Formats Unpacked: The Merrily Watkins Mysteries

How a book series uses ambiguous endings to keep people coming back

Hi all,

Before we jump into today’s unpacking I wanted to point you toward an excellent short series Matt has been writing for . Broken looks at how content discovery is broken due to changes in social and search and how those experimenting with new approaches to audience engagement will beat their competitors in the battle for attention.

If you need help developing content formats we have a brilliant Fromats Unpacked workshop to help you. We’re going to be doing a version of it at SXSW in March.

OK. On to today’s unpacking. This is the second time we’ve featured a book series. Unpacking the format is our very own Emma Greengrass. Emma is the Operations Coordinator at Storythings. Having previously unpacked Uncanny, the paranormal podcast turned TV show, today’s format is on a similar theme. If you’d like to chat paranormal activities with Emma, catch her on Twitter.

Over to Emma…

What’s it called?

The Merrily Watkins Mysteries by Phil Rickman (book series)

What’s the format?

An ongoing book series (currently 15 books and one extended short story) set mainly in Herefordshire. There are overarching themes and threads between the novels along with shared characters. Taken in order they read like a paranormal soap opera but each book works fine on its own.

SFFWorld Countdown to Halloween 2018: Midwinter of the Spirit by Phil Rickman – SFFWorld

What’s the magic that makes it special?

As a child who spent a lot of time with her head in a book surrounded by imaginary friends, I’ve always loved a good book series. There is more time for characters and story arcs to develop within their imagined worlds. So when I discovered Phil Rickman’s Merrily books, it was with a familiar sense of finding myself amongst (fictitious) friends for an extended period.

Phil Rickman’s Merrily books are a glorious mash-up of crime fiction, supernatural mystery, and gothic horror.  They are Phil’s attempt to get away from the horror genre and explore ‘the way that the inexplicable sometimes intrudes into what we think of as real life, but [...] to do it in a way that's acceptable to people who don't believe in any of it.’ 

Each book presents the Anglican Rev. Merrily Watkins (think Miss Marple and the Vicar of Dibley but at the same time she’s not like either of them), ‘late thirties, single mum, parish priest. Cosy? I don’t think so…’ with a paranormal case to investigate. In the second novel, ‘Midwinter of the Spirit’ (serialized by ITV in 2015) Merrily takes on the role of Deliverance Consultant (aka Exorcist). Deliverance brings her into conflict with a Church that perceives the role as too medieval. She becomes a reluctant consultant in ongoing police investigations. Living in the (imagined) village of Ledwardine, being its’ ‘priest-in-charge’, she cannot avoid the quagmire of local and Church politics - she is beset on all sides. And (as if all this wasn’t enough) Merrily has a teenage daughter, Jane, who is inconveniently Pagan - a kind of prototype ‘teen witch’ at the start but who, as the series progresses, becomes an outspoken environmentally-minded feminist who is determined to excavate and protect Ledwardine’s pre-Christian heritage.

Never mind the rich cast of characters and excellent storytelling, what makes these books stand out is that they are so well researched. Each one has closing credits that reveal how eclectic Phil’s interests are - not just in the paranormal, mysticism and earth-mysteries but also folk lore, history, archeology, hop kilns, music, poetry  and beyond. He weaves these disparate elements into cohesive, compelling narratives. The books are also set in a recognisably contemporary and ordinary world. At times, they feature historical figures - from a ghostly Elgar (with his bicycle named ‘Mr Phoebus’), Nick Drake (a presence rather than a character), Richard Booth (in the book set in Hay-on-Wye), and Wordsworth (most recently).

In the same most recent book, everyone went into COVID lockdown. That the paranormal elements are set against a recognisably contemporary and ordinary world gives them greater authenticity and credibility. That Merrily and Jane and the cat sit in front of the fire for tea and toast brings cozy domesticity to the strange world of deliverance.

Finally, there is never a clear-cut ending. Merrily’s cases do not resolve easily. Some aspects do, but as often as not there are ambiguities and loose ends. The evil is never fully vanquished, only beaten back for a time, and Merrily is left with just enough faith to sustain her from one book to the next. And this feels more real, too.

The Fever of the World: 'Brilliantly eerie' Peter James: 15 (Merrily Watkins Series, 16): Amazon.co.uk: Rickman, Phil: 9781786494597: Books

Favourite Episode

The Magus of Hay - I loved the fact that it was set in Hay-on-Wye and that Richard King of Hay features, sort of.

Similar formats?

Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series and Alison Joseph’s Sister Agnes series

Thanks Emma,

Is there a format you’d like to unpack? I’m looking for more examples of clever content marketing formats. Recently we’ve unpacked The Michelin Guide and Sample Breakdowns, two excellent examples. But I’d like to include more. Send us your recommendations,

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See you all next time,Hugh

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