The first in the historically rich, atmospheric mystery series featuring female exorcist Reverend Merrily Watkins
The new vicar had never wanted a picture-postcard parish—or a huge and haunted vicarage. Nor had she wanted to walk into a dispute over a controversial play about a 17th-century clergyman accused of witchcraft, a story that certain long-established families would rather remained obscure. But this is Ledwardine, steeped in cider and secrets. A paradise of cobbled streets and timber-framed houses. And also—as Merrily Watkins and her teenage daughter, Jane, discover—a village where horrific murder is a tradition that spans centuries.
About the Author
Phil Rickman is the author of the Merrily Watkins Mystery series, which includes The Remains of an Altar, The Fabric of Sin, and To Dream of the Dead.
Read an Excerpt
The Wine of Angels
By Phil Rickman
Atlantic Books LtdCopyright © 1999 Phil Rickman
All rights reserved.
Merrily had A recurring dream. She'd read somewhere that it was really quite a common dream, with obvious symbolism.
By recurring ... well, she'd have it maybe once every few months, or the gaps might be even longer nowadays.
There was a period, not long before Sean died, when it came almost nightly. Or even, in that intense and suffocating period, twice or three times the same night – she'd close her eyes and the dream would be waiting there like an empty train by a deserted platform. Sometimes it was merely puzzling, sometimes it seemed to open up exciting possibilities. Occasionally, it was very frightening and she awoke shredded with dread.
What happened ... she was in a house. Not always the same house, but it was her own house, and she'd lived there quite some time without realizing. Or sometimes she'd just forgotten, she'd gone on living there, possibly for years, without registering that the house had ... a third floor.
It was clear that she'd lived quite comfortably in this house, which was often bright and pleasant, and that she must have passed the extra staircase thousands of times, either unaware of it or because there was simply no reason to go up there.
In the dream, however, she had to go up. With varying amounts of anticipation or cold dread. Because something up there had made its presence known to her.
She'd nearly always awaken before she made it to the top of the stairs. Either disappointed or trembling with relief. Just occasionally, before her eyes opened, she would glimpse a gloomy, airless landing with a row of grey doors.
In reality, if you excluded flats, she had never lived in a three-storey house.
Now, however ...
'Jesus,' Merrily said. 'We can't live in this.'
'Yes, I suppose it is big,' Uncle Ted conceded. 'Didn't think about that. Never a problem for Alf Hayden. Six kids, endless grandchildren ...'
It was big, all right. Seventeenth century, timber-framed, black and white. Seven bedrooms. Absolutely bloody huge if there was just the two of you. Very quaint, but also unexpectedly, depressingly grotty; nothing seemed to have altered since about the 1950s.
'Of course, it's church policy these days to flog off these draughty old vicarages,' Uncle Ted said. 'Replace them with nice, modern boxes. Worth a lot of money, your old black and whites. Well ... not this one, at present, not in the state it's in after thirty-odd years of Alf and Betty.'
There was quaint, Merrily thought, and there was horribly old-fashioned. Like the steel-grey four-bar electric fire blocking up the inglenook. Like a kitchen the size of a small abattoir with no real cupboards but endless open shelves and all the pipes coiled under the sink like a nest of cobras.
'Besides,' Ted said, 'we haven't got any nice, modern boxes to spare. Three applications for housing estates've been turned down in as many years. Not in keeping.' He frowned. 'Conservation's a fine idea, but not when it turns a nice, old village into an enclave of the elite.'
In his habitual cardigan and slippers, Ted Clowes, two years retired, didn't look at all like a lawyer any more. His face had gone ruddy, like a farmer's, and his body had thickened. He looked as seasoned and solid as one of the oak pillars holding up the vicarage walls.
As senior church warden, Ted had made himself responsible for getting the vicarage into some kind of shape. Negotiating with builders and plumbers and decorators. But, well into April, the work had hardly begun; it looked as though Merrily was going to have to spend the first month of her ministry in a bed-and-breakfast.
