also a lot of humour and sneakily clever storytelling taking place. A sub-plot involving Merrily’s daughter, Jane, who has reached an unexpected crossroads in her life, was for example very deftly handled.

Essentially, if you’ve watched Midsomer Murders and wished that there was a lot more ghosts and gore, give this a go.

7/10 Midsomer Murders with ghosts and gore

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