Three volumes into a series might be a bit too early to look for recurring patterns, but I couldn’t help but notice that this third volume in Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series is comparatively light on the occult again – much like the first volume in the series was and quite unlike the second one. A Crown of Light also takes place in a village again and is not just told from the viewpoint of recurring characters (Merrily and her daughter Jane – Lol is absent for this novel) but also of a pagan couple living in said village, both sets of viewpoints balancing each other out nicely.
I liked A Crown of Lights slightly less than the first two instalments in the series. For one thing, the supernatural part comes across as rather muddled – it’s about some kind of ancient evil that is somehow related to buildings, or places, or specific buildings in specific places… it never becomes quite clear and remains too vague to even appear ominous. The criminal case has a bit more substance to it, but also never really takes off and the solution didn’t seem to have been particularly well prepared (under the crime novel genre aspect, that is – viewed under the more general thematic aspect of Pagan vs. Christian that runs through this novel it fit in very well indeed).
Which then would leave us with an occult crime novel in which neither the occult nor the crime elements are particularly compelling, and we’d have to conclude that A Crown of Lights does not work at all. Thankfully, things are not nearly as bad as that, one just needs to adjust one expectations a little, for all the other qualities of Rickman’s previous novels are still in place and make of this an enjoyable read after all. Namely, there is his great skill in characterisation – Merrily, with all her insecurities, her earnest striving and her indomitable courage remains one of the most likeable protagonists in crime fiction, and her daughter Jane – by turns precocious, annoying and loveable – remains one of the most convincingly described teenagers in any kind of fiction. Among recurring characters, Gomer gets a lot of time in the spotlight this time, and Rickman introduces us to Jane’s first boyfriend who is very cute and I hope will return for future volumes.
The other consistent strength of the Merrily Watkins series is its highly atmospheric depiction of life in Britain, and in this aspect, too, A Crown of Lights does not let the reader down. In another parallel to the first volume in the series, A Crown of Lights takes place in a small village again – although this time, the village in question is not even idyllic on the surface but right from the start is torn apart by religious fanaticism and prejudice. Rickman does an excellent job of conveying the increasingly oppressive atmosphere of resentment pervading the village until it finally explodes in violence.
So, even with both the occult and the crime novel elements falling a bit short this time, A Crown of Lights still remains an enjoyable read and another solid installment to what is shaping up to be one of the more interesting and unconventional mystery series out there.