“A Great and Beautiful Mystery:” The Remains of an Altar by Phil Rickman

January 7, 2008 at 11:20 pm (Book review, books, Music, Mystery fiction)

remains.jpg As soon as I finished Phil Rickman’s latest Merrily Watkins novel – the first I’ve read in this series – I fired off an e-mail to him. This is how I began: ” Every once in a while you come across a book that seems to have been written especially for you. The Remains of an Altar, for me, is just such a book.”

What a rich concoction Rickman serves up here! Earth mysteries, clerical mysteries, the possible presence of the ghost of one of my favorite composers, an intense Anglican priest who lights up when she’s uneasy, which she is often and usually with good reason. This last would be Merrily Watkins, a widow and single mother – and a professional exorcist, of sorts. The term currently in usage is “deliverance minister” (or “deliverance consultant”). Such a person is called in if the presence of ghosts or demons is suspected – or simply if a premises seems to be afflicted with bad karma. (I obtained much useful and interesting background information on Merrily Watkins from Clerical Detectives.)

These books have been recommended to me by several people, but I’ve been leery of them because I normally do not care for the presence of supernatural elements in mystery fiction. But I decided to make an exception for this particular series entry. I was intrigued by what I read in the reviews. Yes, there’s a ghost – or rumors of a ghost, but it’s a quintessentially English ghost: none other then Sir Edward Elgar!

malvern3.jpg malvern2.jpg malvern1.jpg In addition, the action takes place in a storied region, one which my husband and I brushed up last year while we were in the Cotswolds but did not have time to explore: the Malvern Hills.

It seems that several individuals who have had recent mishaps in cars or on bicycles claim to have been thrown off course by the sudden appearance of a late-Victorian gentleman on a bicycle with a bright light attached to the handlebars. This mysterious cyclist bears an uncanny resemblance to Elgar. Merrily does not propose to exorcise the composer’s ghost – after all, this is not a presence they wish to banish in any case – they just need it it to behave itself! Merrily offers to perform a Requiem Eucharist, which she defines as “a sort of minor exorcism.” Two of the accident victims were killed; she is proposing to bring peace to their troubled spirits, and to the village of Wychehill in general.

Merrily is proposing this to the Rev. Syd Spicer, Rector of Wychehill, a former military man whose mordant, melancholy manner seems disctinctly at odds with his current profession. Of him we will learn more in the course of the novel.

In an article on the Cello Concerto, Julian Lloyd Weber relates the following:

“Lying on his deathbed, 15 years after the concerto’s completion, Elgar ‘rather feebly’ tried to whistle the first movement’s haunting 9/8 theme to his friend, the violinist William Reed.

‘Billy,’ he said with tears in his eyes, ‘if ever you’re walking on the Malvern Hills and hear that, don’t be frightened. It’s only me.'”

Rickman alludes to this anecdote in this novel and I just assumed he was making it up. But apparently not… edwardelgar_000.jpg

One of the chief pleasures of this novel is Merrily’s daughter Jane. Jane is the kind of teen-ager that causes parents plenty of anxiety, but for all the best reasons. She is a young woman of firm convictions, on which she is not afraid to act. Or rather, she is afraid – certainly she is in the situation that develops in this novel – but she takes action anyway because she believes it’s the right thing to do. In short, she bestows fear and pride in equal measure on her (already quite beleaguered) parent.

The Remains of an Altar features two plots running concurrently and semi-independently: the one which centers on Merrily, and the other, which primarily involves Jane. The ghostly element is only one interesting feature in this rather complex scenario. Through the angst and anger of some of the country-dwellers in the novel, Rickman addresses issues that are, I believe, quite vital in the countryside at present. Two such are the interference of the European Union in British farming practices and the recently enacted ban on the hunt.

(I think I’m right to use the phrase “the hunt” to refer specifically to hunting foxes with hounds rather than just to hunting in general. Please correct me if I’m wrong, anyone. Having traveled to England three times in the past three years, I’ve become deeply interested in these issues. Suggestions for further reading on the subject would be welcome.)

Weighing in at about 500 pages, Remains is a hefty volume, especially for a murder mystery. Granted, this is not a conventional example of the genre, touching as it does on a wide range of subjects and issues, such as the above mentioned. Having said this, I must admit that Merrily Watkins did remind me of some of my favorite fictional policemen in that she seems to harbor a secret sorrow that pulls her down and dilutes her moments of joy, which seem few and far between at any rate. I like her tremendously. In fact, one of the great strengths of this novel is its large and varied cast of characters, each of whom is possessed of a distinct personality, often with intriguing eccentricities thrown into the mix. They weren’t all likable, but they were all, at least to some degree, interesting. So, is the book too long? Well, maybe. It dragged a bit about two thirds of the way in, and I can’t claim to have followed all the twists and turns of the plot – or plots. But on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and look forward to reading yet another account of Merrily Watkins, her clerical adventures, and her intrepid offspring!

Oh – and I want to mention the quality of the writing. It’s something I’m finicky about, and frankly, I’m dismayed at the amount of bad prose I’ve encountered lately (sloppy editing and proofreading, too, including mistakes with the names of characters). Phil Rickman writes beautifully.

Soundtrack suggestion: The Elgar works of primary importance in this novel are the cantata Caractacus and the oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. For beginners, though, I would suggest heading straight for the glorious Enigma Variations. enigma.jpg There are many fine recordings of this work; a favorite in our house is with the Baltimore Symphony – our home team! – conducted by David Zinman, on Telarc. And while you’re at it, listen to the splendid Cockaigne Overture as well. (Yes, I know, a bit excessive with the hyperbole – but this is Elgar we’re talking about!)

phil_rickman_200x135.jpg Phil Rickman replied to my e-mail promptly and with great warmth. As an aside, he alerted me to the existence of a new film on Ralph Vaughan Williams entitled O Thou Transcendent. This revelation caused great excitement in our British-music-loving household! Thank you, Phil – and thank you for this wonderful book.


Here is film of Elgar conducting Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in 1931. The occasion was the opening of EMI’s Abbey Road Studio. (I have been there!)



  1. Wonders of Youtube: “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…” « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] (A clip of Sir Edward Elgar himself conducting Pomp and Circumstance can be found at the end of my review of The Remains of an Altar. ) […]

  2. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Pure in Heart – Susan Hill The Godwulf Manuscript and The Professional – Robert B. Parker The Remains of an Altar – Phil Rickman The Chameleon’s Shadow – Minette Walters The Way Some People Die and The […]

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