Why set your mystery in the past? When forensic techniques today are so advanced, communication is easier and the pace of life is so much speedier, why might a writer want to go back to a slower age with narrower social mobility and limited opportunities for contemporary relevance?
I set out to write the six book series The Grantchester Mysteries (now showing on PBS as Grantchester) as a flow of books that would explore the social history of England after the Second World War. The plan was to trace the beginnings of the modern age with crime as a kind of prototype Aston Martin to drive the action from the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 to her Silver Jubilee in 1977.
The past overshadows the present. Researching it requires patience, diligence and a fair degree of foot-slogging. In The Grantchester Mysteries, I have a hero, Canon Sidney Chambers, who is a vicar in the English village of Grantchester, just outside Cambridge, and it starts six years before I was born. As the son of a clergyman, I remember what it was like for my father to be at the moral heart of a small community in which seasonal, religious and agricultural rhythms ran together. I recall how shocking it was whenever there was a death or an accident and how important the role was of priest and doctor to be there for the key rites of passage of birth, marriage and death – just as it is today.
And so, when I am writing a scene set in the 1950’s, I try to imagine and behave as Sidney Chambers might have done. I have the same breakfast (a pot of tea, boiled egg and soldiers – sorry, very English I know) and then I read exactly the same newspaper he read; which is to say I read The Times online for the particular day in 1955 I might be writing about. I look up the prayers Sidney will have said, follow his Bible readings and imagine how and where he might have journeyed and who he might have visited throughout the day: because it’s my belief that only when you can root characters in a particular situation that they come to life. And perhaps it’s only then that you realise how radically different their lives are from today and only then that you can explore (and enjoy) the potent disconnect between past and present – bringing fictional characters into the reading now, with all their limitations, failings and complexities.
Because my dead father was a priest, I suppose this is a way, in part, of keeping him alive too. He wasn’t a detective, and he would have been horrified by the idea of being one, but I hope he would have liked the way in which the mystery genre is flexible enough to allow an infinite number of moral possibilities. It lets the reader go anywhere and test any character in order to find out what they are really like. Because it’s only when good people are challenged that we find out what they are really like (rather than what they say they believe); and it must be part of the point of writing mysteries to examine how and why people behave badly, act desperately, and commit appalling acts. Then the good that remain have to ask certain questions: ‘What can be done to bring criminals to justice in as understanding a way as possible? How can we hate the sin but love the sinner?’
That is the Christian way. Even though it may be unfashionable to think like this in today’s speedy, aggressive, immediate and challenging moral climate perhaps there are values that exist outside time. Perhaps there is a different way to think about human character, morality, love and survival – one that is still grounded in tradition but which helps us to learn how life might be better - and how much we have to preserve the fragile and yet precious bonds between us all.