James Runcie and William Brodrick

Sometimes you go to an event expecting a good old chinwag about crime fiction and end up with something on a completely different level. That’s what happened when William Brodrick stood up to talk about his 4th novel, The Day of the Lie. Except he concentrated on the issues that preoccupy him, talking about the novel only in passing.

Brodrick’s major preooccupation, not out of keeping for an ex-Augustine monk, is that of good and evil and the choices that individuals make. Are people born evil? Is evil a wound or a choice? Can damaged people make undamaged choices? Can those who perpetrate evil ever be redeemed in this life? And indeed does any of that make any difference to the victim? The choice to do good is just as interesting, he said, as he proceeded to quote from James Runcie’s book. This, he said, sums up the nature of his own preoccupation.

“The problem of good. If we are all animals why are some of us good, kind, altruistic when we do not have to be? The capacity to behave morally is as interesting as the will to behave badly”.

“Ah, the question of the selfish good,” Ben intervened.

“But that is not always the case.” Sidney replied. “Some people are selfless. They are good without any expectation of reward. It is almost or perhaps it really is, natural to them.”

After thanking Broderick for this act of generosity, James Runcie spoke of his interest in the relationship between comedy and darkness and of religion and history. Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death, the first in a series of 6, intended to document the changes in society during the past 60 years, is set in 1953. It was the year that marked the end of rationing, the discovery of DNA and Sundays were not days for supermarket shopping or trips to the garden centre.

He agreed with Broderick that the advantage of having a clergyman detective is the moral framework that is automatically inherited. The change of emphasis from a whodunnit to a whydunnit.

During audience questions Broderick was challenged about his assumption that damaged people can make undamaged choices. The opposite assertion is a problem for a novelist, he said. I have to be able to show character development otherwise there is no story. Both authors were asked to name their literary influences. Brodrick read widely, starting with Chesterton’s Father Brown stories which he found disappointing. He couldn’t find anyone writing the books he wanted to read, so (like many others) he began to write them for himself. Runcie’s response went something like this: This will sound pretentious and absolute b******s, given that my stories are bubble and froth vignettes intended for television, but noone does guilt like Dostoevsky. So I’m sticking with him.

The big question: Are the books any good?

Brodrick’s The Day of the Lie starts in Poland in 1981, during a period of great moral choice. Brodrick said he soon realised that he couldn’t investigate 1981 without going back to the days of World War II … and he couldn’t do that justice either without going further back into the 19th century. This sounds like a complex historical thriller to me set within the moral framework that comes with investigating cleric, Father Anselm, a Gilbertine monk. The audio book has been duly reserved from the library.

I picked up Runcie’s Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death following the author’s sterling chairing of Hilary Mantel’s event. Its 392 pages consist of 6 chronological short stories in which the endearing young cleric Sidney James finds himself pulled, reluctantly, into a series of investigations of ever increasing complexity and moral dubiety. People are more willing to divulge their secrets to a cleric than to a police officer, as Sidney’s best mate and fellow beer imbiber, Inspector Keating, well knows. Sidney is more prone to analyse the whys and wherefores rather than the mechanics of a crime. Although he has a few blind spots with regards to his own behaviour – one has a feeling that without the inhibitions imposed by the dogcollar, our Sidney could be a bit of a lothario. Talking of dogs, when he is gifted a 4-legged friend for company, Sidney promptly names him Dickens. What’s not to love?

Bubble and froth, Runcie said, and it’s true, although amid the comedy and lightheartedness, there are some heinous crimes. Considering how busy I’ve been at the EIBF, I raced through these stories in about 4 days, loving every page and every minute I spent in Sidney’s company. Heartily recommended for cozy crime fans.

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Can’t wait for the next installment of Flavia de Luce? There’s no need. Courtesy of Bloomsbury, I have two copies of Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death to giveaway. Copies to be sent to address in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland only. To enter, please leave a comment below. Winners to be chosen in some random fashion on Monday 3rd September.

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