Julia interviews Kate Charles

Described by the Oxford Times as "a most English writer..." Kate was actually born and raised in the U.S. before becoming a British citizen. She resides in Bedford with her husband. Critically acclaimed on both sides of the pond, her crime fiction deals with issues of great import to the Church of England, as well as to members of the Anglican communion world-wide. Her celebrated "Book of Psalms" series, featuring David Middleton-Brown and his sometime-reluctant lover, Lucy Kingsley, has given way in recent years to highly successful stand-alone novels, including Unruly Passions, Strange Children, and Cruel Habitations.

You've been compared to Martha Grimes, Elizabeth George and Agatha Christie, and your work has been called "a bloodstained version of Barbara Pym" and "what Trollope would have written if he decided the Barchester chronicles needed a dose of sex and murder." What are you aiming for in your work? How would you describe your novels?

When I wrote my first book, I described it as "Barbara Pym meets P.D. James.' I think that still holds pretty true. I want to capture and explore the things I love about the Church of England, but it's by no means an uncritical love, and I'm always on the look-out for issues in the Church which inspire strong feelings -- in me and others. I think it's a huge privilege -- and responsibility -- to be able to shape the way other people look at the Church by the way in which I write about it. What power!

You started your career with your "Book of Psalms" series, featuring solicitor David Middleton-Brown and artist Lucy Kingsley.

Can you tell us a little bit about the series?

The series began with the character of David, and his interesting relationship with Father Gabriel Neville, an old friend who is being threatened with something from his past. It developed from there. David is an expert on ecclesiastical furnishings, vestments and silver, and it is in this capacity that he often gets involved in solving crimes in churches. Lucy Kingsley, who becomes his love interest, adds a different dimension. She grew up as a child of the vicarage, but is much more ambivalent than David about the Church. These books are full of arcane church lore, and have a real cult following amongst the seriously churchy! The series gets its name from the book titles, each of which comes from the Psalms; each chapter also has a Psalm verse, many of which contain clues to the mystery.

I don't know if readers realize how difficult it can be, but mystery writers are fascinated by your feat--successfully switching to "stand-alones"--non series novels--after starting out with a series. How did you do it? And why?

Good question! The short answer is that it was an accident! I was asked by an editor I respected to write a non-series book, as she was interested in having me write for her but didn't want to pick up an existing series. During a long, sleepless night shortly after open-heart surgery, the plot of Unruly Passions appeared in my head and was all worked out by morning. I wrote the book, the editor liked it, and commissioned two more in a similar vein.

Your non-series novels also invoke church settings, but in a deliciously dry and clear-eyed way. Your razor-sharp dissection of peoples' lives in the deaconry (Unruly Passions), and the cathedral close (Cruel Habitations) reminded my of one of my favorite authors, Joanna Trollope. What is it in the Church of England that keeps drawing you back?

It's so often a muddle-headed institution, and there are times when I fear it's lost its way, but I love its history, its language, its learnedness, and especially its music - one of this island's greatest contributions to world culture. I also love the buildings themselves. There is nothing that can compare to singing Evensong by candlelight in a half-dark mediaeval church or cathedral.

I was very surprised, when I met you, to discover you weren't, in fact, English-born, but American. However, unlike Deborah Crombie and Elizabeth George, to name two other Americans setting their writing in the UK, you've lived in the UK for--how many years?

Going on 18 years - a long time! I've been a UK citizen for several years, and I feel thoroughly assimilated by now.

How do your--I guess we can't call you an expatriate--non-indigenous origins affect your work? Does being an outsider help or hurt?

I think it helps in most ways that matter. I'm able to observe the country - and the Church - with a fresh eye, and point up things which a "native' might overlook. I'm also able to interpret the UK experience for American readers.

Were you writing before you relocated to England, or did the change in venue shake something creative loose?

As long as I can remember, I've always written something, and knew I'd write novels one day, but it really was being here that seemed to free me up to do it. The Church of England is obviously my natural milieu.

What's coming up next?

Something a bit more up your street, Julia! I've just finished a book with a newly-ordained woman curate as the main character. It's called Evil Intent -- watch this space! The book is vintage Kate Charles, but it is a thoroughly 21st century book as well, with story lines as up-to-date as the headlines.

Since this section is "The Narthex," let's talk Anglicanism--high church or low church?

High, definitely! But that's "Affirming Catholicism' High rather than "Forward in Faith' High!

Book of Common Prayer or the new stuff? (You can tell which way I fall, can't you?)

BCP - there's nothing like it, as I'm sure you'd agree!

It's the season of Advent... "Hark, a thrilling voice is sounding" or "On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry"?

Actually, "Lo, he comes with clouds descending'. It never fails to give me chills!

And finally--do you have a good Episcopalian/Church of England joke you'd like to share with the congregation?

The words of Robin Williams, who is an Episcopalian:

Top 10 Reasons to be an Episcopalian

  1. No Snake Handling
  2. You can believe in dinosaurs
  3. Male and female, God created them; male and female, we ordain them
  4. You don't have to check your brains at the door
  5. Pew aerobics
  6. Church year is color-coded
  7. Free wine on Sundays
  8. All of the pageantry--none of the guilt
  9. You don't have to know how to swim to get baptized
  10. And the #1 reason is...
    No matter what you believe, there's bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.

My thanks to Kate for her willingness to field my questions--and for writing books I love. Please visit her web site.

for more lots more information about Kate, and links to buying her books through Amazon.co.uk. You can also find her books through your nearby Independent Mystery Booksellers Association store and your local bookstore.

Kate Charles

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“These books are full of arcane church lore, and have a real cult following amongst the seriously churchy! The series gets its name from the book titles, each of which comes from the Psalms; each chapter also has a Psalm verse, many of which contain clues to the mystery.”