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Crime and punishment in the vicarage

01 February 2013

James Runcie appears at the Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature this month. Pat Ashworth interrogates him about Sidney Chambers, the priest-sleuth he has created

PICTURING clergy is easy because he knows so many, James Runcie observes. He goes so far as to confess that, when he sees a priest striding towards him, he almost flinches, in the way people do when they see an advancing policeman. He feels that he probably ought to know them - unsurprisingly, perhaps, for the son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, the late Lord Runcie.

So, he had plenty of material to draw on in creating the Revd Sidney Chambers, Cambridgeshire vicar, desirable bachelor, and reluctant sleuth. The second of Runcie's projected series of six novels, The Grantchester Mysteries, which span the years from 1953 to 1978, comes out in May this year, after the favourable critical reception of Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, published in 2012.

It is not the mechanics of plot or the cleverness of murderers that attracts him. It is more a case, he says, of "whydunit than just whodunit, or howdunit. . . I'm interested in the moral implications of crime, and of a society changing and of a central character ageing."

Although he does possess "an incredibly gory book on the morphology of death", the novels have a marked absence of blood and gore: "They're strangled, and that's it." And he is also keen on "closing the bedroom door, and not doing sex scenes, or viscerally describing a whole lot of stuff".

All of this, he acknowledges, could lay him open to accusations of creating cosy crime. "Sometimes, I think I'm not writing crime at all. But I like it to be thoughtful crime. Crime is just a way of telling a story. One of the very literary themes is failure, false expectation, and pomposity, human vanity: in Johnson's phrase, 'the vanity of human wishes'." He wants to produce "something entertaining, with a moral undertone".

THERE is an impishness in his description of Chambers: "tall, with dark brown hair, eyes the colour of hazelnuts, and a reassuringly gentle manner". It has echoes of Barbara Pym, one of his favourite writers and the subject of a drama documentary, Miss Pym's Day Out, which Runcie made for the BBC (he is still best known as a documentary-maker). Much of her humour, he points out, comes from showing how the women of the parish deal with "the uniquely clerical mix of pride and incompetence".

And there is the dilemma. "We're not allowed to talk about priestly vanity and attention-seeking because it's not supposed to exist," he says. "It can be a real problem if clergy take themselves too seriously, but obviously you have to take yourself quite seriously because it's a serious business."

He deplores comedy vicars in the vein of Dick Emery, but loves the TV series Rev for its honesty and its power to move. "I'm trying to pull off a similar thing, if you like, of lulling people into a sense of comedy and cosiness, and then cutting into something. . . My favourite writer is Chekhov; so I'm always going to go for those Chekhovian moments, if possible: people mumbling to themselves 'What's the point?' in corners of rooms. Rev gets it really well."

One tag that his publishers, Bloomsbury, have given his eponymous hero is "Father Brown with attitude". Speaking in advance of the screening of the new BBC TV series, he says that "I like writing about clergymen and women best. My character had to be an An- glican, because if he's a [Roman] Catholic like Father Brown, he can't marry."

RUNCIE was born in 1959, and spent his childhood "in a village with trainee clergymen". His father was the principal of Cuddesdon Theological College from 1960 to 1970. That was a strong influence, and he says that when he was creating Chambers, "it was hard not to keep slipping back into old photographs of my father and his friends. I've got team line-ups of ordinands; so I kind of look at those, and do see them all."

He looks and sounds very much like his father, with the same warmth and charm, and the same ready laugh. There is, he says, "a bit of my father" in Chambers, together with several other of the clergymen and their families who surrounded him while he was growing up - not least two of his father's closest friends, Jim Thompson, the former Bishop of Bath & Wells, and Dr Mark Santer, the former Bishop of Birmingham.

The Rt Revd Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, who was at Cuddesdon during that period, and went on to be Robert Runcie's chaplain, has not featured yet, "but he's going to have to appear at some point, because I can't let him get away with it." And now that Dr Rowan Williams has retired as Archbishop of Canterbury, it would be "quite tempting" to put him in, "although, as soon as you start on the eyebrows, he'd be too recognisable."

He has decided to end the series in 1978, in order to avoid entering the decade in which his father was prominent. There would be a danger there, he says, of blurring the lines between fiction, biography, and autobiography.

His chief focus is the rapid social change in a period in which the death penalty remained, and homosexuality was still illegal - Chambers is not gay, but has friends who are - and which was marked by clear social demarcation.

The Church has had to adapt -"or not" he says, mischievously - to a fast-moving century. Two areas of the '60s that he describes as "a bit of a minefield", and is wary of entering, are thalidomide and abortion, but he says: "You can't just ignore things that happen to priests: they see everything, really. You just have to go into these areas and see what happens."

THERE are many decisions to be made about the future of Chambers. Readers will have to wait for the second book, Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night - the phrases in the titles are inspired by the Book of Common Prayer - to discover how he found his vocation.

"Does he stay a vicar?" he ponders. "He should really be pro-moted. But if he is, then the detective has to go with him; so it has to be London, and then he'll have to go back and visit Cambridge. . . Or else he's punished because of all this detective stuff, and blocked from preferment because he's too busy doing all this detecting. . .