She was relieved, in a way. A place this size – it was ridiculous. And an unoccupied third floor, full of dust and echoes.
She stood on the first-floor landing, miserably looking up. 'All these staircases.'
'Yeah,' Jane said thoughtfully. 'This puts a whole new perspective on the entire scenario.'
Merrily watched warily as the kid took off up the stairs to the third storey. She'd been sulking, on and off, for three days. She'd quite enjoyed the two years in Birmingham while Merrily was at college, loved the time in Liverpool when Merrily was a curate. Big-city woman now. On the way here, she'd said that if Cheltenham was an old people's home, rural Herefordshire looked like premature burial.
'Yes.' Jane paused halfway up, looking around.
'You like this?'
'At least we've cleared all those rooms now,' Ted said. 'Alf and Betty were generous enough to leave us a quarter of a century's worth of junk. Yellowing newspapers with pictures of the first moon-landing.'
Jane had a forefinger placed pensively on her chin. 'Far more rooms than you'd need, Mum, right?'
'Mmm ... yes.'
'Even for all your Bible classes and parish meetings and visiting evangelists from Nigeria.'
'Ye ... es. Unless, of course, they're travelling with their extended families.'
'So this whole storey is, in effect, going spare.'
Her daughter was starting to operate like a slick barrister. (The barrister Merrily might have become had it not been for God's unexpected little blessing. Would she still eventually have wound up in the Church if Jane hadn't come along?)
'Don't look at me like that, Mum. All I'm saying is I could have a kind of group of rooms up here. Like a suite. Because ... because ... if you think about it, those back stairs come off a separate entrance ... a third door, right?'
Ted chuckled. He knew all about daughters.
'Right,' Merrily said. 'And?'
'So it would be kind of my own entrance. It would be ... in fact ... like my own flat.'
'Oh. I see.'
The third door with its own illuminated bell and a card under perspex: Flat One. Ms Jane Watkins. She was fifteen.
'And you'd pay the heating bills for this, er, suite, would you?'
'Oh God.' Jane glared down over the oak banister. 'Here we go. Mrs bloody Negative.'
'Or maybe you could sub-let a couple of rooms.'
Jane scowled and flounced off along the short passage. Oak floorboards creaked, a door rattled open. That empty sound.
'Could be a double-bluff,' Merrily said, her daughter pacing bare boards overhead, probably working out where to put her stereo speakers for optimum sound. 'The picture she's feeding me is that she's going to be so bored here she'll have to invite half the young farmers' club over for wild parties. All these rural Romeos popping pills on the back stairs.'
Ted laughed. 'Young farmers aren't pill-popping yet. Well ... none that I know of. Pressure job, now, though. Diminishing returns, EC on your back, quotas for this, quotas for that, a hundred forms to fill in, mad cow disease. Suicide figures are already ... Sorry. Bad memories.'
'I seem to remember saying, "If you want an informal picture of village life, why not pop along to this wassailing thing?" Not quite what I had in mind. Awfully sorry, Merrily.'
She looked through the landing window, down into a small, square rose garden, where the pink and orange of the soil seemed more exotic than the flowers. Over a hedge lay the churchyard with its cosy, sandstone graves.
Oddly, that awful, public death hadn't given her a single nightmare. In her memory it was all too surreal. As though violent death had been an optional climax to the wassailing and, as the oldest shooter in the pack, Edgar Powell had felt obliged to take it.
'You know, standing in that orchard, covered with that poor old bloke's blood, that was when I decided to go for it. I clearly remember thinking that nothing so immediate and so utterly shocking ever happened quite that close to me in Liverpool. That maybe, in some ways, this village could actually be the sharp end. I thought, am I going to wash off his blood and walk away?'
'It always affects you more in the country.' Ted came to stand beside her at the window. 'Everything that happens. Because you know everybody. Everybody. And you'll find, as minister, that you're regarded as more of a ... a key person. Births and deaths, you really have to be there. Even if nobody from the family's been to a church service since the war.'
