I grew up in the U.S.A. with that most valuable of influences, a mother who read to me. She always loved detective novels, so Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie were a part of my early reading, and it was only natural that one day I should write in that genre. I was ‘transplanted’ to the U.K. in 1986, finding in the Church of England the fertile ground of inspiration for writing the books I’d always wanted to write. I think it has something to do with the gap between the ideal of the institution and the all-too-human foibles of the people who constitute that institution; that gap is at the heart of my writing.
My first book, A Drink of Deadly Wine, grew out of a fascination with a group of characters, David Middleton-Brown and his circle of friends. It was meant to be a one-off, but developed into a series. Each of those books explores some issue in the Church of England: A Drink of Deadly Wine is about ‘outing’, before that term hit the news; The Snares of Death deals with the High Church/Low Church divide, and related issues of extremism and fundamentalism; the problems of a cathedral and its battling personnel are detailed in Appointed to Die; A Dead Man out of Mind focuses on the ordination of women; and Evil Angels Among Them explores the consequences of the Church’s financial crisis. But it is the characters that are important, and in this my books are very much in the tradition of Barbara Pym.
‘A bloodstained version of the world of Barbara Pym’ is the review quote I most treasure. She has been and remains the most profound literary influence on
A life-changing experience (open-heart surgery) in 1996 triggered a change of direction in my writing, as an idea came to me for a one-off suspense novel. That novel was Unruly Passions, still set within the background of the Church, and containing recognisably Kate Charles characters, but with a different sort of emphasis and form. Unruly Passions was followed by Strange Children and
A few years later, I discovered a great new love: Italy, and most particularly Venice. On being commissioned to write a short story for an anthology which was published as Murder Most Catholic, I decided to set my story in Venice, utilising a plot idea I’d conceived on a recent visit to that most beautiful and seductive of cities. The story was supposed to feature a member of the clergy, preferably as the detective character, so I created a young, newly-ordained woman named Callie Anson, visiting Venice for the first time. I found her an engaging and sympathetic character, and she more or less refused to go away once I’d finished and submitted the story, ‘Through a Glass Darkly’, for publication. About that time I was becoming increasingly committed to support of the ministry of women in the Church of England, and began to feel strongly that I wanted to write a book exploring some of the issues which women face in the Church. Through close friendships with several women priests, I was becoming aware of what a difficult time ordained women continue to have, in spite of the fact that it had then been over ten years since the first of them were priested.
Callie Anson inevitably came to mind: a ready-made character, with an interesting history already in place. Around that time, as well, certain conservative African Anglicans, already opposed to women’s ministry, were taking a vocal stand against the inclusion of gay people in the Church, and matters began to come to a head in events which led to the Windsor Report. I started to weave a story about the murder of a Nigerian priest, involving Callie as well as a closeted gay priest with good reasons for keeping his sexuality a secret.
The result was Evil Intent, a book as timely as today’s headlines.
Fans of my earlier books will be interested to know that Evil Intent also addresses the question I am most often asked: ‘whatever happened to David and Lucy?’ David appears in a cameo role in the novel, and we find out what he and Lucy have been up to in the years since the last of the series was published. Some readers might
Following on from Evil Intent is Secret Sins, in which Callie experiences a few ups and downs in her personal life as she continues to develop her ministry in the parish. Through two overlapping stories of a murdered jogger and a missing girl, the book explores the theme of families, and the things people do to each other in the name of love.
The next Callie book, Deep Waters, is something a bit different, though once again it seems to eerily echo the headlines. Before the illness and death of Jade Goody, and before the publicly played–out marital ups and downs of Katie and Peter and other prominent celebrity couples, I began an exploration of celebrity culture. Why, I asked myself, are people so interested in the minute details of the lives of individuals they don’t know, and – furthermore – individuals who have no redeeming social value or accomplishments to speak of? And to what lengths will some people go in the pursuit of celebrity? Deep Waters was fun to write, and the ending had my faithful readers begging for the next instalment.
Unfortunately, due to the vagaries of the rapidly changing publishing world, that next instalment has been a long time coming. But the wait is now over, and False Tongues continues Callie’s story with a very short gap of just a few weeks in her own timeline. For many years I’ve wanted to write a book set in a theological college, so I decided it was time to send Callie back to her Cambridge college for a sort of reunion. The challenge was to write a book in which Callie and Marco were apart, each involved in their own story. The story lines don’t actually intersect, except thematically, as I explore the various meanings of the eponymous false tongues, and the consequences of gossip, lies, and bullying in the lives of various people. False Tongues also gave me an opportunity to bring back a couple of favourite characters from previous books: Lucy’s saintly father John Kingsley from Appointed to Die, and Margaret Phillips from Unruly Passions.
During my publishing hiatus, with no future for Callie in sight, I started making plans for following a different path in my future writing, but have decided that there needs to be one final Callie book, to tie up various loose ends and bring it all to a satisfying and considered stopping-place, if not a conclusion. This time the crime at the heart of the book will come a bit closer to Callie and the people she cares about, so there will be difficult days ahead. Watch this space.
Kate Charles, who was described by the Oxford Times as "a most English writer", is in fact an expatriate American, though an unashamedly Anglophilic one. She has a special interest and expertise in clerical mysteries, and lectures on crime novels with church backgrounds. After more than twenty years in Bedford, Kate and her husband now live on the English side of the Welsh Marches with their Border Terrier, Rosie.
Kate is a former Chairman of the Crime Writers' Association and the Barbara Pym Society. A member of the prestigious Detection Club, she is also co-organiser of the annual St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Conference in Oxford. In 2012, the 18th year of the St Hilda’s Conference, she received the George N. Dove Award in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the serious study of mystery and crime fiction. When she’s not writing, Kate enjoys reading, cooking, singing, and church-crawling.
Photo credit: Michelle Jones