If, like me, you're new to this British series, let me fill you in. Merrily Watkins is the vicar of a community church in a mostly rural section of England, Hereford, on the border of Wales. She's also what in the States we would call an "exorcist" -- but in a very quiet way, with a group of others religious leaders who've found themselves called to relieve the troubles of those who experience paranormal events. They call their field of effort "deliverance" and it has a lot to do with letting people get things of their chests, and then following up with prayer and related church services.
But Merrily's position is under attack from the new bishop and it's not clear how far he'll go to restrict her out-of-pulpit activities. She's also concerned about her daughter Jane, taking a gap year before university and somehow unmoored from expectations.
Both Jane and Merrily find support from a neighboring musician -- who in turn collaborates with local Detective Inspector Frannie Bliss as a shooting and a vehicular death turn out to reveal the powerful strands of organized crime in the region, with international ties and a lot of money.
When the two plot lines cross, the action and risks multiply exponentially. So do the ties to a much earlier form of spirituality in the region, expressed in part through the concept and character of the ancient "Green Man," but also in the rituals of a very private, very disturbing group of folk dancers recreating "Border morris" dances with strange undertones.
I saw parallels in many of the characters to the landowners, farmers, and ambitious developers of my own northern Vermont region. And if we don't yet have a Merrily Watkins among us, I'm willing to believe there's an opening for her American counterpart (in fact, John Connolly's Maine paranormal series evokes the same sense of timeless power and faith).
Don't let the "haunting" aspect of ALL OF A WINTER'S NIGHT keep you away from this crime novel -- because it is in the long run all about human greed and passion, and following the benefits of the crime. But getting to the solution takes a long, lovely time, nearly 500 pages in which each chapter provides a powerful impulse forward, and the Big Questions get intelligent and passionate attention.
Here's the author's own take on what Merrily is up to:
It's a real job; there's at least one in every diocese in the UK. They work with psychiatrists, social workers ... and also the police. Inevitably, in this series, this is the aspect of the job that predominates.A keeper. And I'm going to have to find the preceding 13 Merrily Watkins mysteries, ASAP.
And their own beliefs are often tested. There are few certainties. The borderline between psychology and the unexplained is often laid out in barbed wire.
PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.