Morgen’s story review no.168 – OxCrimes 24: Phil Rickman’s The House of Susan Lulham

28 Mar

Today’s book review of a single short story (the twenty-fourth in the 27-story charity crime anthology OxCrimes collection) is brought to you by yours truly, Morgen Bailey.

I rarely read ‘proper’ books (paperbacks / hardbacks) and I’d wanted to read this collection for a while so bought it as a paperback so I could sit and read at least one short story a day. (I’m also writing short stories for competitions and submissions too and have sent three off in the last week!).

If you’d like your short story or writing guide reviewed, or to send me a book review of another author’s book, see book-reviews for the guidelines. Other options listed on opportunities-on-this-blog.

Being a writer and editor, I read and review books with both hats. If you’re a writer reading this review and found it useful, do let me know.

The OxCrimes Collection

OxCrimesFor 2014, Oxfam and Profile Books have turned to crime in order to raise a further £200,000 for Oxfam’s work. OxCrimes is introduced by Ian Rankin and has been curated by Peter Florence, director of Hay Festival, where it will be launched in May. The stellar cast of contributors will include Mark Billingham, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthony Horowitz, Val McDermid, Peter James, Adrian McKinty, Denise Mina, Louise Welsh and a host of other compelling suspects. Profile Books have raised more than a quarter of a million pounds for Oxfam by publishing OxTales (2009) and OxTravels (9781846684968) (2011).

This collection is available via and

Review of Phil Rickman’s The House of Susan Lulham

This is a relatively short story (23 standard book pages) so a relatively short review…

Back to a third person story, this story has the feel of Poltergeist about it. The description of the surroundings was very vivid but it took me a while to get into the story. I felt that some of the characters were not introduced properly (as if I should know who they were already) and I had to guess who they were until more information was revealed, which often works but not in this case.

There were other times when I was given facts but I had to reread them as they didn’t make sense and this spoiled the enjoyment of the story. I read on, hoping that they would all make sense by the end and it did but felt like a struggle.

In a story of any length there should be phrases we like, and in this one I liked: ‘Sophie worked for the sandstone bookend to Hereford’s city centre. The cathedral.’ Apart from the faulty punctuation – should have been a colon instead of full stop after ‘city centre’, I loved the term ‘sandstone bookend’.

And now for writers…

  • There is a fine line between providing the reader with so much information that there is nothing left to imagine or not enough so they struggled picture what’s going on. As mentioned above, I took a while to work out the start because the plot was so sketchy.
  • A big no-no in writing is to have a character stand in front of a mirror so we get to know what they look like and we had this in this story but it was only short and it did establish who the character was by what she was wearing, which at the time helped me work out who she was. We also have her later looking at herself in a computer screen. Sometimes, especially when the character is on their own, there’s no way round it but better to have another character remark on what they look like as a comparison, e.g. they look paler than normal, or “Ooh, I love your lipstick… a striking shade of red.” (especially poignant when it’s actually blood!).
  • Deadlines are always a useful tool for pacing, and here our mirror-looking character as a couple of days to get rid of an unwanted spirit.
  • I’ve mentioned before about character names starting with different first initials and here we have Susan and Sophie on neighbouring paragraphs. Although they look relatively different on the page, they are of similar length so if the characters were then split up it could be confusing to the reader as to which was which. There were also Merrily and Mahonie (I often find that M is the most popular beginning letter), Jonno and Jane, Watkins and Wells. Regardless of whether first or surnames, they should be distinguishable, and I couldn’t take the main character’s name, Merrily, seriously, which didn’t help.
  • And finally… speaking of Wells, in this story there were 3 well’s used as pauses in dialogue, e.g. ‘Well, you wouldn’t want them at home.’ Wells are justified on some occasions but generally – like ‘erm’s, if they can be left out and the passage is just as good (or better) then they can go… like anything we write. 🙂


This was a story that I struggled to get into, struggled to continue, and struggled to finish. While it has not put me off reading Phil Rickman again, it is one of my least favourite stories in this collection.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I shall be back tomorrow with my review of Mark Billingham’s Under the Mistletoe Last Night, the twenty-fifth story in this collection.


Based in Northamptonshire, England, Morgen Bailey (“Morgen with an E”) is a freelance editor, online tutor, prolific blogger, 2015 Head Judge for the annual H.E. Bates Short Story Competition, Head Judge for the NLG Flash Fiction CompetitionRONE 2015 Judge.

As well as a teacher of creative writing (and writing-related I.T.) for her local county council and online, Morgen will be one of five tutors at the 2017 Crime & Publishment alongside crime authors Lin Anderson and Martina Cole!

Morgen’s first love is writing and she is a freelance author of numerous ‘dark and light’ short stories, novels, articles, and very occasional dabbler of poetry. Like her, her blog,, is consumed by all things literary. She is also active on TwitterFacebook along with many others (listed on her blog’s Contact page) and has created five online writing groups. She also runs a free monthly 100-word writing competition where you can win her online creative writing courses!

Her debut novel is the chick lit eBook The Serial Dater’s Shopping List ($0.99 / £0.77) and she has nine others (mostly crime) in the works. She also has eight collections of short stories available (also $0.99 / £0.77 each) – detailed on

She also helps other authors with an inexpensive freelance editing and critiquing service (free 1,000-word sample), and welcomes, and actively helps to promote, guest authors on her blog – see opportunities.


If you would like to send me a book review, see book-reviews for the guidelines. Other options listed on opportunities-on-this-blog.

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Posted by on March 28, 2016 in critique, review, short stories, writing


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