'That's fair enough. Far as I'm concerned, belonging to the Church doesn't have to involve coming to services.'
'And you'll find that hills and meadows are far more claustrophobic than housing estates. You see somebody coming across a twelve-acre field towards you, you can't dodge into a bus shelter.'
Ted raised a dubious eyebrow. 'And everybody gossips,' he said. 'For instance, they'll all tell you Edgar Powell'd been handling that shotgun since for ever.'
'Making it suicide?'
'What it looks like, but they haven't got a motive. Money worries? No more than the average farmer. Isolation? Hardly – not living on the edge of the village. Depression? Hard to say. Perhaps he'd just had enough. Or perhaps he simply wanted to ruin the Cassidys' olde English soirée. Been a spiteful old bugger in his time.'
'You are kidding, aren't you?'
'Anyway, Garrod Powell's insisting it was an accident. Came to consult me about it. He'll be telling the coroner the old chap was simply going soft in the head. Can't blame him. Who wants a family suicide? I suggested he have a word with young Asprey, get something medical. But it could even be an open verdict.'
'What's that mean exactly, Uncle Ted?'
Merrily turned to find Jane sitting on the top stair, elbows on knees, chin cupped in her hands.
'Means they can't be entirely sure what happened, Jane,' Ted said.
'Wish I'd been there.'
Merrily rolled her eyes. Having made a point of leaving Jane at her mother's when she'd come to do her bit of undercover surveillance prior to applying – or not – for the post. The kid would've given them away in no time.
'Do you get many suicides in the village?' Jane asked.
'Not with audience-participation,' Ted said dryly.
Merrily was thinking, half-guiltily, how she'd scrubbed and scrubbed at her face that night and had to throw away the old fake Barbour.
They stayed the night at the Black Swan, sharing a room. On the third floor, as it happened, but it was different in a hotel. The Black Swan, like all the major buildings in Ledwardine – with the obvious exception of the vicarage – had been sensitively modernized; the room was ancient but luxurious.
Jane was asleep about thirty seconds after sliding into her bed. Jane could slip into untroubled sleep anywhere. She'd accepted her father's death with an equanimity that was almost worrying. A blip. Sean had lived in the fast lane and that was precisely where he died. Bang. Gone.
Sadder about the girl in the car with him. She could have been Jane in a few years' time. Or Merrily herself, ten years or so earlier.
Too many thoughts crowding in, Merrily upended the pillow behind her, leaned into it and lit the last cigarette of the day. Through the deep, oak-sunk window, the crooked, picture-book roofs of the village snuggled into a soft and woolly pale night sky.
Perfect. Too perfect, perhaps. If you actually lived here, with roses round the door, what was there left to dream of?
'How are things financially, now?' Ted had asked in the lounge bar, after dinner.
Jane had mooched off into the untypically warm April evening to check out the village. And the local totty, she'd added provocatively.
'Oh' – Merrily drank some lager – 'we get by. Sean's debts weren't as awesome as we'd been led to believe. And a few of the debtors seem less eager to collect than they were at first. I think it was meeting me. In the dog collar. It was like ... you know ... dangling a sprig of garlic in front of Dracula. I'm glad I met them. I don't feel so bad about it now I know what kind of semi-criminal creeps they are. Jesus, what am I saying, semi?'
'I won't ask. But I did think he was being a little overambitious setting up on his own. Why didn't you both come to me for some advice?'
'You know Sean. Knew. Anyway, I blame myself. If I hadn't got pregnant instead of a degree, it was going to be Super-lawyer and Lois-thing, defending the poor, serving the cause of real justice. Zap. Pow. But ... there you go. He was on his own, and with the responsibility of a kid and everything, he was floundering, and he got a little careless about the clients he took on. It's a slippery slope. I wasn't aware of the way things were going. Too busy being Mummy.'
'You blame yourself for letting him get you pregnant?' Ted raised helpless eyes to the ceiling. 'Blame yourself for anything, won't you, Merrily? Dangerous that, in a vicar.'
