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by Phil Rickman
Macmillan, November 2005
544 pages
ISBN: 1405051698

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

I've kept reading Phil Rickman for what he might deliver rather than what he actually does. So, after a series of books where I've put them down feeling faintly dissatisfied, I'm delighted to announce that for me, he's finally delivered with THE SMILE OF A GHOST.

Rickman sometimes reads like he's been inoculated with a gramophone needle, and indeed, the middle of the book sags a bit. You wish that he'd lost 50 or so pages to turn an excellent book into an outstanding one.

You need to understand that I dislike religion in books, so with that in mind I sometimes find it difficult to empathise with Merrily Watkins, the book's protagonist. Merrily is a parish priest and the Diocese of Hereford's deliverance consultant (read exorcism expert). And she's portrayed as a sane, down-to-earth woman on the liberal wing of the church.

I have more time for pagan daughter Jane who has previously been an irritating sideline, and with Merrily's diffident musician boyfriend Lol, both of whom play key roles in this book. What Rickman does do outstandingly is characterisation -- you walk away from his books really believing you know the people he portrays.

Previous books have skirted round the crime fiction/horror boundary without really cutting it -- mainly due to Rickman's verbiage. But this book is truly chilling. It's in Rickman's usual territory -- that beautiful but remote area on the English/Welsh border.

Merrily is called in after youngsters start falling to their deaths from the castle ruins in the medieval town of Ludlow. And there's also the deeply disturbed former musician Belladonna, who seems linked to the kids and who has some weird personal habits.

The book works best when it's told from Merrily's, Jane's or Lol's point of view -- there are a couple of rather clumsy sections where Rickman backs himself into a corner and has to provide us with a view of the action through former policeman Andy Mumford's eyes.

Music has always been a backdrop to Rickman's books, and this time Belladonna, Lol (with his new album) and the sinister Hungarian Suicide Song are all a significant presence.

In previous books it's been a case of some sort of nebulous evil. This time I read the book with the lights full on, and found myself going cold as I read the final few chapters. At one point I watched the goosepimples forming on my arms! And, without giving to much away, there's a greater sense of physical danger for several of the protagonists.

If you like Rickman, you'll devour this book. If, like me, you've had misgivings in the past, THE SMILE OF A GHOST could be the one to persuade you that his brave experiments with the genre have finally paid off.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, December 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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