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The Keys of the Kingdom

The Agony Column for July 15, 2002

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


Finishing up the latest novel by a favorite author is often a rather bittersweet experience. If you really like the author, reading that last page is something of a hollow victory, since most writers take at least a year to churn out something new. So finding out that a favorite writer has new work under a pseudonym you knew nothing about is a really refreshing experience. What would otherwise be years of enjoyment unveil themselves suddenly.


I quite enjoyed this bizarre Richard Bachman re-mix of 'Desperation'. I still recall seeing the paperback of 'Rage' in the same Pasadena bookstore where I saw 'The Books of Blood', and thinking, "Why would I buy that?"

But since Stephen King published the Bachman books so many years ago, readers have pretty much twigged to the name game, and the avaricious, capitalistic nature of the publishing industry ensures that for the most part, only nudge-nudge-wink-wink secrets will flash alluringly into existence. Few writers really want to hide.

So I was pretty surprised to find that one of my favorite authors, one for whom I had exhausted all resources, has two novels under a pseudonym. That writer would be Phil Rickman, and the pseudonym was Will Kingdom. This is what happens when you spend too much time reading books.


I was looking for the latest Phil Rickman novel when I stumbled across something entirely similar on a well-known net book vendor's UK website.

I was looking at Rickman's books on for about the fiftieth time, trying to see if I could determine when his next novel would be coming out. Yes, I was sucked in by the auto-suggester. It kept pointing to Will Kingdom books and eventually, I took a peek. I have to say that 'The Cold Calling' sounded appealing. There was only one reader review, which compared Kingdom and Rickman in an odd fashion, to wit: "(a cross between Ian Rankin and Elmore Leonard, but probably most identified with the excellent UK writer Phil Rickman)". I couldn't quite parse it, but it sounded intriguing enough to get my order. I ponied up the pounds via the ever depressingly less-energized credit card and then fired off an email to the writer of the review. The respondent confirmed my suspicions -- Will Kingdom was Phil Rickman. Now in the passages that follow, you hear me refer to both names as if Kingdom were a different human. I do this when I'm referring to the 'Rickman as Kingdom writer', and to help differentiate between the two. I do know however that they're the same talented guy.

Reading Phil Rickman is one of my favorite pastimes. So I didn't just devour both the novels there and then. My intention, which I actually succeeded in carrying out, was to devour them both when times had calmed down a bit, when the kids were out of school and we were on 'vacation'.

Mission accomplished.

My report?

As Phil Rickman, Phil Rickman kicks ass. Well, at least, he writes wonderfully textured and compelling mysteries with supernatural themes and rural UK settings. His character work is wonderful, his sense of place, unparalleled. As Will Kingdom, you get all that and some of the best pure-crime writing I've read since I first picked up Ruth Rendell or P. D. James. But wait -- there more!

You get a whole new batch of characters, set up for a serial fiction format. You get the first two books, unsigned, but sealed and delivered to your doorstep. You also get without doubt the best hybrid of mystery and the supernatural that you're likely to come across this or any other summer.


I was waiting for the Scream/Press limited edition when I finally broke down and bought the UK paperback version of these books just so I coulod read them. I'd wait another four years for the fabulous limited editions, so I was glad I bought the paperback.

Now, lots of authors have tried to graft supernatural events into mystery fiction, or graft mystery themes into supernatural fiction. I've particularly enjoyed Clive Barker's Harry D'Amour stories. 'The Last Illusion', from 'The Books of Blood Volume VI' is a fine work. The combination of the mystery elements is seamless and the writing is some of Barker's best. For some reason, the film adaptation fell short, though I couldn't pin the problems down precisely. But as a piece of writing, 'The Last Illusion' is an excellent entry into this micro-genre. Unfortunately, it's only a longish short story. Barker's written a few other adventures for this character, but nothing quite as substantive as 'The Last Illusion'. And, because Barker (at least at the time he wrote 'The Last Illusion') was primarily a horror writer, the cant of the story is unmistakably that of a horror tale. The elements of mystery were pretty much through and through dominated by supernatural themes and events.


The title page from the Scream/Press edition of Clive Barker's Books of Blood Volume VI. Scream/Press issued some of the most beautiful books made in the 1980's and early 1990's.


An important, effective and well-balanced synthesis of mystery and horror can be found in 'Twin Peaks'. It's certainly terrorizing, and the supernatural elements are well merged with the mystery elements.

The same can be said of the quite excellent books from Mark Frost. With David Lynch, he enjoyed a spectacular success in melding horror and mystery on the small screen for the television series 'Twin Peaks'. The balance was pretty close, even if the main detective, Agent Dale Cooper was a very spiritually inclined sleuth. There were moments of pure supernatural bizarreness and moments of fascinating foresnic detection. Both elements supported the story, and neither dictated the overall direction.


This book is titled 'The List of 7' by Mark Frost. I know this image is dark, but it's under a well ground Demco book cover. Anyone reading this column who does not own this book should buy it immediately. It is most definitely a classic and a novel that many people are emulating.

The sequel to 'The List of 7' promised in the title, five more sequels, none of which we've seen or have much hope of seeing.

