MANY clergy, in full retreat from a life of remorseless professional benignity, acquire a taste for murder of the fictional variety. Richard Coles (Feature, 17 June) has relinquished parish ministry to write a murder mystery — the first in a trilogy — featuring an involuntary clerical sleuth, Canon Daniel Clement, AKC, Rector of the rural parish of Champton St Mary.
The setting is the 1980s: the local shop stocks “Players No 6, tins of terrible meat, and a chest freezer with choc ices, Orange Maids, and fish fingers”. Our hero has “never actually seen” a mobile phone, and is reliant on his Parson’s Pocketbook, the clerical diary “with useful things like Collects and the dates of Ember Days. . . but no more lambent with the white heat of technology than his bicycle clips”.
Some things, however, transcend time: the dogmatic inflexibility of the flower-guild guidelines; the fierce resistance to the suggestion of installing a lavatory at the back of the church; the effects of family history and upbringing; and the PTSD-like consequences of the emergence of stories that may have been buried for decades.
So the scene is set for more than one murder in the company of a cast of finely drawn characters, immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with parish life. Coles is a sharp observer of human nature, but his observations are tempered with both humour and compassion, and much of the pleasure in the book lies in the incidental asides: “uncertainty and cluelessness, the hallmarks of authentic Christian discipleship”, or “supper, a light collation, he hoped, after the pound and a half of date and walnut cake he had felt duty-bound to consume”.
Murder, Daniel reflects, need not be violent, as he recalls “the murders by neglect, or abandonment; and the long-fuse murders, the most wicked of all, not visited upon the victim in a moment’s rage, but slowly, inexorably, undetectably, killing first joy, then feeling, then leaving a life so emptied out the victim would fade away, or drink themselves away, or just give up”.
Canon Clement may not be Coles’s alter ego, but he embodies some of the qualities that make Coles such an effective priest; and we see foreshadowed the institutional changes that lie ahead, not least in the balance between activity and inactivity: “‘Our measurements will only be as sound as the measures we use to establish them,’ he once said to a keen rural dean who wanted to apply the methods of business to the calculation of souls saved.”
That points the way to the second volume: threatened pastoral reorganisation has been staved off only temporarily, we sense, and the author hints that it will be resurrected, with murderous consequences. I can hardly wait.
Caroline Chartres is a contributing editor to the Church Times.
Murder before Evensong: A Canon Clement mystery
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29
Listen to an interview with the Revd Richard Coles on the Church Times Podcast.