Today's Book Festival treat was hearing novelists William Brodrick and James Runcie talk about the moral and philosophical problems they encounter and try to solve through their fictional detectives, Father Anselm and Canon Sidney Chambers.
While James Runcie's world is that of the arts - as writer, film maker, literary festival director - his understanding of the clerical life and the dilemmas and questions of conscience faced by men of the cloth comes from his family background (he is the son of the late Lord Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury). William Brodrick comes to the craft of detective fiction and its attendant issues from a different angle, beginning his working life as an Augustinian monk and then spending ten years as a barrister before turning to writing. The Day of the Lie is the fourth of his books to feature Father Anselm (he won the 2009 CWA Gold Dagger Award for A Whispered Name), whereas Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, on which there is a post here, is the first of James Runcie's Grantchester Mysteries series, now set to be dramatised by the BBC.
The clerical detective, the spiritual figure in fiction, fascinates both writers because of its inherent focus on so much more than bare fact. An examination of the conscience of a perpetrator - "that darkest of corners", of the victim and their suffering, of redemption and atonement, these subjects more than straightforward ones of "whodunnit and how" inform their books and challenge their central characters. "If you have a clergyman you automatically have a moral framework," says James Runcie, while William Brodrick finds himself continuously grappling with the nature of evil and moral restoration, and both men find that "the capacity to behave morally is as interesting [both in philosophical and fictional terms] as the will to behave badly."
Questions from the audience, including one from a prominent member of the Scottish judiciary, centred on these issues. Asked about the view held by psychologists that a person damaged by their experiences early in life may be incapable of making "undamaged decisions" later, William Brodrick mentioned that this poses a technical problem for novelists in that by and large they like to show change and development in characters, and thus this 'fixedness' can be difficult to make work convincingly in fictional terms. His books are a meditation on moral responsibility with Father Anselm the walker in the moral maze, but he pointed out that they were difficult to fit into a clear category, crossing boundaries between crime fiction, historical fiction and literary fiction.
In a lighter vein, James Runcie entertained the audience with anecdotes concerning his father and with stories which illustrated how tone is crucial where the clerical detective is concerned: the tragic and the comic are so often present in the same moment in situations where clergyman are at work, and a shift of emphasis one way or another may make or break a scene. But it's not just the serious stuff which perplexes these writers, it's the more superficial issues, too. James revealed that he had been having trouble deciding on his book's title so he sought advice from a fellow writer friend. "Use your detective's name," she suggested, "call it 'Sidney Chambers and the something of something'. "You mean like 'Harry Potter and the blank of blank'?". "Well, it worked for me," she said.