The Smile of a Ghost
US/UK Hardcover First
Publication Date: 11-30-2005
474 Pages; £17.99 / $25.00
Date Reviewed: 11-28-05
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005
The strands that we weave into our lives are so disparate that sometimes it seems as if they cannot coalesce into us. How can one life contain coppers and computers, saints and ghosts, castles and strip malls, Goth rock and Gothic architecture? When you unravel the tapestry, it seems insensible. The puzzle pieces can never fit together. Each day we make ourselves, add another chapter to our lives and often those pieces just don’t seem like they should fit. Until of course, life happens and it all seems natural and inevitable. But never plotted. Just real.
When we sit down to read, we demand the contradictions we find in our lives. We want the full feel of every damn thing thrown in, yet we want the clean lines of the individual moments we experience. It's a tall order to capture the chaos without seeming chaotic, to provide the familiarity of our lives in manner that seems fresh and exciting. With each of his Merrily Watkins mysteries, Phil Rickman's been getting better and better at pairing the pandemonium and the prosaic, at digging into his characters' lives and psyches while painting a portrait of the pastoral landscapes of the English countryside under the relentless assault of a commercial invasion. 'The Smile of a Ghost' begins with an ending as Sergeant Andy Mumford is forcibly retired. A long-time friend of Merrily Watkins, Mumford is an odd duck at loose ends. He's unmoored, a ship adrift. To hell with ending well. 'The Smile of a Ghost' starts with one loss, but like life, it does not stop there.
When Andy Mumford's nephew takes a tumble from the tower of a supposedly haunted castle that looms over the rapidly-becoming-trendy township of Ludlow, it's a given that Mumford will start poking about where he's not wanted. And when his mother, slowly sliding into dementia, complains that she's seeing the boy reflected in all the wrong places, it's a given that Mumford will turn to Merrily Watkins. Nobody knows the boundaries of life and death better than the Hereford Spiritual Deliverance consultant.
'The Smile of a Ghost' is a superb evocation of landscapes and landscapes of the mind. Rickman's complicated plot reveals itself in bits and pieces, in naturalistic scenes that seem both of the moment and, as they recede into pages already read, perfect pieces of a puzzle that will fall together to paint a remarkably complex portrait of many characters and many places. The changing face of the Church, the urbanization of the English countryside, grief and longing, love and self-hatred, suicide chat rooms and has-been Goth-rockers all fall effortlessly into place. Slipping into Rickman's story is like watching a Renaissance painter stroke by stroke, each detail perfect. Step back and the portrait is revealed, as if by magic.
But it's not just Rickman's twisty, inventive plotting that makes 'The Smile of a Ghost' such a satisfying read. Rickman's prose, his dialogue, his love of the language is evident with every sentence and every paragraph. He's a bit idiosyncratic. He'll use a bit of local dialect, then back off into impressionistic prose paintings that coalesce into portraits of grief and greed, of fear or freedom. He's a master at mixing dialogue and description in perfect proportion. While this might sound simple, it's no small feat. The book never, ever even looks daunting to read. Each page is an invitation to plunge forward into the lives of Rickman's characters.
Of course, to his readers, Rickman's characters have long since left the printed page to inhabit that place between books and life where readers spend so much of their time. In 'The Smile of a Ghost', Merrily Watkins' life as a Diocesan Deliverance consultant is threatened by a duo of delightfully unpleasant smiling faces. Her response and their parries are gripping because we care deeply about what happens in Hereford. Mumford's ungentle journey into the nightmare -- for him -- of retirement has the relentless feel of the inevitable. It's all shot through with a dark, informed sense of humor.
The characters introduced for the novel are every bit as compelling as the returning series characters. Belladonna, a faded Goth rocker with a lingering fan base, feels that she has found a spiritual home in Ludlow, while George Lackland, the harried mayor would beg to differ. Jon Scole, who gives the local ghost tours is himself a hauntingly sleazy presence, and even the characters whom we never actually meet unfold in three dimensions and become as real as...anyone.
As a mystery novel, 'The Smile of a Ghost' harkens back to a more primal form of mystery. No simple who-done-it, Rickman's novel dances about the boundaries of life and death with an ease one rarely finds in either supernatural fiction or mystery genre fiction. Rickman's work is much more literary than any work of genre fiction. His prose beats down the barriers between the reality of his characters and the reality of the reader. Once this is accomplished, the barriers between life and death are easily crossed. He evokes all the strangeness of the supernatural without any of the usual mumbo-jumbo. Life itself is clearly a supernatural event for Rickman; when he writes about life, it's no surprise that it is filled with the spaces that speak to our own spiritual inclinations, whatever they may be.
'The Smile of a Ghost' may be Rickman's seventh novel about Merrily Watkins, but he's as fresh here as he was when we first met the character back in 'The Wine of Angels'. First-time readers will find that Rickman's naturalistic approach means they don’t feel left out so much as dropped in to the lives of the returning and new characters. This is certainly not a bad place to start, though the chances are that if you do start reading the series here, you'll go back to the beginning. Pan Macmillan makes a fine hardcover book, with iconic black-and-white photographs of the landscapes where the action unfolds. These books are to be treasured, to be enjoyed as you read them during sunny afternoons on the back porch, or on rainy evenings in front of the fire. Save them and savor them. In that still moment when you look up from the page, caught between his world and yours, you'll smile and know that you are the ghost.