BOOK FESTIVAL – Sara Sheridan & James Runcie

In a crime fiction world awash with forensic blood and gore, authors Sara Sheridan and James Runcie tread a different, cosier path through their whodunnits.

Their creations Mirabelle Bevan and Sidney Chambers are closer cousins to Miss Marple and Father Brown than they are to girls with dragon tattoos and alcoholic detective inspectors.

In fact, this prompts an entertaining and light-hearted exchange between the two authors, with Sheridan stating she has no great fondness for the term ‘literature’.

“Damn literature!” she says. “Edinburgh should be the the City of Stories!”. Though Runcie, as Head of Literature & Spoken Word at London’s South Bank Centre, doesn’t necessarily agree…

The point however is that fiction is about storytelling, whichever genre it happens to be placed in. And, as Sheridan points out, there is still room to be edgy in ‘cosy crime noir’.

“The racism and sexism of the time are shocking today,” she says, referring to the attitudes of 1950s Britain, where her Mirabelle Bevan series of mysteries are set. “Everyone was damaged then.”

Sheridan has recently finished writing her third novel in the series, each one taking place in a different sequential year of the 50s. Runcie’s The Grantchester Mysteries are also set in the same period, though the arc he has planned for them stretches further.

“It was a time when truly world-changing things happened,” he says, citing the Coronation and the discovery of DNA as examples. Both authors then go on to discuss the challenges — and the pleasures — of research, stressing the importance of representing recent events and people properly.

Both authors are passionate researchers. For London Calling, her novel set in the clubs of Soho, Sheridan spoke to some surviving jazz musicians of the time, something she found very enlightening. “They survived on cocaine and whisky they made in the bath,” she says. “It’s a miracle they survived the 50s, let alone still being alive today!”

Runcie uses the rich vein of archive material now readily available, downloading and reading copies of The Times from the actual dates his stories are set in, using everything from the headlines to the football scores to give things authenticity.

And that authenticity rings true in the readings they each give. Sheridan’s prose and dialogue conjures up the battered bravado of post-Blitz London, as her character Vesta Churchill returns home with bad news; Runcie’s rich writing and characterisation sheds a light into the mind of his post-war protagonist, Canon Sidney Chambers.

The two writers therefore ably prove that it matters little into what category a particular author is slotted: it is the strength of the story which truly matters.

Sara Sherdian and James Runcie were at the Guardian Spiegeltent at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Aug 20th.

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