'Only a matter of time. Now Alf Hayden ... he never accepted the blame for anything. Act of God. Providence. His favourite words. Had us tearing our hair. But you can't get rid of a vicar, can you? Once they're in, they're in and that's that.'
'Not any more. My contract's for five years.'
'Red tape,' Ted said. 'Don't worry about it.'
'Please, Uncle Ted. Don't do anything ... anything else.'
'You're not feeling manipulated, are you?'
'Of course not. Well ... maybe. A little.'
As if having a woman priest in the family wasn't enough, her mother, from the safety of suburban Cheltenham, had been out of her mind when Merrily had gone as a curate to inner-city Liverpool, all concrete and drugs and domestic violence. Running youth clubs and refuges for prozzies and rent boys. Terrific, Jane had thought. Cathartic, Merrily had found.
While her mother was putting out feelers.
Good old Ted had come up with the goods inside a year. The vicar of Ledwardine was retiring. Beautiful Ledwardine, only an hour or so's drive from Cheltenham. And Ted was not only senior church warden but used to be the bishop's solicitor. No string-pulling, of course; she'd only get the job if she was considered up to it and the other candidates were weak ... which, at less than fifteen grand a year, they almost certainly would be.
'You've had a stressful time,' Ted said. He'd never asked her why she'd abandoned the law for the Church. It was evidently taken for granted that this was some kind of reaction against Sean going bent. 'But you do feel right about this place now?'
'I think so. And listen, don't imagine I'll be giving you an easy time.'
'Ha. Alf was always far too apathetic to sustain a decent dispute. What did you have in mind?'
'Well, you need toilets in that church for a start. I don't care if it is Grade One listed with five stars, a lot of people won't come to a place where they're scared of being taken short. Especially on winter mornings.'
'Shouldn't be too much of a problem. If you can raise the money.'
'I'm also into more streamlined services. No, streamlined's not the word exactly. Shorter and more ... intense. Fewer hymns. Less meaningless ritual. I mean, we won't be kicking people out afterwards. There'll be tea and biscuits and all that, though I won't ask for the espresso machine until I've been around for a while.'
'What about the prayer book?'
'Oh, strictly Book of Common Prayer. And no happy-clappy. Well, not much, anyway. Not for the grown-ups.'
Ted Clowes twisted his brandy glass around, as if contemplating something. 'I shouldn't really be saying this, but a few people were a little wary about you at first. Big parish for ... for ...'
'For a woman?'
'Well, yes.' He looked uncomfortable. 'But there were other considerations. It's a mightily useful church, you see. Big. And with quite remarkable acoustics. Best concert hall for a good many miles.'
'So I gather.'
'And no shortage of people who recognize its qualities. People who've moved into the area. Dermot Child, the composer and early-music expert and your organist, of course. And Richard Coffey, the playwright.'
'He lives here?'
'Well, some of the time. With his young friend. An actor, not one you'd have heard of. And the Cassidys are very, er, cultured. Well, that's just the core of it, but there are lesser figures and acolytes and followers. And you have to take notice of these people because they bring bodies – and money – into the church. Into the diocese. And a certain ... cultural cachet. Can't be cynical about this sort of thing, Merrily.'
Excerpted from The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman. Copyright © 1999 Phil Rickman. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I finished this book about 6 months ago and have read the whole Merrily Watkins series in the interim. Phil Rickman's a wonderful author. For Anglophiles around the world, he immerses you in the culture of these wonderfully obscure rural British towns. For non-Anglophiles, the prose is excellent, the characters are engaging and memorable and the mysteries are never predictable. For female readers, wow, two engaging, three-dimensional female leads (Merrily and Jane). These books are just fantastic - I can't wait until the next one comes out!
I read an interview by Diana Gabaldon who recommended this series, but I had never heard of it before. I have found used copies and library copies and absolutely have fallen in love with the characters, the location, and the ambiance. This is a marvelous beginning to the series. Considering Merrily Watkins is an Anglican priest, I was surprised at how eclectic and forward thinking the book is. She and her daughter jane are complete characters, the plot is very complex, and there are surprises running through the entire novel. If you love England, mysteries, esoteric bits of knowledge, and music, you will find this a fascinating read.
