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Almost 15 years ago now, I read the first Merrily Watkins book - The Wine of Angels. Whilst I can't remember much about the book itself, I do remember I wasn't particularly impressed and had no desire to read other entries in the series. It wasn't until I actually started reading The Secrets of Pain that I realised that it was a Merrily Watkins book - had I done so, I probably would not have purchased it. This then, is going to be something of a good news, bad news review. The good news is I enjoyed it more than The Wine of Angels; the bad news is I still wasn't massively impressed.
Set in and around Hereford, The Secrets of Pain involves a mystery surrounding an SAS regiment based in the town. An ex-SAS man returns to his former regiment as Chaplain but is troubled by a dark secret he won't talk about. When he is found dead, local vicar and deliverance agent (an exorcist in old money), Merrily Watkins investigates the sinister goings-on.
The good news, bad news thing that I mentioned above pretty much sums up my attitude to this book: for every bright spot, there is a cloud on the horizon. Take the plot, for example: The good news was much better than The Wine of Angels. It felt better developed and the characters more secure and established (as you might expect from an 11th novel). At the same time, though, I still found it something of a chore to read. Essentially there are two plot strands running in parallel. For much of the book, these are kept separate (although it's always obvious they are linked) which means the book has to keep switching between the two, which feels a little dissatisfying. Once they come together at the end, it's worth it, but it feels like a bit of a slog to get to that point at times.
It also felt like this was a well-trodden path for Rickman. I might be doing him a disservice, but from what I can remember, The Secrets of Pain really doesn't feel that much different from The Wine of Angels (and presumably, other books in the series). It features the same blend of pagan mysticism clashing with modern life and Christianity and the same investigation of a brutal death/murder in an otherwise quiet rural community. The pacing never generated that much tension or excitement and there were times when reading it felt like a very mechanical process.
The same good news-bad news things holds true for the setting. On the one hand, it's clear that Rickman knows Hereford very well, and he uses it effectively. You get a real sense of that part of the country and what life must be like, with the constant clash between the modern world and the old ways. On the other hand, it's clear that Rickman has something of a bee in his bonnet on the subject of "locals" (i.e. people from the area's old, established families) vs. incomers and at times his characters (and by extension, the author himself) can sometimes come across as rather narrow-minded and a little unlikeable.
There were times when I didn't feel like I knew the characters at all. This is at least partly my fault, I admit. This is the eleventh book in the Watkins series and features many recurring characters, I've no-one but myself to blame for not knowing that much about their background. Nor can you blame Rickman for not filling idiot readers like me in on what's been happening in the previous 10 books. However, even making allowances for that, I often felt at sea with the characters. I never really got a handle on any of them (whether the established or the new ones) and also never warmed to them - which always makes it difficult to get into a book.
Further reinforcing the good news-bad news theme is Rickman's writing style. On the one hand, his relatively sedate pace provides lots of opportunities to build atmosphere and mystery. On the other hand, it does make the book very slow paced. I'm not an endless thrill seeker who needs an endless procession of dead bodies to liven up a thriller, but there were times when I felt it was taking a long time for not very much to happen. To give an example, when reading this on my Kindle, I noticed at one point that I had read about 43% (equivalent to around 246 pages). Yet, I didn't feel that the plot had progressed very much from where it was at page 50, or that I knew much than I had at the start. In fairness, things do pick up in the latter stages, but The Secrets of Pain is never what you might call a fast-paced book.
One final good news-bad news example. Unlike most authors, Rickman tries to capture the diverse range of accents with which people talk. So, for example, amongst the collection of characters are locals from Herefordshire, someone from Liverpool and someone from Birmingham, and Rickman tries to capture the different ways their respective dialects. That's the good news: that Rickman recognises that the UK is a very diverse place with lots of different ways of saying the same words. The bad news is in the way he tries to convey this on paper. The Herefordshire locals simply come across stereotypical "oo-ar" backwards country folk, whilst his tendency to record other accents by writing words phonetically can be rather confusing. It's a nice idea but one which doesn't quite pay off.
Essentially, The Secrets of Pain has not really changed my mind about the Merrily Watkins books. Yes, I enjoyed it more than the Wine of Angels, but it still felt like I was rather slogging through it at times. There is certainly nothing here that is going to make me run out to buy the earlier books and it's unlikely I will ever read another. Really, this is one for fans of the series. If you've enjoyed the earlier books, then my guess is that you'll appreciate this one, since (in my limited experience) it seems to be following the same sort of pattern. Personally, I couldn't recommend it.
Available to buy in paperback for £6 or less and on Kindle for just under £5.
The Secrets of Pain
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