Morality and murder in the country

Book: Sidney Chambers and The Persistence of Love


Exclusive interview with author James Runcie on his latest Grantchester mystery


“I am continually amazed at the success the series has garnered,” says Sidney Chambers and The Persistence of Love author James Runcie. “Season three of Grantchester premieres in the U.S. next month. I think what is startling is how rapidly and radically British society has developed since the 1950s. I thought it might be interesting to combine that changing British social history with murder.”

“It was very important to me that the ensuing television series Grantchester, an adaptation of the first book, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, that the central character should be sexy,” says Rancie. “So, the producers cast rising star James Norton, a tall, charming man with plot-loads of personality, a degree in theology for goodness sake, and cheekbones so burnished he needs Brasso to polish them. One of my favorite moments after the first episode was a tweet that said simply: Just take your top off and tell us who did vicar.”

The book is set in May, 1971. In the Cambridgeshire countryside, archdeacon Sidney Chambers is walking with his daughter Anna and their labrador Byron. They stumble upon a body. Another murder investigation for Sidney. This time he encounters the world of hippies and psychedelic plants. The diocese has secrets and Sidney’s nephew goes missing.

“I was born in Cambridge in 1959 and am the son of a clergyman, so it’s not hard to work out the source of inspiration,” says Runcie. “The central character is very loosely based on my father, Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. He didn’t go round solving murders, but when I began to write a series of six crime novels, intended as a moral history of post-war Britain, it seemed almost obvious to make the central character a clergyman. The only alternative would have been a doctor.”

“He would be a fictionalized version of my father,” says Runcie. “Sharing his love of humanity, his ability to think the best of people, while sometimes fearing the worst, his cheerfulness and his love of the ridiculous, as well as his sadness and disappointment in the face of human failing.”

Robert Runcie fought in the Second World War with the Scots Guards, and so has the character Sidney Chambers. He became a clergyman shortly after the war. At the beginning of his ministry he lived in Cambridge and was eventually chosen to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1979.

Runcie wrote four novels prior to the Grantchester series: The Discovery of Chocolate, The Color of Heaven, Canvey Island, and East Fortune. He’s also produced many documentaries including Hilary Mantel: A Culture Show Special and J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life. The Grantchester series is adapted for television by ITV and PBS. The Great Passion, a play based on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, was recently broadcast on BBC Radio. Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury is Rancie’s editor.

With actual crime at an all time low, the surge in popularity of crime fiction may seem strange. However, Rancie has a theory.

“I was intrigued by the possibility that one of the reasons for the popularity of crime fiction in the last fifty years might be due to the decline of traditional Christian worship,” says Runcie. “A hundred years ago people would recite the Book of Common Prayer on a daily basis and attend church regularly to contemplate the moral implications of birth, love, sin and death. Now, attendance has fallen and human beings search for meaning in alternative places. Readers can contemplate their fears and their mortality within the pages of a reassuring narrative of justice, rather than reach for the comfort of a loving God in whom they find it hard to have faith.”

Rancie recently wrapped production of part two of the documentary Doctor Johnson Goes to Scotland. He is currently writing a prequel for Sidney Chambers in the period before the first book, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death.

Rancie is based in Edinburgh and London.


Sidney Chambers and The Persistence of Love (Grantchester) by James Runcie. Series: Grantchester (Book 6). Hardcover: 368 pages. Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. May 4, 2017. Language: English, ISBN-13: 978-1408879023 $17.81