Rickman, Phil - 'The Lamp of the Wicked'
The lead character of THE LAMP OF THE WICKED is Merrily Watkins, a female vicar in a sleepy Gloucestershire village, and she is joined by her ex-rockstar boyfriend, her feisty teenage daughter, an elderly rustic, and an ambitious policeman who has thrown the rulebook out of the window along with his marriage. You've got a Sunday-evening TV pitch right there – Vicar of Dibley meets Midsomer Murders...
However, stick with it. This was the most challenging and intelligent crime novel I encountered last year.
The characters are far from stock. Each is clearly travelling along their own story arc and events are driven as much by their journey as by an externally imposed plot. The good guys have motives as complex and occasionally as questionable as the killers.
In Phil Rickman's 'closing credits' he says this wasn't an easy book to write, and it's easy to see why. As THE LAMP OF THE WICKED progresses, the story draws in the shabby history of Fred and Rose West, and the contagion of their crimes is a key element in its development. Ultimately the legacy of 25 Cromwell Street comes to dominate the story in entirely unexpected ways.
Does the crime genre have the right to draw on real-life crimes and the lives of victims, their families, and indeed the perpetrators? It's an uncomfortable area to explore and raises questions of voyeurism and prurience, particularly when you are reading about the recent past.
One thing is for certain. If the genre has the right to draw on true crime, it has a responsibility to deal sensitively with those concerned. Rickman writes with care and sympathy and doesn't shy away from the horror of Cromwell Street or the tragedy of its victims.
There are supernatural elements to the story – Merrily is the Deliverance Consultant (exorcist) for the diocese and other characters are new-agers and mystics. They add to the atmosphere without interfering with the logical progression of the plot development.
At more than 600 pages this is a roomy book, and it's a tribute to Rickman's writing that it feels generous rather than overlong. The story ripples out from the opening chapter in a way that feels one hundred percent organic. THE LAMP OF THE WICKED seems to have taken a long time to get into paperback, a pity, because this definitely deserves a wider audience.
Rich Westwood, England