Keith Miles is probably best recognised by readers under the pen name of Edward Marston. He writes several well-received historical mysteries spanning the 11th century through to the 19th century. His website is www.edwardmarston.com
Somewhere inside the six hundred pages of Merrily Watkins's latest outing is a terrific novel. There's a strong plot, multifarious sub-plots, a large cast of colourful characters and a wonderful evocation of rural Herefordshire. Like other books in the series, it's also filled with arresting metaphors and striking similes.
When Mansel Bull is murdered, DI Frannie Bliss is assigned to the case. The arrival of two dead female immigrants widens the investigation yet it's carried out with a surprising lack of urgency. Bliss is more interested in trying to sort out his chaotic private life than in actually doing his job. The murders fade into the background.
The novel has an amiable jumble of themes - paganism, blood sacrifice, the nature of pain, cockfighting, town versus country, rape, adultery, theft, migrant labour and the arcane practices of the SAS - but the shifting focus does get confusing. Merrily, single mother, parish priest and exorcist, is a peripheral figure at first and takes time to establish herself as a central presence.
It's only when the story gathers momentum that she comes into her own. Its her daughter, Jane, who generates the real passion as she searches for evidence to expose Ward Savitch, the local Mr Big, and a promoter of a sinister organisation called Countryside Defiance. Given his importance as a hate-figure, it's odd that Savitch remains such a mysterious offstage figure. Jane's obsession with the man lands her in peril and there are some genuinely scary moments at the climax of the tale. There's also a clever twist in the final chapter.
The Secrets of Pain is a big, sprawling, richly comic novel that works on several levels. If it was fifty pages shorter, it would be even better.