The Magus of Hay  by Phil Rickman

Interesting novel here. Not interesting because I want to tell you of the wonderful book it is. Interesting because it’s a good example of a fine plot ruined by a poor delivery.

The Magus of Hay is number 12 in the Merrily Watkins series. The bold Miss Watkins is an exorcist with the Anglican Church but, sadly, that’s not nearly as exciting as you might believe. I like the idea of an attractive, female exorcist, as opposed to a hard-bitten Catholic priest with myriad Freudian issues. Yet Merrily Watkins fails to deliver.

No demons. No pea soup. No lewd sexual acts. William Peter Blatty must be turning with horror in his freshly dug grave (died 12th Jan. of this year). Hold a seance. Ask him. Instead, Merrily is rather timid so far as raunchiness is concerned. It appears that she is facing into a moral dilemma. She is conflicted. Aren’t we all?

The Magus of Hay sees our beloved exorcist assisting the police as they investigate some brutal murders on the Welsh-English border. We encounter incestuous, neo-Nazi occultists (the incestuous ones are always the worst), a lesbian couple with an unrequited love (one of them is dead. It helps if both participants are alive. Hold a seance. Ask them), and a retired, elderly, crippled, female MI5 agent with delusions of grandeur with respect to James Bond, or is it Blowfelt?

In his novel, Rickman has centered his tale upon an actual Welsh town. As a result of the imagery presented and history called upon (and information included in the Notes & Credits (the best part of this book)), Hay-on-Wye is a town that I would now like to visit. Unfortunately, I can say little else good about this book, memorable only for its many faults.

As I said at the beginning, the plot line is fine. The overall story merits interest. It has great potential. The writing, however, was dreadful. Although Rickman does appear as someone who has the ability to pen a good tale, and doesn’t lack imagination, his execution of prose made me want to pull my hair out… my pubic hair.

The dialogue was atrocious. I lost track of who was saying what. I’ve noticed this trend among various authors. In a scene with three people, we are told who speaks first, but left to guess as to who might be voicing the remaining lines. Such a shoddy approach to portraying a conversation is exasperating and tiresome. Writers need to move out of their own minds after the initial draft, to try to understand how the reader will interpret, or not, the text.

The writing in general, even beyond the dialogue, is what I would describe as ‘jerky’. It rarely flows as a good story should. This is not an attempt at haute art, or the creation of a new approach to writing. The Magus of Hay is a regular story poorly written. Again, I found it all to be so exasperating that I considered chucking it in the bin. I rarely fail to finish a book, even the worst ones. I was tempted here, and found it a struggle. I persevered, but I’m not thankful, just older… much older.

It may be that Phil Rickman’s other books are better than this one. Perhaps I just got unlucky. Yet I doubt it, as no author could pen at least 11 previous, good novels and then produce a complete turkey such as The Magus of Hay. I feel that what Rickman lacks is a good editor. The Magus of Hay reads as a first draft of a first novel. It needed a Nazi (or neo-Nazi, in keeping with the story-line) to tell the author some hard truths and demand a major improvement. I believe Rickman to be capable of better than this.

So how can someone so shoddy get published so many times? Fuck if I know. Perhaps there is a casting couch in the literary world also. Perhaps the standards are not what they used to be. It’s rare to find a book of 50 years ago that’s poorly written. Yet as demonstrated in these book reviews, there are still great writers about today. I weep in relief at the knowledge that Phil Rickman is not the sum total of success in the modern literary age.

Crime Review UK described Rickman’s book thus, ‘Hell, it’s good…’

‘A unique talent in cracking form’ is yet another plaudit I read. Unique? Yes, uniquely poor. Cracking? Yes, I could feel my testicles cracking with disappointment as they quickly climbed back up into my body during the reading of this.

The town of Hay-on-Wye should make an effigy of the author of The Magus of Hay, and throw stones at it. I don’t believe that I will ever read another one of his books, not even if Merrily Watkins were to become an exotic dancer with three breasts who could sweetly sing Amazing Grace using only her arse.

Sult Scale rating: 2.5 out of 10. Avoid like a gang of incestuous, flea-ridden neo-Nazi skinheads with bad breath.

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