James Runcie, whose father was the archbishop of Canterbury, introduces a clerical sleuth in Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death: The Grantchester Mysteries.
How did this book come about?
I am the son of a clergyman, so it’s not hard to work out where the inspiration for this series comes from. I think what startled me is how rapidly and how radically society has changed since the 1950s, and I thought it might be interesting to combine changing British social history with murder.
What advantages does a clergyman have as a sleuth?
The clergy are told many secrets in the course of their lives, and follow so many rites of passage, most notably birth, marriage, and death. They notice a lot more than they let on, and I thought it could be interesting to follow one such cleric—a man who was reluctantly drawn into the world of crime and was then thrown into a series of dilemmas, often involving a conflict between respecting a confidence and telling the truth. Many of the stories [in this collection] center on a moral dilemma: the revelation (and betrayal) of a secret, the nature of forgiveness, or a troubling conflict of loyalties.
Why the 1950s?
Both writer and reader get to think about the consequences of illegality when the death penalty was still in evidence and people were prosecuted for homosexuality. Chambers is not gay, but he has friends who are and who are terrified of being found out. Unlike today, when people are all too keen to tell you all about themselves as soon as you meet them, social behavior then was more about tact, discretion, and, if one can use a fantastically old-fashioned idea, manners. The idea of asking too many direct questions was considered inordinately rude, but as a detective this is what Sidney has to do, generating considerable problems with his conscience.
Will the book appeal to the nonreligious?
You certainly don’t need faith to enjoy these stories. They are more about morality and conflicts of conscience than faith. Religion gives the crime more depth, and an opportunity to discuss not only evil but good. What makes a good, decent life? That is the key to all my fiction. This makes the whole thing sound rather serious, which I hope it is not. There are traditional crime motifs, plot turns, twists, and heroes who turn out to be villains. By the end, I hope to have written a loving portrayal of a man who moves between the world of the spirit and the all too mortal world of the flesh, attempting to love the unlovable, forgive the sinner, and to lead a decent, good life.