Scary and puzzling and informative and delicious
I didn't think much of this book. Hardly anything happened until 3/4 of the way through, by which time I'd given up the will to live. I couldn't empathise with any of the characters and didn't much care for the Rev. Merrily Watkins' example of a 'woman of the cloth'. I can only describe this book as several bad episodes of Midsomer Murders all rolled into one. Suffice to say I wont be reading any more in the series.
I really liked the book over all. However, at times I found it hard to follow as it jumped characters frequently without more of a heads up. I think that just a simple space to transition would have kept the pace and made the change a bit better.
I really like Phil Rickman, and really love Merrily! I'm looking forward to the rest of the Merrily Watkins Mysteries series. It was very easy to get into the story, and the characters, too. I got to know them so well. It was hard to believe that I was reading fiction and not a real life account!
This was my first encounter with Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins' series, and I look forward to more! The story is steeped in old folkloric traditions of the English countryside, and takes the reader way beyond the cozy village mystery into a world of dark secrets and tragic family ties. The main characters are sympathetic and believable. The author beautifully captures the sense of an ancient village caught between the past and the present, and I was caught up and lost in the setting and the story from start to finish. From what I can gather, Phil Rickman's books have been popular in Great Britain for some time, and have only recently begun being published in the U.S. We are fortunate indeed!
After savoring the last drop of this Rickman offering, I looked back through my copy of the novel to find I had highlighted passages of text, written copious marginal comments and even affixed multi-colored page tabs throughout! I have never done this, even with King or Straub novels, so this was probably my recognition that I've set Rickman's works apart from others. Rickman's writing, in my opinion, does more than entertain; this writer consistently integrates the mythos of ritual and sacrifice, which link the temporal to the sacred, into the fabric of his stories in a way that no other contemporary author of popular fiction I've encountered thus far dares to do. I enjoyed this book so much because the characters, setting, imagery, tone and language work together so well to link contemporary 'Ledwardine' to its past, just as most places and people are linked in the spiral of mythic time. One character, Lucy Devenish, understands the need to honor that link to the past through the performance of 'right' ritual, a theme that, in my opinion, cannot be overdone in our world today. I think that there exists a profound hunger for ritual, albeit at times a subconscious one, as is evidenced by all the pathetic attempts at finding substitutes for what we've lost in the name of progress. Rickman so aptly captures this cultural void in his tale set in contemporary Ledwardine, and the result is a festival that is disastrous from planning stage to its tragic conclusion. The author exposes the residents of this town and their motivations for taking part in staging the festival as well as holds each character accountable for his or her involvement. I guess that's why I love this story: in a mythic world like Ledwardine, a writer can address those individual lapses of judgment and violations of cultural propriety. In the real world, we don't often get or want to see the connections between our actions and the events they set in motion. Rickman deals with these issues in ways that are not heavy-handed but are still satisfying to the reader. Another aspect of this and other Rickman stories is the often painful and inevitable nature of sacrifice, which occurs for the ultimate good of the community. Rickman's 'victims' seem to have at their cores a gentle and perhaps imperfect wisdom that becomes almost holy through their deaths. This book is no exception. Again, Rickman's consistent articulation of the psychic significance of this theme has created a unique sub-genre within the horror/supernatural genre. The themes of ritual and sacrifice are not the only ones that set Rickman's novels apart from others. This novel and its sequel, MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT, both explore the mother/daughter bond as well as the maternal themes found in the mythos of the Anglican (and Catholic) Church. Rickman's 'Merrily Watkins' novels have something for anyone who has ever felt that void in her or his soul or has felt the need to re-connect to that sense of maternal comfort we often find in things spiritual. I am anxiously awaiting Rickman's new novel, A CROWN OF LIGHTS, due out this spring.