A MONTH after his house move, the Revd Richard Coles is still surrounded by boxes. At Easter, he retired from his half-time post as Vicar of Finedon, relocating from Northamptonshire to Sussex in the process.
The original plan had been to retreat with his partner to the west of Scotland, but, when David died in 2019, the idea lost its appeal. Instead, as he wrote in The Sunday Times in April, he finds himself living in “a pretty little English village between the downs and the sea, with a farmers’ market and an ancient church, an old bakehouse, a village green and a pub, where the locals gather over a pint of locally brewed ale to reminisce about their Baftas”.
So, how is it going? “It’s OK,” he says. “It’s good. The house is lovely; the place is lovely. But I’m not here enough, because I’m so busy, racing around.”
For the rest of this year, he is tied up with media commitments — which prompts the question quite how he would have managed from that remote Scottish peninsula — but he intends to take things more quietly in 2023. “I’ve taken a decision to do as little as possible for the first six months of next year, because I think you need to just settle in,” he says.
We’re meeting to talk about his new book, Murder Before Evensong. It’s a crime novel, his first foray into fiction. His previous books include two volumes of autobiography — Fathomless Riches: Or how I went from pop to pulpit, and Bringing in the Sheaves: Wheat and chaff from my years as a priest — and The Madness of Grief: A memoir of love and loss, in which he reflects movingly on David’s death.
The new book introduces us to the Rector of Champton, Canon Daniel Clement, who shares the rectory with his widowed mother, Audrey, and two dachshunds, Cosmo and Hilda. The village is populated by a cast of characters ranging from the militant members of the Flower Guild to the parish patron, Bernard de Floures, who inhabits the splendour of Champton House.
The proof copy — which arrives in the post along with an English tea bag and a shortbread biscuit — has emblazoned on its cover: “Welcome to Champton where the local flower show is the talk of the village . . . and the company is MURDER.” Because, naturally, the apparent calm surface of village life is soon disrupted by a violent death.
What was the appeal? “I’ve always loved crime fiction,” he says. “My first proper book, [a present] from my grandfather, was the Sherlock Holmes short stories.” So enthralled was he that he insisted his parents gave him a deerstalker which (“like an idiot”) he walked around in.
“I think anyone who’s been in parish ministry will find the life of the parish priest in some ways maps on to that of a detective,” he says now. “Because you’re kind of looking at the exterior of things, and for disruptions in the pattern, and wondering what that might tell you about what’s going on underneath.”
The book is set in 1988, “partly because I couldn’t be bothered to write around the complications of mobile phones and CCTV and everything which makes clandestine murder so difficult these days”, he says. But he was also interested in that decade because of what it threw up in terms of the trauma of the Second World War, something that is woven into the plot.
“I spent quite a bit of time in ministry dealing with people who, 30 or 40 years after events, returned to them, to try to understand what it did to them,” he says. “I was fascinated by that, just talking to veterans from the British Legion about how those kinds of world-shaking conflicts and the terrible sacrifices that they demanded . . . what that did to them when they came home.”
Trauma always leaves its mark. “One of the most powerful encounters I had in ministry was with a guy who had been in a conflict in which he killed someone, and 30 years later he was still haunted by it.”
MURDER can only ever be violent, of course; and yet the book is also humorous. (The argument over the installation of a lavatory in the back of church will be painfully recognisable to many Church Times readers.) So, is it a comic novel — or something more serious?
“It’s tragi-comedy, I suppose,” he says. “I don’t really draw a distinction.” Again, this is part of the life of a parish priest. “You spend a lot of your time with cops and medics and funeral directors, and that sort of humour or comedy and tragedy are just so closely intertwined. I think it’s a way of dealing with it.”
He remembers travelling to David’s funeral in the car with the undertaker and bearers, people he worked with all the time. Normally, there would be banter. “But that was all switched off, quite properly, because it was David’s funeral.” He laughs. “And then there was a moment when an ambulance went past, with its sirens on, and, without thinking, one said to the other, ‘Oh, they’re playing our tune.’”
I ask him if there are crime novelists that he particularly admires and hoped to emulate. “That’s dangerous, isn’t it? Because, for a start, you might set yourself with an amazingly high hurdle to jump, for a standard to reach. So I deliberately didn’t read anybody or anything of similar kind while I was [writing] it, because I tried to find my own voice.”
He particularly likes women crime writers, listing Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and P. D. James. He’s currently making a documentary with the comedian Alan Carr: both are enormous fans of Agatha Christie. “We were comparing the merits of Poirot and Miss Marple. We both prefer Marple. And I think it’s because one of the things I love about Marple — and I’m sure this is something I’ve carried over into my own stuff — is that she’s overlooked. She’s a little old lady that people don’t take seriously. But, actually, she’s the cleverest, shrewdest, bravest person in the room.”
