A Merrily Watkins Mystery. I discovered this series 15 years ago when I worked for a publisher of academic law journals, and someone’s over-enthusiastic publicity department decided that obviously we must therefore review crime fiction. Merrily is a CofE vicar in Herefordshire, on the spiritually rich and mystical Welsh borders, and also the diocesan deliverance specialist – in other words, the official exorcist. She was pressured into the job in book 2 by a trendy, dynamic and also evil Bishop under the guise of modernising an archaic church institution and bringing it into the 21st century – thus effectively neutering it to leave the field clear for people like him.
Thankfully she is not a crime-fighting cleric à la Father Brown or whoever – the real detectiving is always done by real detectives. But she does tend to be on the periphery as each mystery has a distinctly left-hand path element.
The strengths of the series are: 1) it’s extremely well researched; every diocese does indeed have an official exorcist, this is what they do, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. Also the Rev. Caroline Symcox, vicar of Fairford, Gloucestershire and a.k.a. Mrs Paul Cornell, has praised its accurate depiction of life for a woman vicar in a rural parish. And 2) it’s never made clear whether the supernatural forces at play are actually real – Merrily herself isn’t that certain – but the villains always act as if they are. So, as well as a good mystery along with humour and a sympathetically flawed protagonist, you get either looming psychological dread or outright horror, depending on the lens through which you view it.
I haven’t read all the books, because there are too many in too short a life, and I also couldn’t bear how homesick they made me feel for Hereford! There is a real love for that part of the country shining through every page. But I got this one out of Oxfam because it’s been a while since I’ve read any of them, and as you would expect of a novel set largely in Hay-on-Wye, the secondhand book trade plays a key part.