Reverend Richard Coles reveals how his first murder mystery novel isn’t so far from parochial reality
He is starting a new life on the Sussex coast, having retired as parish priest of Finedon in Northamptonshire in April after 11 years. The move follows the death of his civil partner, David, who died in 2019 aged 43 from alcohol addiction, about which he wrote in a heartfelt memoir, The Madness Of Grief, published in 2021.
When we meet, he seems a bit puffed up and explains, “I just realized my black socks were brown socks, so I went to Marks & Spencer to rectify my mistake.”
He’s colorblind, and that’s the kind of error in dress that David — who is clearly in his thoughts — wouldn’t have allowed, he says.
Coles, former keyboardist of 1980s band The Communards, has now moved to a beautiful old Sussex cottage near close friends, to embark on a new life away from the painful memories that haunted him at his home in Finedon. However, he admits he misses the parish terribly – even after just a month or two.
After penning his grief-stricken memoir, Coles has now entered a comfortable world of crime with his debut novel Murder Before Evensong, set in the fictional sleepy parish of Champton – where a prominent member of the community is found dead in the back of the church. , stabbed in the neck with a pair of secateurs.
“Any priest will feel a certain affinity with a detective, as we both spend our lives observing communities that at first glance may appear to be quiet, sedentary places – but underneath all sorts of passions arise. Sometimes, they send little ripples that disrupt the surface – sometimes dramatically – and that’s what happens in this book,” he explains. “I’ve also always loved detective fiction, so I had want to try.”
There are clear comparisons between Coles and quiz host and author Richard Osman, whose cozy detective novels in The Thursday Murder Club series were phenomenally successful.
“I am very flattered, and if I were to take advantage of a tenth of his [Osman’s] success, I would be very happy,” says Coles.
Coles is no stranger to encountering unpleasant happenings beneath the surface of idyllic parish life. “When I became Vicar of Finedon in a sleepy county everyone thought it would be tea parties and bazaars and all that – and that was it. But actually, in my first week, there was a murder. Lift the lid on any community and you’ll find the same ingredients, because human beings are human beings, and we do what we do. It’s caused a lot of anxiety, concern, and upheaval in the community, and my job is to deal with that kind of thing.
“Everything comes to the parsonage door in one form or another, and the murders create ripples that go a long way.”
There were times when he was threatened with violent behavior, he recalls.
“I received several punches. Once I was threatened with a machete. I had just been ordained and went to see someone who was very distressed and was suffering from a psychotic episode at the time.
“I made the mistake of going to see him for him. I sat with him between me and the door, which you are absolutely not supposed to do, and he became more and more distressed. He threatened me with a machete, but I managed to talk him out of it.
He continues: “Once someone appeared on my doorstep with a shotgun, but I managed to get through. Not everyone does. A guy I trained with, a priest, was murdered in the line of duty. It happens.
Coles suggests that violence against clergy may have become more common, as they spend so much of their time caring for people in severe mental distress who cannot get the professional care they need because resources are so limited.
And while over the years he’s had to adopt an air of detachment to do his job well, sometimes he can’t help but feel moved by what happens to people.
“I remember doing a funeral one day – it was a woman who died in her 50s from breast cancer. She worked at Asda and all her fellow Asda workers made a guard of honor in their Asda fleeces outside the crematorium, and it completely overwhelmed me for a second.
In the novel, a plan to install toilets in the church divides the members of the parish, leaving the main protagonist, Canon Daniel Clement, rector of Champton, to try to hold his fractured community together.
Some of Coles’ ideas for characters and stories are gleaned from his parishioners. “And I’m nosy,” he admits. “Many vicars are curious.”
The novel is the first of three he was commissioned to write in the series, which he started before David’s death.
“I put it aside, then I wrote a book on mourning. Everything was difficult after David’s death. My life stopped and I didn’t know if I was going or going for a while.
At 60, he retired and moved with his two dachshunds to the south coast, a part of the country he doesn’t know well, to be near close friends.
“I rather hoped when I retired that I would settle down and blossom slowly in my new place, but it will be a while before I have the chance to do that,” he says. .
“I spent two and a half years getting used to a life without David. Every day I get used to it a little more, and I try to cope and move on.
He continues: “When David died, I first thought that I was going to keep his memory as tightly as possible, to prevent him from disappearing from the world. Then after a while you realize that you have to let go and face the front. When I started doing this, I started thinking, I have to do this somewhere else and restart.
He still sees a bereavement counselor, who he says has been a big help.
“Grieving is a form of madness. It disguises itself as you, so your behavior becomes inexplicable. She [the counsellor] helps me see why I do things, what I think, and try to make useful connections.
Moving to Sussex “feels good, feels good”, he suggests, although it may take him a while to settle in. Does he plan to find love again?
“I don’t know. I miss being someone’s first choice and having someone as your first choice. But how often do you meet someone that you could live your life with that way “Not often. If someone were to come and it made sense, yes, but I don’t know.”
He’s not ruling out returning to the Church one way or another, adding, “The Church likes you to take six months off when you retire, but I’ll probably go help a friend’s parish not far from where I am now.
He also began the process of getting permission to work in prisons as a volunteer chaplain and, in his spare time, learned to play the accordion.
And, of course, he’s still on the celebrity circuit, with a theatrical tour of An Evening With Reverend Richard Coles & Friends, advice on “vicar stuff” in a new London play and, of course, the presenting Saturday Live on Radio 4. He is a perennial guest on shows such as The Wheel and Blankety Blank, and has just filmed a bereavement documentary for Channel 4, due to air in the fall.
He says it’s too early to tell if the move will be a positive thing.
“I’m a bit haunted, because David loved to fix up the place and I can’t. I would live like a student if it was up to me. So someone else made the place, and it’s lovely. But I still think David wouldn’t have done it that way and would probably be rearranging the furniture.
There are always triggers, but he reflects, “I knew I just had to live a new life, and I had to do it somewhere else.”
Murder Before Evensong by Reverend Richard Coles is published in hardcover by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced at £16.99.