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Phil Rickman
The Remains of an Alta
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2008

UK First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 1-905-20451-5
439 Pages; £14.99
Publication Date: 10-05-2006
Date Reviewed: 02-04-08

Index: Mystery  General Fiction  Horror

Creating and continuing a successful, enjoyable mystery series is a delicate balancing act. The central "detective" and the surrounding characters must grow and continue to interest the readers while not overwhelming the subject of any one novel. Phil Rickman 's Merrily Watkins mysteries offer an excellent example of a series that gets the balance right, and his 2006 entry, 'The Remains of an Altar' is one of the best thus far. As ever, the compulsive readers are directed to the first in the series, 'The Wine of Angels'. But in the latest novel, Merrily Watkins remains an engaging and nearly-engaged (to Lol, her musician boyfriend / lover) while confronting a case that is every bit as entertaining for readers as are the vagaries of her life. Rickman adds a large cast of characters unique to this novel, and with numinous prose, takes the reader on a journey through modern Wales, the music of Edward Elgar, and into the heart of the ancient tracks that cross the land.

A series of accidents on the same stretch of road near the village of Wychehill, in the Malvern Hills, has some of the residents suggesting a supernatural cause. Others wish to point the finger at a new dance club that may be bringing drugs as well as loud and unpleasant music into the quiet hills once traversed by Edward Elgar. Citizens action groups are matched against wily, inner city entrepreneurs. There are racial overtones as well as supernatural ones. Merrily is called in by the local priest, who has a military background, while her daughter Jane finds her own battle to fight, trying to preserve an ancient mound that may be part of a powerful ley line. Developers and in-comers, old residents and musical madmen are all very interested in what Merrily has to say. Accidents, of course, can always lead to murder.

'The Remains of an Altar' is a fascinating look at the how the landscape of the Malvern Hills informed the music of Edward Elgar as well as a page-turning mystery of modern developers trying to overrun "The Ancient Tracks," the ley lines that are said to criss-cross the English countryside and channel ancient powers of the Earth. Rickman is in top form here, with his dense, intense prose creating a literary landscape that oozes history, character and tension. On the continuing character side of the equation, he's doing a fine job at keeping the characters consistent enough to be enjoyable while letting change work on their lives at a natural pace. Merrily and Lol grow closer, though the nature of her job sort-of discourages this. Jane is a wonderfully drawn teenager, headstrong and annoying enough to be believable but always a joy to encounter. Merrily is settling into a nice groove with her occupation as a "Diocesan Deliverance Consultant" (read: exorcist), which means that she must involve herself in the personal lives of those she is sent to help.

Those personal lives and the landscape make up the utterly fascinating bulk of this book. Wychehill is not really a village, not in the sense of "community," and the personalities of all involved are not getting along well. Another personality hangs over the novel as well, that of Edward Elgar. Rickman's exploration of Elgar, his music and the landscape of the Malvern is perfectly integrated into an increasingly tangled web of modern motivations. There's an intensely organic feel to this novel. It grows out of the landscape, the music and the confrontation between modern expansion and ancient inhabitation. Rickman's rich prose creates complex characters and evokes moods that reflect the chaos of city life and the quietude of a misty morning in the Malvern Hills.

'The Remains of an Altar' is expertly paced, with increasing tension that unfolds in a powerfully written conclusion that will have readers gasping with awe and joy. Rickman's writing is consistently great at all levels, whether he's writing about real people trying to deal with social and economic change or writing about the supernatural power of an ancient landscape. You'll be glad to read — and believe.

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