The obvious comparison people may make with his new venture is with the Grantchester novels, now televised, which feature a priest as a solver of crimes. Were they in his mind? “I mean, they must be, because I liked them so much. And I’m a big fan of [the author] James Runcie,” he says.
“But it’s not the same, because it’s a different time period. And James writes as a very shrewd and thoughtful outsider, who knows clerical life really well because he grew up in it. Whereas I’m interested in writing about a priest from the inside.”
Like Miss Marple, Daniel is unassuming, yet sees everything that’s going on around him; evidence, Coles says, that his fictional priest is nothing like him. “He’s much more intelligent than I am, much more self-possessed. And he’s not a drama queen.”
PEOPLE always ask novelists about the autobiographical elements in their books, especially when they are first setting out. The big house is reminiscent of Althorp (Coles thanks his friends the Earl and Countess Spencer in the acknowledgements); there’s reference to a society church in a smart part of London (he was a curate of St Paul’s, Knightsbridge); and, of course, there are the dachshunds.
But apart from the dogs — and just possibly the character of Daniel’s mother, who he admits may bear a passing resemblance to his own — he denies that anyone in the book is drawn from real life. “It would be a very rash person who tried to render real people in fiction, I think, because characters in fiction take on lives of their own. But, I suppose, of course you put yourself in it.”
Some of that, of course, is a matter of conveying not just the nitty-gritty of parish life but the spiritual life of the central character. For example, here is Daniel saying compline: “He opened his Mowbray’s, but he needed not text, for the order was always the same, and he knew it by heart. As an invariable prelude he said silently the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
“Each petition was slow, measured, geared to his breathing, and as his mind and body stilled, the lavatory controversy, Stella Harper’s hostility, Alex de Floures’s T-shirt, they all began to fade from his thoughts. And in that vacated space silence unpacked itself and through the static and hiss, a deeper silence came like the depths of the sea.”
He admits that sustaining the fictional universe was much harder than he thought it might be. “The exciting thing about crime fiction, in particular, is that you have it in your head, and you see the pieces on the chessboard, although actually writing it down to your own satisfaction isn’t necessarily the same thing,” he says.
The book had a bumpy start: he had written most of it, and then David became ill, and he couldn’t concentrate on it any more, and wrote the grief memoir instead. “And then, once I was a bit less all over the place, I sort of picked it up again. So it had a complicated genesis.”
Murder Before Evensong is the first instalment of a three-book deal; the second is well under way. He will not be drawn about what lies in store for Daniel, merely hinting darkly at pastoral reorganisation that has surprising consequences.
He’s enjoying it enormously, second time around. “I’d love to tell you that I have a small, comfortable shed at the bottom of the garden in a leafy glade where I repair after breakfast, but I write on an iPad on the train, in a restaurant, in bed. Wherever, but I do keep it coming.”
He smiles at the fantasy of writing a book a year and living an idyllic and peaceful life in Sussex, given the pace of his other commitments.
HOW is he finding life after having left parish ministry? “I’ve just retired from one of the things I do, but it is the biggest thing I did, and it’s very weird, not being the vicar,” he says.
Unless he’s “doing a church thing” he tries not to dress in clericals. “I try not to walk around wearing a dog collar. I feel that would intrude on [the vicar’s] patch, and he does an exceptionally good job, and then it seems presumptuous of me to do that.”
But word has got out, and he gets recognised. When he posted on Twitter that his oven had broken, new neighbours dropped a note through the door offering him oven-space, or a plate of supper. Out and about with the dogs, he can’t help bumping into people and having a chat.
“And, if people come up to you, then you ‘vicar’ back. It’s about finding my feet, being a minister without portfolio,” he says. He’s going to help out in a parish down the road, and he’s also in the process of getting clearance so that he can undertake some prison ministry. “Anyone who’s had any contact with the criminal-justice system will be aware that any effort you can bring to support inmates and prison officers in their work would be very welcome.”
Meanwhile, his diary is full. He’s about to go on tour with a live show, An Evening with the Reverend Richard Coles and friends. There’s Saturday Live on Radio 4 “which has become a sort of discipline as regular as the eucharist”, he says. “And then I’ve got a documentary about grief coming out on Channel 4 at the end of the year, and a couple of other things coming up.”
He speaks of the bereavement of leaving Finedon and the network of relationships that are the privilege of parish clergy. He found himself driving past the village the other day, because his satnav took him that way. He resisted the temptation to go and have a look.
“I thought, no, I mustn’t. But it’s difficult, partly because you don’t just unplug yourself. I was part of the life that place, and it’s part of my life and I loved it. And I miss it. And I’ll keep missing it.”
Murder Before Evensong by Richard Coles is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in hardback and eBook at £16.99, and audio download (Church Times Bookshop £13.59, with signed copies available while stocks last).
Listen to an extended version of the interview on the Church Times Podcast