This is the second novel in Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series, and like the first one it is an odd and unexpected mixture of cozy mystery and horror novel that manages to work surprisingly well. This time, Rickman moves the supernatural rather more into the foreground than it was in The Wine of Angels where it was only a very subtle presence that might very well not have existed at all. In Midwinter of the Spirit (I really love that title), we have ghosts, demonic possession, satanism – a whole range of supernatural phenomena. It is getting almost too much, and one can’t help but feel that Rickman is laying it on a bit too thick with an ending of almost apocalyptic proportions. Still, he manages to keep things in balance, if just barely, and never comes quite down on the side of a supernatural explanation of events; also there is a definite sense that human greed and ambition are at least as evil as any supernatural forces.
So in the end, Midwinter of the Spirit is a mystery novel with strong horror elements (rather than a horror novel structured like a mystery). It is also a very entertaining read; Rickman begins evoking an ominous atmosphere of dread and things being not quite right very early on this time, but still sneaks in a portrait of a British cathedral city to complement The Wine of Angel’s small village. I personally found that aspect of the novel very fascinating to read, but if you are mostly interested in crime or horror you might find parts of the novel a bit of a slog. I for one really enjoyed it, but then I’m a self-confessed anglophile.
In contrast to the more outrageous plot, the narrative structure is much cleaner this time than it was in the previous novel – there are only three points of view this time (all of them familiar from The Wine of Angels), and Rickman does an excellent job on having them illuminate events and each other from different perspectives. I also really liked the characters, among them one of the more credible depictions of a teenager I have read in fiction, he gets the balance between precocious and exasperating, lovable and frustrating perfectly. Overall, the dialogue is credible, the descriptions atmospheric, and having his vicar heroine become an exorcist is a stroke of sheer genious on Rickman’s part that opens up a lot of possibilities for the later volumes. One of them possibly the rather interesting parellels that the novel draws between satanists and Soviet spies – is seems that the author is dropping clues that the Holy War has become a Holy Cold War and I am curious to see if and how he follows this up in the sequels.