Interview: James Runcie, author of Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

James Runcie, son of the former Archibishop of Canterbury, tells David Robinson why he puts his faith in a crime-busting cleric in his new novel.

James Runcie ushers me into his elegant central Edinburgh flat and apologises for the clutter. Boxes of his father’s books are still to be unpacked and squeezed onto the already impressively full shelves in his huge study; in the living room, opposite the Bechstein on which his concert pianist mother used to play, etchings are stacked against the skirting board. His mother died earlier this year, his father 12 years ago, and he has inherited many of their belongings. “I still haven’t worked out what to do with this,” he says, picking up the pectoral cross his father used to wear when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, and gently putting it back on the desk at which his father used to work in Lambeth Palace.

There’s another desk in the study. On New Year’s Day three years ago, Runcie, a novelist, director of the Bath Literary Festival and award-winning documentary maker, sat down in front of it and started writing. “Canon Sydney Chambers,” he began, “had never intended to become a detective. Indeed, it came about quite by chance …”

The writing seemed to flow. It came naturally, this story about a handsome, 1950s clergyman who had just taken a funeral service when one of his parishioners approached him and told him of her suspicions that the man they had just buried had, in fact, been murdered.

Runcie had spent the previous year trying and failing to write a state-of-the-nation novel about a Skye restaurateur whose son was fighting in Afghanistan. But it wasn’t working: he was trying to shoehorn in too much. “The problem with writing,” he says, “is that you have to go a long way down the road before you realise you are on the wrong bloody road.”

“Why don’t you write something that really connects with the public imagination?” his brother-in-law asked him. “How about a character who returns from book to book?” his wife Marilyn, who produced all 16 of John Mortimer’s Rumpole plays for Radio 4, added.

That January day in 2009 as he pounded away at the computer, several things began to fall into place. His protagonist would be called Sidney Chambers, after his father’s favourite clergyman, Sydney Smith. He would be a canon in Grantchester, the village two-miles south-west of Cambridge. Runcie knew the town well: his mother was the daughter of a college bursar there, his father had been Dean of Trinity Hall, he’d been an undergraduate at Cambridge himself. He’d even been, in 1959, born there.

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But this new book wouldn’t just be a one-off, not like the literary novels which had won him heaps of critical acclaim but all too few sales. It would be a series. Sidney Chambers’s crime-busting would move across the decades, from the that strangely optimistic Britain of the early Fifties to the materialistic Britain of the Eighties. Quietly, in its own way, it would be a social history of the country too. “The idea is, it’s David Kynaston with murder,” he laughs.

And not just any old series, either. No: it will be on TV, and not just a one-off special. He riffs through a few more soundbites which reveal the scale of his ambition: “A Morse with morals. Or Poirot with clergymen. Or Agatha Christie with cathedrals. Or – another infectious laugh – Barbara Pym with sex. Or the C of E’s answer to GK Chesterton.”

Now I know what you might be thinking. You’re thinking here’s a presumptuous writer whose imagination is running away with itself. True, the TV options for the new book have already been sold, but that often happens and no small-screen series ever materialises. Yet you have only got to read Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, the first in a series of six that Bloomsbury has commissioned Runcie to write, to realise that his copious ambition is not misplaced. It’s crying out for a place on the Sunday evening TV schedules.

It is also a hugely enjoyable read. Yes, there are echoes of Agatha Christie in Canon Sidney’s socially stratified Grantchester. But the last time I looked, Dame Agatha, obsessed as she was with the mechanics of plot, never dreamt up a character as thoughtful, charming and above all as fleshed out and three-dimensional as Sidney Chambers.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised by this. If anyone is going to write about the clergy from the inside, it should be a novelist with a precise and intimate knowledge of just what the stereotype gets wrong. “I get very irritated by the fact that clergymen are generally depicted as figures of fun,” says Runcie. “There’s a whole line of comic clergy that goes back at least to Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice – you know, the weak, weedy, singsong-voiced vicar, Dick Emery’s vicars, or Derek Nimmo in Bless Me Father. I wanted to get away from all of that, and so it was very important to me that Sidney Chambers has fought in the war and seen death.” In that respect, his life mirrors that of Robert Runcie, who was awarded the Military Cross in 1944 for pulling three men out of a burning tank that was about to explode.