Frost went on to author two novels that left many readers salivating for sequels, myself amongst them. 'The List of 7' had Arthur Conan Doyle play Doctor Watson to Jack Sparks, who becomes the inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes. The sequel, 'The 6 Messiahs' finds the two re-united in the States some ten years later. Both novels are practically required reading for Horror 101 -- well-wrought historical pieces with great characters and excellent action. But again, in both novels the cant is towards the horror genre, with mystery genre elements serving to create tension and up the ante of terror. They do this remarkably well, but nobody would be tempted to call either novel a mystery.


Eureeka! One of two BRAND NEW Old Phil Rickman novels written using an under publicized pseudonym. Spread the word -- this is some of Rickman's best work.

Thankfully, we have Will Kingdom to redress the imbalance. It's a very delicate, very deliberate and extremely crafty bit of writing. 'The Cold Calling' starts out in the netherworld of a serial killer's mind. It's quite explicit, quite clear, and quite chilling. This enables Kingdom to segue easily into the world of Bobby Maiden, a DI who has not yet managed to sell out to the aging gangster who manages the crime in his town. Kingdom renders these scenes with a gritty reality and a bent towards the mystery -- how is Maiden going to catch not only the gangster but his own corrupt supervisor? Maiden is more than a little out of place as a DI. He's an artist and his paintings are rather good. But he's good at the catching the bad-guys part. He comes to the cop-craft through his father, a ramrod stiff-upper lip type who sees his son's artistic talent as sissy stuff. When a last attempt by the gangster's daughter fails to bring Bobby into the family, it's only minutes before someone hits him with a car. And he dies. For exactly four minutes. The experience of death leaves him, well, cold. And more than a little connected to the killer.

As Kingdom, Rickman uses all the tools that Rickman uses in his own novels. Dense, evocative prose, carefully crafted characters, and at the core of the story, not an effort to frighten but an attempt to enlighten. All of Rickman's novels are mysteries, but in the Will Kingdom books you a get a good dose of British cop chop talk and plot, rendered with the Phil Rickman style. The result is not unlike the Dalgliesh novels of P. D James, infused with the sort of in-born, numinous feeling of the supernatural evoked by M R. James. Like Dalgliesh, Bobby Maiden is a rather morose cop, artistic and prone to unhappiness. He's also pretty good at his job, once he gets round to it. And this near-death experience doesn't exactly hurt.

But like many a cop novel, Bobby's not the only guy who's looking for bad guys, and in the Kingdom novels, you get one of Rickman's greatest creations -- Cindy Lewis-Mars. Now, I'll leave the best for the readers to discover, but Lewis-Mars is a complex character, funny, touching and spot-on believable. Lewis-Mars brings a bit of the supernatural in, but it's only there to service the mystery, to propel Kingdom's characters towards the solution to a number of mysteries.

This is not to say that the Kingdom books are all crime, all the time. One might hope that Kingdom will go in that direction, as he's so damn good at it. But, as in the Rickman novels, the supernatural in Kingdom's world grows out of the natural. The supernatural doesn't seem weird in these books, or out of place, or even particularly surprising. It would in fact be more surprising to find that there aren't any spiritual echoes from burial monuments and mounds over three millennia old. The places themselves are ghosts of former glory of something that is ineffable. Even as Kingdom, writing a gritty crime novel, Rickman is a master of the ineffable, of squeezing the spirit out of an ancient place and onto the printed page.


The second Will Kingdom brings back all the wonderful characters of the first. It also does an excellent job of prentending to be a novel of the supernatural, being one and not being one. Read the novel and find out why I say this. I don't want to give away too much of the plot.

In 'The Cold Calling', all of this is in the service of a page-turning, toe-tapping, spine-tingling can-the-serial-killer-be-stopped-before-he-kills-someone-we-love? story. It's quite compulsive in a "'Wicker Man' meets 'Silence of the Lambs'" sort of fashion. Kingdom's follow-up is 'Mean Spirit', and at first seems to resemble a horror novel. You've got a fine, well-rendered séance, a psychic, and a 'presence'.

Don't be fooled. All the characters are coming back into the new story, and fear plays only a small part in the narrative. 'Mean Spirit' does not have as propulsive, as compulsive a plot as does 'The Cold Calling'. Instead, Kingdom layers in his mystery, and as the clues accumulate, the numinous layers of the psychic and the supernatural are peeled away to reveal a gloriously sordid criminal underworld. It's a fascinating reversal, not unlike some of Ruth Rendell's work as Barbara Vine. It's also quite funny.

As himself, Phil Rickman has created in his Merrily Watkins, Diocesan Exorcist novels a unique synthesis of supernatural investigation and spiritual procedural. They're immersive and captivating. As Will Kingdom, he's nailed the criminal side of the supernatural, the flawed humans who hang about the edges of the professional world of so-called psychics. He gets to have his cake and eat it to, as do his readers. As Rickman, he has a new Merrily Watkins novel due out later this year, and the rest of his Merrily Watkins novels are finally seeing release in the states. There's even some talk of filming the Kingdom novels. Rickman, Kingdom -- whatever name he's using, he knows the language of keys to unlock a readers' imaginations and set them adrift in a complex world that he creates word by word. Those who have read every word of Rickman now have something more to look forward to. And those who haven't are the luckiest out there -- there are eleven great novels waiting to be read.




Rick Kleffel