"Early on, I had this mad idea that he'd become a bishop." And then, perhaps, Archbishop of Canterbury, I suggest, and he throws back his head and laughs. "Yes! With a daughter who goes to Cambridge, and then takes over and becomes the detective. Six more books. Completely mad."

He is three-quarters of the way through the third book, and he has avoided what he calls the Midsomer Murders problem of rooting your detective in only one place. "You have to get him out of Cambridge and into London, so that more crime can take place; otherwise, the whole village is dead."

Chambers is a good sleuth, because he can go where the police cannot, and is privileged to hear intimacies. He has a penchant for Chelsea buns; likes jazz; enjoys beer and backgammon with his friend Inspector Geordie Keating; cycles everywhere; and acquires a labrador called Dickens.

He lets Leonard, his curate, get on with the job, and allows him to preach on Kantian and Utilitarian philosophy, provided that he is nice to the housekeeper, Mrs Maguire, and tolerant of those of his flock who lack the benefits of a Cambridge education.

BISHOP Chartres had suggested to him that Chambers was not devious enough. "My editor at Bloomsbury, Alexandra Pringle, sometimes says he's too grumpy and too reflective. We did take out some depression, which might just be more me than him."

Clergy are always performing, he says, having always to be cheerful and upfront. "I'm interested in what effort that sometimes is. You come back, and the house is the green room to the stage of your life. Without sounding ludicrously generalist, it is more common for clergy to be depressed than is commonly thought; and, that impression of keeping it up, keeping the show on the road, that relentless geniality."

The books contain some "quite serious in-jokes that only clergy will get, and if you were trained at Cuddesdon, you will definitely get them", he says. It is Cuddesdon, too, that will provide the inspiration for a singing teacher whom Runcie has waiting in the wings.

He is keen to explore this, "because my father had the most terrible singing voice. He was an absolutely atrocious musician. And it was awful, because we used to laugh; my mother [a concert pianist] used to laugh, even during services.

"I think I'm missing a trick, because I can't decide whether Sidney can sing or not. I think he could be quite bad, and that could be funny. But the problem with humour is that you do have a tendency to make it silly - and you mustn't be silly, only seriously funny." He likes the idea of a line that can be simultaneously tragic and funny.

"I was giving a talk on this, and a woman told me that at her mother's funeral, as the coffin was disappearing, her father said: 'I've been waiting all my life for this.' The same line can be taken as absolutely poignant tragedy, or throwaway comedy. . . I'm a sucker for accidental profundity, and the fact that banality can sometimes contain amazing truth, and truth can be banal."

RUNCIE is interested in loss: of faith, culture, empire, and certainty. And there is an elegiac feel, for a departed time and place, in the books. "They are elegies for two really important values: decency and discretion. Sidney tries to be decent and compassionate, and live a life that is more collective and less individual than in today's society."

He describes writing about Chambers as a kind of home, a world he can control, a way of connecting him with his parents. His mother, Rosalind, died a year ago. "It's partly a way of rooting identity, and it is an alternative life. I hope it's not Freudian. I hope it's Proustian or Wordsworthian. It's all to do with reconfabulating memory in some way. I feel very at home in it, and incredibly twitchy if I haven't written anything for a few days."

His new job as Head of Literature and the Spoken Word at the Southbank Centre - he is also artistic director of the Bath Literature Festival - means dividing his time between London and Edinburgh, where he lives with his wife, Marilyn, a radio producer. She is responsible for the Rumpole series on BBC Radio 4, and he is "pretty certain" that the idea of a return- ing character came originally from her.

With four novels already under his belt, and before embarking on The Grantchester Mysteries, he says, "I'm very excited to have discovered all this. The trick is not to make it self-indulgent. I've stopped trying to impress people, but I'd still plead guilty to some showing off. It's just meant to be entertaining, with a bit of afterthought, rather than trying to be the great British novel."

He is not a great crime reader, although Dorothy L. Sayers's Gaudy Night is a book that he really admires. At the Edinburgh Festival, someone asked him who his favourite crime writer was, and he said quickly, Dostoevsky. "It was so, so pretentious. But it's true. Crime and Punishment is the great crime novel, and The Brothers Karamazov, and The Idiot."

What would his father have thought of The Grantchester Mysteries? "He wouldn't have believed it, actually. I hope he'd have been proud of it. He did know about my first ever novel, and both he and my mother said the same thing: 'Are they paying you any money for it?'"

A decade has passed since his father died. Lord Runcie, "at ease with death", planned his own funeral, which his son has described as "a tribute to life and an affirmation of faith. I felt we were travelling to the heart of Christianity."

People outside the Church of England do not immediately make the family connection when they meet him for the first time. "I suppose I'm asking for it now," he says.

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie is published by Bloomsbury at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop special offer £10); 978-1-408-82595-2.

The Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature takes place 15-17 February 2013 at Bloxham School, near Banbury, Oxfordshire. For details, visit www.bloxhamfaithandliterature.co.uk.

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