There are, he points out, a number of advantages in having a clergyman as a hero. “They can go where the police can’t go and can do things unofficially. But that utter familiarity with death matters. Death doesn’t surprise them – they move through life with the expectation of dealing with it on a daily basis. They are like spiritual doctors, always on duty for their parishioners.”

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As an example of what he means, Runcie recalls visiting the graveyard of the parish church of the Oxfordshire village of Cuddesdon – where he lived for most of his childhood – with his father. It was 1999, his father had retired as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1990 and his son was making a film about him.

“He had prostate cancer and knew he hadn’t long to live, and didn’t want to be buried in Canterbury. So we went to this graveyard, to the top left-hand corner, and he said, ‘Of course, I buried all these people.’ There were about 30 graves there, all of people he had buried. And he said, ‘I want to be buried among my friends. It was fantastically moving, seeing him looking at the names of the people in the graves, a real sign of community.”

Among my friends. For all its sparkling intelligence – Sidney Chambers is the kind of accidental detective who can solve a murder by remembering a Thomas Wyatt sonnet – Runcie’s novel reflects that level of pastoral care. “Sidney’s task isn’t to solve the crime, but to provide solace, to comfort and help people. Solving the crime is more of a by-product.”

The Fifties setting helps. “Firstly because you still have the death penalty, and secondly because homosexuality is still illegal. Those two points are crucial, particularly if you are writing about the Church, because there is the whole question of the morality of putting a man to death and the possibility of wrongful conviction.”

“Homosexuality existed back then – people had ‘special friends’ – but they were never outed, and even though it was very buried and never mentioned, there was a strong gay presence in the Church. I think it’s an interesting time, because it’s before everything was made explicit. Nowadays people will spill their guts on TV about their deepest emotional, psychological and sexual feelings, but in the Fifties, you still had discretion. I remember being told off as a child for asking someone what they did for a living. That was considered very rude. Now you would ask them how many times they have been married and what their sex life is like!”

For obvious reasons, there was never any love interest in Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. By contrast, Runcie’s Sidney Chambers, who “on a good day had a faint air of Kenneth More about him but didn’t like to dwell on it”, looks likely to have a plenty of female admirers. There are at least two in the first book, and even though we are repeatedly assured that his friendship with one of them – the vivacious art expert Amanda Kendall – is purely platonic, I wouldn’t care to bet on it remaining so.

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Right now, Runcie is putting the finishing touches to the second Sidney Chambers book, which will be set in the late Fifties, with the next three mainly set in the Sixties. But although he has an idea for the last story in the series, he still has to address one important question: how far up the Anglican hierarchy will Sidney Chambers rise? Should he, for example, end up as archbishop? “The advantage of doing something mad like making him Archbishop of Canterbury in 1979 – which is when my dad became archbishop – is that you then get access to state secrets, so you could do Moscow, spies, the Cold War… And his inspector friend could go to Scotland Yard and …” His eyes gleam with enthusiasm.

“But then again, the books are called the Grantchester Mysteries. So maybe he might be held back by the Church authorities on account of his pesky detective work, and he might become resentful of not being promoted – there are plenty of clergymen like that. I’m sure that’s what TV would prefer.”

Whatever the future holds for Sidney Chambers, Runcie will work out the answers in a room with his father’s desk, books and etchings on it; his belongings following on into his son’s life. But as long as James Runcie works on The Grantchester Mysteries, he too will be following some trails into his father’s life – as well as back into his own childhood. It’s that real-life authenticity, along with his own charm, intelligence and good ear for dialogue that, on the evidence of the first book, mark out this series as one well worth following.

• Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death is published by Bloomsbury, priced £14.99.