A – if not the – distinctive trait of Phil Rickman’s “Merrily Watkins” series has always been the way he has kept things in the balance between rational and possibly supernatural explanations for the events transpiring. Individual novels have been leaning to more towards the one side or the other, and To Dream of the Dead – the tenth volume in the series – not only shifts the balance towards the rational, but is the installment with the least amount of supernatural elements in the whole series so far, turning the novel almost into a “normal” mystery.
It is probably symptomatic for this is that it takes until the third chapter for Merrily to make her first appearance, and that the novel starts out with DI Frannie Bliss, who we will continue to follow for a substantial part of the novel (and who will have some… interesting developments in his life in the course of it). To me, the main attraction of the series has, from the first volume onwards always been its depiction of British village life, and more specifically on the Welsh-English border, with both the mystery and the supernatural elements just providing the plot devices to move the novels from one location and one character to the next, so I’m fine with the changing emphasis. And Rickman still delivers on giving a realistic and fascinating portrait of the contemporary British countryside – however, it cannot be denied that there has been some chang in tone over the last few volumes as well, not so much in emphasis as in tone: The novels have become increasingly bleak and bitter, the countryside becoming a less and less pleasurable place.
Rickman never presented his readers with an idyll – right from the start he showed all the pettiness and intolerance rural communities are capable of. But there also was a sense of belonging and of community that tied people together, a pride in their regional heritage, and the last few novels in the series have shown how that increasingly disappears, eaten away by greedy politicians, ruthless businessmen, destroyed by disregard for environment, history or indeed other people. It has not quite reached the point where things would start to get depressing, but the more recent novels have become considerably darker than the early installments. I do wonder where the series is going if it keeps up this trend, but I’ll most likely continue to follow it to wherever that is, as I’m fairly confident that Rickman’s portrayal does indeed accurately reflect the changes in the way of life in rural Britain, as sad as that is. And of course, because I still like to spend time with Merrily, Jane, Lol and the other recurring characters Rickman has assembled over the course of ten novels. The “Merrily Watkins” series might not be the most flashy of crime series, might deliver neither the most nail-biting tension nor the most puzzling mysteries, but it has carved out a niche all of its own and one that I have enjoyed visiting every time so far.